By Melissa Donovan
Each year Digital Output asks leaders in the graphic arts to share their point of view on the state of the industry, specifically the past year and into the future. New technologies—software, hardware, ink, and media—are the focus, from improvements to existing products and solutions to those on the forefront of changing the market landscape.
Due to these new technologies, more applications—and in concert more opportunity for the print service provider (PSP) to profit—are evolving. Hot this year were silicone edge graphics (SEG), magnetic-receptive systems, and window graphics. They share many of the same alluring features, offering ease of use in changing out graphics and high quality in the environments that use them.
A large topic of conversation in 2015 was automation. Connecting systems such as reporting, scheduling, and tracking throughout a shop’s workflow is essential for many a PSP. While many see the value of these implementations, change is a challenge and vendors are poised to educate on the benefits.
Perhaps the biggest illustration of the year’s achievements are the winners of our annual Application of the Year awards. We congratulate both Distractiongraphics.com and Ink Monstr, winners of the indoor and outdoor categories, respectively; as well as the runners up in both sections—Bricknowlogy and Sport Graphics. If you want to learn more, visit digitaloutput.net in August and read in-depth profiles on each company.
New technology continues to come to the forefront. This refers to software, hardware, ink, and media.
Connecting processes via software is a trend, allowing for minimization of error. This includes marrying various systems together and improving color management.
Streamlined automation reigns throughout. “When you operate an automated workflow, the next important thing is the connection to enterprise resource planning (ERP) or Web to print (W2P) systems,” explains Steve Bennett, VP sales, Esko North America Central and Distribution.
Bennett says that many print providers use ERP as the backbone of business. Running everything from ERP or W2P systems is a way to operate efficiently, he suggests.
“In the last 12 months, JDF and other automation technologies took hold. PSPs are looking at automation to reduce errors in the shop and help them scale their business. I believe we are only at the beginning of what we will see in the coming years,” advises Bryan Manwaring, director of product marketing, ONYX Graphics, Inc.
Color management software is an important consideration, especially when tasked with collaborating across multiple platforms. Mutoh America, Inc. helps its customers address that challenge with its process control ColorVerify technology. “The nice thing is that the devices don’t all have to be Mutoh, they can be other brands or older model printers. Print providers can achieve consistent color from each of their printers in a simple way,” shares Brian Phipps, VP/GM, Mutoh.
Wide format printers are changing the graphic arts. UV remains prevalent. Textile printing is growing at an accelerated rate. The technology behind these devices, such as single pass and grayscale, buoy advancements. Finishing devices also find new inroads thanks to textiles.
Prevalent in manufacturers’ portfolios are UV printers that expand the possibilities of what can be printed on. “While UV digital printing technology itself isn’t new,” admits Rick Scrimger, president, Roland DGA Corporation, “it is now being used for applications beyond signs.”
With UV printing evolving and expanding into new markets, Scrimger says the opportunities made possible by combining UV ink and a flatbed printer are only limited by the imagination of the print provider.
Hardware is manufactured specifically to print to fabric. “We have seen interest in equipment designed to print fabric and textiles, specifically the Durst Rhotex and Kappa. We expect this to grow as more brands and end users move to this type of media due to the fact that it provides an improved appearance, more robust handling, and overall ‘greener’ footprint,” shares Terry Amerine, director of product marketing, Durst Image Technology US LLC.
“Digital printing on textiles is attractive due to the declining costs associated with the printing process. More direct to fabric dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printers as well as inkjet printers are now available with better printing capabilities and at a more affordable price,” advises Fred Propp, marketing coordinator, Value Vinyls.
Devices once used for architecture, engineering, and construction are revamped to combine productivity with quality. Vincent Bejar, business development manager, LexJet, cites the Hewlett-Packard (HP) PageWide XL Series as an example.
“Also used for color graphics, it opens the door to new applications and higher productivity for the printer. This is the beginning of a technology shift in inkjet printing that will continue to propel the printers using these high-speed effective devices into higher volume, higher profit solution areas,” explains Bejar.
Single-pass inkjet is poised to open up wide format, suggests Deana Conyard, WW marketing manager, high-end production inkjet and wide format products, Xerox Corporation. “As the quality levels of single-pass inkjet improve through ink and printhead development, it will replace traditional aqueous devices, enabling printers to quickly turnaround high-quality wide format prints,” she foresees.
Ken Hanulec, VP of marketing, EFI, points to his company’s printers’ grayscale imaging capabilities as a game changer. With a seven picoliter, variable drop grayscale printhead, small drop sizes offer precise control with multi-drop capability.
