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DIGITAL WIDE FORMAT: A GROWTH OPPORTUNITY

Feb 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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In an attempt to better understand and define the markets for digital color wide-format (24 inches and above), the Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS) (Alexandria, VA) undertook a study and analysis of this opportunity. The information contained in “Study and Analysis of Digital Color Wide Format” is the basis for this article.

A LOOK AT TECHNOLOGY

The wide-format market has been on a decade-long, ultra-high growth track because of an increasing need for colorful graphics. The development of color wide-format has unlocked a consumer marketing demand that has subsequently spread to any number of varied applications.

Although electrostatic technology is still used, and highly favored by a few, the vast majority of today's installed base uses some form of inkjet technology. In fact, there are several print-output technologies in use — electrostatic, continuous inkjet, thermal inkjet, piezo inkjet, thermal ribbon transfer and photo laser/LED.

For printers interested in digital color wide-format, all that is required are computers and workstations; software (including a RIP, print driver, design and/or application specific programs); a print engine; mechanical assemblies for media handling; and finishing equipment. Most of this equipment already exists in a moderately sophisticated prepress operation.

Ink, media and printer represent a tightly integrated “closed” system. Wide-format inks must be compatible with the printheads. Ink also must be optimized to improve reproduction quality on a given substrate, while at the same time maintaining compatibility with a specific printhead.

UV inks and clear coats have recently arrived on the digital wide-format scene. The primary driver pushing UV into wide-format printing, claims the GAMIS study, is the development of rigid or flatbed printers. These printers make it possible to print directly on to rigid materials, eliminating a mounting requirement that is an essential part of many applications. Industry sources estimate that 30 percent to 35 percent of digitally printed, wide-format end products require mounting.

In many applications, UV inks can replace solvent-based inks that contain environmentally unfriendly volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The GAMIS study suggests that UV-curable inks will eventually dominate the wide-format printing process — largely due to more stringent government regulations of VOCs.

MARKETS AND APPLICATIONS

According to the GAMIS study, proofing is the commercial-printing industry's dominant application of digital color, wide-format technology. Use of wide-format proofing began in 1992 with the introduction of eight-page filmsetters generating imposed films. The move to a CTP workflow has generated further demand for these proofing systems. In fact, busy CTP plants are using multiple inkjet proofers to keep pace with plate volume. Most printers, however, ultimately use their wide-format proofers only part of the time.

Idle machines offer opportunities for printers in the wide-format product arena to produce signs, banners, posters, vehicle graphics, wallcoverings, floor and sidewalk graphics and a proliferation of niche applications.

Signs, banners and posters include trade-show graphics and point-of-purchase (POP). The growth of graphics usage in signs is a favorable trend, encouraging the use of digital color wide-format in sign production. Banners are designed to hang in some fashion, and their manufacture involves the use of finishing operations such as grommeting and sewing.

The GAMIS study points out that the sign business, in general, could receive an overall stimulus with the entry of Kinko's (Dallas) into the market and the activities of franchise operations. In May 2002, Kinko's announced the opening of 20 Sign and Banner Centers in its established stores. By the end of the year, it had opened more than 200 of these centers throughout the U.S.

Copy Club, a franchiser owned by the International Center for Entrepreneurial Development, Inc. (ICED) (Cypress, TX), has announced that it will push wide-format color into its franchise locations.

Kinko's and franchise operations will create new customers and applications for wide-format printing, and build interest in these products on a more sophisticated level, giving commercial printers a chance to carve out new specialties.

Trade-show graphics are awash in color signs, banners, posters, floor graphics and booth backdrops. According to the International Assn. of Exhibition Managers (Dallas), there were 4,342 exhibitions and trade shows in North America in 2002. The Professional Convention Management Assn. reports that its members book more than 300,000 meetings a year — some of which use elaborate wide-format graphics in meeting rooms and related facilities.

