hardware: Grand Return

Manufacturers of grand-format printers are fond of saying, “Bigger is better.” However, when the economy is on a downslide, customers can be heard saying, “Bigger is more expensive,”—which might explain the downturn in grand-format printer sales over the past two years. While sales may have slowed, manufacturers did not. They continued to push the envelope, creating bigger, faster equipment with the ability to print even more applications. So, as the economy began to improve, albeit at a snail’s pace, so too did the grand-format market.

“The economic downturn cast a shadow industry-wide on purchase decisions and activity,” said Michael White, :M-Press TIGER sales manager, Agfa Graphics, Ridgefield Park, NJ.

Patrick Ryan, general manager, Seiko Instruments USA, Inc., Infotech Division, Escondido, CA, said that sales of grand-format printers dramatically dropped during the fall of 2008, and did not begin to improve until February of 2010. “Sales are now growing slowly and consistently each month,” he said, “but at lower overall volumes than 2007-2008.”

The poor economy made print houses very sensitive regarding the printers’ running cost, according to Hagai Valach, marketing director, Matan Digital Printers LTD, Rosh- Haa'yin, Israel. “Fast production speeds, which decrease the number of shifts and therefore bring labor cost down, low media waste and especially low ink consumption have all become major considerations,” said Valach.

There were positive gains for users in need of entry systems, according to White, while purchases of middle- to high-speed systems were a bit softer than in years past. “The good news,” he said, “is that in recent months this pattern seems to be slowly moving in the right direction and, overall, the picture seems to be more positive going forward.”

HP Graphics Solutions Business is one company seeing quarter over quarter increases in equipment and ink purchases.

“Some of the equipment purchases were to address capacity issues, but a good many others were to increase the print providers’ capabilities to go after new markets,” reported Don Knox, US director of sales, large-format printing, HP Graphics Solutions Business, Palo Alto, CA. “Today, more than ever, a big part of the sales cycle goes well beyond an evaluation of the speeds and feeds of the particular product, but involves a deep dive into an ROI analysis. In some instances, the ROI business case was instrumental in securing the financing for the equipment acquisition.”


New Applications

One way to increase ROI is to come up with new applications for the equipment. Hot trends in grand-format are directly related to the expanded range of applications built right into today’s grand-format printers. “Many of today’s business models support working 20 to 30 percent of the time on developing new applications, and business owners are leveraging the results of that time spent to extend the range of products they offer,” said Mike Wozny, strategic product manager, EFI-VUTEk, Meredith, NH.

HP’s Knox continues to be amazed by the innovation and resourcefulness demonstrated by their customers on a daily basis. “More and more, our customers are producing and successfully marketing new applications, such as textile and fabric printing for interior decorating, customized wallpapers for children’s’ rooms or ever-changing retail environments, fine-art reproductions on canvas materials and many other high-value, high-growth specialty applications that allow them to capture new business opportunities,” he said.

Agfa’s White has also seen substantial growth and excitement with fabric printing. “For end users within retail and exhibit and display industries, fabric is particularly hot,” he said. “Fabrics are easy to work with and there are so many ways to create unique output. Plus, there are numerous cost benefits to working with textiles for exhibit and display industry, such as reduced drayage, shorter set-up times and the list goes on.”

McRae Imaging and Orbus Exhibit and Display Group are giants in this sector, according to White, and both companies are able to take the designer’s vision and make it a reality with the products such as the :Jeti 3324 Aquajet.

“These companies are experts in creating interesting and otherwise unconventional shapes,” said White. “Recently, McRae Imaging created a 60-foot car out of fabric. It was adorned with LED lights and was hung from the ceiling of the convention center during a major car show. It was an amazing sight!”

Fabric printing continues to grow in the application side of what Durst customers are printing on as well. “We see a good percentage of our roll-to-roll machines printing various fabrics as well as having a high-interest level in our new Rhotex direct dye textile printer,” said Christopher Howard, vice president of sales and marketing, US and Canada, Durst Image Technology U.S., LLC, Rochester, NY.


Pushing the Boundaries

From an equipment feature standpoint, Howard said the continued trend that Durst customers have interest in is around productivity of the print platforms as well as automation and efficiency in operation of the equipment.

“In terms of features, we continue to see the industry push the boundaries beyond what we once thought possible in terms of productivity, print quality and color consistency,” reported Knox.

Sustainability in print is also gaining steady ground as the market emerges from the economic downturn and customers begin to receive increased demand from their customers for output with a reduced environmental impact and for technologies that improve the work environment for their employees.

“We can now offer these customers devices that not only meet their needs in regards to the environment, but also provide the needed quality, durability, productivity and price point,” said Knox.

