By Melissa Donovan
While perhaps moving from pandemic to endemic is in the near future, we are presented with other challenges in terms of financial prosperity as well as success. However, positives are still found. The world as a whole and subsequently the graphic arts is certainly in a turbulent time, but I think it is repeatedly proven that the resilience of members of this industry is unsurpassed. Rising in times of hardship shows just how resourceful print providers can be. 2022 offered a lot of hope.
This is illustrated in this year’s Application of the Year awards. Annually, we ask our readers to nominate print service providers (PSPs) and worthy applications. The first place winner, Repros Inc., worked with its local school board and students to create bus wraps for the community. Not only educating future members of the industry but beautifying its community in the process. Congratulations to Globe Print, Puzzle Creative Solutions, and Real Color Design, second, third, and honorable mention honorees, respectively, as well.
Above: Real Color Design is the honorable mention winner.
Applications to Get Into
As evident by all the nominees from our Application of the Year awards, we have a lot of creative members in our community. “During the slow times of the pandemic, many print providers invested in new equipment and solutions to expand their portfolios and make them more versatile. It’s these forward thinkers that are maximizing their potential,” says Tony Caruso, VP of sales, Advanced Greig Laminators Inc.
Give them credit when it comes to some of the innovative work recently completed, representing some of the trends taking off in the last 12 months. The trifecta of windows, walls, and floors is one example. “Everyone seems to be launching into wall graphics in some form as we see a reemergence into office spaces, or the continued transformation of home environments with wall décor. Bespoke trends highlight the impact made with customizable designs and an array of materials, and all done with existing equipment and typically with an existing client base,” notes Jay Kroll, product manager – cut, transit, and wall solutions, General Formulations.
“We had a major uptick in the home décor arena. Installing self-adhesive materials with proprietary images really opened up since COVID-19 locked us in, but we see no stopping the home owners from adding some style to a flat one-color wall now that this idea has gone viral on the internet,” agrees Walter Gierlach Jr., president, Photo Tex Group, Inc.
Applications like printable wallpaper and glass films are growing in popularity because of “supply chain issues, the cost of building materials, and the excitement around creating personalized custom designs without having to pull walls down,” shares Michael Aldrich, product manager, FDC Graphics Films, Inc.
Amanda Smith, marketing communications manager, graphic products, Mactac, believes one-step applications in particular have really taken off in the last 12 months for walls, windows, and floors. “The products are typically easy to apply to the surface with a dot adhesive pattern. Most people can apply without the need for an installer or installation know-how.”
According to Jodi Sawyer, strategic business unit manager, retail and advertising, FLEXcon Company, Inc., the last year has brought a resurgence of mobility, particularly in consumers. “Travel, sports and entertainment, and commuting have returned, out of home advertising has rebounded—reaching close to 2019 levels, or higher in some cases. Opportunities include bus and train wraps, subway posters, building wraps, window graphics, and moving billboards/truck side advertisements, with new opportunities for posters and wraps on the expanding network of electrical vehicle charging stations.”
“We also see the need for more durable graphics, where the application requires longevity outdoors. This trend is associated with the rise in transit and recreational vehicle sales over the last 12 to 18 months,” adds Michael Johnson, VP – North American graphic and industrial sales, Nazdar Ink Technologies.
Despite an uptick in consumer mobility, buying habits changed during the pandemic and remain in place. According to a study by Alvarez & Marsal’s Consumer Retail Group, 85 percent of consumers plan to continue or accelerate curbside pickup or home delivery services. “Flexible fulfillment, buy online pick up in store, and curbside pickup have become preferred services for consumers. This means wayfinding signage and package tracking and identification labels are in high demand. Understanding the volumes, price points, and converting requirements of label printing compared to signage and wide format graphics is critical,” shares Sawyer.
In addition to label printing, Darren Claassens, head of sales and marketing, NUtec Digital Ink, believes digital inkjet packaging is an area expanding rapidly. “An advantage of digital printing is how it enables shorter prototyping times as well as smaller, efficient custom runs, which attracts interest and activity.”
“We continue to see a growing interest in packaging, both in the short-run packaging space and in graphics. The primary challenge for PSPs getting into this application is creating a complete, efficient—and therefore profitable—production workflow. It is important for them to consider and control, all steps and processes in their workflow, starting in prepress all the way through to dispatch,” seconds Martin Thornton, business segment manager, Zund America, Inc.
Textiles are a trend we continue to follow. According to Brian Gibson, wide format specialist, GBC SEAL, “textiles are the king of print medias.” This is for versatility, light weight, easier storage, visually/aesthetically appealing, and depending on print technology the ability to wash and reuse.
