Building a wide-format printing business

The theme this year at the Graphics Canada show was “The Power of Print”, and one thing that both impressed and amazed me was the omnipresence of wide format printers. Apparently, traditional offset printers are finally starting to wake up to the enormous potential of the wide-format printing industry. One need only look around, both indoors & outdoors, to see that wide format printing is everywhere. There are huge opportunities to create additional revenue for anyone with a wide format printer, so this month we’ve decided to investigate this burgeoning technology.

The worldwide signage industry earns many billions in business each year – and revenues continue to grow. Given the many different types of signs & banners a large format printer can produce, print providers can seize a sizeable chunk of this business. The large format digital printing market is a fast dark horse, growing at double the pace of the overall print industry.

Whether you have an aqueous, solvent or UV curable printer, these printers are capable of producing:

  • Indoor & outdoor banners
  • Trade show exhibits
  • Backlit signage
  • Posters
  • Large format photographic reproduction
  • Decals and pressure sensitive stickers
  • Floor graphics
  • Window graphics
  • Vehicle graphics and more

Let’s check out the different types of printers and the possible revenue streams they may produce:

Aqueous Inkjet Printing

Large format aqueous inkjet printers are the most common printers available on the market today. Their name reflects the fact that water is the primary “carrier” component of the ink used in these printers. All available reports indicate that the worldwide market for large format aqueous inkjet will continue to grow, driven by trends in the technical document and digital graphics printing markets.

Wide format aqueous inkjet systems provide the fastest output with typically the highest resolution, versus the lowest capital investment. Aqueous inkjet printers can print on both indoor and outdoor materials, and with lamination, the outdoor longevity can be substantially increased. They rule the market in photographic and fine art printing, as well as trade show printing, graphic design and prepress proofing.

The advantage of these aqueous based printers is their ease of use and I particularly like Canon’s new W6400 (24”) and W8400 (44”) pigment ink printers. These will appeal to commercial printers, designers, advertising agencies, poster printers, as well as architects, engineers, including prepress/proofing departments, photo labs, professional photographers and internal marketing departments. Both of the Canon printers come with a suite of software programs, making them valuable tools in a wide variety of applications such as Ripping and poster printing templates, and allowing you to get into the wide format printing game from about $5,300 Cdn. Other printers you may wish to consider are made by roland, Epson, Colorspan and HP.

Solvent Inkjet Printing

Ideal for the outdoor graphics production house is the solvent inkjet printer. Versatile, long-life solvent inks offer durability with a hitch: they’re classified as “hazardous” due to the noxious fumes from the inks, and require special venting to be installed. If that’s a concern in your plant, eco or mild-solvent based inks are available, but there is a tradeoff in durability for the added safety factor. Because of the fume hazard, these printers are suited to plant installation, not office use.

One advantage of solvent-based inks is that they are less expensive than aqueous inkjet inks. You can use less expensive media when printing with solvent-based inks, and therefore the signage industry has really taken to them.

There are many suppliers of wide format solvent-based inkjet printers, including Mimaki, Mutoh, Océ, Roland, Vutek and Seiko, which are all continuously improving their solvent-based inkjet printers. The value proposition of wide format solvent-based inkjet printers is the ability to produce durable outdoor graphics at a reduced cost per square foot. The Mutoh Falcon Outdoor Jr. is one of the least expensive entry level Eco-Solvent printers, at $15,422 Cdn.

UV-based Flatbed Printers

The other emerging category in wide format inkjet technology is the UV-curable flatbed inkjet printer, where the drying mechanism for the ink is completely different then that used in solvent inkjet printing. When ultra-violet light hits curable liquid ink, it transforms it from a liquid to a solid on the chosen substrate. These new UV printers can range in price from about $75,000 to $500,000 and more. UV-curable printers offer many of the same features as solvent inkjet printers offer with less expensive inks than aqueous inkjet inks and outdoor image durability without lamination. Since many are configured as flatbed systems, users can print directly on materials such as wood, metal, ceramic, and glass, opening a host of new possibilities in terms of applications and revenue streams. UV-curable has to improve its reliability and performance with flexible substrates if it’s going to overtake solvent printing in the roll-to-roll application.

Building Your Wide-Format Printing Business

Many commercial operations printing long runs may wonder if they can make money on short runs of wide format printing. The answer is: absolutely! The margins are much better, despite the short run, and a one-stop-shop business model may reap benefits in more ways than one. With ever increasing competition, you want to reduce your customer’s need to look to your competitors for capabilities that you don’t offer.

The vast majority of this wide format print volume is or has been produced using other methods, either offset or screen printed, cut vinyl or hand painted. Investing in these technologies is thus an investment in the future of your company, since inkjet is cutting into many areas which would normally use the older formats.

The retail value of wide format digital printing is more than $29 billion worldwide, and growing more than ten percent annually. As the various wide format digital printing systems improve and users gain experience with them, wide format digital printing will continue to provide profit and new revenue streams for those that adopt the capability. While there are no doubt challenges, wide format digital represents an expanding and profitable market.