POP OPPORTUNITIES

Wide-format materials produced by show companies represent only the tip of the exhibition, meeting and convention opportunities. PrintCom Consulting Group (Waxhaw, NC), which was commissioned to work on the GAMIS study, estimates that (excluding the exhibit companies) end product valued at about $500 million is produced annually by the 4,000 companies supplying this market.

Broadly viewed as communicating graphic information in the retail environment, POP includes a potpourri of products on a wide range of substrates. POP materials can be categorized as banners, signs or posters, but also encompass counter cards, supermarket end caps, literature racks, kiosks, video displays, electronic signage, floor graphics, window signs and almost any other merchandising aid designed to highlight in-store marketing.

The impact of digital wide-format on POP has been profound. Printers interviewed in the GAMIS study fell into two camps — those with established experience in screenprinting and those that were primarily lithographers. Screenprinters are feeling pressure on pricing and volume as digital color, wide-format printing increases its penetration into the short-run POP business. Many lamented the technology shift and the resulting change in the market.

Lithographic POP printers are virtually ignoring wide-format printing because their run lengths are usually longer than the economic output of screenprinting and/or wide-format printing. Some lithographers, however, are using wide-format printing as a way to broaden their business and to provide proofs, samples and short-run, quick-turnaround work. Lithographers can produce shorter runs on their wide-format inkjet printers and then move to lithography for longer runs, broadening their business base and making them more competitive with screenprinters at shorter run lengths.

Floor graphics are another POP category that responds well to wide-format printing. Traditionally, floor graphics — typically used in supermarkets, convenience stores and at trade shows — were screenprinted. But the ability of wide-format printers to handle finer-halftone screen rulings or even continuous-tone, plus the elimination of registration issues inherent in screenprinting, have moved floor graphics solidly into the wide-format printing arena.

POP is a solid opportunity for commercial printers. According to the GAMIS study, POP digital color, wide-format printing will grow over the next four years at eight percent to 10 percent per year — a rate considerably more robust than the GDP, retail sales or new store openings.

GRAPHICS THAT ZOOM

Vehicle graphics — on trucks, buses, vans, cars and even airplanes — provide an advertising medium whose growth has been stimulated by the development of digital color, wide-format printing. According to the GAMIS study, between $800 million and $1 billion of vehicle graphics were printed by wide-format digital processes in 2001.

Although there are a few companies that specialize in the medium, sign printers and digital generalists print most vehicle graphics. The specialists tend to focus on large installations, while the sign printers tend to focus on autos, vans and smaller trucks.

For the commercial printer, vehicle graphics can provide particular challenges. Because curved and irregular surfaces are involved, images must be cut to fit the application. This means that images cut incorrectly must be reprinted, and certain surfaces require printing two images to produce enough image area to cover the entire vehicle. Close coordination between the artist and the application specialist is a necessity.

Vehicle graphics, explains the GAMIS study, typically are output on pressure-sensitive vinyl film. Special perforated films are available for use on windows so that the entire side of a bus, for example, can include the selected design, while permitting passengers to see out. Images are produced on inkjet machines for runs less than 50.

With an estimated $2.1 billion of wide-format vehicle graphics produced in 2001, this printing market outpaces the individual markets of thermography, greeting cards and tags/tickets, and is on par with financial/legal printing volume. The outlook for vehicle-graphics growth is more robust than that for traditional printing. The most difficult segment of the vehicle-graphics market to estimate is the small-company self-advertising portion, including cars. The demand for eye-catching graphics and the short-run nature of this market segment makes it ideal for digital wide-format inkjet. However, its growth is dependent upon the aggressiveness of local commercial printers, sign shops and screen printers.

DIGITAL WALLPAPER

Wallcoverings and related home furnishings are growing because of two prime drivers: customization and inventory reduction. Wallpaper leads the home-furnishing product array that is being targeted for wide-format printing. But there is increasing interest in decorative materials such as window treatments, bedspreads and a range of accessories. Also slated for growth are products such as printed wall panels and ceramic tile.

The wallpaper industry is looking to reduce time to market and reduce inventories. The ability to create designs, assemble sample books and launch a new design series in a very short time is attractive to these retailers. At the same time, “themes” and licensed images, particularly those from movies, video games and books, can be launched quickly and at a low cost.