Sustainability is another attractive reason to use textiles, especially when referring to water-based pigment inks. There is a major drive into this segment of the business as customers look for ‘greener’ alternatives to traditional chemistries as well as more efficient ways to conduct business,” says Claassens.
Beyond fabric is a desire for eco-friendly rigid substrates like expanded PVC. “PSPs are examining and evaluating their material choices to ensure they are sustainable in several ways—first, in performance and fitness for use, selecting the right material for the application; and second, in sustainability—can the material be kept from being tossed in a landfill? A number of PSPs use expanded PVC because of its durability, quality, and traceability during the recycling stage,” explains Kevin Duffy, VP sales and marketing, Vycom.
Mike Richardson and Bob Rick, business development managers, Jessup Manufacturing Co., also recognize increased interest for sustainable media. “In the last year, one of the biggest requests is for cradle-to-grave products that are sustainable or green. The largest challenge is there is no consistent definition of what these and other environmental terms mean in regards to printable media. These types of products are in high demand in other parts of the world but not yet in the U.S. With firm definitions, pricing will be in line and products will be available.”
Automate to Alleviate
Staff shortages are everywhere. PSPs can combat this challenge head on by leveraging digital technologies and considering implementing new ones. The name of the game is automation.
“Digital means delivering more output with less resources, and that includes labor. Another aspect of this is using online design and workflow tools, which both empower the consumer to actively create their own imagery while simultaneously reducing demand for labor to create art on the printer’s end. While we prefer to think of digitization and automation as a means of optimizing the organization’s resources rather than replacing them, the efficiency it enables does lessen the difficulty of managing a day-to-day production environment when more hands are simply not available,” says Robert Zoch, global content manager, Kornit Digital.
Gibson notes how post-COVID-19, more sign/print shop owners realize the need for automation and lesser dependence on manpower. “A great example of this is a flatbed applicator. Since this machine is simple to use and easy to operate, it can be used to accurately register graphics and reduce consumable costs. People recognize production flexibility as costs are significantly reduced—one person can operate it, apply security films/laminates, and pre-mask with ease.”
Another example of relying on machines when faced with the challenge of minimal manpower, Brian Phipps, president and GM, Mutoh America, Inc., shares how hybrid printers—printing to both flexible and rigid substrates with one device—are gaining traction. “Print providers are having a hard time finding labor to create signs by printing onto adhesive vinyl and applying it to a hard substrate. With a hybrid printer and multipurpose ink, this allows someone to print on vinyl for vehicle wraps or for doing vacuum forming all the way to printing on rigid substrates. While a PSP is printing directly onto a rigid substrate, for example, the owner or manager can do other things like answer the phones or make sales calls. It frees them up from hiring someone to do this or having to print and mount the vinyl themselves.”
Similarly, but on the finishing end, “digital technologies often provide a more cost-effective production source than another team member. If you can train existing staff on how to run a specific machine or adjust your workflow so that your equipment operator can run an additional machine, you can save big on overhead costs and human resources paperwork. For example, laser machines are easy to operate and don’t require any manual tasks while the laser is being run. If you already have one laser and purchase a second, you can prepare and load the second machine while the first machine is running,” suggests David Stevens, technical development manager, Trotec Laser.
“The right software and reliable automation can definitely help. Easy-to-use programs and user interfaces that don’t require extensive, specialized training, along with dependable automation involving setup, material handling, and the processing methods themselves, are key to producing as much as possible with as little effort as possible,” agrees Thornton.
When automation isn’t in the budget, other adjustments are possible. “This might mean that employees work in zones, doing things like grouping print jobs by materials so they can leave equipment running longer and reduce change outs. It might be that they need to look at outsourcing options more closely, or to say that dreaded ‘no’ to customers looking for jobs that they know will tax their time and resources with a small payoff,” admits Kroll.
It’s important to note that a machine can’t take the place of a valued employee. Fostering the talents of existing staff members by investing in certain tools also is a solution to consider. “Leading organizations understand that attracting and retaining great talent is something that needs to be done continuously, not just during times like these. The answer is crazy simple—build a culture that fosters and encourages individual growth. The typical response to labor shortages is to automate away a process. Maybe it’s time to invest in digital learning tools for your team instead? Carve out specific time for cross training and encourage your team to teach. These investments will pay dividends today and in the future,” recommends Gene Hamzhie, CEO, FireSprint.
“Employers have to get creative in incentivizing employees to come work for them and to stay after they have been trained. History tells us that this is how medical insurance started to be paid by employers during WWII when there was a labor shortage. So, we need to get creative with work schedules, and other perks such as sign-on bonuses,” say Richardson and Rick.
