Trying to better understand the business opportunities wide format print offers requires a better understanding of the dynamics in the printing industry in general, and more specifically the business trends within our industry. Understanding these trends will make it a lot easier to identify which wide format applications fit into your business model, which in turn will drive your investment strategy. In the first part I’ll spend some time on the evolution of wide format printing and the impact on the Printing Industry as a whole, secondly I’ll focus on the trends in wide format printing and I’ll end with some points of view on what should drive your investment strategy in Wide Format Printing.
But before we get started, I just want to spend some time on the wide format terminology itself. It is sometimes hard to make a distinction between definitions and applications. They seem to be intermixed on a regular basis and there is no clear distinction on the definitions. Terms such as wide format printing, large format printing and even grand format printing are intended to make a distinction between the size of the finished print product. Then there are roll-fed and flatbed printers, making a distinction between substrate usage. We make a distinction between display graphics and technical document systems, referring to signs and displays on the one hand and engineering and architectural prints on the other. More recently we’ve seen more emphasis on textile printers, referring to a specific application. In addition, we talk about sublimation, thermal inkjet, aqueous inkjet, UV-curable ink and latex all referring to ink technologies. You’ll be forgiven to feel confused these days with this wide range of different terminologies in the wide format field. For our purposes I will continue using wide format printing as the common denominator throughout this article. I do not intend to cover “speeds and feeds” of all available printers in the market, I’ll leave this to the more technically inclined writers. I will focus on the business-related aspects and opportunities these wide format print products offer.
The evolution of wide format printing
Initially Wide Format applications were geared to engineering and architectural businesses and to poster/billboard businesses. These business segments required equipment with the ability to print on much bigger print media than what was available through the more conventional small format printing technologies. The major technologies used in engineering and architectural businesses went from “blueprints” to pen plotters and for posters/billboards businesses, screen printing was the technology of choice. Equipment vendors had designated divisions to support these specific segments. For example: Xerox and Océ were two of the original key vendors offering a wide range of products for technical document system solutions to the engineering and architectural business segment. Colour, speed and size however were limiting factors at that time.
The introduction of digital printing, especially inkjet printing, changed the landscape. In today’s market wide format printing equipment has expanded its capabilities to print high end colour (even beyond CMYK, with added extra ink channels), at much faster speeds, and on far bigger sizes, with the ability to print on a much broader range of substrates including textiles, rigid boards, fabric-based media etc.
This technical evolution in Wide Format Printing has basically expanded the application gamma far beyond the original applications of “blueprints” and “posters/billboards”, reaching far beyond the original engineering and architectural and posters/billboards market segments. In today’s Wide Format Print environment, we see such applications as custom textiles, vehicle wrapping, wallpaper, interior decorations, prototype and custom packaging, backlit displays, banners and even dimensional print which lays down multiple ink layers creating a textured surface (emulating famous paintings, for example) and the list goes on.
These technological advances once again upset the original business models, creating opportunities to expand one’s business beyond the original client base. At the same time, it also created opportunities for new entrants into the world of wide format printing. Conventional business boundaries disappeared, and new opportunities arose. Just like the digital evolution had upset the offset market initiating consolidation and conversion with other segments so has the digital evolution similarly upset the wide format market.
Trends in Wide Format Printing
- Technological advancements create new application opportunities
With the introduction of inkjet technology in wide format printing the increase of new applications has been exponential. The advancement of inkjet heads combined with newer types of ink have made it possible to print on a much wider range of media than ever before, creating new business opportunities. For example, one of the latest trends we’ve seen is the introduction of fabric-based displays and signage as well as nonwoven wall graphics. Fabric-based materials are popular for signage applications since they are lightweight, flexible and easier to handle. We are seeing an increase in the use of fabric-based media for applications as backlit signage, home/office decors, custom textiles, flags, banners, tradeshow displays etc. There is also a tendency towards increased use of fabric materials since a growing selection is environmentally friendly.
The ability to print on non-woven wallpaper is another example of a rapidly growing new application. Designers and decorators are taking advantage of the customization capabilities of wallpapers, creating a growing demand for wide format printing. Ease of use and handling are added benefits compared to conventional wallpapers.
