Wide-format Graphics: Print trends, opportunities and challenges

Photo courtesy HP

By Steve Urmano
The digital printing of wide-format graphics is rapidly growing across North America. Market research firm InfoTrends expects volumes to rise from about 460 million m2 (4.9 billion sf) in 2015 to 849 million m2 (9.1 billion sf) in 2020, nearly doubling over the five-year span and demonstrating a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.1 per cent.

This growth can be largely attributed to new business opportunities. The rise of aqueous, durable aqueous ‘latex,’ dye sublimation and ultraviolet-curable (UV-curable) inks is expected to more than offset any concurrent decline in solvent-based inks. Indeed, the very diversity of the ‘ingredients’ used in the sign and graphics industry is what will keep it on an upward trajectory.

There is clearly a great deal of untapped potential in the wide-format graphics market. Businesses that can leverage new opportunities will be well-positioned for future success.

A brief background
The first generation of solvent wide-format printers, which hit the market around 1999, were really just aqueous printers that incorporated new solvent-based inks and included a basic raster image processor (RIP). They produced about 7 to 11 m2 (80 to 120 sf) per hour.

There was a fair amount of confusion at first about which types of banners and self-adhesive media to use with these printers. The market quickly migrated to uncoated stock, primarily due to its low cost.

The machines typically used one printhead that split into four or six channels. Those with more channels could produce smoother skin tones in graphics, but also slowed down production. Multiple-printhead machines began arriving around 2006.

In 2011, by which point solvent printers had become very competitively priced, the first latex printers were introduced. These water-based inkjet machines encountered some early issues relating to startup and heating time and media warping, but have since captured much of the solvent and aqueous dye/pigment inkjet market across North America and Europe. InfoTrends expects the installed base of latex printers will enjoy a CAGR of 15.4 per cent from 2015 to 2020.

Dye sublimation printers have answered the call for soft signage.
Photo courtesy Mimaki

Meanwhile, the soft signage segment of the industry continues to evolve. High-volume dye sublimation printing of textiles for apparel has been scaled down for use in sign and graphics shops, with presses available in 1.8 to 3.4-m (5.9 to 11.2-ft) widths.

And while soft signage started with the use of dye sublimation inks via transfer paper, later generations of latex printers have also provided excellent results, to the point where they now offer a viable entry-level alternative to sublimation.

Continued diversification
The diversification process is continuing in the wide-format imaging industry, with systems like direct-to-garment printers helping to re-energize the market. It is not uncommon for today’s sign shops to offer specialty products and the ability to print on non-standard substrates, such as packaging films.

The latest durable and flexible inks also continue to push boundaries as they expand beyond traditional sign and graphics projects. Thermoforming inks, for example, are now also gaining a foothold in the printed packaging and prototyping market.

Indeed, packaging is a hot topic these days, as print buyers explore ways to improve their products’ ‘shelf appeal.’ Flexible inks, specialty colours and packaging prototypes that were once the domain of screenprinting are now being taken on with wide-format digital printing instead. Print service providers (PSPs) that approached this market early now have an average of three machines, while their oldest devices have already idled or worn out. While there are printers designed specifically for short-run cardboard and corrugated packaging materials, flatbed printers can be applied both to this category and to related point-of-purchase (POP) graphics and signs.

Digital printing has also become a mainstay in the exhibit and display graphics markets. The latest inks create fabric graphics with a rich look and feel. With light-emitting diodes (LEDs) positioned in front or behind the material, these graphics achieve the high-end appeal this market’s clients want, at a reasonable cost for the sign shop.

UV-curable inks have represented a further key area for opportunity. In addition to posters and banners, they have helped usher in new decor applications, as a flatbed UV printer can output photorealistic graphics directly onto non-traditional substrates like glass and wood.

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