By Melissa Donovan
For the graphic arts and specifically digital printing with a focus on wide format, most industry insiders agree that while signage is a mainstay, specialty applications are pivotal components in growth. Print service providers (PSPs) taking on specialty services are strategically positioned to increase their bottom line.
Keypoint Intelligence – InfoTrends recently conducted a survey—produced by the International Sign Association—with findings aligning with the aforementioned statement. In Looking for BIG Opportunity in Graphic Communications & Specialty Printing, 68.8 percent of the respondents polled believe their wide format print volume is increasing.
According to the survey, reasons for growth include expanding the type of applications produced to appeal to new markets, adding services to become one-stop providers, and focusing marketing efforts on vertical industries. Over 300 companies including commercial printers, sign shops, digital print specialists, screenprinters, and advertising specialty providers participated in the report, published May 2018.
The participants of Looking for BIG Opportunity in Graphic Communications & Specialty Printing are an accurate representation of where the players in the graphic arts are headed. Many of the market share leaders interviewed in our annual state of the industry report agree.
In each of the topics—UV and latex, textiles, vinyl and film, and automation—we focus on here, the underlying trend is growth. While all are still used very much in signage applications, there is also a transition into specialty fields like apparel and décor—which moves further into untapped industries like manufacturing.
Above: Blue Designs, LLC won third place in this year’s Application of the Year awards. The Troy, MI-based shop created this wall graphic for Cranbrook Art Museum using Avery Dennison MPI 2611 Matte Removable Wall Film on an Epson SureColor S30670 printer.
UV and Latex
Many PSPs opt to move away from solvent-based digital printers, transitioning to UV and latex printing devices. This influences the increased use of digital printing in applications like flooring, packaging, and wallcoverings.
“We’ve seen a major shift toward both latex and UV inkjet, specifically for production-level wide format. Solvent and even eco-solvent are seeing less use as the flexibility and diversity of substrates for latex and UV inks have caught up to market demand,” explains Dan Johansen, marketing manager, wide format solutions, commercial and industrial printing business group, Ricoh USA, Inc.
UV in particular continues to gain traction because of reasons like environmental concerns, lower energy usage, and wider substrate compatibility. “Companies are becoming more conscious about their ecological footprint and looking at technologies that help them reduce it. LED curing is not only environmentally friendly but also highly energy efficient. Another huge advantage that brings the industry toward LED curing is the little heat it produces, which gives them a much wider media diversity,” shares Mike Kyritsi, president, swissQprint America.
“The transition from mercury arc UV to LED has helped customers tremendously as our LED cool cure platform can print nearly any rigid or roll-to-roll substrate. The energy savings with cool cure has a direct financial benefit to our customers in terms of lower electricity usage,” agrees Ken Hanulec, VP of marketing, EFI Inkjet.
According to Jim Lambert, VP/GM, INX International Ink Co., UV inks have advanced in recent years in regard to adhesion and durability. “This makes them much easier to use in the production environment because they are printer friendly,” he continues.
“Consumers are seeking more personalized experiences, and UV LED is well positioned to offer the ability to print on a variety of products thanks to adhesion versatility. As brand owners seek to tap into this trend, they add a variety of digital print hardware to their traditional mass production decorating technologies. These implementations are often happening in store, at the point of purchase (POP),” says Andrew Oransky, president, Roland DGA Corporation.
UV and latex printing technologies allow for customization on a number of materials. According to Ralph Giammarco, VP, S-One Labels & Packaging, a division of S-One Holdings Corporation, “when wide format digital printing began back in the 1990s, the highest value proposition was being able to do small runs with good quality and more quickly and efficiently compared to analog methods. Customization was a feature that the print provider could offer with this new technology. Today, it is driven from the opposite direction. The customer demands customization and wants it in everything, from signs to home décor to packaging.”
“PSPs are almost turning into service bureaus, finding additional markets they can address. A lot end up in the promotional products area. Things that conventionally were screenprinted or pad printed are now part of bigger marketing campaigns that include digitally printed cups, water bottles, and golf balls,” suggests Lambert.
