Wider Horizons

Since the initial introduction of wide-format printers back in the 1990s with the LaserMaster units, technology has certainly come a long way. Not only have speeds and reliability increased,  the initial capital expenditure is much lower as well, allowing printers who may have only “kicked the tires” years ago to be serious buyers now.

Inks and printhead technology have also evolved in leaps and bounds, providing a veritable smorgasbord of options. From UV ink-based printers—both traditionally cured and LED cured—to eco-/low-/mild-solvent based printers, aqueous, and the new durable aqueous printers, there is a printer to suit the needs of every company.

But is wide-format printing an option for your company? How does it integrate with your existing product lines? Is it possible to get more "share of pocket" by offering wide-format services?

QP asked key vendors about their experiences in the quick and small commercial print market and how printers in this segment are taking advantage of the technology and opening up new opportunities—and revenue streams—for their businesses.


1. Specifically in reference to wide-format printing technology, what interest have you seen from the quick and small commercial printing market segment?

Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh Americas: The response has been great.

Dave Carey, product marketing, North America, Agfa Graphics: In many instances, quick and small commercial printers are doing the offset for their customers and their customers are going someplace else for signage. Wide-format gives them the chance to diversify their offerings, generate additional business from existing clients, and a means to create new and profitable revenue streams such as signage, POP, etc. in a changing and dynamic marketplace. Wide-format is a fast and efficient way for quick and small commercial printers to expand share of wallet with existing customers, differentiate themselves, and generate new revenue streams.

Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson America Inc.: Epson is seeing increasing interest in many areas, especially with respect to quick printers who own small presses. The new Epson Stylus Pro 7900 Computer-to-Plate system is not only enabling businesses to dramatically reduce costs associated with making plates, it’s allowing them to be more versatile because the same device can be used to create proofs, banners, posters, and even photographs.

David Murphy, director of marketing, Americas, HP Graphic Solutions Business: HP has seen strong interest in large-format printing technologies from the quick and small commercial printing segment. In fact, the HP Designjet L25500 printer, which uses HP Latex ink technology, has been selected by companies like AlphaGraphics and Signs By Tomorrow due to its versatility, quality, and reduced environmental impact. Customers in the quick printing segment are finding tremendous growth opportunities by becoming a one-stop-shop for their clients. With versatile large-format technologies, these customers can deliver their clients’ requests in-house, ensuring quick delivery with higher margins and, ultimately, happier customers.

Sonny Odom, vice president of sales, KIP Americas: KIP has seen a significant increase in wide-format equipment purchases by the quick and commercial printers since the introduction of our touchscreen technology five years ago. The simplicity of the product eliminated the need for key or specialized operators and allowed printing companies to expand their product offering into wide-format previously controlled by the reprographic community.

Robert Ozankan, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corp.: Copy providers and commercial printing shops are increasingly entering the wide-format printing market to offer applications such as posters, banners, and signs. By taking additional services in house, they reduce their need to outsource, offer more on demand services to their customers, and build new, more profitable revenue streams.

Based on market surveys, wide-format printing has been a high interest category for small commercial printers. With the economy improving, it is a good time for them to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Randy Paar, display graphics product marketing manager, Océ North America: It has been minimal, which I suspect is due to several factors: 1) little to no awareness of the technologies that exist, 2) a perception that it is too expensive to get into, 3) and the limited space available to install large equipment. To many of them, wide-format printing is an entirely new business venture.

Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki USA, Inc.: Demand for quick printers has been at the very early market stages.


2. How are quick and small commercial printers using this kind of technology in their businesses?

Anderson: Smaller shops are using large-format to round out their offerings to customers. By offering banners, posters, stickers, and other large-format services they are able to provide a more complete service to keep the customers in-house and expand their business. So not only can they offer business card, envelopes, and paper products, they can effectively offer products to completely rebrand a shop—everything from business cards to car wraps, wallpaper to counter wraps, floor graphics to window graphics, and virtually everything in between. Most add a cutter to offer stickers as well.

Carey: Quick and small commercial printers are using this kind of technology predominately for signs and display materials (such as POP), both outside and inside stores, as a means of supporting their customers with multimedia campaigns. Retailers and manufacturers cannot run mono-dimensional initiatives. Signage is a key component to any campaign and provides an added and profitable revenue stream to the quick and small commercial printer.