“That all translates into high apparent resolution, high-definition quality, superb text quality, and smoothness in shadows, gradients, and transitions,” he continues.
Printheads are poised to revolutionize the business. Jason Bartusick, product development/strategic planning, Media One Digital Imaging Solutions, LLC, provides the example of the new Ricoh Gen5 printheads. “These new industrial printheads are fast, reliable, easy to work with, and can produce a high-quality grayscale image.”
Digital textile printing’s popularity affects finishing. For example, Steve Aranoff, VP sales and marketing, MCT Digital, says the rapid growth of fabric printing requires additional and/or wider finishers to keep up with demand, with five-foot finishers being replaced by ten-foot systems.
“Fabric finishing has added a new wrinkle—the need to seal edges, which is done well via laser cutting. Manual handling of ten-foot wide printed fabrics cut by a hot knife is labor intensive. Customers moving from hot knives to laser cutting replace eight hand cutters with one person to run the finishing system,” cites Aranoff.
The variety of ink sets available speak to the diversity of applications. Varnish and primer provide benefits, pigment ink expands fabric compatibility, UV continues to improve, and solvent remains essential.
At Agfa Graphics, some of its innovations center on varnish and primer. It recently added both to its Jeti and Anapurna printers, with the hope that even more applications can be printed off of these devices, furthering reach into new markets.
“Varnish appeals to photo and packaging. The ability to apply this varnish inline with digital accuracy lends itself to a variety of applications. The primer option allows printing an adhesion promoter to the surface of a material before printing. This extends the ink’s ability to adhere to a variety of substrates,” explains Larry D’Amico, VP digital imaging, Agfa, North America.
Specialty consumables aren’t the only notable technology. Jeff Sanders, digital fabrics sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics (PCF), points out the ongoing and renewed interest in pigment ink sets by both machine manufacturers and ink providers.
“This market segment could be poised for substantial growth this year. Allowing for printing on a variety of fabric substrates—not just polyester—pigment printing could substantially create new opportunities in the areas of both home furnishing and apparel printing,” foresees Sanders.
UV ink technology continues to advance. “Specifically, improvements for flexible applications involving adhesion to difficult substrates, post-cure flexibility without cracking, higher gloss, and expanded gamut,” shares Craig Reid, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Co.
These advancements, says Reid, enable UV ink to be used in traditionally solvent-based applications, such as stretch banner and signage. In addition, the enhancements allow industrial print synthetic fabric decoration to grow, which displaces conventional rotary screen methods.
How UV ink is cured is evolving. “The migration is away from conventional—such as quartz, metal halide, and mercury vapor—towards LED-based UV-cure lamps. UV LED lamps run cooler, require less energy, and provide the ability to print on a range of substrates,” explains Ken VanHorn, director, marketing and business development, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Solvent is a mainstay for producing outdoor graphics within signage and graphic arts, according to Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson America, Inc. “As solvent ink formulations improve, they become less harmful to the environment while having longer outdoor durability and wider color gamut.”
Perhaps nothing is more varied than the abundance of substrates optimized for digital. Textiles, eco-friendly products, high-end décor films and overlaminates, and magnets are just a few.
Textiles for digital printing have experienced major growth. Karen Stuerenberg, marketing director, Top Value Fabrics (TVF), agrees that technology is moving quickly across all areas of the industry, including fabrics for direct disperse and latex ink technologies.
With advancements come more options, which isn’t always a good thing. “The divide in quality is becoming more apparent. For example, all backlit fabrics aren’t created equal and the graphics that are created with higher quality backlit fabrics are engineered to outshine other graphics,” continues Stuerenberg.
Apparel fabrics made with recycled yarns are a new technology that’s come to the forefront, according to Sharon Roland, advertising and PR manager, Fisher Textiles. “This is driven by consumers wanting to do more to preserve the environment, and having the option to purchase apparel made from recycled yarns gives them an opportunity to do so,” says Roland.
Polyester yarns from recycled plastic bottles create a reusable resource and minimize the pollution that is generated by making virgin polyester. REPREVE recycled yarns by Unifi are one such product. Roland explains that Unifi features a program that issues green bottle-shaped hangtags to attach to garments that are made with the REPREVE recycled yarns.
“In the past 12 months, we’ve seen a larger push for sustainable and eco-friendly products. While some in this category aren’t new, it seems the increased interest in sustainability allowed companies to launch innovative products that perform as well, if not better, than their less eco-friendly competitors,” shares Christian Nole, marketing coordinator, Katz Americas.
