Commercial Printers Embrace Wide Format’s Charm

Wide-format isn’t only for digital sign shops. More commercial printers are eyeing wide-format as a means to significantly increase their profitability and grow their businesses without too big a stretch in expertise or investment in capital equipment, noted Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist for Canon Solutions America. “Their existing customer base provides a great starting point to begin selling wide-format. From there, it’s a combination of repeat business, word-of-mouth, demonstrating new applications, and building awareness in the community such as open houses, advertising, etc.,” Parr added.

For commercial printers, “offering wide-format to their exiting customer base not only helps provide a ‘one location’ service, it also helps them broaden their services to then obtain new business/new customers,” said Christopher Guyett, sales and marketing coordinator for Durst Image Technology U.S., LLC.

Commercial printers are looking for other options to provide to their customer base, added Guyett. Digital inkjet allows these print providers to provide a quicker turnaround while meeting shorter production runs for their customer’s jobs, he said.

David Murphy, director of marketing, Americas - Graphics Solutions Business at HP, pointed to three main drivers increasing wide-format demand among commercial printers. The first is the print market’s ongoing analog-to-digital transformation and the accompanying trends—shorter runs, faster turnaround, print-on-demand, versioning, and customization. “Even PSPs with capacity on their large-format offset presses are investing in digital wide-format technology to reduce set-up costs, time, and waste, and to profitably handle their short-run volume,” said Murphy.

The second driver is the transition from PSP to a holistic marketing service provider (MSP). Large commercial printers are expanding their overall services portfolio to meet the broader needs of their customers and to shift from offering print as a commodity to total campaign management. “From marketing collateral to direct mail to point-of-purchase (POP) displays and event signage, marketers need a single resource that can produce a broad gamut of applications,” Murphy explained. “Signs, banners, and posters are the largest application areas.”

The third driver is the rapid advancement in wide-format digital technology, offering higher quality, greater versatility, improved productivity, and faster drying time than was available just four years ago.


Wider Print, Higher Margins

Commercial printing firms have spent a lot of time and energy looking for ways to limit their exposure to commoditized products, added Ken Hanulec, vice president of marketing, EFI Inkjet Solutions. “While there are segments of the commercial print space where products have lost some of their value, they see that wide- and superwide-format graphics applications have higher margins. That is what is driving the trend and a lot of commercial printers are successfully entering the market.”

During the SGIA Expo last October, the association noted that a large portion of attendee traffic came from the commercial print space—a strong indicator of the opportunities commercial printing firms are looking to capture.

When a commercial printer adds wide-format, that business is suddenly in direct competition with signage firms. “Knowing that, commercial printers want to play to their advantage by selling to their customer base,” said Hanulec. “Wide-format inkjet is a natural extension of the marketing offerings commercial printers already sell. Adding adjacent POP signage, banner, and other digital inkjet applications to the range of products they print for existing customers reduces the commercial printers’ risk of losing that customer’s business altogether.”

Two years ago, trade printer Zoo Printing began offering EFI UV-curable inkjet technology based on what VUTEk printers offer. Most recently, Zoo Printing, headquartered in Commerce, CA, has invested in its ability to offer its printer customers superwide-format rigid and flexible printing.

Zoo Printing now has a fleet of six, 3.2-meter-wide EFI VUTEk UV inkjet printers spread across its three facilities, from California to New Jersey. The company’s inkjet production line up includes VUTEk GS3250r roll-to-roll and GS3250lx hybrid roll/flatbed printers to output a wide range of products.

The trade printer now is able to offer a full breadth of superwide products, including vinyl banners, yard signs, static clings, trade show graphics, magnets, adhesive-backed substrates, and POP displays.


Don’t Play the Commodity Game

One of the challenges faced by printers entering the wide-format arena is that many initial, basic wide-format offerings such as posters, banners, etc., are a commodity business. “They are not going to get them to where they want to be,” said Paar. “As commercial printers develop expertise and add additional wide-format equipment, they can start producing higher margin applications such as backlit graphics, specialties such as promotional items, tradeshow displays, interior decor, lenticular images, and much more.”

Canon USA’s newest large-format offerings, the 60-inch imagePROGRAF iPF9100 and 44-inch imagePROGRAF iPF8100 printers, are ideally suited for giclée print-making and photo-enlargements as well as murals, ceiling banners, museum displays, and lobby art, noted Paar.

