Wide-Format Adds a New Dimension

Ten years ago, wide-format wasn’t even a category in the annual Quick Printing surveys of the Top 100 shops and the franchise industry segment. It wasn’t until 2003 that it appeared as a profit center in the franchise survey with 1.5 percent of sales. In 2004, it also appeared for the first time in the Top 100 survey with three percent of sales. In the most recent surveys, wide-format accounted for 4.7 percent of sales for the Top 100 and 5.1 percent in the franchise segment—hardly astronomical growth, but significant, nonetheless.In talking with printers from across the country, I have gotten the sense that interest in wide-format is growing as an attractive addition to the traditional job mix for quick and small commercial printers. To see if this personal observation holds water, I asked two industry experts for their take on wide-format and how it fits into the typical quick and small commercial operation.

Dirck Holscher is a long-time industry veteran who is publisher of the Larry Hunt group of newsletters which includes Larry Hunt’s Wide Format News. Mitch Evans heads Mitch Evans Consulting and is the chair of NAPL’s NAQP Advisory Board, which creates programs and content specifically for quick and small commercial printers. He’s is also a regular QP columnist.

QP: Are more quick/small commercial printers branching out into wide-format?

Evans: Absolutely. Printers first got into wide-format printers for proofing and then realized that they also could produce posters. These machines were slow and usually limited to producing work to be used indoors. Now shops are buying wide-format printers that can produce a wide variety of applications and print on substrates other than paper.

Holscher: Yes, I think many small commercial and quick printers are getting interested in the opportunities of wide-format. Many printers have used it for years as proofing devices, and some had already started selling prints from their proofing device as a profitable sideline. Other printers have been doing black-and-white wide-format for years for the reprographics market. Others have seen opportunities in the signage market and have either set up their own sign department or bought an existing sign shop as an expansion opportunity.

QP: What role do floor space and finishing capabilities play in setting up an efficient and profitable wide-format operation?

Evans: You do need about 500 square feet dedicated to large-format. You need to have a table that is a minimum of 4x8 feet, plus room for the printer, a laminator, a work station, and materials.

Holscher: Wide-format equipment can take up a lot of space, especially as you get into the larger printer widths. Cutting, laminating, and other finishing options can require additional equipment and take up a good deal of space as well.

One thing many printers underestimate is media storage. Media is expensive, and media rolls can be bulky. Large sheets of substrates may need to be stocked as well. Media storage space and the inventory expense need to be considered when planning a wide-format operation.

QP: What are the advantages of the different output technologies (aqueous, solvent, latex, etc.)?

Evans: All except aqueous allow for the output to be used outdoors. Latex and eco-solvent usually do not need any special ventilation. True solvent or aqueous do need special venting. UV is also being used, mainly for flatbed printers. Inks will last five years or more, although lamination is still recommended in many cases.

Holscher: This area deserves a whole article to itself. Full solvent inks, which have excellent durability and weather resistance, have become less popular because of environmental concerns. Aqueous has been popular in many applications because of the simple technology, although the prints may require lamination or other protection if used outdoors.

Latex inks are receiving lots of attention, since they are largely free of solvents, yet are quite durable. One problem with latex is the large amount of energy needed by the printer to dry the prints. Another technology to watch is UV curable inks, which have been growing in popularity in the high-production end of the market. UV inks may show up increasingly on smaller format machines.

QP: Are there any special considerations when it comes to selling or pricing wide-format?

Evans: Selling wide-format is a natural extension of selling printing. One major difference is the quantities are usually very low but the unit price is high. Most of the industry prices wide-format by the square foot. Pricing is slowly coming down as more printers and sign shops offer these services. Costs are also coming down and volumes going up. Almost all of the major print estimating systems have modules or methods for wide-format pricing. Pricing is based on a graphics charge for design, or setup if art is provided; output, based on area; and finishing, such as mounting or laminating.

Holscher: Wide-format presents a good cross-selling opportunity for printers, since many of their present customers might also be customers for wide-format products. Training customer service and sales staff to sell wide-format products is vitally important. More and more estimating systems now include wide-format modules, either standard or as add ons.

QP: Are there any outsourcing resources for printers who want to outsource more sophisticated wide-format work?

Evans: Most of the major wholesale printers are now offering wide-format as well, including such companies as Signs 365, 4Over, Wyld Grand Format Imaging, etc. Many printers strike up a relationship with a local sign shop to do their work.

Holscher: There are a number of outsourcing options. It is not uncommon for wide-format shops to outsource some of their finishing options, like large laminating projects or picture framing. Printers can also outsource work to local full-service sign shops. In addition, there are a number of providers of wide-format work “to the trade” that can be used if your schedule allows.

QP: Does digital workflow for wide-format differ greatly from that of a normal digital workflow?

Evans: The main difference is that wide-format output devices have separate RIPs. Wide-format can easily be integrated into a shop’s existing workflow.

Holscher: The RIPs are different, and the preparation of originals for signage and display work can be different as well. Also, the in-line cutting options offered by many wide-format machines add a dimension to the workflow that is not present in most traditional printing processes. That said, I think that the digital technologies have made these formerly separate businesses much more similar. The skills used in digital printing can easily be transferred to wide-format production.

QP: Any words of wisdom for printers looking to make the move into this area?

Evans: Wide-format is growing tremendously, while offset continues to decline. Wide-format is a natural way to diversify your product and services offering. This equipment can produce a large variety of products besides posters. If you buy a printer that cuts, you can produce labels and decals. Other products include window graphics, vehicle graphics, signs, etc.

Holscher: Some printers have become very serious about wide-format, especially those who have acquired sign companies or who have set up dedicated sign operations with outbound sales capability. Vehicle wraps have created a lot of interest, but skilled application is a necessity. I think we’ll see more and more printers get involved in wallpapers, floor graphics, packaging, and other specialty areas.

In any new market you are considering, research and investigate the options very carefully. Talk to your current customers about their wide-format needs. Find out if they are happy with their current suppliers and determine any area where they’re not satisfied. You might also get some pricing data while you’re at it.

In addition, there are excellent publications, such as Wide-Format Imaging, which cover the wide-format industry. Associations such as ISA and SGIA can help you learn about the business. These associations also sponsor trade shows which can help you learn about wide-format. Also, wide-format presence is increasing at traditional printing shows such as Graph Expo and Graphics of the Americas.