By Melissa Donovan
More than halfway through 2016, it’s time again to look at the state of the graphic arts. This year brought with it hot trends, new applications, and an increasing need for efficiency in the print shop. The winners of our annual Application of the Year awards perhaps best symbolize these three key points.
Congratulations to Swift Print Communications, Agio Imaging, Brush Stroke Sign Design, and Mister Print Productions. We’ve included images of their work throughout this feature article. To learn more about each print service provider (PSP) visit digitaloutput.net in August and search keyword “DOAOY1608.”
Hardware, ink, media, and software continue to evolve and these changes in turn affect application options, specifically the target audience—new and existing buyers—of these products. As more jobs—with unfamiliar expectations—are thrown into the mix, PSPs look for ways to increase efficiency in their shops to keep up with customer demand.
The Next Big Craze
Trends are common in any industry and the graphic arts is no exception. Product evolution—and its success or failure—is based on whether PSPs’ reception is positive or negative. Advancements met with open arms are those that save a print provider time and money, while still delivering the level of quality and reliability expected from the customer. In 2016, this was seen in printers, finishing devices, ink, media, and software.
Printers and Finishing Devices
According to Rick Scrimger, president, Roland DGA Corporation, technological improvements in eco-solvent, dye-sublimation (dye-sub), and UV printers made them more user friendly, productive, and efficient than ever before.
While user-friendly components can refer to features found on the printer, price is another characteristic that falls under the same heading. With increased availability of lower cost dye-sub printers, these devices have become popular in the last 12 months, admits John Coyne, sales manager, Lintec of America.
One example of a productive technological improvement is waterfall printhead technology, or solid position printheads. “These printers treat fairly large volume print jobs just like a small one-off print job since they print a very high speeds,” explains E. Tyler Reich, director of product development, Qué Media, Inc.
Increases in printing speed mean efficiency expectations rise, especially in regards to media loading and unloading. “With speeds in excess of 100 boards per hour it becomes impractical and expensive to manually feed media. New generation systems are more capable of handling a wider variety of media, but are also able to be set up in a shorter period of time,” says Larry D’Amico, director of sales – North America, Durst Image Technology US, LLC.
“Taking time and cost out of production continues to be a key driver for technology innovation. Hardware vendors are making printers that are easy and fast to load, incorporating high levels of automation,” agrees Oriol Gasch, director, large format printing, Americas, HP, Inc.
Automation is seen on both ends of the hardware spectrum, not only on the printer side but finishing. “One of the biggest trends is automation of printing and cutting; both physical and workflow. Vendors offer more efficient ways to provide materials handling to efficiently load and unload sheets. Ultimately, as time progresses, these same vendors will offer lights-out solutions,” foresees Steve Bennett, VP sales central and distribution, Esko.
Specific to finishing, “customers are looking for anything from automated tool set up to automated tool/bit changes, automatic loading/offloading, and even robotics. An obvious way to increase productivity and throughput is through more automated devices—with less need for human intervention,” adds John Cote, NA sales manager, Zünd.
Flexibility and versatility are two key characteristics of ink.
Ken VanHorn, VP, marketing and operations, Mimaki, USA, Inc., says UV-curable ink has generated the most recent interest because of the increased demand for flexible inks not only in the traditional signage market—think soft signage like banners, vehicle wraps, and point of purchase (POP); but also in industrial printing where inks are used to print on substrates like leather or thermoforming.
“The area of interest right now is flexible inks,” agrees Javier Mahmoud, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color. He specifically cites applications where clients actually form the object and the ink goes along with the form rather than cracking.
“On the media side of things, ease of use is becoming more important. Clients, PSPs, and retailers want products that print well, install easily without the need for costly professional installers, and remove effortlessly,” lists Darren Speizer, VP, sales and marketing, Drytac.
Often it is ideal if these substrates are versatile. “Products that can be relied upon for a variety of applications allow PSPs to respond swiftly while maintaining a more efficient cost structure for their business. Instead of purchasing many different types of specialty media, print providers can streamline their inventory,” explains Jenny O. Kigin, marketing operations manager, 3M Commercial Solutions.
Kylie Schleicher, marketing manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc., admits that “customers are looking for media forms that are versatile, but the message being displayed is equally as important as the media being used.”
Magnetic-receptive media is gaining traction. These substrates are becoming thinner and wider, which increases the number of compatible ink sets and printers. This allows print providers who once needed another printer to even consider printing to magnets use one already in house, hence the increase in demand. In addition, many PSPs recognize just how easy to use these graphics can be.
“Factoring in the time and cost savings of printing direct, the ease of installation and changing graphics, and durability that allows for multiple reuses of the same graphics, magnetic-receptive graphic systems are cost efficient and effective for graphics and signage that require frequent changes,” details Mike Gertz, marketing manager, Master Magnetics, Inc.
