Wide-format market trends

The future remains bright as advances in equipment, media and inks spur growth in numerous new applications

Today, the term wide-format seems to have evolved into almost a cliché, referring to any printing beyond the largest standard tabloid format of 11″ x 17.” But what exactly is wide-format printing? Also known as large-format printing—whether sheetfed or roll-fed—the term refers to computer-controlled printers that can support a maximum print width from 18″ to 100″. That being said, some consider true wide-format widths to begin at 24″. Printers and presses with capacities over 100″ wide are called super-wide or grand-format devices. Wide-format printers can print banners, posters, tradeshow graphics, wallpaper, murals, backlit film, vehicle wraps, architectural drawings, construction plans, backdrops for theatrical or TV media sets, and much more. They’re usually inkjet-based or toner-based and are more cost-effective than screen printing for most short-run projects, depending on print size, run length and substrate type. They can also be categorized by the type of ink transfer process they use such as aqueous (water-based), solvent (usually petroleum-based), eco-solvent (usually glycol esters or glycol ether esters), dye sublimation (inks are diffused into the substrate), UV (piezo inkjet printers whose inks are UV-curable), and pen/plotter devices where pen/pens draw on the substrate (mainly used to produce CAD drawings).

According to UK-based market research firm Smithers-Pira, the digital wide-format industry is dynamic and fast-moving, reaching a high stage of maturity in less than 20 years with a strong proliferation of players and consolidation. “The number of integral players is shrinking, and start-ups are becoming quite rare,” it said. “Major players with diverse interests in the printing industry—specifically the digital printing industry—are now active in this particular market segment. Meanwhile, wide-format screen printing, which for many years has been the predominant technology in the display graphics and visual communications sector, continues to lose ground. Innovations are few and far between, and it’s now confined to a role as a legacy technology, although it will retain an important position for several decades as it’s still used to lay down very heavy ink coverage much more cheaply than inkjet.”

The emergence of electronic displays based on flexible electronics is, potentially, one of the most significant threats to the wide-format printing industry, according to Smithers-Pira. “It’s true to say that electronic signage has been considered a potential threat for some time, without taking significant market share. There have been some recent experiments that haven’t progressed, such as the Tesco in-store TV. However, flexible electronics will be better suited to meet the needs of signage applications, enabling them to take a greater market share. After years of converting to digital, it’s somewhat ironic that digital print may ultimately see itself being replaced by yet another form of digital technology in the form of electronic displays. Roll-to-roll manufacturing will be essential in order to create flexible, low-weight displays that can compete with printed displays from a cost point of view.”

Wide-format market trends

Mark Hanley is president of IT Strategies, a renowned Boston-based consultancy and an acknowledged industry expert in digital print technologies and more. “We’re in the final stages of analyzing our data gathered around sales into each sector of the digital wide-format print markets globally, and we cannot deny that this is, as a whole, a market that’s maturing now, from a vendor perspective at least. Above that level after over 25 years, the market yields over $45 billion to print providers, converters and service companies. But for vendors, it’s been very competitive and has seen enormous increases in productivity at lower and lower cost. That’s how it is supposed to be. The market is largely based on small, local providers that have lent the market, at their level, a certain stability and an ethic of fully localized customization.

“There’s still growth in certain newer sectors such as UV systems below $100,000, now including plotter/cutters as well. At the high end, super-high-throughput flatbed UV printers have also shown healthy growth and have begun to trend into industrial and even packaging sampling markets. Almost every print provider now wants to have soft signage capabilities by being able to print onto fabrics. Other more purely industrial markets, like architectural surface and decorative print (leveraging technologies like latex and printing of manufactured 3D objects with UV inkjet), have also grown in many cases out of wide-format technology and its vendor community. Taking some of these newer sectors into account and looking at the market from a provider perspective, we can say that in terms of output and value, the wide-format market is currently growing between 3% and 6% per year. Part of that is not just about print. With print as a base, most providers these days in the wide-format market have become ‘geniuses’ in adding super-converted value to their products,” Hanley concluded.

Perspectives from the manufacturers

It’s safe to say that the ongoing improvements to inks and media, including the release of some amazing new printing equipment, reflects both the growth of this market and where individual vendors are headed when it comes to innovation and investments. Here are comments from some major players in this segment. 