Jeffrey Nelson, product marketing manager, Inkjet Equipment and Software, Graphic Systems Division, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Valhalla, NY, said the biggest trend he sees is the mass migration from solvent to UV solutions. “We also are seeing dramatic increases in press speed, easier and faster material change, and printers that are equally adept at printing both POP as well as billboard work,” he said.

The market is excited about newer systems that utilize UV white ink, as it is popular in many packaging applications as well as many sign and display applications. “White ink is hot,” said Agfa’s White. “In years past, white ink printing was problematic ink because it must be very opaque and offer a high coverage. However, some of the newer UV inkjet systems have been successful in providing the option to print white on substrates that until recently was not practical. This includes everything from leather, cardboard, wood, stone and a host of other non-conventional and dark-colored substrates.”

Matan’s Valach said there is a high demand for PE [printing on polypropylene] media and different types of recyclable textiles. “The PE is used for outdoor signage, it provides a green solution with good quality and light weight,” reported Valach. “There are more and more billboards with easy systems for fast replacement of the signs. Printing on textiles for both outdoor and indoor becomes more popular as the verity of the fabric finishing gives added value to the printout.”

Vehicle graphics continue to be one of the most active and growing sectors of the grand-format market, according to Seiko’s Ryan. This has become more evident as more companies decide to use digital printing for their fleet graphics. “This has been a boon for ad agency and sign designers,” said Ryan, “but it is also forcing designers to come to grips with design considerations for large-vehicle graphics—such as high-resolution photography and vector-based designs.”

Among the more interesting applications seen recently, was from one of HP’s Swedish PSP. “GigantPrint produced more than 10,700 square feet of signage to celebrate the royal wedding of Princess Victoria of Sweden to Daniel Westling,” said Knox. In addition to decorating the entire city of Stockholm, the banners, flags and posters (printed with HP Latex Inks) also fulfilled the couple’s wish to reduce their wedding celebration’s environmental impact. “GigantPrint relied heavily on the wide color gamut and consistency of our printers to successfully meet the exacting color requirements set before them,” he said.


Upward and Onward

The biggest trend of all, of course, is that as customers continue to develop new ideas, manufacturers continue to respond. This holds true now and will continue into the future. Faster, more efficient, digital, and more eco-friendly products are on the way.

“We see a strong demand for high speed and efficient textile printing as a direction that our customers will be going,” said Durst’s Howard. “The growth in the textile printing market is predicted to be quite strong in the US over the next several years.” He also sees the trend for longer-run length production being done on digital platforms as an area of growth for customers as well.

HP’s Knox agreed that a major and ongoing industry theme will continue to be the transition of analog to digital output. “Agencies and customers continue to demand shorter run lengths, increased turn-around times and, more recently, versioning, and variable data,” he said. “In addition, as margins continue to be compressed, finding efficiencies in workflow and labor costs will continue to drive PSPs toward digital solutions.” Knox said the overwhelming majority of the company’s HP Scitex FB7500 and TurboJet placements have been with screen and commercial print accounts where they have either redirected existing work or captured significant new volume on work that was traditionally printed on analog technologies. “In fact, a number of these accounts have either installed or are in the process of installing their second or third high-end digital press,” he reported.

EFI-VUTEk’s Wozny is another who anticipates the grand-format printer market taking over the analog equipment market. “Recent shifts in business have expedited this change,” he said. “Dollars spent by end users buying output off grand-format printers is highly scrutinized and grand-format digital printing delivers better economic returns than analog equipment.”

We will also continue to see an increase in the quality and speed of grand-format printers, according to Fujifilm’s Nelson. “The size and scope of work will continue to increase,” he said. “Next, I think printers will continue to look for ways to produce more for less, and grand-format equipment lends itself to this demand. Cost per square foot is less on a grand-format printer than a wide-format printer.”

As mentioned, grand-format is being affected like all other markets by the downturn in the economy, and the reluctance of financial institutions to write leases for equipment. Within this long-term event, Seiko’s Ryan believes grand-format continues to divide into two distinct sub-segments: solvent (vehicle graphics, outdoor banners, billboards) and UV (rigid substrates, and indoor/outdoor roll goods). “Dye-sub and latex are trying to get a foothold in the market, but whether they are going to be successful or not is unknown,” he said. “But we see continued evolution toward greener inks and substrates as the main direction of the market.”

Agfa’s White suspects that the grand-format printers of the future will be faster, allowing users to be even more productive and these systems will also be able to handle newer and innovative types of media and will use eco-friendlier inks with improved chemical properties that will increase longevity even under harsh conditions. He also feels developments and improvements in print-head technology will likely have a positive effect on the systems of the future. “Flexible UV inks are also very important and will provide the means to get into additional applications and offering greater latitude in finishing or post-production processes,” he said. “Overall, it’s an exciting time for grand-format users.”