Hecht: Most of the businesses purchasing Epson Stylus Pro printers are doing so to expand and enhance services for their customers, increase productivity, and reduce internal operating costs. These products are being used to produce flyers, brochures, posters, photos, and more on an increasingly broad range of media. Many businesses even use the same device to create the actual proofs of those items in addition to creating banners, posters, and other accompanying marketing materials. Having that level of versatility is enabling more of these businesses to serve as one stop shops for customers, especially those that need consistent looking output in many different forms.

Murphy: With in-house large-format printing technologies, quick and small printing companies can offer customers a full range of flexible and rigid display products, including POP/POS materials, window graphics, back-lit signage, vehicle wraps, door plates, and raised letter signs for indoor and outdoor use. With this broad product offering, quick and small commercial printers can cost effectively handle not only one-off projects from walk-in consumers, but also full marketing campaigns for advertising agencies, builders, retailers, restaurants, educational institutions, commercial enterprises, and public sector departments. Additionally, quick and small printers are taking advantage of products like the HP Scitex FB500 printer, which are making niche printing techniques possible for this segment, such as the use of white ink, which was previously available only to screen printers or very expensive grand-format devices.

Odom: Small businesses including home builders, contractors, real estate companies, marketing, and advertising firms to name a few all have a need for wide-format printing. Many of these companies depend on the quick/commercial printer for a variety of other document solutions. Wide-format provides the customer with a convenience and another reason to visit the print shop and keeps the customer from visiting a competitive location.

Ozankan: To get started in this market, many businesses focus on indoor applications first, such as point of purchase displays and posters, and then transition to outdoor applications such as signs, banners, window graphics and vehicle graphics. With a Roland integrated printer/cutter they can also expand their capacity for short-run labels and decals. The goal for most is to become a one stop shop for customers that purchase printing services. A lot of small commercial printers cater to other small to mid-sized businesses in their communities. The production of outdoor durable graphics presents opportunities for these shops to serve local businesses, organizations, teams, and event planners, in addition to corporate customers.

Paar: This subsection of the commercial printing segment is often servicing small local businesses and individuals. They are more visible to the public due to their storefront locations in strip malls, etc., which can really be of benefit provided they adapt their wide-format ambitions to leverage this. Shops that embrace short-run, wide-format printing at a consumer accessible level can actually do quite well since few end users would know where else to go for banners, posters, cut-outs, displays, etc. All of this can be offered to existing customers as well. From there they can build their business to produce larger runs, more profitable, complex jobs, etc.

Urmano: Some quick printers are working with existing sign shops to fill demand until they can see a real business to justify purchase of a printer. Most inquiries are to expand into outdoor graphics or print-cut vinyl labels.

3. What kinds of technology developments have helped to make wide-format technology more accessible to the quick and small commercial print markets?

Anderson: Ink technology that doesn't require additional ventilation. Single head, high output machines with fewer parts requiring minimal maintenance. RIPs that produce higher quality, faster RIP times with variable data capability, and more intuitive interfaces. And, of course, computer technology that makes this all faster and easier.

Carey: Four advancements have made wide-format technology more accessible to the quick and small commercial print markets: speed, variety of media, quality, and cost of print. Today, printing speeds dwarf the speeds of printing from just a few years ago. Today, we can print on a wide variety of media, including boards, for which laminating is not necessary; a costly and time consuming prospect. For many years, the quality just wasn’t there. Today, the quality is outstanding, rivaling offset work due to the ongoing advancements in technology. Additionally, the total cost to print is reduced significantly, also due to the myriad of technological advancements. Printing systems, such as the :Anapurna M Series or the :Jeti, have become more affordable and require less floor space than in the past.

Hecht: Recent advancements with Epson’s hardware and ink technology are allowing quick and small commercial printers to become more versatile and productive than ever before. In previous years, many businesses purchased several different wide-format printers for a variety of specific applications. But today, a single printer can be used to create virtually everything from proofs to banners, to signs, to photographs, and so much more. Epson has also made several advancements in its substrate technology which have enabled businesses to expand offerings in signage and proofing.

Murphy: I think that the maturation of high-quality, reliable printing technologies has allowed manufacturers to reduce costs and make these devices more accessible to the quick and small commercial print market. Manufacturers have also increased their focus on making low-volume, wide-format technologies that are easy to use and that incorporate easily into the print shop’s existing workflow.

