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Substrate Options —‘Paper or Plastic?’

September 2007 By Jean-Marie Hershey
WHEN IT comes to printing on paper, the field is crowded and the competitive situation is intense. Commercial printers looking for ways to differentiate themselves have cast an eye on the market for printing on plastic as a way to add value and boost profits. Sales of UV-equipped presses are said to be on the rise, suggesting that more printers are working with plastic now than ever before.

Even so, it would be an exaggeration to say that printing on plastic is sweeping the industry. This is not to say that printing on plastic isn't an attractive opportunity with plenty of profit potential, but there are compelling reasons to be cautious. Let's start with the size of the market.

"It's a common misconception that there are a lot of plastic printers out there," says Charles Barkley, president of The Buhl Press, Berkeley, IL. Founded in 1955, the company quickly established a reputation for printing on textured papers and difficult substrates. Today, The Buhl Press focuses primarily on sheetfed offset lithography and on plastic exclusively.

"The reason there aren't a lot of plastic printers out there is because there isn't a lot of plastic printing going on relative to paper printing," Barkley continues. "Let's say that printing on plastic is a $250 million market. In terms of the U.S. graphic arts business as a whole, it's really not very big at all."

The Expense Hurdle

Another reason the market for printing on plastic isn't that big, relatively speaking, is that it's breathtakingly expensive, he contends. "Even the cheaper plastics are more expensive than paper." For example, "If you're doing a direct mail piece, and you want to send a lenticular plastic postcard, that postcard is going to cost you 10 or 20 cents vs. doing it on paper, which will cost you a penny. I can print 100,000 sheets of plastic, but who can afford to buy them? So you end up getting a lot of small jobs."

The answers to many questions about printing on plastic depend on what kind of plastic printing a company does. For one thing, the phrase, "printing on plastic" doesn't mean very much all by itself, since the term applies equally to printing on plastic grocery bags, secure credit cards and all stops in between, including POP and backlit displays, outdoor signage and banners, tags, cards, menus, labels, maps and floor graphics, as well as lenticular printing and packaging. In addition, a printer's approach to printing on plastic will vary according to whether it also performs ink-on-paper printing.
 

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