How the newest digital printing technology is helping sign shops thrive

12 April 2022

Newer digital printers offer faster print speeds and quicker drying times to help Westmount Signs efficiently produce large projects.

By Ginny Mumm

Tim Bezner, owner of Westmount Signs in Waterloo, Ont., is excited for the future of printing. Westmount has been around since 2004 and, even with the changes brought about by the pandemic, he notes, “I am still amazed by how many signs are going up all around us. The future looks bright for our industry.”

He has good reason to be optimistic. According to a recent report by Markets and Markets, the global large-format printer market is projected to grow from US$8.8 billion in 2021 to $11.4 billion in 2026. The forecasted increase is attributed in part to recent technological advances in digital printing equipment that are helping print shops meet increasing demands for advertising and décor. 

We spoke with Tim and with Amanda Juneau, co-owner of a small, but rapidly growing O’Hare Sign Company in Edmonton, Alta., about how advances in digital printing technology are helping their shops flourish, even in an uncertain economy.

How did you start your company?

Tim Bezner (TB): Westmount was founded as a partnership in 2004 in Waterloo, Ont., and in 2008, I bought out my partner. We started in a little 121-m² (1300-sf) shop in a strip mall beside a Jiffy Lube. We grew the business and, by 2008, we needed to expand to our current 595-m² (6400-sf) location. In 2018, we added a second location, moving our paper-based digital printing equipment into a 167-m² (1800-sf) space in Kitchener, Ont. As a natural add-on to our sign manufacturing, we purchased Dunbar Electric to add Westmount Electrical Services to our portfolio.

Amanda Juneau (AJ): O’Hare Sign began in 1983 when two friends got together to make portables. The business then branched into signmaking with hand-painted graphics and custom signage. My business partner, Darrell Hastey, had been with O’Hare for 23 years. He left for a few years and came back. I had been working at O’Hare for 10 years, and, in 2019, we decided to buy the business.

 

Newer wide-format digital printers offer a wide colour gamut, enabling stunning colour prints like these.

Tell us about your shop today.

TB: We have 15 full-time employees in the sign and printing side of the business, as well as two employees with Westmount Electrical. Our original showroom has been absorbed by production space over the years and now hosts four workstations for our designers. The boardroom was also converted to a sales office. The Waterloo shop has three vehicle bays; however, we wrap oversized vehicles at the Kitchener location due to the larger bay size available in that building.

We keep our wide-format digital print production humming with two Roland DG TrueVIS VG2 wide-format printer/cutters. We have plotters, mounting tables, CNC routers, CNC channel letter benders, a laser engraver, laser cutters, and three aerial lifts, including a crane.  We also have a wide variety of commercial printing presses and machines.

AJ: Though O’Hare has always been in the same location, over the years, our technology has evolved. O’Hare Sign is now fully equipped with large-format printers, laminators, plotters, and full design stations. Our layout includes a reception area, a production and manufacturing area, and a spacious vehicle bay for applying graphics to vehicles up to 12 m (40 ft) long. We also have roughly 232 m² (2500 sf) in a commercial strip mall, with our storefront facing two very busy streets in Edmonton. 

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What industries do you serve?

TB: We don’t focus on a particular market, however, a bright spot during the pandemic has been the construction industry and all the development that has been going on in the region. High-tech has also been busy with a lot of robotics and technology companies keeping us running with graphics for their instrument panels and devices. Lastly, while the pandemic resulted in a lot of restaurant closures, we have recently seen a resurgence of growth in the hospitality sector, especially restaurants. We have customers all over Canada and have sent projects as far away as Mexico City for local installation. The bulk of our customers are business owners, but we take the same care with printing for a young couple’s wedding as we do for a corporate client’s branding package. Our one-on-one, in-person service seems to be a differentiator in the community. We work hard to forge strong relationships and, in 2020, Westmount Signs was nominated by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce for Community Builder of the Year.

AJ: Our clients range from walk-in customers that want a one-off sign or design to medium- sized or large corporations with full signage packages. We do a lot of fleet graphics and owner/operator vehicle wraps, along with signage for small businesses and real estate contractors. Our clients are mainly local to Edmonton and the surrounding areas, but we do have quite a few print-and-ship clients throughout the province. We even have clients in other cities that only deal with us, so we arrange for their projects to be ready when they are in town again.

Westmount Signs produced and installed these wall graphics in partnership with Trusscore as part of an art walk in downtown Kitchener, Ont.

What type of digital printing equipment have you had in the past?

TB: We have had a long relationship with Roland DG, starting out with our purchase of a CAMM-1 plotter/printer combo. We leapt into the 21st century with a Roland SOLJET and later to a Pro 4. When we were doing on-site printing for PGA and LPGA golf tournaments in Regina, Sask., we needed a printer we could easily transport, so we added a Roland DG VersaCAMM that fit into a minivan. 

Last year, we upgraded to the new TrueVIS VG2 64-in. printer/cutter. We were so happy with the VG2’s performance and colour accuracy that we recently replaced our VersaCAMM with another TrueVIS VG2 in a 1371-mm (54-in.) width. Surprisingly, because Roland DG printers retain their value so well, our upgrade costs have been minimal.

AJ: O’Hare has been running Roland DG printers pretty much since digital printing technology took over the industry. We choose Roland DG equipment for its reliability, outstanding colour, and its advanced technology.

 

What features were most important to you when selecting a new wide-format digital printer?

TB: Reliability and consistency as well as print quality – these features are so interwoven that I can’t place a value on one attribute over another. The fact that I can run prints unattended night after night also really helps my bottom line. The print quality is perfect. I couldn’t ask for better vibrancy or colour accuracy.