Jim Tufts, business unit manager, Perception Wide Format Media, believes that environmentally sustainable media will eventually become standard. “Major retail brands are driving this message by creating and demanding that the supply chain be filled with products that are certified by third party organizations. It is no longer acceptable to simply make a green claim without supporting certification.”
The team at 3M Commercial Solutions identifies green as an expanding movement in the film segment as well. Specifically, some of its newer products are non-PVC, which provides an environmentally friendly alternative simultaneously associated with high performance.
“The increasing popularity of these films is primarily due to advanced performance capability with regard to installation, durability, and removal. Specifying more environmentally friendly materials no longer means sacrificing performance,” adheres Jenny O. Kigin, marketing operations manager, 3M.
Craig Campbell, market manager – graphic products, ORAFOL Americas, agrees, explaining that over the last few years, PVC-free offerings have grown. “Historically, issues such as poor ink adhesion and limited durability hindered PVC-free products, but that is overcome with offerings in polyester, polypropylene, and urethane film combined with the right adhesives that now make almost any application possible where typical PVC films were traditionally used.”
Architectural and environmental design firms are some of the biggest proponents of this media. As Campbell admits, he has been in meetings with these organizations and was not allowed to show any products produced with PVC.
Jason Yard, marketing manager, Mactac Distributor Products, says there is an increase in pressure-sensitive décor films. Varied textures and finishes are available for high-end retail and murals. Not to mention advancements in chalkboard and dry erase materials give way to unique designs.
Tamara Pitman, product manager, Coveris Advanced Coatings, considers frosted window air egress digital media as a major player in the last 12 months. “It is easy to apply and there is no need to flood the back with white ink because the frosted surface provides opacity,” she shares.
“Designers are always looking for ways to help their projects stand out; if a texture or removable design can accomplish that, pressure-sensitive graphics are often easier and more cost effective than traditional methods,” recommends Yard.
The same can be said for car wraps, especially in regards to color change films, which are more cost effective than paint. “In general, colors and finishes that can’t be created with paint are now achieved with vinyl wrap films for a variety of applications and extending from cars to interior décor,” suggests Joey Heiob, technical service representative, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions.
Heiob also says overlaminates are aiding in the movement to create new colors and textures without relying on traditional methods. “The effects range from changing a gloss to a metallic with an overlaminate. By laminating a matte or luster overlaminate to a gloss film, an aluminum look is created. Shade shifter overlaminates make a color change based on the lighting source and angle from which the film is viewed,” he continues.
Magnets evolve into a cost-effective option for PSPs. They offer a number of opportunities that weren’t possible even five years ago. “Technological advancements in the production of magnetic receptive have resulted in thinner and wider material. Thinner material results in lighter weight for printing and shipping as well as seamless tiling on large graphics. The increase in width can make for more efficient use,” explains Mike Gertz, marketing manager, Master Magnetics, Inc.
Magnum Magnetics Corporation also notices this trend, and in response is developing a new wide format, high-energy magnet that is magnetized on both sides. The design enables an “ultimate magnet plus magnetic-receptive system” for multiple layers of superwide graphics with fewer seams, according to Jim Cirigliano, marketing manager, Magnum Magnetics.
New applications generate more revenue. “In general, new applications are hot for that very reason—they are new and not yet commoditized thereby producing decent revenues for the print provider,” shares Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Canon Solutions America.
3M’s Kigin believes that there are a long list of applications on the rise, and some of this increase is due to a growing focus on the customer’s overall brand experience. “Specifically, the importance of providing a positive experience for customers onsite in retail, hospitality, and other types of brick-and-mortar locations,” she adds. As such, applications for windows, walls, and floors are increasing.
Hecht agrees, explaining that PSPs are finding new applications that keep their customers happy while simultaneously offering unique, simple, and scalable media options used with already existing printer models in house.
“We feel like today’s print providers are doing a great job pushing the envelope to offer unique applications. We also see a much closer relationship between architectural and environmental designers and their print providers—this has paved the way for a whole new growth curve where specialty applications are concerned,” states ORAFOL’s Campbell.
There is a trend of using digital to decorate with customized graphics. “Wallcoverings, decorated metals, applications for fabrics, wood surfaces, leathers, and various thick substrates are just a few of the specialty applications being created. Technology developments with transfers, durable inks, 3D printing, and expanded capability printers will only serve to convert this trend to a major focal point,” foresees Bejar.
“Customization and decoration onto anything and everything is in great demand, with the per piece revenue potential tending to be far higher than simple banner jobs. Examples include roll to roll and flat sheet UV cure printing onto synthetic leather, wood decoration, and reverse print glass applications,” agrees Reid.
