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Growing with Technology

Go Digital, or Go Home—A transition to digital provides new opportunities for this traditional appliqué business.

By Alexis Golini

We often hear from Digital Output readers—managers and owners of all sized graphic arts businesses—and most have an interesting perspective on the market and how it has impacted their business. Recently, we met with the staff of Flagraphics, Inc. and enjoyed a first-hand look at the impact and opportunities digital output provides for the business and for its resourceful, entrepreneur owner.

Flagraphics, Inc., located in Somerville, MA, provides, "creative solutions in textile graphics," for the Boston area and beyond. President Tony Lafuente started the business 26 years ago, while still an undergraduate student at Boston College. The company began in the traditional flag and sewn banner industry. "We were very fortunate because our first customer was Faneuil Hall Market Place in the Quincy Market area of Boston. Faneuil Hall was owned by the Rouse Company, who owned 100 malls across the country. We were doing banner work for 72 percent of those malls."

At age 22, Lafuente found himself in a highly profitable situation. He took the money he earned, bought a building, focused on advertising, and business kept growing. Flagraphics, Inc. now produces high-end designs for customers such as Fenway Park, Copley Place, and various collegiate campuses. "We just digitally printed a brilliant replica of the Green Monster for Fenway Park. That’s the type of work we’ve gotten into," notes Lafuente.

Looking Back
"In 2001, after 9/11, everyone stopped buying. We saw sales drop substantially—almost 50 percent," says Lafuente. "We had been toying with the idea of going digital. At that time, we made the decision that in order to grow, we really needed to make that digital switch." The company had been spending thousands of dollars outsourcing digital and decided to handle the output themselves.

Lafuente looked at all kinds of large format machines, from $19,000 to $100,000 and up, but couldn’t find a perfect fit for the organization. "We then looked at going grand format and the option of becoming a wholesale supplier. That’s when we called around and VUTEk got our business for a couple of reasons. Despite their higher price, we felt VUTEk output had the best quality we saw." Flagraphics, Inc. chose the VUTEk UltraVu 3360 which is designed to provide high productivity and image quality. "Our second reason for going with VUTEk was their location, only an hour and a half from Boston in Meredith, NH," says Lafuente. "Location matters when you have a problem and need immediate assistance."

Although it was a large investment for a small business, Flagraphics, Inc. was comfortable with its decision to purchase the VUTEk printer. Lafuente and his staff took time to learn how to operate the machine, and they are currently starting to market their new grand format digital printing services by sending direct-mail pieces out every six weeks.

"The quality is great. There is no doubt about that. I think that within a year and a half, we will be out of the appliqué business and be strictly digital. We are actually looking to order another machine if the success is what we expect during the next year," says Lafuente.

"Basically it was go digital, or go out of business. An eight-hour appliqué job takes only 15 minutes on the printer. There’s no comparison with time and money savings," states Lafuente.

"However, due to the sometimes-harsh look of vinyl, there are still a good number of designers across the country who prefer the appliqué process. We get a fair amount of that work because of the name we’ve created with Flagraphics," Lafuente continues. "But since the digital printers can now print directly to fabrics, the need for appliqué will most likely fade away." As Flagraphics, Inc. grows digitally, it will continue with appliqué when needed.

For the Future
Flagraphics, Inc. prides itself on offering very competitive prices, something Lafuente credits to his early success.

Lafuente has many plans for the future of his company. He feels that Germany is the dye-sub technological leader and supplies most of Europe with textile graphics. "I think the German technology will come to the U.S. flag industry. I’m looking forward to it, because I’m looking to become a wholesaler rather than a retailer," Lafuente adds.

"There is a void on the wholesale end of the flag, banner, and sign areas. We’re hoping to fill that void in at least the New England area. And the other market we’re going to continue aggressively approaching is the museum and commercial retail world. These markets will keep the VUTEk running and our profits rising," Lafuente concludes.

Jun2006, Digital Output

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