Armed with experience, PSPs leverage knowledge and expertise in digital print to exploit some of the newer opportunities, recommends Larry D’Amico, director of sales, large format, Durst Image Technology US LLC. Specific industry verticals where opportunity is found include décor, packaging, architectural, and electronics.
“Décor, in particular, is seeing strong growth in the areas of window blinds, wallcoverings, cushions, and canvas prints,” comments Tom Wittenberg, U.S. marketing strategy, planning and content development lead – latex signage and décor, HP Inc. He cites a number of studies that point to overall growth in digital decoration. IDC reported an overall digital compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.1 percent from 2016 to 2021 for wallcoverings alone, with latex and UV technologies at CAGRs of greater than 20 percent for the same period.
“For those just entering the market, décor represents an excellent opportunity for growth. For those in traditional areas such as signage, it represents a greater opportunity. It allows them to expand their offering portfolio and continue on the path of growth,” says Wittenberg.
PSPs aren’t the only ones benefiting for UV and latex printing technologies. “Consumer products companies—particularly in fashion accessories, apparel, and personal electronics—are starting to adopt digital printing technology. In many cases, margins on these products can be razor thin, and the additional charges for personalization can be more profitable than the item itself. While much of this customization is done at the point of manufacturing or distribution, we are seeing printing equipment installed in retail locations as a way to drive traffic offline and back into stores. This can create opportunities for kiosk and display builders, as well as POP sign producers,” shares Oransky.
UV and latex technologies also play a role in digital’s recent influence in manufacturing processes. Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, NAFTA, Agfa Graphics, explains that inkjet printing in manufacturing facilities is moving in two paths. “The first uses existing wide format equipment to print directly onto more industrial surfaces such as wood, tiles, counter tops, and flexible membranes for push button surfaces in automobiles and kitchen appliances. This is the area where a current PSP can more easily participate. The second path is when inkjet printheads are incorporated directly into the manufacturing process of the product, thus eliminating post-processing steps, reducing cost, and adding all of the flexibility and customization that inkjet printing can provide,” she shares.
“Advances in wide format digital printing allow manufacturers using the printed piece as part of a finished good to expand their portfolios and feed their path to market by using digital print technologies for everything from prototyping to mass production. We see a continuing of lines being blurred between different areas of print and production as the technology makes diverse product offerings easier to implement for printers of all types,” adds Johansen.
There is a lot of focus on textiles. While many PSPs are not strangers to printing on fabric, the capabilities that digital affords means it is being used in other applications. Traditional digitally printed fabric work involves soft signage found in trade shows and at the retail level, this includes silicone edge graphic frames, flags, pole banners, backdrops, and table covers. Today digitally printed fabrics are found in apparel, garment, and décor businesses.
Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson America, Inc., says there has been double digit growth of wide format textile technologies including direct to garment, dye-sublimation (dye-sub), and direct to fabric. “The print technology used for textile applications spans multiple markets, of which there are different trends driving the increased adoption of digital textile printing. In signage, fabric soft signage using dye-sub is quickly being adopted because of three major factors—cost, ease of installation, and environmental,” he explains.
Soft signage is popular because it is reusable, lightweight, and easy to store and shop, according to Hanulec. He says in applications like exhibition graphics much of the vinyl-based product is being replaced with textile.
“Over the past five years, Top Value Fabrics has seen significant growth in product sales trending toward digital printing on textiles. This is due to the continued expansion of our digitally printable fabric portfolio of products. Furthermore, the introduction and advancements of high-speed dye-sub, direct disperse, latex, pigment, and UV printer technology play a major role and push business to record levels,” shares Mike Compton, product marketing manager, Top Value Fabrics.
Beyond graphics signage, the economics of digital printing, namely the ability to cost-effectively produce short runs or customization on demand, is attractive to other markets. “Specialty printing applications for home décor and high fashion are embracing the ability to provide samples and short-run production with custom designs to clients and end customers,” adds David Conrad, director of sales and marketing, Mutoh America, Inc.
