In the 1930s, DuPont boasted chemistry’s life-enhancing benefits with its "better living through chemistry" slogan. The company later dropped the overtly chemical pitch, referring instead to science, but the truth still holds in life as in digital printing. Chemistry continues to evolve, and with it, the capabilities of large format print media.
But it’s more than chemistry, of course. Market forces are changing the media landscape as well, resulting in a broader selection of products from new and established suppliers, offering a range of price points and capabilities. Finding the right media for your application and business needs has never been more challenging.
There are dozens of varieties of print media for an expanding list of digital printing applications. Media manufacturers say the race is on to find even more exotic materials to push digital printing into new markets and novel applications, particularly for solvent printers. Indeed, some of the more significant changes in the market have occurred in relation to media for solvent printers.
"Solvent has been the driving force for us," says Eric Tischer, director of sales, Neschen Americas. As more companies embrace solvent printers, media vendors have raced to expand their selection of compatible media.
"Hardware drives our business," observes Dan Halkyard, director of marketing, Océ North America.
For aqueous inkjets, building a portfolio of fine art papers for new Canon, Epson, and HP printers and inks has been a priority, says Kevin Shimamoto, worldwide marketing manager, Kodak.
"I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed as much change in product assortment as in 2006, and that goes for any photo or imaging business I’ve been a part of in the past 30 years," states Philip Hursh, president, Sihl USA.
Part of what’s driving the change, vendors say, is an attempt to provide solvent printers with the range of media currently available for aqueous machines.
Much of the vinyl banner market has become commoditized, says Ed McCarron, director of marketing, InteliCoat Technologies. "People are struggling to get margins there, so they’re looking for new applications for their solvent printers." McCarron notes that duplicating aqueous’ success with fine art on canvas and POP on backlit films in solvent media is a focus for the company. "It will let the printer produce lower volumes, but higher margins."
Solvent printing is more involved than its aqueous counterpart which puts the onus on suppliers offering newer materials to support their introductions with color profiles and technical support, McCarron adds.
"I have the chance to visit a lot of print service providers. The profitable ones are those that have expanded their business beyond, for lack of a better word, commodity applications," Hursh says. "They add to their bottom line by producing higher-value applications as an add-on to the job that crossed their order desk as a request for a few simple posters or banners."
Of course, improving existing applications continues to be a focus. Adhesive vinyls for vehicle wraps are getting tougher and more durable, capable of adhering to tougher, grimier surfaces.
"We’re looking to improve our adhesives; we’re adding super aggressive adhesives" to let graphics adhere to concrete walls, states Gabriel Maxwell, director of marketing, Arlon Graphic Films. "We’re also improving the heat resistance of our films" so they can be applied to motorcycles or other surfaces that get hot or dirty.
Maxwell adds that within the growing market for vehicle wraps, Arlon is developing media for shorter-term installations. "It can be applied easily and removed quickly," he says.
3M has introduced a vinyl adhesive film designed to adhere and conform to moderately textured surfaces. The new film eliminates the need to mount painted panels by framing, drilling, or taping, according to Tom Black, marketing operations manager, 3M Graphics Market Center. "The film opens up new real estate for promotional messages for areas in stadiums, arenas, and malls where graphics and signage have been difficult to install."
"Digital technology initiated a shift to short-run, short-term graphics," Black states. "Now, we’re in the midst of another shift to make digital a medium for longer-term applications." As the shift is underway, marketing claims can frequently outpace real-world performance, Black cautions.
"We think a lot of the claims being made today [regarding longevity] are not accurate," Black says. "Brand owners cannot tolerate their identity looking any different than it’s supposed to. If prints fade, it’s the print providers who will ultimately get burned."
"We don’t know yet if there’s a real market need for a three-month vinyl or if people are just relying on price" to guide them to lower cost, lower durability products, says David Grant, VP of marketing, Oracal USA.
Longevity is also an issue on the aqueous side, as inkjet media such as canvas designed for fine art applications have been emphasizing longer light fastness and better resistance to ozone, moisture, and other indoor irritants. Suppliers have poured R&D dollars into new coatings and chemistry for long-term indoor applications.
For example, BF Inkjet is finalizing a fire-resistant canvas aimed at the commercial market and museum applications where code and regulations require fire retardancy and flammability ratings, says Max Bowers, owner, BF Inkjet. The company also developed a line of canvas for solvent printers for outdoor applications, he adds.
There have also been advances in fabric printing, says Regan Dickinson, marketing communications specialist, LexJet Corporation. The company has been expanding its line of uncoated polyester fabrics, flag, spandex, and suede material to support the recently introduced TexPress DSS-1800 printer, which aims to reproduce the quality of a dye sublimation process in a single step. "We’re working on profiles now [for the new materials]; we’re trying to eliminate all the guess work."
Digitally printed POP is a growth market for Oracal USA, notes Grant. "Work that used to be done with film can now be done digitally," he says. Vehicle films for day and night advertising are also a growing interest, allowing wraps to be seen in the dark, he adds.
An increased interest in decorative applications has spurred fabric printing, adds Lorna D’Alessio, president, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
Solvent fabric printing is growing "by leaps and bounds" as shops market flags, banners, and even theatre drapes, says Tom King, sales manager, 3P Inkjet Textiles.
Decorative media needn’t be just fabrics. Wall graphics will be a major focus for MACtac going forward, notes Kristi Young, product manager, MACtac. Later this year the company plans to introduce smooth matte media for adhering to walls which will allow printers to create interior designs. "The challenge is that people have different textured walls and so you need a product that can adhere to a variety of surfaces," Young says.
