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Profiting in the Digital Marketplace

Real People in a Real Digital World

By Melissa Tetreault

"Digital imaging is continually changing our world," says Dan Marx, VP markets and technologies of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA). Two groups within the graphic arts are benefiting from digital print technology. Traditional sign shops and screen printers are inundated with new technology to process their everyday businesses. This has allowed them to embrace digital output products and services that were unavailable just a few short years ago.

According to SGIA surveys conducted this past year, the most digitally printed product is output for traditional graphics display applications. Marx shares, "This includes point-of-purchase displays, as well as both indoor and outdoor signage." Additionally, the printing of vinyl continues to be huge, continues Marx, "specifically for banner applications and for vehicle wraps, meaning solvent-based inkjet printing is here to stay."

New technologies including flatbeds and bio inks are making headway in the industry as well—posing both challenges and benefits. "The industry will undergo some growing pains that SGIA has seen looming for some time. Over a decade ago, when color inkjet graphics came onto the scene, the equipment was small, and the ink systems were relatively benign. Today, however, inkjet imaging equipment continues to grow, utilizing ink systems including solvent and UV. Bringing to users inherent challenges related to worker safety, indoor quality, and environment emissions," says Marx.

Many innovative printers have embraced these technologies and succeeded. Three mentioned in this article,, Image King Visual Solutions, and Sign Source, each have found profitable niches that work with both their existing customers and have aided in new business.

Image King Visual Solutions
When Image King Visual Solutions first started its digital print business, Spencer Jacobson, VP, noticed that people were used to dealing with time and financial constraints based on conventional printers. With the development of digital, customers were seeing their projects produced in not weeks, but days or even hours.

In 1999, King Graphic Technologies, one of the first grand format printers in the northeastern part of the U.S., merged with Image Photographic Laboratories. Image Photographic Laboratories, established in the 1970s, was a traditional enlargement and lab service for professional photographers. The two together created Image King Visual Solutions. "When the companies merged we created the name Image King. It sounds like we are the king of images, which we are, but that is in fact a name based on the two companies," Jacobson explains.

Merging the two companies was a huge success. Image King Visual Solutions has three production facilities, two in NY and one in Las Vegas, NV. All three 20,000-square-foot buildings house devices for pre-press, large format and grand format printing, photo enlargement, Scotchprint, installation, and fabrication.

Jacobson is an original founder of King Graphic Technologies. When the business was just starting out they purchased two printers from a now defunct company, SignTech, out of Austin, TX. A few years later Jacobson invested in a VUTEk 1660 and three Encad inkjet printers.

Today, the company has retired its original workhorses and invested in a variety of digital devices. They own several high resolution 16-foot VUTEk machines by EFI, a ten-foot Fresco by NUR, several 16-foot LX Jets by HP/Scitex, many 60-inch HP 5500s, and four 60-inch Kodak printers. All the machines, says Jacobson, are used on a daily basis. Why a particular output device is chosen is really based on addressing the customer’s needs.

Image King Visual Solutions works with a variety of customers, including major retail companies that particularly specialize in fashion and luxury items. It also does a lot of work with architectural firms, real estate, and sales office showrooms. One of its most recent projects was for a residential building’s model apartment. Jacobson’s design team was given the task of creating the effect of looking out the window of a 40-floor apartment building on the 28th floor. They set up a framing system, applying nine-foot duratrans with photographed backlit murals to give this illusion.

This summer, the company started working on the ambitious projects for several of its customers that are slated for completion during the 2006 holiday season. The projects are unlike a lot of what is already out there, according to Jacobson. "They require every facet of our capabilities, from creative, to printing output, to fabrication and installation services."

The company’s profits are not centered on any one particular application. Instead, Jacobson sees a larger interest in the product management and fulfillment that is associated with wide and grand format products. Plus, there is no reason to limit ones abilities. As a company, Jacobson says they continue to move in other directions, like electronic visual solutions.

"We understand that location-based advertising and display is becoming an electronic media as well as print media world. That’s why we call ourselves Image King Visual Solutions. We’re not only about printed displays, but about video and digital displays as well."

Sign Source
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything that Sign Source cannot do. The sign shop, based out of Eden Prairie, MN, has fabrication, electrical, digital printing, laser cutting, and screen printing capabilities all at its fingertips. Its clientele ranges from land developers, hospitality, design firms, and corporate businesses. Randy Herman, president, believes that the breadth of applications keeps Sign Source’s customers loyal.

"For example you may be a developer and want large, on-site marketing signs that need to stand up outdoors for a period of a year or two. You may also want some interior marketing materials—printed on standard poster board. And what a customer would really like to be able to do is go to one place, one time, with their artwork and be sure that their standard will be upheld the same way."