For many commercial printers, especially those newly entering the wide-format segment, versatility is key to success, added Murphy. “Rather than turn down requests for high-value jobs, many PSPs invest in wide-format printing technology that can profitably handle new indoor applications like wall coverings and canvas as well as traditional indoor applications like POP posters and event signage. Ideally, PSPs want to invest in technology that can also reliably produce durable high-quality vinyl banners and shelter and vehicle graphics.”

David Bennett, president of Bennett Graphics, Tucker, GA, purchased an HP Scitex FB700 industrial printer with an Esko cutter at the end of 2013.

“In the beginning we’re doing whatever our existing clients need,” said Bennett. “This is new space for us, and we haven’t been in the habit of asking for this work or even knowing that it was available. We might do a banner one day, POP the next, and retail signage after that. We’ll need more time to identify segments and logical targets that exist with our audience.”

Even as the company attempts to build its base, “volume is definitely building and wide-format has served to open accounts that can feed each of our printing workflows,” Bennett noted.

While there haven’t have been any major challenges, he added, “learning new substrates and handling large materials is something anyone entering this space needs to consider. It isn’t heavy lifting, but it is all new for most commercial printers like us.”

Recent technology innovations are driving both the capabilities and the demand for new wide-format applications. “HP Latex technology, for example, expands capabilities for new high-value applications like wall décor, backlit displays, canvas photo prints, fabric, indoor and outdoor signage, and more,” said Murphy. “This level of quality, performance, and versatility, unmatched by solvent printer technology, is driving new demand from marketers as they become aware of its potential.”

Commercial printers getting into the market with the latest technologies, such as UV and LED printers, often have an advantage over many established sign businesses that use older, solvent platforms. UV and LED not only offer versatility in what they can produce, but they also are considered a “greener” solution, which can appeal to larger corporations looking to become more environmentally friendly.

“One of our newest printers, the EFI VUTEk GS3250lxr Pro, is a roll-to-roll, 3.2-meter LED printer, and it is unique in the UV/LED UV inkjet space because its super flexible ink withstands the stretching that takes place in wrap installations,” said Hanulec. “While there are fleet wrap specialists who have purchased this printer, there is demand from the commercial print space as well. We sold a VUTEk GS3250LXr Pro to a commercial printing company in January that needed it for POP signage work, and, by March, the business had identified opportunities in wraps with new and existing customers.”

Commercial printers are looking for printing equipment that offers the ability to meet short runs in more cost-effective manner, acknowledged Guyett. “Digital UV inkjet printing now provides that answer. The changing demographics of today’s customer print requirements means the commercial printer needs to have faster changeover to meet shorter timelines. The Durst Rho 1000 Series is a perfect example of offering that high volume productivity, flexibility, and efficiency that is required," he continued. “The Rho 1012 provides the exceptional quality and high production print speeds up to 5,000 sqft/hr, that allows for quality prints that customers are accustomed to receiving. The Rho 1030 takes production to a new level with prints speeds up to 10,000 sqft/hr. The Rho 1000 series printers allows for being able to configure the printer into a format that is most suited to the customers requirements.”


What About Workflow and Finishing?

From a workflow perspective, inkjet is certainly a different printing process than offset, but whether or not a separate workflow is needed depends on format size and volume requirements.

For example, a commercial printer may want to handle a diverse array of lower-volume applications ranging from backlit displays to POP posters to outdoor banners. For this use, a 61-inch printer could be acquired for less than $30,000 and almost certainly wouldn’t justify the creation of a separate division. The situation may be different for a several-hundred-thousand-dollar investment in a 126-inch industrial press that can produce more than 5,000 square feet per hour.

EFI’s workflow tools are used to connect and integrate inkjet graphics with a commercial printing company’s overall business management environment, said Hanulec.

“Native JDF connectivity in the Fiery XF RIP that ships with EFI Wide Format and VUTEk printers enables integration with our MIS and ERP products, like EFI Pace and Monarch, as well as our web-to-print products,” he noted.

Finishing requirements also need to be considered, and they are dependent upon the type of wide-format output device purchased. “For example, with a hybrid UV printer, you can print directly on rigid substrates, eliminating the need for mounting devices and lamination,” explained Hanulec. “However, commercial printers are adding cutting devices for their rigid substrate work and to create premium-margin specialty applications.”

Prior to the purchase of a wide-format system, PSPs should explore all potential options and uses of the equipment. Buying a printer for one type of application can limit the jobs you can handle.

“Budget concerns and lack of experience in wide format may limit your initial purchases, but what is important is to buy something that can produce the greatest number of applications at the lowest cost/highest quality and satisfy the growing business for at least a few years—rather than having to replace it within a year,” advised Paar.