The company’s initial products will be optimized for smooth drywall and mildly textured surfaces. "The goal is to get a single product to cover both," Young adds.
BF Inkjet will shortly offer a solvent printable 4-ounce lightweight fabric that has a glossy finish, Bowers notes. The fabric could be used for curtains, table cloths, and stage backgrounds.
While new materials catch the eye, companies are also bringing new sensibilities to the traditional sign and banner business. Ultraflex, for instance, has begun pitching a biodegradable PVC media for the environmentally friendly. The greening of the print industry is likely to be accelerated by environmental regulations in the European Union (EU)—specifically regulations concerning the use of PVC.
This year, prints displayed at the Academy Awards were output using Ultraflex’s BioFlex biodegradable material and Nike has embraced it as well, D’Alessio comments. Other brands such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds have also expressed interest, she adds.
For now, biodegradable media is more expensive because the EU mandates certain compounds be used in its manufacture. However, Ultraflex will begin to produce biodegradable media in other facilities where it can swap-in generic additives to achieve the same effect at lower costs, D’Alessio says. "Our goal is to make this less expensive."
Choosing media for your large format printer is no small consideration.
There are basic compatibility issues to consider—will it work with your printing technology? There are performance issues—will it produce the results you expect and your clients demand? There are logistical concerns—will it be in stock and delivered on time when you need to make deadlines? There are support questions—does the vendor have the ICC profiles you need and the tech support staff on hand to help should problems arise?
Slighting any of these questions has consequences. The wrong media will not only fail to perform—chewing into your bottom line and eroding your reputation—it can even damage print heads.
Drilling down into each of these questions will let you maximize your media purchase. A broad survey of media suppliers and end-users yields some basic rules of the road.
Take compatibility. As a basic premise, you need to understand what media works with your printing technology. As a general rule, coated media is geared for aqueous printers while uncoated materials are geared toward solvent. UV can print to either, in flexible or rigid form. These general distinctions, however, are steadily blurring as vendors introduce universal products designed to straddle several platforms.
Solvent printers generally print to uncoated vinyls; PVC banner material; photorealistic papers; films; and cotton, canvas, and polyester fabrics. Aqueous can print to all of the above alongside photobase and presentation papers, fine art, and coated papers. UV offers direct printing to foam and poster boards, and a host of textiles and media.
If you’re confused, most suppliers and distributors will offer a compatibility chart which will let you know whether your printer and ink combination will work effectively with a given media. Even the best charts are general guidelines, however. The best course, vendors suggest, is to order samples and do your own testing. As they say, the proof is in the print. Print performance, particularly for color-critical applications, hinges on several factors unique to a print floor. The only way to know with iron-clad certainty whether a media is right is to get it inside your own facility—running through your own printer and ink set.
You should also "start backwards from your application," King suggests. Asking yourself what you need to accomplish—not simply the application, but the longevity requirements, how the output will be viewed, what elements it will be subjected to, and what your turnaround times are—should also guide your purchase.
Then there is the emerging field of universal media that can be used in both solvent and aqueous printers, which promises to ease some of the confusion around the proliferation of options.
"They can perform as well as dedicated materials, but a lot will depend on the printer," McCarron notes. "From an inventory standpoint, they’re very attractive, but they’re not going to replace" all stand-alone products, he says. InteliCoat is broadening its universal line, recently introducing a universal block-out polyester for banner stands.
"We are working on universal coatings to reduce inventory and make it easier on customers," King states. 3P will expand its current line-up of universal products but "we’re not sure if it’s the right approach for every application."
You can use many BF products in mild solvent applications, Bowers says. "The key, in my view, is to create a product which is optimized for a specific printing method that consistently images as desired."
When eyeing up universal products, rougher surfaces—like matte papers—tend to perform better than slick surfaces—like polyester films—says Jerry Hill, VP of sales, Drytac Corp.
There is also a subset of universal products that don’t span printer types, but ink types. Within the aqueous market, Kodak is offering media that can be used with either dye or pigment inks, such as backlit film, according to Shimamoto.
For solvent printers, papers that can accept eco-solvent and solvent inks are one area of focus for GBC, notes Cindy Pilch, senior product manager, GBC. Though the inks do behave differently—solvent inks bite into the paper, while eco-solvents use heat to open up pores in the media—the company’s SurePrint Select line of vinyl is geared to bridge the gap.
With apologies to John Donne, no media is an island. Its performance hinges on the interplay of the printer and ink. If one part underperforms, the whole suffers. The cause of much suffering can be traced to color management.
Most vendors will include a selection of profiles for certain ink, media, and printer combinations on their Web site.
"When we launch a new product, we start with a basic package of profiles and fine tune as we receive requests from our customers," Halkyard says.
For some businesses, these off-the-shelf profiles will produce sellable results, while other firms prefer to create their own custom profiles to achieve an even closer match.
"Some people would argue that it’s not our responsibility to furnish end-users with profiles, but it’s part of the value we can add; we want [the end user] to succeed," Grant says.
There are other pitfalls that can befall media owners. Many vinyls and textiles "have a memory," Tischer warns. If they are not stored properly, to evenly distribute the weight, they can have dead spots were ink will pool and the print will be ruined. This holds for shipping as well—some textiles can’t simply be handled like an average fabric. Creases will appear in the finished product if it’s improperly handled.
A Helping Hand
To guide you through the numerous media options on the market, we provide a chart of solutions. These companies have all categorized themselves as manufacturers. We hope you find this chart useful when making your media purchases. Further information can be found on the company Web sites provided.
In the May issue of Digital Output, we look further into the large format media market. Hear from manufacturers about how they differentiate themselves, and what new products are available. Also, hear from end users about what large format media they use and trust.