“One Israeli fashion designer, Michal Ratzman, is using digital textile printing to make her dress designs stand out in a profitable way. Digital printing allows Ratzman to create dresses after they are ordered, thereby reducing costly inventory, returns, and waste,” points out Eric Hawkinson, VP of marketing, production print solutions, Canon Solutions America.
Apparel manufacturers looking to bring textile production back to the U.S. leverage digital print. Check says this is to address the trend of retailers rotating product every two weeks to entice customers. “A few years back, apparel had designated seasons, however customers today are constantly seeking fresh looks and retailers are looking to provide reasons for customers to visit their stores. The traditional business model of ‘produce then sell’ is being flipped to ‘sell then produce,’” he suggests.
“Apparel and interior designers have creative abilities and opportunities like never before and savvy, experienced PSPs are integrating digital textile printing to custom print on demand. Expansion into these new markets increase sales and growth domestically due to the ability to meet short turnaround times. Many PSPs have diversified their operations by adding home, interior, and architectural departments,” says Compton.
Vinyl and Film
Looking for BIG Opportunity in Graphic Communications & Specialty Printing asked respondents what percentage of their work was printed on flexible versus rigid media. 76 percent answered flexible media. The respondents were also surveyed about their most used flexible substrate. Overall, pressure-sensitive vinyl was the most used media at 33 percent.
In response to customer demand for sustainable products, materials constructed with little to no PVC are trending. The total solution is attractive for traditional applications like vehicle wraps to newer products like wallcoverings. Also, advancements in ink technologies allow for new products like floor graphic media that does not require an overlaminate.
“Consumers demand digital media made without PVC for reduced environmental impact. We also see more shops transitioning to latex from solvent and eco-solvent printers. Media that is printed on a latex printer is instantly cured, without requiring dwell time before being able to apply the overlaminate. Shops appreciate the ability to print and laminate immediately,” shares Joey Heiob, technical service representative, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions.
Changes to the material composition of the media allow for growth into home décor, hotels, and hospitals. Tammi Johnson, business development manager, 3M Commercial Solutions, believes graphic films are becoming key components of many interior design projects and are ideal for refreshing a space quickly and efficiently. “Growth of graphics in interior décor applications enables PSPs to expand their business with existing customers, as well as to explore new opportunities with a broader set of customers,” she continues.
“We see PSPs with roots in the graphics arts expanding into a range of signage applications and beyond. Two of the most significant growth areas are vehicle and architectural graphics. End user demand for customization and personalization is now accomplished with these latest print technologies and graphic materials,” says Adam Bratter, senior director of product development, Arlon Graphics, LLC.
Darren Speizer, VP of sales, Drytac, points to ink technology advancements as propelling the vinyl and film segment forward. “Several innovative technologies have emerged in the last five years in the industry. The advances in ink technologies have allowed us, as adhesive coated media manufacturers, to create certified post-printed floor graphics that do not need an overlaminate. This saves the users time and money.”
The ability to offer a mix of traditional signage services and new specialty printing applications is nice, but it can’t be leveraged until a print shop is running at its peak efficiency. Enter automation.
“The greatest trend is toward automation. As PSPs expand business by adding more equipment, they recognize a need for wide format automation. This helps to contain costs while streamlining production, resulting in greater return on investment for PSPs,” explains Hutcheson.
Bryan Manwaring, director of product marketing, Onyx Graphics, Inc., agrees and says in addition to increased demand for automation there is a need for connectivity, simplification, and application support. This is all “in order to increase production staff efficiency, reduce waste, and increase profitability.”
In Looking for BIG Opportunity in Graphic Communications & Specialty Printing, 78.6 percent of respondents said that demands for shorter turnaround times are increasing. For those surveyed, the majority of wide format work was produced in less than 24 hours.