Jim Cirigliano, marketing manager, Magnum Magnetics Corporation, argues that there is no denying the rise in demand for magnetic-receptive media. However, “although the recent trend has been toward ultra-thin magnet receptive, some print shops are discovering that the glossy finishes on these graphics exaggerate flaws. For high-end glossy large format graphics, some companies opt for a thicker magnetic-receptive substrate that hides tiny imperfections even under a high-gloss finish.” To Cirigliano, the sheer number of magnetic-based options is the even bigger trend.
Fabric continues to grow. “Digital print textiles are available in increasingly wider widths allowing for more innovative installations. They are also being developed as more task specific such as light box, stretch with memory fabrics, and textiles with full blockout capabilities. New and improved coatings allow for fabrics with advanced water-, soil-, and stain-repel, and moisture management with wicking technology,” explains Jeff Sanders, digital fabrics sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics.
While many think of fabric in terms of eco-friendly, 2016 brought with it a trend of “green” rigid substrates. “There is a continued shift away from composite and plastic-based print media. Products can offer warping resistance, a smooth low-static print surface, and clean cutting edges without being a burden on the environment, or the customer’s wallet,” states Christian Nole, marketing coordinator, Katz Americas.
Beyond the material itself, many vendors see a major trend in manufacturing processes becoming more sustainable. “There’s a strong push towards holistic sustainability. The trend is to institute an enterprise-wide initiative where companies are implementing green efforts throughout its products and manufacturing facilities including the removal and usage of any harmful chemicals in the coating process,” continues Jim Tufts, business unit manager, Perception Wide Format Media.
Film and vinyl are prevalent and going through their own evolutions based an intended application. Robert Rundle, viscom market manager, Ritrama Inc., points to optically clear window films with wet apply characteristics as gaining a lot of momentum in the past year.
Molly Waters, senior technical specialist, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions, believes overlaminates really emerged to the forefront in the last 12 months due to their abilitity of changing “the appearance of color change or chrome wraps by modifying the finish.”
Software solutions continue to evolve by improving efficiency. Fully integrated workflow solutions and standalone products are mission critical tools in most print shops.
“Software solutions have made automation in the print shop easier, so as business increases there are fewer mistakes with less human interaction required. Technologies such as JDF and integration tools make it easier for different software solutions to work together,” explains Bryan Manwaring, director of product marketing, Onyx Graphics, Inc.
For standalone, Jessica Blevins, product specialist, S-One Holdings Corporation, looks to ecommerce websites, or Web to print (W2P) functionalities. “These have opened more opportunity for customization and on demand printing in the décor market. Existing or new print shops are using this business model as an entry channel into new markets.”
“I see more print providers building a stronger web presence and catering to customers outside their immediate geographic area. W2P in an era of increasing demand for personalization makes it very convenient for customers to now shop for their printing online and for print providers to promote new applications and services,” adds Randy Paar, manager, marketing – display graphics, large format solutions, Canon Solutions America (CSA).
New Spin on Old Tricks
While the graphic arts’ history is rich in banners and signs, its future looks to unique applications that print providers can offer both existing and new clients. Customization is prevalent in these newest applications, designed to generate more revenue for print providers.
Traditional marketing and advertising buyers rely on PSPs to find ways to get their clients’ messages across in a media-rich world. “Unique applications provide print buyers with an effective way to communicate their advertising and promotional messages and leave a lasting impression on the end consumer,” shares Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, NAFTA, Agfa Graphics.
“Retailers are not only taking advantage of various signage applications that are now more cost effective to produce for shorter run promotions, they are also finding that print providers can help with store décor,” agrees Fabrizio Soto, VP of marketing for production printing and wide format, Oki Data Americas.
While floor, window, and wrap graphics aren’t new, today’s latest iterations catch a consumer’s eye in any retail environment—large or small.
“One of the fastest growing trends is floor graphic applications. There are more options now than ever, including carpet and concrete graphics,” suggests Jason Yard, marketing manager, Mactac Distributor Products.
Ultraflex’s Schleicher agrees that floor graphics are some of the more popular applications today because they “are easily customized and provide the foundations for a retailer’s identity. Retailers seek to immerse customers into the complete marketing environment and floor graphics help to achieve this.”
Window graphics are ever growing in popularity. Lintec’s Coyne says that since PSPs can now use existing print equipment to print to many of these vinyl or films, they see it as an attractive addition to their revenue source.
Wrap applications that involve color change media are trending. “The need for these applications is being driven by the increased demand for customized solutions, personal and corporate. Whether it is a retail location or a personal car, people and businesses want to stand out,” explains Chad Russell, VP of sales, Arlon Graphics, LLC.
Craig Campbell, graphic products market manager, Orafol Americas, believes the growth in solid color wraps is being driven by the everyday car enthusiast. “This is a good thing for the digital space as the companies who are providing these solid color wraps are also beginning to see why they need to incorporate digital equipment,” he continues.