The costs for custom work have been high in the past. However, designs that can be modified or customized for specialty applications lend themselves to digital printing processes. Even one-off designs can be produced reasonably.

In 1998, Rexam Image Products — now known as InteliCoat Technologies (South Hadley, MA) — partnered with four digital-printing companies to test digital wallpaper-printing concepts. The Digital Wallcovering Group (unusuwalls.com) promotes the awareness and utilization of digitally printed wallcoverings, or Unusuwalls. There are currently about 30 members in the group; fewer than six are large shops.

4walls (Cleveland, OH) produces its full line of borders, murals and customizable wallcoverings digitally. Its designs are distributed through traditional retail channels. BGM Imaging (Toronto) takes a different approach: It specializes in creating customized environments using digital imaging processes. The company has an architect and a graphic designer on staff to work with interior designers and architectural specifiers.

The concept of digitally printed wallcoverings has spurred interest in the implementation of a 1:1 model for design and production. Manufactured for interior designers and architects who value the uniqueness, one-off or totally custom designs can support the higher cost of production. This concept could mushroom at a higher-than-nominal growth rate.

ART AND NICHE MARKETS

Art reproduction is another area of interest in the digital color, wide-format market. Digitizing and storing the original has become a necessity. Art publishing houses have a greater variety of choices in marketing their art collections, from selling the rights to their image bank to reproducing the artwork in-house in large quantities. Wide-format, color digital printing is expected to replace lithographic and screenprinting reproductions, except for mass-produced art, which will remain litho.

Several franchise chains have opened to provide customized print-on-demand reproduction services. This includes reproductions from their own digitally stored original collections and reproductions of photographic printers that are enhanced by hand to imitate a painted portrait. Customers order from a catalog or website and have a simple inexpensive poster produced while they wait. Customers can also order a more complicated fine-art reproduction to be produced overnight or within a few weeks.

To encourage more print-on-demand businesses, Brightcube Inc. (El Segundo, CA) has partnered with Roland DGA Corp. (Irvine, CA) on a printer rental program to reduce start-up costs. They also have access to online image banks and offer expertise regarding setup, media and inks.

Niche markets are also proliferating. Building wraps, for example, offer opportunities, but the ability to install one is more important than designing and printing it. On a smaller scale, digitally printed awnings are beginning to develop, especially for those printers with larger machines.

And for the truly unusual, take a look at caskets and cremation urns (artcaskets.com). One printer interviewed for the GAMIS study reported preparing graphics for 80 to 100 caskets per month. “The casket-graphics market is especially attractive,” he points out. “The images only need to last a few days, ultraviolet deterioration of the image is not a problem, and we never get a warranty complaint.”

HIGH-FLYING OPPORTUNITY

Regardless of the niche, the wide-format industry is expected to outpace GDP growth, ringing in at 10 percent to 11 percent per year until 2006. Although it is maturing, digital color wide-format is young and in a continuous state of improvement. Rigid-format and rigid/flexible hybrid machines are moving into the industry, eliminating the costly steps of mounting, and, to some degree, other finishing requirements.

Although commercial printing represents a substantial and growing market for wide-format products, it is rare for these printers to offer more than proofing. Customers are not asking for wide-format work because they don't know the printer has the capability. Printers are not soliciting that type of work because they have not seen the opportunity.

Digital color, wide-format printing is an opportunity being missed. It is a chance for commercial printers to diversify and differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And, at least through 2006, it is likely to be the highest-growing segment of the graphic arts. Commercial printers that are not involved need to ask themselves if this is an overlooked opportunity.

For those commercial printers wishing to investigate this high-growth market in more detail, GAMIS' “Study and Analysis of Digital Color Wide Format Printing” includes more information on technologies, markets (in addition to those discussed in this article) and forecasts for specific market niches through 2006. Contact Jackie Bland, GAMIS executive director, at (703) 519-8179 or e-mail jbland@printing.org.