Flat-Out Profitable

It’s not unusual for PSPs to agonize a bit over the idea of acquiring a flatbed printer. Before investing in the equipment, most shop owners want to seriously consider whether they will be able to recoup that investment.

Take it from those who’ve already made the purchase of a flatbed. With the additional work they’ve been able to take on and the added customers they can serve, the ROI on flatbeds can be seen in, well, nothing flat.

With a flatbed printer, shops reduce labor, materials, and waste, because they print directly to substrates. They expand the materials on which they print, thereby increasing the range of customers they service. They can also tackle the fast-growing POP/retail signage segments.

Shops See Sales Growth

Among the shops that have recently acquired flatbed printers and have parlayed them into greater profits is Davis Sign Company. The company has served the sign industry for a third of a century, starting with hand lettering and later transitioning into computerization. Today, the shop handles “everything but electrical signs,” and also produces banners, posters, and vehicle wraps, reports co-owner Milton Davis Jr.

Davis had wanted a flatbed printer for a half dozen years, but budget constraints kept him from acquiring one. The breakthrough came in November of last year, when the company purchased an Océ Arizona 318 flatbed printer. “It’s a dedicated table as opposed to a roll-to-roll,” he says. “Among our main products are aluminum, plastic, and wood flat signs. The flatbed allowed us to do those things much more efficiently, because we could print directly to the substrate.

“Now we’re doing a lot more sign work for other sign makers. And we took the white ink option, allowing us to do reverse and clear jobs that were beyond us before. We do a lot more interior displays for the POP market. The flatbed has allowed us to get in that market as well, because it provides better resolution and better turnaround times. The savings we have on adhesive vinyl, because we’re able to print direct to substrates, represents a huge benefit in and of itself.”

The shop also turns out lots of irregularly-shaped product. Davis uses a router to cut first and then run those oddly-shaped pieces through the flatbed. “Now we can print full bleed on stuff, and projects always come out cleaner,” he says. “We’ve done award plaques and storefront displays. For a retail company, we did a huge submarine that we cut out first using the router and printed direct to brushed aluminum.”

While he hasn’t computed the precise ROI generated from the machine, Davis does say sales per month have dramatically increased with the flatbed. He estimates the company has experienced a 30 to 40 percent increase in sales since January, when the equipment became operational. Davis generated enough profit to add another solvent roll-to-roll printer to his shop.

At Archetype, a 14-year-old Minneapolis-based shop that specializes in custom architectural signs and other sign projects, president Steve Carpenter reports he has had the benefit of a swissQprint flatbed printer for three years.

The primary benefit Archetype has derived from the acquisition is the ability to print on a broader spectrum of materials.

“That has broadened our customer base,” he adds. “All of a sudden, we’re doing custom jobs for art museums, zoos, and individual artists.”

The shop recently completed a large sales kit project for Marvin Windows. To finish the project, Archtetype had to print on a Sintra material, a dye bond, and an aluminum composite material and print the binder on leather. “That’s an example of one project where we’re not just printing the sheets, but the covers and binder,” Carpenter says. “In the past, we would have silk screened the leather and sent the sheets out. We would probably have subbed out all the components of that job, but we instead were able to do all of them ourselves.”

Among the reasons Carpenter chose the swissQprint printer was to obtain very high-resolution prints. Previously, high resolution was only possible on its roll-to-roll printers. “Now, we can get a beautiful, high-resolution print directly on the substrate,” he says, adding that among the substrates that the shop can now print upon for the first time is glass.

Twenty-two-year-old CRC Printing is a small commercial shop in Atlanta. CRC Printing has two digital presses, one of them a Mutoh ValueJet 1608HS, which owner Joe Conway reports is “a good entry level machine” that handles both roll-to-roll applications and, by means of its flatbed, rigid substrates.

After adding the capabilities provided by the Mutoh machine, CRC Printing approached its long-time account base, for which the shop had provided business cards and brochures. “They didn’t even know we could do stuff like posters and printing on foam board, glass, and even wood and aluminum,” Conway recalls. “They were delighted we now could. Now we have been going after new business, and these new capabilities, like posters and banners, have opened up doors for us in printing our traditional jobs. I’m excited about that. It goes hand in hand...The Mutoh is absolutely wonderful.”

When the shop closed its books last December, the work made possible by the hybrid machine had increased base revenues eight to 10 percent, Conway says. For the full 18 months since the machine went online, revenues are up 15 percent. “We have a lot of repeat business, because we do the magnets for cars and trucks, and outdoor signs that attach to walls,” he says.

LaCrosse, WI-based Duratech Industries is a nearly 40-year-old company that has traditionally been a screen printer, turning out decorative and functional identification products like washer-dryer, medical, and industrial labels.

Recently, the shop has added flatbed capabilities. Two years ago, it got a Mimaki UJF-706. Last December, seeking more speed, it added a larger, 4x8-foot swissQprint. “Screen printing can be pretty expensive,” says Pat Mehren, production manager. “Flatbed printing has made us more competitive in the low- to mid-volume projects. It allows you to do smaller runs and quick turns. Screen preparation is very labor intensive, so flatbed is more cost effective.”

