It’s well known in this industry that the best way to make money is to keep the print engines running. Having finishing capabilities has often been seen as just a value-add to customers. However, with the advent of some slick post-press equipment, print suppliers are turning their finishing departments into profit centers, too.
Finishing the Job
Among some of the most popular tools in use by finishing departments at large format shops are cutting and routing systems, which not only shave time off job turnaround, but also provide print buyers with some fresh creative options.
Eric Goodwin, owner of Stanton, CA-based Garage Graphics, uses a Roland GX-500 54-inch cutter to complement his digital print business. Garage Graphics’ work has been featured on numerous TV shows and films, including MTV’s Pimp My Ride, the Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage, and the blockbuster hit Terminator III. Celebrities often drop by to give their rides a personal touch, according to Goodwin, who’s added that special touch to Shaq’s Lincoln Navigator, and rock star Travis Barker’s Lexus.
There are plenty of finishing solutions on the market—seemingly, a model to suit every print shop’s unique needs.
Gerber Scientific Products, for example, offers its Sabre Series routers. As an option, the company can adapt a Sabre router with GerberCut, which enables it to cut rigid graphics printed on large format inkjet or screen printers.
Ioline Corporation designed its SmarTrac Contour and SmarTrac I/S Series Signcutters for the high-volume sign operation. The SmarTrac Contour is equipped with optical sensors that align and adjust pre-printed graphics so the image can be cut to contour.
And other manufacturers, like Summa USA, offer a line of specialty cutting systems—the Summa and SummaCut families, for example. Summa’s cutters are designed for vinyl applications, and come in both line and contour-cut configurations in an array of sizes, 24 to 64 inches wide.
These are just a few of the finishing options print suppliers can choose from to complement their digital print engines. The trick is to choose the best-of-breed solution that will enable the business to grow.
Matthew Rojek followed an unusual path to the print industry. He spent several years early in his career doing custom pin-striping jobs for local car dealerships in the midwest. It was during that time in his professional life when he first learned of the possibilities of digital print for vehicle graphics.
"I began working with a local sign shop. They’d print the jobs and sell them to me at a discounted cost, and I’d install the graphics," Rojeck recalls. "Eventually, it made sense for me to buy my own equipment."
And that’s what he did. Twelve years ago, he invested in his first piece of equipment, a GerberEdge, and Upper Level Graphics was born in Plymouth, MI.
Rojek humbly describes his business as a "small sign shop," but there’s nothing small about the work he produces or the revenues he generates. He relies heavily on a new print engine, a Mimaki JV3, to produce everything from narrow to large format jobs.
"We print everything from hockey helmet decals to graphics for airplanes. Back when Al Gore was campaigning for the presidency, we did a job for his airplane," Rojek explains. "And we do a lot of work in backlit signage, but about 80 percent of what we do is vehicle graphics."
After 12 years in the print business, Upper Level Graphics shows no signs of stagnation. Rojek stays bullish on the industry by offering creative and quality solutions to his customers’ print dilemmas.
"We have a famous restaurant in the heart of Detroit, called Opus One," Rojek explains. "The owner called me and wanted to put the restaurant’s logo on four trucks. It was a simple logo-oval, and mostly black.
"Well, I met with him one day, and I happened to notice that he had all of these great photographs in his office—beautiful shots of their menu items. And it dawned on me that this was a client that was all about aesthetics," Rojek continues.
With Rojek’s guidance, the client upgraded his creative vision, and the simple logo treatment blossomed into four digital wraps. And for Upper Level Graphics, the job quadrupled in value.
"That’s what keeps me going—working with customers who aren’t afraid to try new things, to step outside of the box," he says.
According to Rojek, growing a digital print business requires constant attention to efficiencies. Investing in the right digital printer is obviously essential, but so to is finding the right finishing complements.
"My first month in this business, I made a whole $45; my second, $1,000. In the fourth month, I made $4,000, and doubled that the next month. That’s how rapidly the business grew, even back then, in a horrible MI economy," he recalls. "So far this year, I’ve made all of what I did last year. Right this minute, I’m staring at three trucks I’ve got to letter, and a flame job on a tractor trailer. Business is good; there’s a ton of work out there."
From Start to Finish
Founded in 1970, Graphics Systems, Inc. catered to the artist, display, and catalog markets, focusing on compositing, prepress, retouching, duping, stripping, photographic printing, and finishing. According to president Herm Kauls, the shop moved from manual compositing to digital compositing in the early 1990’s. By the Spring of 1996, Graphic Systems had moved to a 35,000-square-foot facility in Minneapolis, MN and the majority of its work was printed digitally with Durst Lambda photographic printers.
"In 2001, we became one of the first printers in the world to install a Durst Rho UV direct digital printer. The Rho allows us to expand our product line and branch into new markets. We also installed our first Zünd with MGE i-cut software digital die cutting system," says Kauls.
