Wall Wars

The print fight is on, and Gene Klein has declared war on walls in Northern California. “We are targeting white walls and clear glass all over the San Francisco Bay area,” proclaimed Klein, the CEO of display graphics print firm BarkerBlue, San Mateo, CA. So-called branded environments are all the rage in Silicon Valley and around the globe, especially among technology companies which reject the traditional look of framed paintings hung on white walls.

Open corporate spaces, such as EFI’s year-old digs in Fremont, feature fewer corner offices, short cubicle partitions, and themed work rooms. Many firms are going the way of Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ offices, shunning the unsightly wires and cords of land-line phones and desktop computers. “It’s all mobile smartphones, laptops, and tablets at Facebook,” Klein said.

The wall-covering trend has spread into employee work areas for both established and start-up firms competing against each other for skilled labor. “These graphics used to be reserved for corporate headquarters and client-centric areas, but not any longer,” Klein pointed out. His 53-year-old company counts Cisco and Google among its high-profile clientele. In one recent application, BarkerBlue designed coverings for a curved wall at the Twitch Interactive gaming company. “We are not artists,” noted Klein. “We have talented digital imaging technicians who can pull out images from a [computer] monitor and make them live on walls.”

In addition to increased competition for employees, print tech advancements have changed the indoor graphics game. The watershed moment, according to Klein, was the development of latex printing technologies, which HP introduced six years ago as a water-based alternative to solvent ink. Since then, more than 15,000 HP latex printers have been shipped worldwide and more than 100 million square meters have been printed. Hewlett-Packard expects the number of its latex-printed pages to triple by 2016. (Meanwhile, the number of solvent-printed pages is expected to decline by as much as 33 percent.)

“Latex changed everything,” Klein continued. Retail environments were among the first to embrace latex print. “They saw the potential of using latex output inside stores,” Klein said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, we can bring it indoors and it doesn’t smell!’” Today, BarkerBlue even is using latex technology to image glass, he added.

Media advancements, too, have played a big role in bringing high-end graphics inside: “the development of materials that look like wall paper and canvas,” he explained. Outside of retail (see sidebar), “people did not know it was possible.” He and his colleagues are getting the word out in a few different ways. “Our blog gets a lot of attention, especially when it goes viral,” he shared. In addition, last September BarkerBlue was the first on the West Coast to host an HP Symposium. “We held it through Repromax and invited designers, architects, and builders,” Klein explained.

If Klein and his BarkerBlue colleagues have their way, more and more customers and prospects will know. No wall is safe, “and they are getting bigger,” he added. “I think we are going to start imaging ceilings pretty soon.” All that potential surface area explains why BarkerBlue may add its fifth HP latex printer later this year, according to Klein, who first purchased a Designjet l26500 latex model in 2009. “We also may add an HP Scitex FB 700 flatbed [printer] in 2015,” he said, adding that the hybrid eco-solvent, UV-curable device can image direct on substrate.

In addition to its all-HP fleet of four (soon to be five) latex printers, BarkerBlue also has a HP Scitex FB 500 flatbed UV printer. The San Mateo, CA display graphics print firm added a Zund 23 router. “The flatbed [printer] and the cutter represent a large investment,” said CEO Gene Klein, “but we need them both. We need to be able to cut what we image.” An HP Scitex FB 700 is on Klein’s wish list for next year, he noted, volume permitting.

Printing with Oscar

In Southern California, work produced by Astek Wallcoverings could be seen on the red carpet and on stage at the 86th Academy Awards this past March. One Oscars project was a collage featuring images of actors and producers from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The print firm is strategically situated in Van Nuys, about 30 minutes northwest of Hollywood. With 13 full-time designers on staff, Astek can be quite creative. “But we also handle print-ready art for some clients, too,” said owner/president/CEO Aaron Kirsch. “At the remodeled Palms Casino, we worked with a Las Vegas designer.”

For commercial applications in hotels, restaurants, and night clubs, it favors UV-curable print on heavier weight stock for increased durability, Kirsch explained. “And we only use Durst equipment.”

Kirsch has noticed another trend in the Los Angeles area: high-end residential printed graphics for walls. Astek is in the print-on-demand, custom wallpaper business via a separate website (www.designyourwall.com) featuring a line of self-adhesive decals called “Wall Hugs” (think Fatheads). “They’re going through the roof,” he reported. “We just kiss-cut and package them.”