Fabric-based backlit signage is another popular application attracting PSPs’ existing customers. “The momentum in fabric soft signage and banner applications is tremendous. Go to any trade show and you may notice how reusable fabric soft signage is being used prominently in booth construction,” recommends Ken Hanulec, VP marketing, inkjet solutions, EFI.
Kristina Devine, senior marketing and pricing specialist, Tamara Pitman, product manager, Coveris Advanced Coatings, cite ease of installation, foldability, ease in transport, light weight, and color pop generated from the dye-sub process as reasons this application is so successful.
“As demand for printing on fabric continues to grow, selecting outstanding backlit fabrics that are also proven to perform beautifully for targeted frontlit applications is one way printers gain efficiency in production. Managing less SKUs leads to tighter inventory controls, involves using one profile, and keeping the same roll on the printer for multiple jobs,” adds Karen Stuerenberg, marketing director, Top Value Fabrics.
New clients enter the mix from apparel buyers and interior designers to corporate companies looking for reward collateral and promotional products; PSPs need to be ready to service them with digitally printed textiles and wallcoverings to statues or luggage tags.
Fabric optimized for digital print is propelling applications targeted toward new clients. “Up-and-coming direct to textile applications outside of the graphic arts include home décor, industrial applications, and clothing such as sportswear and high fashion,” suggests Brian Phipps, president, Mutoh America, Inc.
Customization is at play here as well. Interior designers have seen the benefits of digital and are adapting it into home and out-of-home jobs. “As digital technology advancements are made in a predominately analog world of textiles and wallcoverings, the consumer becomes closer to the product with the freedom to design, purchase, and install décor offerings for their home or office space,” shares S-One’s Blevins.
Orafol’s Campbell believes that “the interior, architectural, and environmental design community is pushing demand for specialty applications down to the PSPs to create even more opportunity to expand their business.”
“Wallcoverings are increasingly popular and there are now numerous products available that can be digitally printed in short runs and still be relatively cost effective,” explains CSA’s Paar.
Promotional products and rewards/trophies are finding new life in the digital space. UV-curable chemistries and smaller, easier to use flatbeds give PSPs complete control over production. “Previously, items to be decorated were often produced in one location, then taken to a second location for printing. Now they can be produced in the same environment, ensuring improved quality and decreasing manufacturing time,” says Mimaki’s VanHorn
Jim Peterson, co-founder, Vanguard Digital Printing Systems, also cites prototyping and engineering as two other applications that benefit from UV technology and open the door to new clients.
“People who were conventional digital printers are now printing on things they never dreamed would be possible to print on digitally, from cups and bottles to other promotional products. The brand owners that have production lines are incorporating digital printing into those lines for printing on fabrics, bags, saw blades, and brake pads,” adds Jim Lambert, VP/GM, digital division, INX International Ink Co.
Need it Now
Increases in efficiency are a primary concern for many print providers operating in a need-it-now world, especially as new applications may present learning curves that yield production processes. Industry leaders address this in a number of ways, from hardware and workflow solutions to educational classes and seminars.
“From our perspective, manufacturers in general have appeared to be a little slow to add additional efficiency hardware functions, and we have seen a growing trend of trying to push the boundaries of speed. Some manufacturers, however, have focused on improving upon established technology combinations and added capabilities that can address any technical concerns,” admits VanHorn.
INX’s Lambert believes one way to increase efficiency is to have a platform that prints to a wide variety of products. “This virtually eliminates the need of the print provider to have a machine that prints on only one thing.”
With finishing hardware, Zünd’s Cote sees a need for increased efficiency in the kitting aspect of a job. “This means configuring our cutting systems in such a way that human operators or collaborative robots can easily kit finished output right as it comes off the cutting equipment, without adding any extra steps in material handling or logistics.”
Software is an essential piece of the efficiency puzzle. “Print providers need to know—with confidence—that all orders will come out of production as expected and as fast as possible. Software solutions are now able to detect and even fix issues with files coming into production, automatically prepare files with print and finishing requirements, and drive equipment as fast as possible without needing much operator involvement,” explains Onyx’s Manwaring.
Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson America, Inc., gives examples of PSPs that use sophisticated barcoding systems, shop in a box software, and web platforms that integrate directly with RIP software as those successfully improving the speed of their business and minimizing the amount of manual touchpoints in their print process.
Perhaps the best way to create a streamlined print process from end to end is to ensure you’ve learned all the necessary tips and tricks for whatever application(s) you may be specializing in. “Education is the easiest way to clear so many of our market’s hurdles and to become more efficient in completing projects. By truly understanding the different types of media and what their applications—and limitations—are as it relates to your project’s budget can mean the difference in how much profit you can go home with,” recommends Campbell.
Into the Next Year
There continues to be an evolution of new products and services across all facets of the industry—from hardware, ink, and media to software. These changes give PSPs even more options to offer their clients unique ways to promote their businesses.
Aug2016, Digital Output