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GRAPH EXPO & CONVERTING EXPO 02 -- Large-format Opportuniti

August 2002

A third session, a vendors' panel on wide-format printing, will bring together company experts to discuss applications and product trends in what the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation calls the fastest growing area of print output. "Large-format (36˝ and larger) digital ink-jet printers are improving steadily in both speed and image quality," notes Bruce Butler, director of marketing at MacDermid ColorSpan.  

"Quality isn't the issue," he adds. "Most of the machines on the market today will deliver press quality or better. And production speeds are now equivalent to 24 to 48 press sheets per hour. 

"Costs for ink and media are relatively small compared to the selling price for the printed output," Butler says, "and the output is a premium product. Commercial printers are possibly too focused on what they've done in the past, and they're letting this opportunity slip away."

Printers seizing the opportunity can either lock in current customers or expand into a lucrative new niche, experts advise. "Such a strategy will be increasingly vital in the near future," contends Brian Crall, CEO of Progress Printing in Owensboro, KY.

Crall sees traditional commercial printers attacked at both ends of their long-standing market: by web printers taking on shorter-run jobs at the upper end, and by quick printers rolling out digital printing and other options to eat away at the low end. "You don't want to let someone just eat off your plate," Crall adds. "You need to find new ways to be competitive, either in your core business or in a new niche."

Finding the Answer

For Progress Printing, large-format ink-jet has been part of the answer. In fact, the company is rolling out a new subsidiary to offer a wide variety of digital output. Its location in the heart of a popular travel and convention region also made for a dynamic large-format ink-jet market. Once, companies exhibiting at conventions in the area would have to print and ship their display materials. Now, Progress Printing tells them, "Just send us your PDF and we'll have it ready for you when you arrive."

Crall also notes that many printers have already invested in the equipment they need, but aren't using it. "A lot of commercial printers have this equipment, but because it's not their bread and butter, it's underutilized," he says. "Many are buying large-format ink-jet devices to do proofing, but you're going to need proofing less and less. You don't want to pay for only occasional use of a machine."

Merrick Industries realized the market potential of digital output and launched its Digital Print Impressions subsidiary about six years ago, reveals Vice President and General Manager Denise Eberhard. The company has stressed digital document production so far, but large-format output is definitely on the agenda. "We looked at large-format ink-jets at PRINT 01 and were very impressed," Eberhard says.  

One key to Digital Print Impressions' success, she adds, is that "we run our shop like a print shop, not a copy shop. Everybody who works here has a commercial printing background." Experience with digital workflows is another plus, according to Eberhard. "The equipment doesn't scare us off at all."

In fact, for the digitally savvy printer, changing a company's mindset may be a bigger challenge than incorporating the new technology. The vital distinction printers must appreciate, Williams stresses, is that large-format ink-jets don't compete in the familiar color document market. "That market," she says, "is hotly contested, but wide-format color graphics is a whole new playing field.

"You have to learn how to sell it, learn how to make it and it's not an easy thing to do," she notes. But if the company can accomplish the shift, the reward may be "double-digit profits for the most part, certainly much better profitability than is often typical for commercial printers."

Crall reports that previous Graph Expo & Converting Expo and PRINT shows have been very helpful in allowing Progress Printing to actually see the equipment. "If you want to contrast and test drive a lot of different pieces of equipment, that's the way to do it."  

For Butler, the choice of a wide-format output system doesn't hinge much on quality any more. "It really comes down to speed, automation and flexibility in the media they're able to run. Graph Expo & Converting Expo will offer the kind of side-by-side comparisons that aren't possible otherwise. This is the show to attend to learn about how to integrate these technologies into your workflow."

Crall believes being open to new opportunities like those presented by wide-format ink-jets will be just as vital in the near future as embracing digital technologies has been in the last decade. "Printers may be able to survive with a narrower world view," he comments, "but their profits will be squeezed and at some point they won't have the money they need to replace old equipment."

IT Strategies' Williams also notes that printers need not focus exclusively on investing in new technologies themselves. "Don't exclude partnership and acquisition opportunities. Many companies in the analog printing market are going to acquire digital expertise."

As for the future of large-format ink-jets, Williams concludes: "If you want to position your company for the 21st century, this is a way to begin doing it."
 

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