Next-level Custom Décor

On Florida’s Sun Coast, interior decorator Martha Gill started a new business in mid-2012. Based in Naples, FL,Gill Interiors Inside Out Art combined her three passions of nature, photography, and design: Photographs of nature and nature mosaics are produced as pillows, fabric, and giclee fine-art prints. She has partnered with Fisher Textiles and uses dye-sublimation print firm Flushing Manufacturing in Zephyrhills, FL, 185 miles away and just north of Tampa Bay. Fisher has been providing fabrics for dye sub, UV, latex and direct digital printing for more than 25 years.

One of Gill’s typical clients is a Chicago-area snowbird family who wanted a unique-looking bedroom in their Florida home. “When they visit Naples, they pretty much live out on their lanai,” she said. “They love all the colorful tropical foliage in Naples and what surrounds their lanai -- and wanted to bring those elements into their master suite.” Incorporating four client-selected images of their yard from Gill’s photographic collection, euro-sham pillows and bed skirt fabrics were created to compliment Gill Interiors’ original artwork above the bed.

“The fabric from Fisher is a very soft polyester,” Gill continued. “It hangs well for drapes [she has printed up to 54 inches wide], and doesn’t stay wrinkled for long. Bedding can easily be done with it as well.” She also has designed and produced cornice valances. For outdoor use, Gill applies a marine spray to the printed fabric for water-resistance.


Retail Migration Away from Screen Printing

Retail stores were among the first to embrace digital print advancements. For more than 25 years, The Store Décor Company has been providing visually exciting interior signs, graphics, and retail decor for the nation’s leading retailers. It specializes in brand communication through high-quality design, fabrication, and installation. The company was founded in 1983 by Robert Potts in Rowlett, TX, as a complement to his store planning company. From humble beginnings, with one small building and two employees, the firm has grown to 14 buildings, 120,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and more than 100 team members.

Eleven years ago, The Store Décor Co. began replacing its eight screen printing lines with digital printing in the form of the VUTEk PressVu 180, purchasing its third PressVu in late 2005. In 2010, the company wanted to upgrade its production platform to take advantage of the latest technology and turned to EFI for a solution. By 2012, the firm needed another printer to handle its growing volumes.

Flashback to 2008’s economic downturn, when retailers were looking for more cost-effective store decoration and point-of-purchase (POP) solutions: “We had primarily been printing on gator board, polystyrene sheeting, and vinyl,” said Ron Freeman, operations VP. “Our clients were looking for less-expensive substrates, so the first investment we made was in a MultiCam EZ Knife system that could do the type of finishing we required for these substrates. Then we turned our attention to upgrading our aging PressVu fleet.”

The Store Décor’s transition from screen printing to digital with VUTEk transformed the company. When it was time to upgrade the fleet, Freeman turned to EFI VUTEk to learn about the latest technology.

“We selected the GS3200 printer,” Freeman explained, “and acquired two of them in 2010. Between the improved quality and our upgraded finishing, we were able to sell more POP signage, and that created more demand for print capabilities. By 2012, we were looking for our third printer, and we determined that the VUTEk GS3250 with grayscale capability was the best fit.”

At the same time, the company upgraded its two GS3200s to grayscale and also implemented a Fiery XF front end to improve color management and throughput. “One of the things we really like about EFI’s strategy is the ability to upgrade printers with the latest capabilities without having to purchase a new printer. This protects our investment and ensures that we always have access to the latest and greatest,” Freeman added.

Results

“We feel very good about where we are positioned today with our VUTEk fleet,” Freeman continued. “We have an evergreen platform that will not become obsolete in five years like many of the other platforms available on the market.”

Freeman also is pleased with the performance of the Fiery XF server. “With Fiery,” he explained, “we have greater control over color consistency. It also gives us a faster RIPing speed, more capabilities for late-stage editing, and the ability to control imposition and nesting right at the Fiery.” Freeman is pleased, too, with the ability to individualize store materials for specific stores or regions. “That was much harder to do in the past,” he noted. “With screen printing, it required the use of cut vinyl letters. Now it is all done in one pass.”

Moving forward, The Store Décor is keeping an eye on EFI Pace as a print MIS solution it can use to track complex jobs through the production process. “EFI is working to add the full functionality to Pace that we need for our specific applications,” Freeman commented. “We don’t just print, cut, and ship. Many of our projects are much more complicated, requiring routing, painting on the edges, and printed output being layered onto a base we may have fabricated in our wood or metal shop. We have full confidence that Pace will meet our specific needs in the not-too-distant future.”

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