Another interesting application, driven by advancements in inkjet heads and ink technology, is the ability of printing multiple layers of ink creating a multi-dimensional print. As I mentioned earlier one of such applications is the reproduction of original paintings, creating a near identical output as the original.
There is no doubt that this trend will continue and create additional business opportunities for wide format printing.
- Wide format printing is part of a multi-channel communication medium
From a business point of view, wide format printed products are part of a wider communication strategy by clients. Clients will use all channels to promote their products such as e-mail, direct marketing printed products, TV, interactive, augmented reality, etc. Wide format printed products fit within this communication strategy and fulfill a supporting role. What this means is that one does not create wide format products in a vacuum, but rather within a campaign strategy which involves multiple communication means. This in turn is pushing the wide format printer to get involved with more than just ‘putting ink on a substrate’. If you would take a closer look at the successful wide format printers, you’ll notice that they are involved with their client upstream (be part of the campaign creation) and involved downstream (kitting, distribution and even installation). I’ll elaborate on these critical business shifts a little bit later in the article when we talk about consolidation and convergence in the industry.
- The field of wide format printing equipment manufacturers is getting crowded
Last April the Graphics Canada 2019 trade show was held in Toronto. What struck me the most about this show was how many manufacturers/vendors focused on their wide format solutions, underscoring the potential they see in this growing market segment. We had all the known players showing their products, such as Fujifilm, Canon/Océ, Epson, Mimaki, HP, Agfa, EFI and Durst. Noticeable was also the push made by Konica Minolta, Ricoh, Roland and StratoJet. To state that there is a wide range of selection would be an understatement. Wading through this wide range of printers with each their own designs (flat bed or roll fed), different inkjet heads, different inks, different speeds, etc., combined with an ever-increasing selection of substrates, makes for a daunting task to make the right investment choice that fits your business model.
- Wide format printing is getting bigger, better and faster
We’ve come a long way since the pen-plotters and the posters/billboards screen printing era. Over the last several years both types of wide format printers, flatbed as well as roll fed, have substantially evolved when it comes to size, quality and speed. One only needs to walk through an airport or a mall to notice the size and quality of the banners, posters, displays or billboards. For example, Fujifilm and Canon/Océ have their Acquity and Arizona line of flatbed printers respectively, with print sizes going up to 98.4” x 120” and speeds reaching nearly 1,670 ft²/hr. with up to seven ink channels for higher quality output. On the heavy-duty side, the Onset X3 from Fujifilm stands out. With a size of 126.8” x 63” and a throughput of 9,600 ft²/hr it is one of the most productive printers. On the roll fed printers’ side, manufacturers have recently launched their Super Wide printers reaching up to five meters (198”) in width with speeds reaching nearly 3,800 ft²/hr with up to eight ink channels. Fujifilm just launched their Acuity Ultra line of printers and EFI counts the Matan 5 in their portfolio as their widest unit. Size, quality and speed clearly opened the door to additional applications and business opportunities. Expect this trend to continue.
- Customization, versioning and variable data are gaining importance
The digitization of wide format has created many new opportunities ranging from customization to versioning to the use of variable data. In an earlier paragraph we touched on the example of woven wallpaper. It is perfectly feasible to customize your own unique wallpaper. The same could apply to textiles, or even vehicle wrapping. The digital aspect gives you endless customization opportunities. Versioning is another capability inherent to digital printing. In one example the printer supplied the client with identical outdoor displays, however produced different versions based on the geographical location of the franchise store. The price shown on each display was different based on the location. The next level beyond versioning is the variability of each wide format printed piece, from changing text and numbers to changing images. We see this trend continuing and more clients taking advantage of this capability.
- Automation increases productivity
More recently we have seen an accelerated pace of automation of the production process. In the not so distant past one needed to attend to the production process to ensure problems were spotted in time to avoid costly waste of time and money. Today wide format printing manufacturers build in a degree of machine learning by which the equipment itself executes a degree of controlling, adjusting and/or correcting processes. This in turn gives the operator time to focus on other production needs since the equipment acquired a degree of ‘independence’.
Another aspect within the automation process is the use of robots. High volume shops, especially with flatbed printers, already use a higher degree of automation by which robots handle the media. Robots control the process of loading, flipping (if needed) and off-loading of the media, further enhancing productivity and increasing the equipment independence. Last month I attended a demonstration of the use of robotics at the Fujifilm Americas Technology Center in Chicago. Robots were demonstrating their capabilities with the Onset X3 flatbed printer. Fujifilm claims that the automation reduced the manual labour per sheet from 20-45 seconds down to six seconds.