Francois Martin, WW marketing director, graphic solutions business, HP, points out that when decoration is referenced, it typically refers to residential wall decoration. “The opportunity is actually in retail, hotels, restaurants, offices, education, and healthcare. In the last two years, the specification of digital wallpapers, canvases, stickers, and decals has increased exponentially, bringing opportunity to both traditional wallpaper manufacturers and signage PSPs,” he continues.
Larry Salomon, VP, wide format inkjet, Agfa, North America, cites décor and the mainstream use of fabrics as current hot growth areas. “They offer higher margins and a requirement for greater expertise and finishing, replacing paint with printable wallcoverings in the décor area. Fabrics are also lighter, recyclable, and present a higher end image,” he continues.
This year experienced a lot of hype involving SEG frames, magnetic-receptive systems, and window graphics.
SEG frames and the fabrics placed in them play into this hot growth area. PCF’s Sanders recognizes this market segment has been a standout—whether referred to as SEG, frame systems, or light boxes. “It continues to grow and innovate due to advances in both the frame system hardware and textile construction. In addition, fabric-coating enhancements provide print surfaces that are now compatible with dye-sub, direct disperse, UV, and latex,” he says.
“Customers love the clean, precise look of SEG,” adheres TVF’s Stuerenberg. “When printed properly, the graphics are stunning, as the fabric helps to create a sense of dimension. The finish means that less frame shows on the flat, crisp surface and no sew line appears when the graphic is installed.”
Value Vinyls’ Propp acknowledges ease of use drives popularity. “This technology has made it easier and faster for the set up and dismantling of soft signage for commercial and retail signs. In addition to trade show displays, retailers are finding that display boxes with SEG can be changed out.”
Shipping complements the ease of use. “Wrinkle-resistant properties of the fabric allows SEG to be folded and shipped in small boxes. Shipping dimensions and weight are less and install doesn’t require professionals,” adds Fisher’s Roland.
SEG frame growth shows no signs of slowing down. Sanders points to new frames that allow for curved installations and free standing cubes and other geometric shapes. In addition, he explains that fabric manufacturers are constructing this substrate in wider formats, allowing them to work flawlessly under tension.
Continuing with a theme of easy-to-use applications are magnetic and magnetic-receptive products. According to Epson’s Hecht, magnets are commonly requested because of their ease of use. “They offer a simple application option to communicate to the end purchaser of the graphic, and are generally appealing to most companies as ways to differentiate messaging.”
Anyone can install magnets, points out Kaz Kudo, associate product marketing manager, workflow solutions & wide format media, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
When messages need to be changed, it is ideal to place a new sign over an existing one. Magnetic graphic systems, which Master Magnetics’ Gertz outlines as magnetic and magnetic-receptive sheeting and/or strip, in addition to magnetic hooks, posts, and clips, allow for surfaces other than ferrous metal to be used.
A system like this “provides an interchangeable space for printed graphics that are easy to install and remove without having to fumble with fasteners, adhesives, or special hardware. After you set up the base layer once, you can populate a wall, panel, or even non-traditional flat or curved spaces,” concurs Magnum Magnetics’ Cirigliano.
More users are starting to appreciate the inherent benefits of magnetic-receptive media. E. Tyler Reich, director of product development, Qué Media Inc., admits that the company foresees a large amount of growth in this sector. It has adapted the major premise of how a magnetic graphic system works and created a new product.
“It is a white adhesive surface similar to a wallpaper—in place of the magnet sheet—that allows the end user to use any inexpensive permanent adhesive product and apply it with a bubble-free application that can be easily removed as if it is a removable product,” explains Reich.
Windows are having a moment. Whether it’s a perforated film, clear vinyl, or cling, more marketers are looking for ways to promote products on windows. “With today’s technology, these materials can be printed on using white and color inks with eco-solvent and UV. This opens the door to corporate America and beyond, allowing them to increase sales and get their message out more efficiently,” shares Phipps.
Walter Gierlach Jr., president, Photo Tex Group, Inc., says its newest company, Pro-Graphics Network LLC, is addressing this demand with products that aren’t adhesive, cling, or static. “GlassADhere is a new micro-gel adhesion formula that acts like suction cups to adhere to glass and metal. This formula is all about ease of installation and can be easily removed, repositioned, or reused,” continues Gierlach.
“Ritrama has seen the window cling market grow substantially; our Crystal Cling and other products meet the demand of both large and small retailers using windows for advertisements and seasonal decoration,” shares Robert Rundle, viscom market manager, Ritrama.