Odom: Web-based software advancements continue to provide new opportunities. The introduction of cloud printing allows print shop owners to provide a print device with an email address and distribute that email address to every one of their customers. Customer can simply attach files and send prints directly to the print shop device for pick-up as needed. This simple technology previously sold for thousands of dollars and was very difficult to effectively distribute to a large number of customers. Now every customer can quickly and easily send prints to their local service provider.

Print shop owners have incorporated large-format color inkjet devices into their workflow to create large-format posters and designs for years. However, when a customer required larger production runs with deadlines or image stability for outdoor use, the print shop would turn the work away. Direct communication between the wide-format monochrome LED systems and the inkjet devices now allow for production printing, scanning, and inkjet printing management directly on the LED device. Print shop owners can now offer state of the art quality, production, and expedited turn around service.

Ozankan: Businesses today can get equipped for wide-format, eco-solvent printing across a variety of price points, starting below $15,000 for a 30" wide model. Larger, more capable devices in the 54" and 64" category are increasing in popularity for their versatility.

Integrated print/cut technology is making it easier for graphics service providers, including small commercial printers, to get into the wide-format market. Print/cut solutions offer both printing and contour cutting capabilities and are easy to implement into an existing production environment. These devices produce graphics of virtually any size and shape and facilitate small runs and even micro runs of labels and decals very cost effectively.

Another new technology that presents a promising business opportunity is metallic silver ink. Metallic effects add a sense of luxury and premium value to every graphic produced, whether incorporated as just silver or in the wide range of metallic colors possible including gold, bronze, copper, and pearlescent colors.

Paar: The cost of the equipment has been dropping while the image quality and application versatility has steadily increased. Productivity, ease of use, and reliability have also increased. All of these combined make it much easier for small print shops to affordably acquire the equipment, train their staff, and begin offering a wide variety of applications for much higher margins than cut-sheet printing.

Urmano:  I think the wide range of media choices is appealing, such as clear window films and solvent textiles for flag and trade show graphics. The ink types are also attractive such as white and silver inks for specialty graphics such as plaques, awards, and label applications.

4. What is the best argument for adding wide-format print technology?

Anderson: To keep their customers captive; by offering a wider printing solution they keep their customers from going elsewhere for related products like banners, posters, etc. This gives the quick and small shops the opportunity to offer complete branding packages for their customers, making better utilization of their in-house design capabilities, and providing better value to their customers.

Carey: The best argument is the addition of new revenue-generating products and services. Nothing will make quick and small commercial printers more money per square foot than wide-format products. UV flatbed systems are an ideal solution for the quick and small commercial printer.

Hecht: Integrating a [wide-format] device into a small shop’s workflow allows businesses to greatly expand beyond the production of small-format print jobs. It enables these shops to establish new sources of revenue while expanding products and services. This also contributes to increasing customer satisfaction, generating more repeat business and increasing profits.

Murphy: By adding wide-format application offerings, quick and small commercial print providers can grow their businesses and expand customer reach by becoming a one stop shop for their customer’s printing needs. With wide-format capabilities, customers can take advantage of the full marketing mix, offering their local real estate agent everything from business cards and flyers to banners and rigid signs, or a nearby restaurant everything from printed menus to outdoor advertising and custom wall graphics.

Odom: The ability to expand services offered to the end user and compete for business currently being printed elsewhere is normally the first discussion when speaking to a business owner. New product introductions into the low volume wide-format monochrome technology are allowing print shops to enter into new printing markets very inexpensively. These new low volume products have the same software and technology that previously were only found in the expensive high volume production units.

Ozankan: Quick and small commercial printers typically need to produce runs in the thousands to maintain profitability. With wide-format capabilities, these businesses can diversify, profiting from short-run production and even from every job they sell. The ability to print few units at a low cost gives the provider an opportunity for premium markups. There is a very good chance that the same companies currently purchasing brochures, stationary and business cards also need event signage, banners, decals, and even decorated apparel, all of which can be produced on a wide-format printer. Offering a broader range of finished products to print buyers will keep them coming back and create more customer loyalty.

Metallic graphics can be an even greater point of differentiation. Applying metallic accents to graphics will yield a competitive advantage for shops and result in products that command premium prices in the marketplace.

Paar: It provides new sources of revenue with greater margins. This can really set them apart from their competition. Wide-format printing provides both growth opportunities and greater stability when the market slows.

Urmano: Keeping your customers from going to another vendor that offers these types of services.