Five to ten years ago in the print industry, it was cool to be a niche printer—to do one thing, and to do it exceptionally well.
The strategy collapsed a bit when the industry began to experience grand-scale consolidations, and big printers bought up many of the smaller, regional establishments. They learned that, in a tumultuous economy, it is important to reach beyond the niche and to be a single source for a customer’s entire spectrum of print needs.
It’s a lesson digital and sign printers can learn from and integrate into their own philosophies—to broaden their capabilities and market reach and never have to refer a customer away to another supplier.
And the good news is that broadening your services doesn’t always necessitate adding new, big printers to a shop floor. Rather, consider media; it may hold the key to growing a digital print business.
Grand format printers are quite adept at printing on a wide array of materials—from traditional stocks to vinyl and canvas, from self-adhesive and pressure-sensitive substrates to exotic ones, such as wood, glass, and metal.
Bruce Butler, MacDermid ColorSpan’s director of marketing, says that paper and vinyl remain the two most popular substrates customers are using in conjunction with the DisplayMaker family of wide and grand format printers. "The most popular media in the wider-than-72-inches category is, by far, scrim banner vinyl, used to create outdoor banners."
Still, there is a growing number of print suppliers who are breaking molds and experimenting with more unusual media for less traditional jobs.
"We had one guy print the sky on ceiling tiles with his JETi3150 UV Flatbed printer, and it felt like you were outside when you entered his office," according to Hary Gandy, CEO of worldwide sales, Gandinnovations. "We also had someone print on Mylar with his solvent, JETi roll-to-roll [printer], and he made a backlit image used for directions in a subway system."
These are just but a few stories of print suppliers growing their businesses through the creative use of substrates.
"We have some customers printing temporary vehicle signs on magnet material from Magnum Magnetics," Butler explains. "We also have customers printing promotional event tents—for things like NASCAR races and golf tournaments—on a canvas tent material."
Larsen Sails, a California-based family-owned business is doing just that. Since its founding in 1972, Larsen has manufactured ultra-light canvas sails. With a DisplayMaker digital printer, they found that it was easy to expand their business model to produce other types of big prints. In the late ‘80s, the company began offering full-color canopy tents and awnings for the motor sports and entertainment industries. It has produced grand format tents, awnings, and other displays on its DisplayMaker, for such well-known brands as Budweiser, FedEx, MCI, SAAB, and Toyota.
Richard Codos is the executive director, North American development, for Leggett & Platt Digital Technologies (L&P), manufacturer of the Virtu TX, a grand format solution that prints up to 138 inches wide.
Codos says that L&P designed the Virtu family of printers to be compatible with a virtually unlimited number of media choices. The Virtu TX, for example, prints on everything from roll-fed flexible substrates to thicker, rigid materials. But Codos suggests that the most popular media applications among L&P’s customers are uncoated fabrics—primarily polyester satins, ducks, and twills.
Craig Miller, president of Pictographics, is a Virtu believer. He credits the solution with helping diversify his company’s business model. Pictographics made a name for itself by offering dye-sub textile printing since the late 1990s. Recently, the company added the Virtu inkjet solution to complement its existing dye-sublimation machines. "The extraordinary textile printing capability of the Virtu did not cannibalize our dye sub; it augmented it. It gave us more options and a wider range of textiles produced for indoor and outdoor [applications]," according to Miller.
This complement of solutions recently manifested in a large, event-tent job for Pictographics’ client, JLG Industries. The printer utilized both systems for the job, producing more than 16,000 square feet of print for the tent’s exterior, and more than 6,000 square feet of print for the interior.
"We’ve been recognized for our ability to create and print a [variety] of products," Miller explains. "In order to accomplish this in the past, we’ve had to have several printing and finishing systems. Now, one printer does it all—textiles, wall coverings, vehicle graphics, digital prints, back-lits, and other unconventional rigid products.
"If I were to name the company today, I would call it PTA, for ‘Prints to Anything’," Miller adds. "We can print upholstery, garments, fabric banners, gaming table felts, draperies, or tapestries; even metal, plastic, and glass."
Depending on the applications a print supplier wishes to offer to their clients, some print engines may be more adept. It’s important to know certain limitations of the available technologies, Butler suggests.
"Many of our customers have had eco-solvent printers previously, and were disappointed in the limited number of uncoated substrates—and the cost of coated substrates—they could print on," he confides.
But before you begin looking at these technical details, it’s important to begin your quest with a clear and concise understanding of your goals. Knowing what new business you want to go after will help narrow the choices of technologies.
"It all starts with the applications you’re going to pursue," Butler explains. "That will dictate the type of media you’re going to be printing on, and then that will also determine the type of technology you should use."
By consensus, UV-curable printers have been deemed the most versatile when it comes to media compatibility. Agfa Corporation is preparing to launch a UV-curable solution in Q1 2006, the :Anapurna 100. "A UV printer will print on just about anything," according to Steve Cutler, Agfa’s North American marketing manager, screen, sign, and display segment. "The only thing that UV printers traditionally have trouble with are reflective materials, like foils."
For an even more agile approach, hybrid print solutions enable sign shops and digital print providers to print on both rigid and flexible substrates. For example, Agfa’s :Anapurna, L&P’s VirtuTX, VUTEk’s PressVu, and MacDermid ColorSpan’s DisplayMaker 98uvx all handle either category of media equally well, according to the manufacturers.
"[Our L&P Virtu], with its capability to print rigid and roll-to-roll—including uncoated textiles—has truly been the last piece necessary for us to become a total solution provider," notes Miller of Pictographics.
When choosing the right grand format printer, Butler says it’s absolutely essential to consider media compatibility. Whether the organization’s goal is to tap into new markets, or merely in response to evolving customer demands, "having a large selection of media is critical."
Having a specialty isn’t a bad business strategy, either. Certainly, there are printing companies that have built long careers on doing one type of print, and doing it extremely well.
"We have a customer in Colorado that has more than a dozen of our printers," according to Jim Lambert, executive VP, Innovative Solutions. "They are one of the dominant poster printers in the market, and they naturally print mostly on paper."
Lambert acknowledges, though, that a growing number of customers require the ability to print on more than just traditional printing stocks. "Our printers also do vinyl very well, and it’s a very good mesh printer, and a very good adhesive-back printer. They are catch-all solutions."
A printer’s ability to print on any number of substrates can enable a printing company to capture new business, without investing in multiple print engines, Lambert stresses.
"Print shops across the world are not just settling on one [service] anymore; they have found the best way to increase their business is to provide a variety," Gandy of Gandinnovations suggests. "One of our customers began printing on wallpaper, and thus, opened up a whole new market for himself. The more media options you are able to provide to your [clients], the more likely they’ll be to give you their business."
New technology has allowed phenomenal versatility when it comes to grand format substrates. As seen, these digital output systems can render prints on standard media, as well as more exotic materials such as wood, copper, glass, etc. That versatility gives imaging service providers new services to sell that are guaranteed to help the client’s message stand out. Be sure to explore all the requirements and possibilities of grand format before you enter. With all the ink, hardware, and media options on the market today, it can be a confusing arena to enter.