Having two TrueVIS machines gives us the flexibility to print on one while cutting on the other. This also provides redundancy in the unlikely event that one requires service. The increased efficiency in the ink as well as lower consumable costs and reduced packaging are the icing on the cake.

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AJ: When our old printer was ready for an upgrade, we explored the newest technology and the Roland DG TrueVIS VG2 really caught our eye with its vibrant colour and outstanding print consistency. In addition, the print time was faster with a higher quality print, and the dry time was faster as well.

 

An artist created the graphics for this new building to represent the site’s heritage as one of Kitchener’s famous
garment factories.

How important is colour to your clients?

TB: Colour is critical, and, for us, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) inks are key. We only run Roland DG ink and feel that is an important reason we consistently get such good results. I have seen some prints produced by other shops around town fade away. We have never had that kind of problem. There are prints that came off our SOLJET over 10 years ago on outside windows that still look great. I have never had to replace a faded print, or a damaged printhead for that matter.

AJ: Colour is very important to us and our clients. The colour range on the TrueVIS has created more options for our customers. We run TR2 ink with magenta, cyan, yellow, orange, light black, green, and black, which gives us a colour gamut that most other sign shops can’t compete with.

 

What impact has having modern digital printing equipment had on your business? 

TB: Another signmaker once said, “If the printers are running, I am making money,” and that still rings true. Digital printing really adds value to our product line up. Each generation of digital printing equipment has brought increased performance and productivity features—that’s been a big driver of our growth and our reputation.

AJ: Having modern digital printing equipment has created new services we can offer our clients—services other shops may not be able to offer. The vibrancy of colours stands out and makes people notice our work. The print quality has kept our fleet wraps consistent over time and across vehicles. The increased speed has helped us produce more work in less time. The cutting option is so precise that we get jobs done right the first time. All in all, the new equipment has modernized O’Hare Signs and is helping us keep up with the competition, even though we are a smaller company.

A full-service shop, O’Hare Signs produces interior and exterior signage with its Roland DG TrueVIS wide-format
digital printer.

Which digitally printed products that are “hot” right now?

TB: We have been doing a lot of outdoor decoration of building and architectural features, such as walls and art installations. The more people see what we have done, the more we get requests to apply graphics in different places. The sky is the limit and I figure if you can imagine it, we will probably be able to decorate it.

AJ:  Vehicle graphics is one of our more popular products and demand is increasing as businesses seek additional branding and exposure. We provide decals all the way up to full wraps for all vehicle types, including fleet and commercial vehicles, as well as for individuals who want to customize their vehicles. We also get a lot of requests for informational signage like construction signs, information boards, fire department connection (FDC) signs, sandwich boards, and banners. More customers are also asking for interior and exterior wayfinding signs as well as promotional signage.

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How do you differentiate your company from your competitors?

TB: We have a very healthy competitive scene in Kitchener, Waterloo, and the surrounding area. We all seem to get along and have worked out our own niches, however, sometimes we are pitted against each other and enjoy the contest. As we have invested in our capabilities, staff, and equipment, we seem to have risen over many of our competitors in the “Traditional Sign” category. Our involvement in our community and charitable initiatives also helps to spread the word, along with our presence online and on social media.  

AJ:  There are a ton of sign shops in and around Edmonton. At O’Hare Signs, we strive for excellent quality, and having modern equipment certainly helps with that. Seeing our customers’ companies grow is our goal. We try to provide outstanding customer service to all our clients, be they a large company or someone who just walked in off the street. We always express our gratitude for them choosing us, a small local sign company.

 

At the corner of two busy streets in Edmonton, O’Hare Signs is poised for growth.

How has your shop fared during the pandemic?

TB: It was scary for a while but with all the work we did making signs for the city and local businesses as well as sneeze guards and floor graphics, I often said, “The only thing saving us from the pandemic is the pandemic.”  Looking back now, it is hard to remember how uncertain everything seemed. We kept the business open with one employee at a time to answer phones while the rest worked remotely, but we have a great and loyal team and we all pitched in to make it work.

AJ: Our shop actually grew during the pandemic. We saw the opportunity to expand into protective barriers and floor graphics and we boomed. Our existing customers came to us to keep their businesses safe, and we provided them with the products they needed. Word got around about our work, and we gained a ton of new customers and contracts.

 

The future is hard to predict, but what do you think lies ahead for your company?

TB: We are in desperate need of more space, so that is on the horizon. We are also seeing more demand in the digital space for some of our electronic offerings so will be increasing our staffing there. Many municipalities are enacting standards to avoid typical acrylic backlit signs and we are perfectly positioned to capitalize on this trend with our fabrication abilities and print quality.  

Our slogan is, “We Look Good When You Look Good.” We believe we have the staff and state-of-the-art equipment needed to help keep our clients looking good.

AJ:  We want to make O’Hare Sign a one-stop shop for branding and growing a business. O’Hare has already expanded a great deal over the last three years, adding modern digital printing equipment and broadening our range of products. Darrell and I see many areas where O’Hare can continue to grow. One main focus is to increase our connections and customer relationships. The more people see our work, the more people we can help.

We are up for any challenge. We cannot advance if we are not learning as well, so we encourage new ideas and stay current on the latest technologies and techniques. O’Hare Sign is committed to helping our clients succeed.

Ginny Mumm is a freelance consultant for digital inkjet printer/cutter provider Roland DGA. For more information, visit www.rolanddga.com.

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