Graphics in Transit

Transportation graphics is a largely unexplored niche in the industry for commercial printers. However, it is an area in which many companies specialize and are claiming a great deal of success. If a printer is considering expansion or would like to add more products and services to their stable of offerings, transportation graphics may be the way to go.

What are transportation graphics? They are signs and wraps seen on every type of vehicle, from semis to trucks, buses, boats and motorcycles. Companies supplying transportation graphics are highly skilled, not only in graphics but in advertising as well. One might wonder where the money is in this specialized area. The answer is simple. Although working one on one with clients is a nice way to add income to the shop, the real money lies in fleet work. Entities that own and operate fleets of semis, trucks and buses often need transportation graphics in volume, which cuts down on the per piece cost, set up and time for the producers.

Finding the Right Customer Base

Attracting clients that require a large volume of product is the focus of Road Rage Designs. This top of the line Illinois-based company has years of experience in working with all types of transportation graphics, and while the one-time small customer is always welcome, it makes more sense to Road Rage to go after the larger customer.

“I think we’re going to have to get out of the ‘one guy here’ and ‘one guy there’ business,” said Kris Harris, vice president at Road Rage. “We’ll have to aim toward the fleet. It’s better to get somebody with a fleet of semis.”

Naturally there is danger in spreading oneself too thin and ending up in the “jack of all trades, master of none” camp. Shops that want to offer the service but don’t want to invest the time and money should go to places like Road Rage and Transport Graphics, which also work within the trade.

“It’s best if you can network,” said Harris. “You can’t be a specialist in everything.”

It is also important to make sure the customer base does not focus solely on one particularly industry, even if that particular industry is lucrative. Harris talked about companies that have focused too much on one niche and due to the economy have found themselves in trouble or having to close their doors. The best example is the printer that catered solely to realtors and the real estate market in general. When the real estate market crumbled many of the transportation graphics producers lost nearly all of their clients.

Linda Vermillion of Riverside, Calif.’s Transport Graphics found that the way to survive the economic downturn was to tighten the company’s belt and ride it out. “It’s not been too bad for us,” said Vermillion. “We kept our overhead low. Plus we provide a service that companies have to have. Truck companies are required by the Department of Transportation to have identification numbers and other information on their trucks. If the numbers aren’t there then the trucks can’t be on the road. We supply [the graphics for] those numbers.”

Vermillion also raises another point­—although many fleets rely on the required products, they also have need for other items including reflective work.

“We do big picture branding as well,” said Vermillion. “It’s the cheapest type of advertising out there.”

When it comes to attracting new clients printers have to think long term. One of the first things to go in a bad economy is the marketing budget. It is an easy expense to cut, particularly when the other option is to lay off workers. Most printers know that cutting the marketing budget is a simple thing to do and may help for the short term. In the long term it is a big mistake. After all, if consumers don’t know you are out there, how can you get more customers?

“It’s the easiest thing to attack even with corporations like 3M,” said Nancy Sperling of 3M. “I understand that.”

Even though 3M is seen as a major trade supplier, the firm does work with the little guy. “Sometimes we do work with the brand owner,” said Sperling.

Do It Yourself Printers

The world of Do It Yourself has become both a blessing and a curse. For the little guy it is easy to save money by printing 50 business cards or custom invoices. When it comes to highly specialized products like transportation graphics, however, the work is best left to the professionals.

“One challenge currently facing the industry is the lack of quality in the work produced and the low costs associated with it,” said Jason Yard, graphics application specialist at MACtac. “Many printers incorrectly assume it is very easy to venture into designing and installing vehicle graphics just because they have the hardware to get started.”

Road Rage has had a lot of experience with the Do It Yourselfers. Start-up shops open frequently and attempt to take away their customers. Fortunately or unfortunately, these new shops offer lower prices and inferior products to match. One example is the company that offers product at cost, which draws in customers. What the consumers get for their money is often a poorly printed product on cheap goods without professional design work or guarantees.

“There are a myriad of tools needed to be a successful vehicle graphic provider,” said Yard. “It can’t be done with only a printer and laminator.”

“We’ve come to stress high-quality work,” Harris said. “We do a lot of color corrections.” Harris is, in fact, head of color corrections at Road Rage, an important position that relies upon technique to present the truest and most eye-catching colors.

How do the pros combat the Do It Yourself trend? Harris said Road Rage only prints wraps, banners and billboards on high-quality material. Graphic artists are on hand to design attention-grabbing advertisements targeted to the consumer. In addition to providing a complete package, Road Rage has a large number of high level certifications and also offers a warranty on their goods.

“It’s becoming a big thing now,” said Harris referring to the company’s certifications from 3M, PDAA and others. “It brings a lot of responsibility with it. They don’t just certify the product, they certify the whole shop.”

Materials and Equipment

“There are various types of materials on the market for printing transportation graphics,” said Yard. “Some basic items required include: an indoor controlled environment for installation; proper lighting; staging and prepping areas; a high processor computer and assortment of graphic software; application tools such as squeegees, torches, heat guns and knives; hand tools for vehicle care; and of course plenty of vinyl.”

In regards to equipment, printers seem to be sticking to the tried-and-true such as HP, Roland and Graphtek.

Road Rage operates with two Mimaki JV-3 printers, a grand format HP 10000s, and high-speed Mimaki JV-5. The latest press was installed in October.

For Transport Graphics’ Truck of the Month, the materials used include 3M Controltac Graphic Film with Comply v3 Adhesive; 3M Gloss Overlam 8518 as the laminate and Eco-Sol MAX Ink. Transport also offers a seven-year warranty.

Yard said, “MACtac has developed several products to set apart conventional wraps in today’s market. A customer-favorite combination we’ve seen success with is MACtac’s IMAGin B-free PRO digital media paired with the PERMACOLOR RAYZor overlaminating film.”

With technology and demands for services ever changing, what is the future of the industry? “I think the industry is witnessing a slow but steady growth,” said Yard. “Manufacturers and industry experts are making the installation process easier, and professional companies producing high-quality wraps know how to market them.”

Vermillion agreed. “I would like to think we’re on the upswing. We’re just taking it slow for now—baby steps. Baby steps are a good thing.”