Agfa Graphics Deborah Hutcheson is the director of marketing for Agfa Graphics, North America. How does she see the future of wide-format developing? “These customers require faster job turnarounds, just-in-time delivery, delivery to the point of need, versioning and personalization,” Hutcheson said.  “To satisfy their requirements, printers then drive efficiency and quality improvements from software and hardware manufacturers. These expectations result in the print business becoming a customer-service-driven business. Print buyers’ demands are driving steady progress in printhead development, UV ink-curing technology, image processing techniques and media transport (i.e. width, automation) with the ultimate goal of faster and more efficient production. Much of this growth is driven by the conversion of traditional analogue printing to digital printing and new applications enabled by advancements in ink and media.

“Each advance has resulted in improved print results at a lower total cost for each customer. Printheads with more nozzles and smaller drop sizes produce better quality prints faster and use less ink in the process. LED curing systems are much easier for an operator to use, decrease operating costs, and offer expanded media scope (heat-sensitive and thin substrates). And automation options allow for improved productivity and reduced labour costs. These overall market and business trends are driving product developments that lead to the adoption of digital processes – including inkjet systems, workflow, automation and web-to-print. Print service providers are more focused on strategies that help them reduce their operating costs, offer additional services, and become a one-stop-shop for their clients. They’re adding new product lines to expand their revenue streams and improve their competitive edge. UV inkjet remains one of the largest and fastest growing segments in the wide-format market primarily due to the benefits of this technology – such as fast drying, excellent image quality and durability, low running costs and the ability to print onto a wide range of substrates and produce a wide range of applications.”

Canon Peter Dulis is manager of large-format printers at Canon Canada. “The large-format graphics market continues to be a growth engine for print service providers. Print applications such as wall coverings, textiles and décor are growing rapidly and are expected to continue as end users take advantage of digital printing technology. A recent Keypoint Intelligence survey conducted in December, 2017, with more than 300 PSPs indicated that the number of their clients requesting print turnaround times of 24 hours or less had increased in the last four years from 41% to 61% of all print jobs submitted. This increase in fast turnaround time requires even faster printers delivering more productivity. The survey also concluded that print quality, reliability and cost of operation (in addition to productivity) were important criteria to consider when investing in new printers.

“Thanks to digital printing, you can print nearly anything you want on almost any surface. With today’s wide-format inkjet printers, the achievable range of applications that can be output continues to grow. Whether PSPs are looking to carve out a niche in the market or simply expand their offerings to appeal to a broader range of customers, the drive to creatively produce unique and interesting applications has allowed them to optimize investments in their equipment and to grow their revenue opportunities. Inkjet technology has enabled the easy and profitable production of applications such as custom textiles, backlit posters, window decals and wallpaper. Add to that, printing on rigid substrates allows you to step beyond sign and display graphics into industrial or specialty applications such as membrane switches, interior décor, custom and prototype packaging. PSPs are looking to produce more creative applications with their equipment than ever before.  One of the more interesting applications includes relief or dimensional printing (up to several centimeters thick!) whereby multiple layers of additional ink are laid down on a rigid substrate to create a highly textured surface. This method of printing can be used for interior décor, to replicate oil paintings, and even to create Braille signage for the visually impaired.”

Epson Matt McCausland is product manager of professional imaging at Epson.

“Solvent printing is the go-to solution for various wide-format printing applications like signs and vehicle wraps. While solvent printing itself is not new, a recent breakthrough in solvent ink technology has revolutionized printers’ abilities to dramatically increase output and offerings by cutting down curing times by 75%. What used to take 24 to 48 hours of drying time now requires only six. Not only does this allow printers more flexibility to meet tighter timelines and increase their output and revenue, but the superior image quality that’s produced as a result has guided the emergence of three new trends in wide-format printing.

“First, think small. We continue to see graphic businesses expand their product offerings from large applications to smaller ones. What was typically printed using smaller devices can now be efficiently handled by larger production printers. New solvent ink technology now provides a wide colour gamut and higher potential for accuracy, density and brightness. Even the smallest of text can now be printed clearly and legibly. This, coupled with the ability to print directly to a magnetic roll, has enabled stickers and magnets to explode as a new and trendy application.