“Today’s business climate has created a need for fast deliverables. In the internet commerce age, customers want to make a quick decision, and have products delivered seamlessly. PSPs must be able to rely on their workflows. Regardless of ink technology, a solid workflow can enable PSPs to meet production deadlines,” suggests Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Automation can be enacted in many ways. Commonly, using a software or workflow solution can help achieve efficiency. “With increased competition, PSPs must minimize the labor component of each job, while providing consistent color output across various printing technologies from numerous printer manufacturers. Reducing manual touch points can increase the predictability of the printed output. Additionally, PSPs need to be able to analyze production data in one format across multiple platforms,” recommends Manwaring.
Jan De Roeck, marketing director – industry relations and strategy, Esko, admits that the speed of a press is no longer the key driver of a business, instead it is workflow’s overall throughput. “Printers realize that there’s a lot to win from investing in the entire workflow before the printing press, automating everything from order entry to print—especially with short runs and substrate variability.”
“Vendors need to focus on the business needs of customers and how to streamline their workflow processes as well as give them innovative tools to step ahead of the competition and make their life easier,” confesses Don Feagan, president, SA International.
Automation should be addressed at bottlenecks, which all too many times are found at the finishing point of the overall print process. As digital printers become faster, manual or semi-manual finishing components can’t compete.
Steve Aranoff, VP marketing and business development, MCT Digital, provides the example of the handling of digitally printed fabrics being more than 50 percent of a PSP’s costs. “Wide rolls of fabric are heavy and the material is hard to handle manually. Delays in manual cutting lead to delays in sewing if it is a required next step, bringing further inefficiencies into the process. Not only must a PSP automate processes to maintain high quality and reduce delivery times, but they must also consider how each new piece of equipment fits into and supports it,” he adds.
“With growth in areas like packaging and textiles projected to outpace the average print service, providers continue to seek innovative ways to respond to market demands particularly as they relate to increased workflow automation and productivity, simpler and more efficient operation, as well greater flexibility to adapt to changes in demand and in materials,” says Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics/packaging, Zünd.
Certain substrates also offer PSPs and their customers increased efficiency. “The transition to fabrics and more easy to use and install media like magnetic-receptive media, allow for retailers to save money on installation without compromising image quality,” explains Kylie Schleicher, product manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
“Magnetic media is transitioning towards thinner and stronger. Utilizing high-energy manufacturing technology to make magnetic sheeting thinner while maintaining or exceeding the strength of regular strength sheeting, and at a comparable cost, has many benefits. It is easier to work with, easier to print, and costs less to ship. The same trend towards thinner and lighter weight is also true for magnetic-receptive sheeting, the other half of magnetic graphic systems continually gaining in popularity for easily changeable graphic displays,” adds Mike Gertz, marketing manager, Master Magnetics, Inc.
Automation is also a theme when it comes to adapting digital printing into traditional analog applications. Take for example large format 3D printing being used in conjunction with thermoforming. Sharon Rothschild, product manager, Massivit 3D, explains that with “3D printing, print providers can quickly 3D print large molds that can withstand the thermoforming process, enable cost-effective customization, and greater design freedom. Traditional manufacturing methods often require several weeks to produce mold inserts with significant outlay.”
Previewing 2019 and Beyond
While UV and latex, textiles, vinyl and film, and automation are all relevant when it comes to traditional signage applications, the trends and advancements in each of these segments is also transitioning digital printing into specialty applications like apparel and décor. The fashion industry, packaging, architectural, and consumer products are all experimenting and realizing the potential of digital printing.
This is depicted perfectly by this year’s Application of the Year winner, ARB Digital of Sacramento, CA. It printed on 512 travertine tiles using a Roland digital printer to create a 14×7-foot mural for Mexican restaurant, La Fiesta Taqueria in Folsom, CA. UV technology allowed ARB to print directly to the tiles. You can read more about the project and the second, third, and honorable mention winners by visiting digitaloutput.net in August.
Moving forward, digital printing will be used further down the production chain, integrated into manufacturing facilities at the initial level of a product’s creation. While PSPs aren’t necessarily the ones poised to benefit from this change, they have an upper hand. Their extensive knowledge about digital printing, specifically wide format, makes them a valuable player in these beginning stages of growth.
Aug2018, Digital Output