The same degree of automation applies to cutters which independently adjust the cut-outs based on preprogrammed data, independently adjusting the cutting knives required for the specific substrate. Zund, the Swiss manufacturer of digital cutters gave an impressive demonstration at the Graphics Canada 2019 tradeshow exhibiting a high degree of automation in cutting substrates with thicknesses ranging from regular sheets to wooden particle boards, adjusting templates and tools on the fly.
Expect this automation process to continue and further elevate productivity and efficiencies.
- Shorter runs and faster turnaround times
As mentioned before, wide format printing does not operate in a vacuum, it is part of the multi-channel communication process and the wide format print production fits within a campaign timetable. As is the case with commercial printers where they are faced with shorter runs and faster turnaround times for their digital and offset press work, the same applies to the wide format printer. Long runs scheduled way in advance are becoming the exception, short runs with a degree of variability and fast turnaround times are quickly becoming the norm. Expect this trend to accelerate, we’ll see a continued increase in the number of wide format print jobs, however, with shorter runs and faster turnaround times.
- Increasing consolidation and convergence of market segments
As I mentioned in an earlier article, the commercial printing market has seen an unprecedented degree of consolidation and an increase in commercial printers expanding into adjacent market segments such as packaging and wide format printing. With this article we are now looking at it from the wide format printer’s perspective. Here too we see a consolidation where wide format printers acquire competitors or merge with commercial printers. The distinction lines between the commercial printing, wide format printing and label and packaging printing market segments are blurring. These segments are all part of the communication industry, and as such we see the convergence of these segments into a broader communications segment. This is no better illustrated by the recent launch of the Printing United tradeshow, which will hold its first event in October 2019 in Dallas. When you access the Printing United website you’ll be greeted by the slogan Dawn of a New Era. It further elaborates: “Printing United is a brand new tradeshow built on the strong foundation of the SGIA Expo. This newly relaunched event will continue to provide access to the latest solutions for apparel, graphics/side-format and functional printing applications, while also extending into commercial, packaging, and in-plant printing segments.” It continues with the following sub-statement: “Printing United is a strategic response to market forces that are necessitating out of the need for a single industry exhibition that provides “one-roof” access to all printing technologies”.
This clearly confirms the undercurrent in our industry where different market segments are continuing to overlap and are crossing into one another’s field, driving the convergence process. This process will accelerate as technology becomes more sophisticated and the graphic arts industry becomes more and more an integral part of the communications industry.
Selecting wide format printing opportunities
As we mentioned before wide format equipment manufacturers have crowded the market with an unprecedented selection of wide format printers, clearly identifying the growth opportunities in this field. There is such a wide range of application possibilities with wide format printing that it might be a challenge to choose the right equipment for your business. My recommendation is to approach your investment strategy based on your core business and core clients. It is easier to identify Wide Format opportunities within you existing customer base rather than embarking on adding unfamiliar new applications going after unfamiliar new accounts. If, for instance, you are a commercial printer supplying printed direct marketing materials to a big franchise network, it might be easier to go after that client’s display graphics material. You already know the customer, you are familiar with their campaigns, strategies and timelines and they know your company. The hurdles to overcome this new venue are a lot less than if you would decide to go after the vehicle wrap market, where you have no connections, no familiarity with the intricacies of vehicle wrapping etc..
On the other hand, if you are already involved with producing wide format banners, posters and signs for one of your bank clients you might consider investing in a super wide format printer, providing your existing client with super large banners. You know the client, you already have your established contacts, they know your capabilities and here again your established relationship makes it easier for your client to give you a bigger ‘share of wallet’. In this case investing into a wide format textile printer might not be your best investment opportunity.
Bottom line is that there are many wide format opportunities and your best bet is to build from your existing customer base, gradually offering new wide format applications reaching beyond your core business. Once successfully engaged with your existing customer base, the time is right to grow it with your new investment offering your new wide format applications.
These are exciting times for the printing industry, an industry in a continuous flux of technological, market and business shifts, creating opportunities for those who embrace change.