By Greg Lamb
The wide-format printing industry is poised to see significant growth in 2016 and beyond. Late last year, the International Sign Association’s (ISA’s) quarterly economic forecast report predicted most sectors of the industry will enjoy positive trending this year. Most of the good news is due to new developments in printing technology, which continue to drive innovation. At the same time, however, changes in customer demand have also ‘pushed the envelope’ with regard to the customization of print services, with new types of output hitting the market on a continuous basis.
The growth of inkjet printing has paralleled the earlier rise of offset technology in the production printing industry. And today, it is still one of the fastest-growing methods of printing. According to InfoTrends, a market research and strategic consulting firm for the digital imaging and documents industry, inkjet will account for more than 59 per cent of the total production volume of all digital colour printing by 2018.
Advances in inkjet printhead technology have moved the industry forward, in large part due to demand from manufacturers of wide-format printers. As new printheads are introduced, the industry continues to see increased nozzle density, higher print resolutions, more grey-scale capabilities and faster production times year after year.
Inkjet printheads have also become more versatile, supporting a full gamut of inks. Today, these may include ultraviolet-curable (UV-curable), solvent-based, durable aqueous ‘latex’ and dye sublimation inks.
Platforms for growth
Speaking of versatility, some manufacturers have specialized in building ‘platform’ printers. These are machines designed to grow along with the sign shops that use them. They are usually reasonably priced at the outset and then may be upgraded over time.
A shop might buy a wide-format press with one set of printheads at a low, entry-level price, for example, then grow its business and market share over the course of a year before ordering a second array of printheads and doubling the machine’s speed. Another year later, the shop may even add a third array of printheads to further increase productivity.
This is an exciting new trend for the wide-format printing industry, as it offers high-quality results in a cost-effective fashion. It is otherwise very expensive to buy and continue to outgrow printers within a short period, not to mention the associated inconveniences of selling old equipment and the learning curve for each new model.
Providing more services
While many print service providers (PSPs) are enjoying the upswing in the wide-format graphics market, they also must formulate their own business strategies to gain a competitive edge while answering increasing customer demand for shorter runs, personalized designs and more vibrant colours. With continued improvements in digital technology allowing the industry to shift from mass production to customization, PSPs need to become more focused on individual clients’ needs, if they are to deliver greater value than their competitors.
As a consequence, the industry is seeing more and more integration of other services like marketing, graphic design, branding, finishing and project management into existing print shops.
Finishing equipment ranges from cutters, fabric steamers and heat presses to industrial sewing systems, sergers (i.e. overlock sewing machines that cut the edges of the fabrics fed through them), welders and seamers. In the long run, in-house finishing is more cost-effective than outsourcing the work.
It also serves as a value-added component of a print shop’s graphic production workflow. Many of today’s customers are looking for the convenience and expediency of ‘everything under one roof’ with one-stop shopping.
One of the more significant recent advances in finishing technology has been the automation of cutting. A single flatbed digital cutter can outpace—and achieve higher accuracy than—four employees using knives to cut graphics by hand. Given the running costs of cutting tables versus manual labour, a return on investment (ROI) may well be seen within the term of a five-year lease.