Go Small to Go Big

New high-speed, single-pass inkjet systems and high-quality digital inkjet printers have opened doors of enticing opportunity to print service providers seeking to enter and grow within the decal, label, and packaging markets.

To really triumph in these burgeoning segments, PSPs must pursue education and training, marry the right equipment with the right applications, gain insight into customer needs and undertake effective selling efforts. Those willing to tackle all these endeavors are likely to find going small can help them go big.

No one is disputing the size of this opportunity. “It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the printing industry,” says Mike Midkiff, Ft. Collins, CO-based director of display graphics North America for Reprographic Technology.

“It’s technology driven and it’s consumer driven. Everything has to be packaged. Everything ends up in a package, whether a prescription drug or a batch of cookies. There are more and more small companies doing food items, and that’s a real opportunity. There are also so many different applications for labels, from industrial needs to even tires and so on. It’s huge.”

Midkiff urges companies looking to enter the label, decal and packaging end of the business spend some time educating themselves about the markets and the technology. “If I were in their shoes, I would want that information,” he says. “I would subscribe to trade journals, [and] go to shows and expos.”

Print providers also need to decide what segment of the label and decal markets they want to play in, Midkiff says. He recommends PSPs query their current customer base to see if there is demand for labels within that base.

“Why am I doing this? Because customers are asking for it,” he argues. “That would be a good rationale for getting started.”

Some capital investment in digital label printing equipment will likely be necessary, and beyond that is the question of finishing. Will your output need dye cutting? Will it need coating and laminating? PSPs can outsource some of the tasks, but with capital investment can take it in-house and gain greater profit.

“You can ease into the business,” Midkiff says. “Find a trade printer and outsource some jobs. You will learn about labels and decals through that partnership, and then you can determine whether you want to bring it in-house. That’s a good approach, and you can make some money with that strategy.”

As for marketing the printing of labels, decals and packaging, Midkiff suggests print providers employ dedicated sales teams, putting salespeople on the street, visiting customers’ locations to understand the way the output will be used. “It’s not a situation where you can place a general ad in a magazine, or do a direct mail piece, and get the kind of response you want. You really have to understand what the customer needs. So you must have real people involved, and those real salespeople need to be educated and knowledgeable.”

Speaking of knowledge, PSPs also must comprehend that while many tools exist for the printing of labels and decals, it’s essential to match the right technology with each application. “Should you use a water-based ink on a food label application?” he asks. “No, not without a secondary coating of some type.

“So there are all these tools, and they are somewhat specific for different applications. You need to know what marketplace you want to serve.”

In short, don’t jump into these markets without doing your homework.

“It’s really important to take the time to zone in on what current customers need, the equipment and outsourcing partners you may require to serve them, and then it’s education, education, education,” Midkiff advises.

Shorter runs, longer green

According to Stephen Emery, vice president of Jetrion and ink business at Meredith, N.H.-based EFI, a number of research reports are predicting up to 24 percent growth annually in digital printing over the next few years.

“A small printer is going to find it tough to compete for the high-volume business, where the narrow flexo-web press does a great job,” Emery says.

“As the market trends toward shorter runs and more variable on-demand printing, that’s where digital comes in, allowing the small- to medium-sized printer to have the opportunity to capture more of that business.”

A sound approach is to move into the business gradually via scalable solutions. EFI allows print providers to start with a print station, add a laser dye cutter, then a lamination or varnish module, and finally incorporate a slitter or turret rewind, Emery says, noting his company‘s equipment can print on much of the common media available for label printing, and can provide an array of sizes and shapes up to 13 inches wide. “For the most part, the majority of the labels you can print with conventional means, you can print with digital,” he adds.

As the market increasingly moves toward shorter runs, the same printer may provide a thousand labels for John’s Coffee and 15,000 labels for Pete’s Coffee, Emery adds. “With digital you not only eliminate several production steps, because you’re eliminating the CMYK plates. You eliminate the make ready waste, and do it as a digital file from the customer. But you also shorten the lead time, so you can put prototypes of the label in the hands of customers much more quickly. Within a couple hours, you can provide samples to your customers. You can’t do that with conventional flexo presses for label printing.”

The ability to offer customers shorter lead times, shorter runs of up to 50,000 labels, and quality comparable to what they had been getting is an opportunity many print providers will find difficult to pass up, he says.

Earlier, Midkiff suggested the folks most receptive to these advantages may be the very customers you are serving now. When it comes to producing packaging prototypes, Steven Tu, product manager for Roland DGA Corp., agrees with that idea. “There are many opportunities for you to leverage your existing customer base in this space,” he asserts. “Any business owner involved in manufacturing of products is a good candidate for packaging prototypes, as well as ad agencies and marketing professionals serving product manufacturers.

“To market your capabilities in this area, make sure you have samples on hand to show prospective customers. Include examples that demonstrate any unique capabilities of your printer, such as inline contour cutting or specialty inks. Show prototypes and finished packaging side by side so your customers can get a sense of just how well your prototypes match the final results.”

As Tu notes, use of specialty inks represent a smart way to stand out and capture projects. “There is a new generation of eco-solvent printers and printer/ cutters equipped with metallic and white inks,” he says. “Metallic is a hot design trend, and the ability to simulate metallic design accents and effects can differentiate your business in the marketplace. Metallic eco-solvent printers also open the door to all types of wide-format applications for maximum applications.”

Getting started

“The best way to get started is to engage us, ask us to come in and look at the typical sample labels you provide today,” Emery says.

“Show us the applications you’d like to move into. Companies are missing those shorter runs in many cases and want to take advantage of them. We’ll give the exact cost of running those samples on our digital technology.”

Don’t overlook incremental markets that are opened through emerging technology, he concludes. At the recent Label Expo in Brussels, EFI introduced its 4950 LX, which stands for LED curing. The lamp provides 5,000 hours as opposed to 1,000 hours for mercury arc. In addition, LED lamps don’t degrade and provide consistency, while mercury arc tends to degrade over time, he says.

The system can print at speeds up to 157 feet per minute, which translates to 9,420 feet per hour. This very high-resolution, 720-by 720 machine, with the highest digital inkjet resolution currently available, can leverage the greener LED UV curing technology to allow printing on thinner materials.

“That opens up the opportunity of shrink-wrap films,” Emery says.

For his part, Tu believes that for most print providers, getting started in package prototyping involves a relatively easy transition from a technical standpoint. “Many have all the basic skills they need to move into the market,” he reports. “When getting started, we recommend purchasing your equipment from a reputable, service-oriented manufacturer that will provide you with the support resources, including on-site training, webinars, tutorials and workshops, you will need to step up to this new application.

“In addition, make sure you are properly equipped for each individual application you would like to offer customers. For example, for shrink applications, you should invest in a steam shrink system for professional results.

“Finally, attend industry conferences and other events to stay up on the latest technologies. These events are great sources of information and provide valuable networking opportunities that can help expand your customer base.”