Of course the shop was not always this diverse. Back in 1987, Sign Source was a traditional sign shop creating small, classic hand lettered designs. Becoming friendly with the ever-changing technology they purchased their first vinyl plotter, moving away from hand lettering. Then, in 1991 they bought their first digital printer, an Encad.

Although the goal was to expand product offerings, the Encad also increased their efficiency, by printing more at a lesser cost. Herman explains, "Being able to print digitally has saved us a lot. Even if we are printing the same sign at the same volume there is still a cost saver."

Printing at a lesser cost was something that Sign Source’s competitors were doing and Herman says that they were losing customers because of it. "As bigger competitors adopted new technologies we knew we had to stay in the game. Pricing in the field of POP has gotten extremely competitive so unless you can print directly to a material you probably can’t compete in that world. Some of our customers started to drift away, telling us to call them when we could do a relatively short run at a smaller price."

Purchasing a VUTEk PressVu UV 200/600 by EFI flatbed in March 2006 was what put the sign shop officially back in the game. The biggest reason for adding to their already large collection—two Mimaki JV3s, one Encad 1000I, and an Epson—was savings. "Savings in labor and materials because we are now able to print directly to a substrate, rather than printing to something and then applying it to a substrate," Herman continues.

Now he doesn’t know what they ever did without the flatbed. He refers to it as the lifeblood of the shop. "We sometimes question what would we do if it was down for a day or two."

Sign Source’s most popular applications include POP signage and marketing signs for builders and developers and it is heavily involved with electrical signage. The company recently acquired a fairly large electrical sign manufacturer in Twin Cities. Thanks to the broad range of applications offered and how well the shop performs, Herman has been forced to look for a larger location. The old shop is running out of floor space and Herman believes it would be nice to have the newly acquired electrical shop and the current shop all under one roof.

As Sign Source’s success continues to grow they have both themselves and their customers to thank. Business is truly through word of mouth. As Herman explains, "the philosophy we have always had is the best advertising is doing a really good job for your existing customers. If you’re busy you grow without advertising." This has certainly proven true for one traditional sign shop successful at using its digital technology., formally Advanced Graphix Express, had its origins in the pre-press service bureau business back in 1989. Over time it evolved into a printing company and added signage to its 7,000-square-foot shop in January 2005.

This wholesale-only shop, based in Charlotte, NC, became caught up in the digital wave because of pre-press services, according to Clifford Smith, owner. They soon were involved in large format printing and noticed how profitable it was.

The company does a range of applications including offset printing, business cards, postcards, trade show graphics, vehicle graphics, and vehicle wraps but sees large format as the biggest moneymaker. "Large format is far and away more profitable," says Smith, "there is a genuine demand for large format." However, vehicle wraps are one of the more enjoyable jobs to work on in’s 1,500-square-foot production room. Smith continues, "They’re challenging and they look great when they are finished."

All of the hardware in the shop is digital and includes three Roland large format printer/cutters, more specifically two Roland VersaCAMMs, two Heidelberg DI’s for offset printing, and Konica Minolta color copiers and B&W printers.’s specialty is printing, but its services do not stop there. It is a full service shop from beginning to end, following up a print job with any type of finishing technique a customer may need. They have folding, cutting, and laminating capabilities all in-house.

One of the newer technologies that the company recently started to dabble in is eco-solvent inks because of the demand from customers. "We were missing opportunities with customer requests for durable, full color outdoor applications. With eco-solvent ink we tend not to have that problem anymore," states Smith.

Besides the durability factor, another benefit of using the inks is that no environmental or ventilation equipment is needed. With regular solvent ink, harmful solvents spread volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air while the ink is drying. The creation of eco-solvent inks has led to less VOCs being spread into the air and a reduced odor during the drying process.

A vast majority of’s client base learns of the shop’s application offerings through direct-mail advertising. Clients include graphic designers, desktop publishers, and other printing companies that resell the digital services that offers.

Future Signage
SGIA believes that the markets affected next by the digital revolution will be inkjet-imaged product packaging and inkjet-imaged interior design elements, including fabrics.

Marx continues, "These traditionally mass-production markets have long utilized tried and true technologies, but will begin to shift strongly toward digital imaging in years to come. The result of this change will be a quantum shift in the way these products look and how they’re produced."

Throughout the digital market there’s constant developing trends. Regardless if SGIA’s predications come true, digital will certainly be playing a large role in sign shops and commercial print shops of the future. With reduced costs and happier customers comes a busy business; digital printing seems to make it all worth while.

Nov2006, Digital Output

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