Mehren can’t yet provide ROI statistics, but does suggest the acquisitions have helped the bottom line. “I don’t know that we’ve had that much more business” since buying the machines, he says. “Our sales have been going up for the last couple years. But a lot of times, we are taking some of the smaller-run screen jobs and bringing them out here to the flatbed area. It’s much less expensive to run the lower volume stuff on the flatbeds.”


Advice to Others

Owners and personnel of shops that have acquired flatbed equipment range from positive to enthusiastic in their advice to others. “I’d say if you can afford to get it, it’s definitely something to consider,” says Davis.

“It’s not a perfect fit for all; you have to make sure you have enough business in the door before you get it. But if you do, it will make your business explode. Jobs keep pouring in that we can use that flatbed to complete.”

His other advice is to avoid the lowest-end machines. “Get a system that might cost you a little more on a monthly payment. You’ll print faster. The quality will be the same, but you’ll have faster throughput.”

At Archetype, Carpenter reflects that the nature of a shop’s work should strongly influence its choice of a flatbed. “The fact I was doing a few pieces with really high resolution, as opposed to thousands of pieces, dictated the printer I bought,” he says. “For shops that have to do many, many pieces, but don’t need as high resolution, the choice of a flatbed printer might be different.”

He also urges buying a printer with white ink capability. “If I’m going to print light blue on black leather, I have to have ability to print white,” he says.

As for CRC Printing’s Conway, he feels before a commercial printer like his shop goes to flatbed printing, its personnel, he says, “must know the printer side better than a traditional printer would in order to get into the sign work. The language is different and the applications are different. The learning curve was big for the first three months, because I didn’t know the sign business at all.”


The Manufacturers’ Perspective

Flatbed printer makers, of course, have a lot of good ideas about how to expand services using flatbeds. At Fujifilm North America Corporation Graphic Systems Division, product marketing manager, inkjet, Steve Cutler notes the only restriction on uses is your imagination.

“You are able to print on doors, various household products, [and] basically any finished goods under two inches thick can now have high-end graphics applied. With our ink formulation technology, we are able to print many different types of substrate, and you are not limited to foam core, styrene, and the like. We’ve printed on cutting boards for samples at trade shows. We’ve also printed three-dimensional die cut wind chimes, and the effect is spectacular. We are always thinking beyond paper-based products.”

The Acuity Advance Select HS-6 printers can alternatively be configured with white and clear ink channels, he says. Adding white and clear ink channels allows PSPs to print on a range of non-white substrates and add a spot or flood coat varnish effect in a single operation, all on one printer.

One of the key features incorporated into the new Acuity Advance Select HS-6 and HS-6 X2 models is the inclusion of six independent ink channels, Cutler adds. “For printers that focus on retail signage or other standard graphics applications requiring the highest throughput, channels five and six can be configured to enhance print speed by adding extra cyan and magenta nozzle capacity,” he reports.”

Moving to the flatbed printers of HP, many sign shops, franchised operations, and smaller in-house printing centers choose the mid-range platform, the HP Scitex FB500 Industrial Printer and the HP Scitex FB700 Industrial Printer. So says Ken Van Horn, Americas category manager with HP Scitex Industrial Presses. “They will choose that printer to give them the ability to do roll-to-roll, sheet-fed, and also cut sheets and rigid materials,” he says. “It gives them high-quality printing at speeds for small or short-runs. They can also do a lot of prototyping on them as well. A couple pieces of a prototype for a one-off or shelf ready can be done with this machine.”

On the industrial side, HP offers the HP Scitex FB7600 Industrial Press and the HP Scitex FB10000 Industrial Press. These machines are for the longer, more industrial types of runs, Van Horn says.

What HP noticed with the FB7600 is that screen printers embraced the machine and bought it to replace their screen printer, he adds.

“It gave them high quality, lower cost per copy, comparable speeds, and versatility,” he says, noting the market shift to multiple-piece, short runs averaging 2,000 pieces has enabled the move from screen printing and made it much more economical to run a digital device. “We’re seeing the same shift with the 10000 in the offset market. Those large runs are becoming short runs, and becoming very localized or regionalized. A lot of variable data is going through, and is enabled by using digital devices.”

Van Horn envisions the digital market taking over more of the traditional analog business in the years ahead. “You see a lot of analog users migrating to digital, because of the price pressures they face and the desire for quicker turns,” he observes. “And the digital machines are getting much more economical to run. You’re getting much higher quality as well. That near-offset quality from a digital device was the last hurdle that had to be overcome.”

A final bit of advice is offered by G. Scott Wood, product manager for EFI Wide-Format Printers, including the flatbed EFI T1000 UV-curable printer and the EFI H652 hybrid printer. Print professionals must consider the applications, market, and margin opportunities to sell wide-format flatbed printing, he says.

“It might not be all one type of work, so a company has to keep an eye out for the different types of wide-format print jobs it can sell,” he observes.

“Hybrid roll and flatbed printing is important to many customers who want to get into wide-format because they often need the flexibility to produce more than rigid substrate products. With rigid substrate work in particular, printing companies also have to give a little extra consideration to the labor cost.

“Some flatbed printing requires more attention in terms of material handling, and in that environment, the easier a device is to use, the better.”