Sal Sheikh, senior director, LFS marketing, Canon U.S.A., Inc., suggests “creating a company recruitment culture where everyone is involved in the process. Also, at a company level branding via social media and other communications promoting a fun, dynamic workplace, and lastly move with speed when you are ready to hire so you don’t lose out on candidates.”
Supply Chain Woes
The supply chain is another hot topic, with the wide format graphic arts not immune to the challenges. “Yes, this issue is just as prevalent in print as other higher profile industries. Maybe even more so since one of the top buying criteria customers look to from PSPs is turnaround time,” notes Sheikh.
Sawyer provides insight on the last few years and flux in demand. “The global supply of raw materials shifted based on consumer behaviors during the pandemic. There was decreased demand at the beginning of the pandemic, but as restrictions were lifted, demand came surging back exacerbating prior issues around supply and transport.”
Claassens believes the biggest area of concern currently is logistics. “Whether it is receiving or shipping goods, the freight times have doubled over the last two years and puts tremendous pressure on the supply chain and cash flow as vendors/suppliers now have to commit more capital into stock.”
“We have all come to loathe the term ‘allocation,’ but it looks to continue to be a problem for the next six months at least, and likely we’ll feel effects of it beyond that. Global conflicts, rising fuel prices, inflation, and transportation and employment shortages are all creating ripples that we only hope will dissipate and not intensify,” cautions Kroll.
Johnson is optimistic that things will improve with time. “Print providers need to expect price increases and extended lead times. They need to educate their customers on the challenges of the supply chain and communicate with their customers and suppliers to work through the forecasting challenges and invest in inventory and equipment where appropriate.”
“It is important to plan as far ahead as possible. I know it can be difficult for print providers to estimate their needs, especially after the uncertainty of the last two years, but planning is the best way to combat this issue. It is also important to work with material suppliers who are also planning ahead for peak seasons and communicating additional lead times when necessary,” stresses Kylie Schleicher, director of product development and product manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
Caruso recommends making room. “A print provider that’s stocked up will have the products they need on hand. And customers who stock up will have their cost determined so they can provide more accurate quotes to their customers.”
Another option, keep it local. “One pivot we have noticed is banners and other visual communication jobs have migrated to textile applications. Many countries have local fabric manufacturers, hence no supply chain issues. And more importantly, unlike banners, the vast majority are eco-friendly, which are becoming very popular in the market day by day,” says Sarit Tichon, SVP international sales, SAi.
“A lot of businesses learned the hard way that relying on parts, materials, or equipment from overseas was unrealistic, and this may be a similar sentiment when it comes to the supply chain problem. While sourcing local is an active step you can take to keep production up and running, we may end up experiencing supply issues regionally and locally as well,” suggests Stevens.
Maureen Damato, senior director of channel sales, Colex Finishing Solutions Inc., stresses the importance of purchasing equipment manufactured in the U.S.—including parts. This is due to delays in containers arriving outside the U.S.
Gibson comments on how in “an ideal world it would be great if we could rely on domestically manufactured goods and become self sufficient relying less on imported goods. A good policy to overcome logistics challenges would be sourcing manufactured goods within the continent you live where road and rail transportation infrastructure are the only transportation issues thus eliminating the need for ocean container goods.”
Returning to the idea of digitalization or automation, Zoch points out how it addresses supply chain issues. “One aspect of digital on demand production is that it’s making high-quality production without limitations more accessible to designers, creators, and entrepreneurs looking to build their own brands without significant cost of entry. More than ever before, the lack of constraints in terms of graphic design, minimum quantities, and supply chain logistics means we’re getting closer to the idea of giving people what they want, with an alignment between demand and supply that ensures we’re not wasting material.”
What if you can’t find the product you need or planning ahead isn’t possible? “Printers also need to work with suppliers on the alternative materials they’re willing to support. If the product they usually buy isn’t available, their supplier can help them qualify an alternative. It’s important for them to understand the application requirements and share them with their supplier so they can work together to perform any testing that might be required,” recommends Sawyer.
Organizations like those mentioned in this article continue to make great efforts to offset supply chain disruptions. Daralyn Baldogo, senior marketing communication specialist, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions, provides some examples. “The actions our organization has taken to help offset supply chain disruptions include global sourcing of components required by suppliers to produce products, including expedited air shipment. Procurement continues to negotiate preferred scheduling of Avery Dennison needed materials with their suppliers, based on their global relationships. In some cases, suppliers focus their efforts on working with Avery Dennison to ensure their ability to service manufacturing requirements and meet customers’ high demands.”
More to Come
Changes abound in print and we are at the forefront of innovative technologies despite worldwide challenges. We continue our conversation on the state of the industry with a webinar on the topic, accessible online at digitaloutput.net/webinars.
Aug2022, Digital Output