Market Intelligence: The Big Questions

Some of the big questions I get are about the interplay between wide-format digital production technologies. Which technologies will “win” the future? We think there is a very strong future for a number of the wide-format production technologies based on the strengths of the equipment and the ability of leading vendors to sell those strengths to the market.

One of the technologies that we’re most bullish on is Latex. Latex is primarily driven by HP at this time but we do expect more vendors to enter this market as time goes by. People ask me all the time – “why are companies buying Latex?” – and the answer usually is that it is almost never one reason, it is the package of attributes that Latex brings – fast drying output, strong image quality, good durability, competitive running cost, and safer environmental characteristics. For some adopters those characteristics are in order of priority, for others its can be totally reversed. In any case it is almost never just “one thing” that sets a solution apart. Does Latex hurt eco-solvent? Just on the strength of the technology it certainly does, as it represents an alternative, but Latex also has the very significant marketing power of HP behind it. It becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, because HP is pushing Latex and growing the market for Latex, other vendors will enter the market, both on equipment and ink, and further grow the market. The ability to digitally print applications like wall coverings can help grow the top line – which is rightfully what printers want, the technology used to grow that top line is, to end buyers, irrelevant as long as the final outcome is affordable, high-quality and up to specification for health and safety. Similarly, eco-solvent printers continue to get faster and offer more colors such as Roland and Seiko Epson’s metallic inkjet ink which allows for really cool special effects or Seiko Infotech’s neon inks which enable “night time” graphics applications, providing a wonderful opportunity for PSPs to expand into certain types of promotions. These are applications that you just couldn’t print digitally before.

Mapping Wide-Format Production Technologies

While Latex has created markets for digitally printed interior décor products, UV-curable inkjet has created a market for rigid substrates that has multiple benefits that add to the top and bottom line. The top line is speed – the fastest UV-curable inkjet printers are printing thousands of square feet per hour, giving wide format PSPs the ability to offer the highest service levels available, including same day service in some cases. The ability to never have to turn business away adds to the top line for companies that invest in these types of equipment. That strength kind of sells itself, but the ability to integrate that productivity into a commercial printing environment is one of the reasons that HP, EFI, and Fujifilm are emerging as leaders in the high-end of the market. In the low-end and mid-range something that goes hand-in-hand with UV printers is cutting tables. Once a company starts printing with their flatbed printer they will have the need to cut those prints down to different sizes and shapes in order to make the best use of materials. Once again there is a top-line benefit as you go out to customers to show them how they can get unique pieces and shapes that have been contour cut, but contour cut “pieces” typically also have a much higher average selling price in order to recover the cost of cutting and labor. This can also segue into other services that you can offer if you show prototypes of the finished products to your customers to review electronically you get the chance to sell your design and creative services.

Of course printing directly to rigid materials often has a bottom line savings in terms of reduced substrate costs and lower labor costs.

Yet another technology to emerge is what we’ve been calling single-pass wide format aqueous inkjet. These are the Memjet-powered devices from Xante and Xerox and soon from Canon. The rated speed of the Xerox solution is over 4,500 sqft/hr which compares very favorably to similarly-priced UV-curable inkjet printers. While these printers are using aqueous and dye-based inks only (for now), they offer another competitive solution for short-term digital graphics, many of which are only posted for a short promotional period anyway.

In that same study, 32 percent of the wide format print buyers surveyed reported that they expect to spend more on wide format graphics in the future, compared to less than five percent that indicated they expect a decline. Not only are buyers reporting that they expect growth, but PSPs are reporting that their business is growing. The number of shops that reporting wide format print volume growth over the last 12 months outnumbered the shops that indicated a decline by a ratio of 5:1.

We’re projecting growth in the wide format digital print market for a number of reasons; the first is the shift from analog to digital print – a continuation of a trend that has been happening for years and is only increasing over time as average run lengths come down and digital printing gets ever more cost effective. The second major factor contributing to the growth of the wide format digital graphics market is the emergence of applications such as packaging, package prototyping, and interior décor products that add to the volume of print coming from wide format digital solutions. The third major factor, and a major factor it is, is the value proposition of signage and graphics relative to other advertising media. In our recent wide format print buyer study over 80% of users indicated that wide format signage and graphics were effective, highly effective, or extremely effective at their stated purpose. There are studies that indicate that signage and graphics applications are between three and up to 20-times more cost effective than other forms of advertising such as radio, television or newspaper advertising.

Having established the value proposition, the questions now is which technologies will be the best bet for PSPs to compete in the future. The answers are emerging based on their ability to produce applications, and produce them at such high rates, that help PSPs grow their top and bottom line.