“Second, go big. Precise colour and accuracy isn’t just for small prints. Being able to provide customers with consistent colours, while maintaining photo accuracy from panel to panel, allows brands to develop large multi-paneled wall art.   

“Third, duplicate. The faster workflow via the use of quick-dry inks allows printers to take on additional and non-traditional jobs and increase revenue. As a result, the expansion into fine-art printing is beginning to take shape. The high-output of the printers, coupled with the reduced curing time of the prints, results in a comparatively low cost for fine-art mass production.”

Mutoh Matt Bartlett, Mutoh’s regional sales manager for Canada, points out that while studies predicting future trends are helpful, hidden technologies or changing economies may impact the direction of wide-format. “Did you know that the PC became popular around 1984? That was 34 years ago,” he said. “At that time, we were either painting signs or just beginning to use a computer to cut vinyl lettering for them. We didn’t even have a colour monitor. Today we have smartphones that can identify fonts and take high-resolution images. Technology not directly related to wide-format helped to initiate—and will continually change—this business. As technology advances, it will influence equipment, media and inks. I also foresee a time when the software used for design and print will evolve into a direct connection to the consumer. Software will be more than just a way of making a printer print – it will be a pipeline to the final output via devices like smartphones, with much more wide-format printing being done remotely.

“We don’t print on just paper anymore. When wide-format started, we had water-based inks and used paper. That quickly evolved into using blank white vinyl, so we could do more long-term outdoor prints. Now we see printing on glass, acrylic, metal and even stone. Also, more types of inks will be used and machines will be able to print on flat as well as irregular surfaces. In fact, some signage is already being put on LCD-style substrates.

“We at Mutoh also agree with studies indicating that the two largest growth areas for North America will be dye sublimation (textile) printing and aqueous inkjet. We also foresee a crucial need for education and training as new markets emerge.”

HP “The world of traditional wide-format, previously focused on sign and display, is undergoing phenomenal changes thanks to advances in printing technology, inks and materials,” said Sonia Grobanopoulos, marketing manager, graphics solutions business, at HP Canada. “For example, when HP launched its latex technology in 2008, it was mostly used for traditional signage, wraps and retail signage. However, improvements in ink technology (such as better water-fastness, instant drying, and scratch resistance) have continued to open up new applications, expanding into areas such as car wraps, floor and window graphics. We do see the ability to print on textiles opening up an entire new range of applications,” she added.

“HP Latex recently certified a new range of durable textiles on materials made from 100% cotton, cotton linen or polyester. These durable textiles can deliver mass commercial products such as handbags, curtains, blinds, cushions and lampshades. Inks are another area that HP views as moving wide-format to another level. For example, its latex white ink delivers a true glossy white that doesn’t yellow over time.

“High print quality and vibrant colours at high speeds will be essential to this market moving forward. A wider range of media will enable printers to expand their services to deliver new applications – especially for new clients such as architects and designers. Speed to market will also be key. Finally, water-based inks deliver odourless prints that are both safe for the environment and device operators, all the while simplifying ventilation, storage and transportation. Also, final prints can be used where solvent and UV-curable might be unacceptable, such as hospitals, hotels and schools.”

Mimaki Lucas Crossley is Mimaki’s regional manager for Canada. “In today’s competitive market, businesses often seek to expand their product offerings, create new profit centres and retain their clients. Recent advances in technology have emerged that offer greater diversity in print-and-cut applications, making it possible to achieve this goal. Of specific interest, are substrates that are too sensitive for latex or solvent technology, due to the heat or coatings required to cure those inks.

“The combination of white and colour ink adds value to applications utilizing transparent or semi-opaque films. LED-UV-curable inks deliver greater opacity with less ink consumption, while maintaining image vibrancy and density. High opacity white ink enables block-out printing within a single print, so printers can easily create window graphics that can be viewed differently from either side, or when backlit. 

“Today’s print service providers seek technology that offers the broadest possible range of applications at an affordable price with reasonable running costs. That, in my opinion, will always be part and parcel of the future of wide-format.”

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.