Wide-format Graphics: Investing in the right technologies

October 28, 2015

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Photos courtesy Eclipse Imaging

By Kevin Sykes
From outdoor signage to corrugated displays, an ever-expanding range of applications for large-format printing has meant a continual evolution for today’s print service providers’ (PSPs’) portfolios of offerings. As new applications represent new potential revenue streams, PSPs are increasingly investing in digital technology to enhance their value proposition for customers by offering alternatives to traditional offset printing services.

As the productivity and quality of large-format digital printing continue to increase, long-run print projects are being transferred away from traditional flexographic, lithographic and screenprinting systems. That is not to say all traditional printing businesses are going away. International Data Corporation’s (IDC’s) most recent report on worldwide large-format printer shipments, for example, showed a 1.3 per cent increase in lithographic equipment shipments from the second quarter of 2014 to the second quarter of 2015.

The fastest rates of growth in the wide-format display graphics market, however, have been for ultraviolet-curing (UV-curing) and durable aqueous ‘latex’ inkjet printers. IDC noted “these technologies are where more PSPs are investing, based on the new and enhanced capabilities they offer to customers.”

As the IDC report shows, traditional lithographic printing is still the ‘bread and butter’ of many commercial PSPs, but the opportunity for growth in that area is very limited. As a result, the PSPs are looking toward other technologies to help them achieve incremental growth through additional, higher-margin applications.
A diversified portfolio also helps them be seen as ‘one-stop shops’ by their customers.

Eclipsing the competition
Eclipse Imaging is one such company that exemplifies these trends. Established in 1954 as Hamilton Screen Print (HSP) Graphics, Eclipse has grown to become one of Canada’s leading lithographic and digital large-format PSPs, operating a state-of-the-art 6,503-m2 (70,000-sf) facility in Burlington, Ont.

Eclipse prides itself on continually investing in new technology to ensure it can deliver the greatest value to its customers. Lithography still represents the majority of the company’s business, but the bulk of its new growth in recent years has directly stemmed from the digital side.

In 2012, for example, Eclipse became the first company in Canada to acquire a Scitex FB7600 industrial printer, with the goal of achieving faster turnarounds and increasing cost efficiencies across all print run lengths. This was followed by the installation of a Heidelberg VLF Speedmaster XL 162 press for displays and folding cartons in 2013 and two latex inkjet printers in 2014 to produce flexible signage. And in the summer of 2015, the company became the first anywhere in the Americas to install a Scitex 11000 high-volume industrial press.

All of these acquisitions have been game-changers, enabling Eclipse to offer additional services by printing on corrugated, foam-core and flexible materials.

“As a market leader, we need to stay current,” says Ralph Misale, Eclipse co-owner and chief operating officer (COO). “PSPs that don’t invest in technology risk falling behind when it comes to what they can offer in the way of products and services.”

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Founded in 1954 as a screenprinting company, Eclipse Imaging of Burlington, Ont., now offers a mix of lithography and digital large-format printing.

The one-stop kitting shop
The latest advances in digital printing technologies have led to dramatic shifts for many PSPS, allowing them to expand their capabilities, vary their run lengths and shorten their turnarounds. In turn, their customers’ expectations have changed.

As mentioned, while traditional lithographic printing is not going away anytime soon, shops like Eclipse have invested in digital printing technologies that represent new revenue streams and can thus foster future growth. In many cases, these revenue streams reflect a growing demand from the retail sector for flexible displays and ‘kitting.’

Online publication Retail Dive recently compiled a list of 10 major trends shaping the future of the retail sector. Among these was recognizing the growing importance of ‘face time’ for retailers and their brands through in-store experiences for customers. With this in mind, brand marketers are investing more heavily in merchandising displays.

Therein lies the opportunity for PSPs. With the growing demand for improved in-store presence, both brand marketers and retailers are looking to PSPs to do more than just traditional print jobs. In particular, they expect them to go beyond printing and manufacturing their displays, signage and marketing collateral by also packaging and distributing promotional kits to their various store locations.

Kitting is a common practice among retailers that involves grouping together related merchandising materials, including product samples, promotional literature, instructional packets and marketing pieces. As PSPs are already responsible for producing many of the included materials, it is no surprise retailers and brand marketers are also turning to them to package the kits.

Also, since today’s PSPs can handle larger volumes than before, in less time, they offer a more cost-effective method for kitting than if retailers or brand marketers handled the task in-house. The more kits that can be produced at one time, the lower the assembly time needed for each and, in turn, the lower the cost per unit.

To be fair, capitalizing on this trend is not merely an issue of investing in technology.
In Eclipse’s case, for example, buying new printers helped the PSP provide new kitting services, but only because the company also invested in new manpower and know-how for managing multiple creative endeavours, as well as additional physical space for storing the materials that go into the kits.

Keeping pace
With the proliferation of digital printing technology, the phrase “time is money” has never been more relevant to PSPs than it is today, as they face tighter deadlines and greater competition and must focus on speed to market. Both UV-curing and latex printers have helped them in these respects.

Further, advances in the speed, quality and versatility of digital printers have allowed PSPs to become more ‘agile’ and able to respond in a timely fashion to their customers’ changing priorities.

“To succeed in today’s printing industry, companies need to find ways to lower their overhead costs while improving efficiencies,” says Eclipse’s Misale. “Investing in new technologies is a relatively easy way for companies to find those gains.”

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Eclipse’s investments in digital inkjet printing have yielded such applications as Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) streetcar wraps and long-term construction hoardings.

Closing the gap
In recent years, many traditional PSPs have moved what was previous offset work to digital equipment. This is largely due to improvements in the quality of digital presses and their inks.

High-speed digital flatbed printing, for example, has seen tremendous growth in the past two years with respect to the marketplace for corrugated output, thanks to the improvement of vacuum management technology on flatbeds to enable better control of warp and distortion with corrugated substrates.

While such capabilities have improved rapidly in recent years, there are still limitations to digital printing technology. For very large jobs—e.g. more than 10,000 units—traditional analogue printing methods like lithography and flexography still tend to be the most cost-effective options.

Closing that gap—as has already been accomplished to a large degree in the sign industry—remains both a priority and a challenge for press manufacturers and PSPs alike, but not an unsolvable problem. With new technologies hitting the market, the gap is already narrowing.

High-dynamic-range (HDR) technology, for example, avoids sacrificing quality for speed
by using precision control with true grayscale printing, achieving a clarity of image detail that rivals lithography, but at speeds not previously reachable at comparable quality levels.

So, moving forward, PSPs will face fewer dilemmas of trading quality for productivity, as they invest in new technologies, diversify their portfolios of services and improve the efficiency of their operations.

As the pace of business continues to quicken and competition increases further, success will only become all the more dependent on delivering distinctive value to customers. For forward-thinking PSPs like Eclipse, this has meant carefully investing in the right technologies today, to become ready for the challenges of tomorrow.

Kevin Sykes is country general manager (GM) of sign, display, Indigo and PageWide web press solutions for HP Canada. For more information, visit www.hp.ca[4].

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2015-05-29-5043.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2015-09-17-7527.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/edit1.jpg
  4. www.hp.ca: http://www.hp.ca

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