May 11, 2017
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.
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.
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.
The demand for increased throughput
As the wide-format graphics market continues to scale up, the need for increased throughput is becoming more critical. Many high-end production environments are now configured to output 92.9 m2 (1,000 sf) per hour, regardless of the specific ink technology.
Manufacturers have pushed print speeds well beyond that requirement by developing wider presses, adding more printheads and using LED or mercury vapour lamps for curing. In some configurations, eight to 16 printheads accommodate graphic widths up to 3.2 m (10 ft). Fortunately, as these technologies improve, prices drop, making the opportunity available to a broader range of PSPs.
After mainstream single-pass inkjet printers were introduced in 2013, it wasn’t long before they began to be used for general sign and graphics applications. While pigmented inks have improved lightfastness, even dye-based inks have been used to produce floor graphics, posters and temporary signage (i.e. images that are changed after 90 days).
Devices of this type are still in the early stages of development—less than 2,000 have been installed on a worldwide basis—and they have the potential to broaden the production graphics market. As the installed base increases, it should drive down the cost per print, especially for posters.
Finishing represents another area of growth. While more and more PSPs are becoming ‘total solution’ providers by offering both printing and finishing services in-house, nearly one-third still outsource at least some of their post-print work to other businesses.
As with wide-format digital printers, today’s finishing devices have been automated for faster production throughput. Even smaller PSPs can now transition their finishing work in-house and deliver a one-stop shopping experience for their customers.
Many vertical markets can represent growth opportunities for wide-format printing, but the following are a few of the most compelling industries to be strategically targeted by PSPs.
Digitally printed carpeting, glass, wallcoverings, wood, ceramic tiles and laminates are all making inroads in the construction industry. Further, more traditional signs, banners, flags and billboards are in high demand by the industry to create brand impact, attract new customers, promote services and sell homes.
The rapid growth of the health-care industry is due in part to the aging population. Hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, labs and pharmacies all need wide-format graphics, from outdoor backlit displays that promote services to indoor posters that educate patients and customers.
The food-service industry continually relies on a broad variety of digitally printed wide-format graphics to generate awareness and create ambience for the dining experience. In this highly image-conscious market, esthetically pleasing signs and banners are key to increasing sales in restaurants.
The retail sector has long been a boon to wide-format digital printing. Some wholesalers even purchase their own inkjet printers to create marketing collateral for their distributors and retailers, including POP graphics, end cap displays and promotional signage. Floor graphics can be used to lead customers directly to specific products in a store. And themed areas can be created for special holiday and seasonal campaigns.
Companies that offer wide-format printing services most commonly produce banners, posters, POP displays and signs. All of these applications continue to represent major opportunities in the aforementioned industries, as well as others.
Fabric flags, banners, wind feathers and tension graphic displays, for example, can all be used to build out a themed area in a department store—and as an added benefit, they are largely reusable. Rigid boards, too, can be used for semi-permanent display structures, such as visual separators for the ice cream, beverage and fast-food sections of a gas station’s limited retail space, with numerous branding opportunities that can be exploited.
Current market trends are dictating shorter runs, more customized versioning and faster turnarounds. These are all characteristics that make digital wide-format printing an attractive method of production. The key for success is for signmakers to understand their target markets, including their customers’ buying habits and priorities.
There is no question opportunities abound, including areas of untapped potential for sign shops to explore to increase their revenue and market share. Technology—from printers to inks to substrates to finishing equipment—continues to improve even while prices drop. This is particularly compelling for smaller shops that might not have been able to offer wide-format printing or finishing services in the past.
While the potential for growth exists across a vast range of vertical markets, another key factor is education. As the number of inks, substrates and machines continues to grow in a highly competitive industry, the learning curve has become steeper. Dynamic knowledge is crucial to maintaining sales and retaining business. The bar is being raised ever higher in terms of clients’ expected print quality, for example, which calls for practical colour management skills.
Indeed, even as it grows, the wide-format printing industry is fraught with challenges. One of the most common issues is space. If sign shops are to increase their print volumes, after all, they typically require larger-format printers, but many face space limitations in their facilities. With these constraints in mind, many may need to make compromises in terms of speed or quality, but another answer is to specialize in a niche market until there is a chance to expand an existing facility or move to a bigger one.
For all of these reasons, it is important for PSPs to evolve alongside all of the broader changes that are shaping the way their industry is growing.
Steve Urmano is director of InfoTrends’ wide-format printing consulting service and develops annual global market forecasts for hardware and supplies used in the wide-format graphics market. This article is based on a white paper he prepared for the International Sign Association (ISA). For more information, contact him via e-mail at email@example.com or visit www.signs.org/research to read the complete report.
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