Graphics Systems’ large format services now include large format photographic printing of sizes up to 72x192 inches, and large format direct digital printing in widths up to 138 inches for roll materials and 80 inches for rigid materials. The shop also provides an array of finishing services such as trimming, contour cutting, routing, and kiss cutting.
"We own two Zünd digital die cutters. Our Zünd cutters have radically changed the way that we approach finishing. Specifically, the trimming capabilities of the MGE i-cut software have been the most beneficial for us. They have allowed us to increase the productivity of our finishing department by reducing set-up time, finishing time, and waste. The Zünd allows Graphic Systems to produce superior products for our clients," concludes Kauls
Contouring the Business
Pete Gallo grew up in the graphics arts. His father founded what is now known as Vista Color Imaging, Cleveland, OH, in 1929. The younger Gallo joined the company business in 1984, after more than 20 years serving as a pilot in the United States Air Force.
To demonstrate the enormous growth the company has undergone, Gallo shares a few memories from its past. "When I started with Vista Color, we had just a few clients and six or seven employees. We had very limited sales; in 1985, for example, we did about $100,000 in business.
"But we started growing. We grew beyond our initial target, which was large format photography work, into trade shows and exhibits. Up until 1991, the operation was all still analog, but we went digital then, installing our first workstation, a scanner and a negative transparency output device," he recalls.
By 1999, film was completely abolished from the business. Workflow was digital, and so was printing. Through the years, Gallo had smartly invested in several varieties of digital print engines from manufacturers like HP and Durst.
Gallo also saw fit to outfit his finishing department with equipment that would enable the business to grow further, including five laminators—two pressure-sensitive laminators (a 64-inch Greig and an 80-inch Sallmetal 80), two heat-activated laminators (a 64-inch AGL and a 65-inch SEAL Image 6500), and a hybrid laminator, an AGL 8000S. The department also has an i-cut-enabled CNC routing system from MGE, Inc.
"Having these tools increases our capabilities, and we’re able to offer more varied products to our customers, including jobs that we print and then cut to contour," Gallo asserts. "These are jobs that we were never able to do before—competitively, that is—because they’d take hours to cut or route and sand. Now, we have the i-cut, and it has introduced efficiencies to production, and also cost savings for the client.
"The finishing department is one of the busiest departments we have," Gallo concludes. "It’s a very definite profit center."
One Step Ahead
Jerry Banks’ career in the print business began more than 20 years ago, when he took a summer job as a decal applicator. Today, Banks owns Transcal Graphics, a digital print supplier based in Hickory, NC.
Transcal Graphics runs two Gandinnovations grand format solvent printers, and the jeti 3150 flatbed model. "Well, when you have a flatbed printer, you have to have a cutter," Banks explains. So, when he installed the flatbed, he also invested in an i-cut IXL 24 system with Kongsberg table and i-cut software from MGE, Inc.
"I liked the versatility of the machine," Banks notes. "It has the router built right in with the cutting tool, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time changing out tools. We cut everything on it—from cardboard displays to acrylic jobs." The solution is driven by an Onyx Graphics RIP that accepts design files, lays out the print according to the designer’s intentions, and outputs i-script files to the i-cut software, which manages the cuts.
"Before we got the i-cut, we’d have to print an outline around an image, and then cut it out using a jigsaw," Banks confides. The result wasn’t up to Transcal Graphics standards.
Installing the flatbed printer represented a bit of a risk for Banks. "My company had been doing about 90 percent fleet graphics, and about 10 percent signage. So, when I talked to Gandinnovations about getting the flatbed, they warned me that I didn’t have a market built up for it.
"But I knew that everybody who needed fleet graphics, most likely, also needs signage. Like the furniture companies, which needed signs for their stores. So, I already had the contacts I needed," he continues.
Banks took the leap of faith, installed the flatbed and i-cut, and gave himself six months to turn them into profit drivers. But he didn’t have to wait that long to see an ROI; he was making money off the machines by the end of the first 30 days.
Banks concurs that it’s an exciting time to be in the business of large format print services. "Here’s how fast we’re growing," he confides. "When I bought our first Gandinnovations printer, I thought it was going to be at least two to three years before I bought another one. But I ended up getting a second machine within the year, because it was so reliable, and I was able to get some additional accounts that I hadn’t been able to get before. Within another year, I’d bought three other printers, built a new building, and went from six to 40 employees."
And Transcal Graphics continues to grow. He’s in the process of integrating a new Neschen SEAL AS 1600 liquid laminator, and plans to expand upon his 15,000-square-foot building in the next six months. Along with the renovation will come some new equipment, too, including a heat-welder for banner applications, another Gandinnovations flatbed printer, and a second i-cut system.
"In our business, you can’t just keep up with the Joneses," Banks stresses. "You have to be one step ahead of them."
Taking the Step
All of these shops have added finishing capabilities and quickly seen rewards. It is clear that having large format printers are not the only profit centers for a shop. A full service operation can also reap rewards from digital finishing—and quickly.