Automation is increasingly important. The challenge is educating change-resistant wide format print providers on the benefits of automated workflow, media handling, and finishing. Software addresses efficiency concerns on the front end. Media handling mechanisms and finishing devices are at the other direction of the production cycle.
Bryan Hughes, product marketing manager, workflow products, Fujifilm, notes that software-based workflow automation in prepress already occurred. “General commercial printers realized dramatic reductions in direct labor costs due to software implementations. The usability of these systems is easier, the staffing requirements decreased, and the wage is either stagnated or gone down,” admits Hughes.
Esko’s Bennett points out that commercial printers automated their workflow because margins became low due to competitive pressure, which required a cost savings. Those printers of newspapers, books, and marketing materials had their margins squeezed and had no choice but to add automation to reduce costs.
While Bennett believes that wide format businesses are not at this stage of margin pressures, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t implement automation. “I like to tell companies not to wait until their businesses are experiencing margins in the low single digits. They should do it now, when it is 40 to 50 percent, not nine percent.”
Printers are hesitant to enact automation for many reasons, including cost, space, time, and manpower. D’Amico believes that some of the reluctance stems from the legacy of screenprint. “This technology is typically hand fed and does not incorporate inline finishing. By comparison, if you look at flexographic presses for labels and offset presses it is very common that automatic feed and inline finishing is configured with them,” he comments.
“In any capacity, change is difficult and takes time. One of the primary challenges is that automated solutions require customers to completely replace systems on which they depend on with whole new systems,” suggests ONYX’s Manwaring.
LexJet’s Bejar explains that once a PSP is locked into the complex variables that solve the application problems of a customer, it is difficult to change that practice and risk affecting quality or delivery time by implementing automation—or change.
“I think the overwhelming factor is comfort. Many successful print providers have been around so long and learned the hard way in so many situations that they are reluctant to try new technology and embrace change. There are thousands of printers in North America, and each business is run differently so not every new process works for everyone,” adds Mactac’s Yard.
Roland’s Scrimger agrees, explaining that most companies don’t want to stop what they are doing to add another piece of equipment or adjust their workflow. “The return on investment (ROI) on workflow is usually a little more subtle than with hardware innovation and it becomes more important to full shift production where automation is necessary.”
“Continued efficiency improvements require implementations of management information systems, W2P, production floor data collection, and the ability to understand how these systems can work together. This requires a high degree of technical ability. The challenge to vendors is how to provide technical services that provide value that printers are willing to pay for,” shares Hughes.
For example, Sébastien Hanssens, VP marketing & communication, Caldera, says that the company has experienced an increase in demand for creating connections between production software and quoting or invoicing software in order to avoid having to manually transfer key information from one program to another.
“Automation means that you can connect a job file to its order form quick and precisely, or track job status so a sales representative knows when its customer’s project will be delivered,” continues Hanssens.
As more commercial printers adapt digital technologies into workflows that are creating prototypes and short packaging runs, they require automated mechanisms that work well with hard-to-utilize media such as corrugated board.
“Businesses going into high-volume digital need the most ROI from automated material handling. They are companies coming from the screen or offset space that want to replace some of their analog capacity to digital, and they can only do that if they are hitting maximum throughput on a digital production line,” explains EFI’s Hanulec.
HP’s Martin agrees, sharing that since the high volumes and long runs are fairly consistent in corrugated printing, automation is a substantiated need and a press can be significantly impaired without it.
Automated finishing components are a continued learning curve for many PSPs resistant to matching a new finishing device to their new printer. What happens many times is the finishing component becomes a bottleneck if it is antiquated.
“What helps our customers overcome their hesitation more than anything is realizing that with a high-throughput digital cutter to match their high-throughput digital printing equipment, virtually anything is possible,” recommends Dan Cantrell, national sales manager, Zünd America, Inc.
INX’s Reid cautions that automation is not for everyone. A typical print provider would find it difficult to implement significant automation unless there was at least one substrate being printed at least 50 percent of the time, or one very large client that requires expedited jobs on a constant basis.
Any technology needs to have a financial ROI, agrees D’Amico. “Most jobs in this market are very short run—more than half are 50 sheets or fewer. You need to weigh the cost of automation with the changeover and set up required. If this set up takes too long, the benefit of reduced labor with automation is neutralized.”
2015 State of the Industry
New technology, new applications, and automation are top points of interest. Software, hardware, ink, and media are advancing at a rapid pace to meet demand from PSPs to create new applications that cater to the benefits of digital print. 2015 isn’t over yet, who knows what the rest of the year may bring.
Aug2015, Digital Output