2021 Wide-format Growth Opportunities
Predicting growth opportunities in 2021 for applications printed on wide-format printing devices is tricky. The most influencing force in the year ahead will be the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what will happen this year will depend on when limitations on in-person events are lifted, businesses can operate at full capacity, and schools can reopen fully.
That said, there are reasons for optimism, including:
- The approval and roll out of vaccines.
- Rapid in-home testing kits.
- The growth of U.S. economy, which economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expect to grow at the fastest rate in two decades this year.
High Business Optimism
At the start of the year, prospects for business look good as the COVID-19 vaccination process has begun. This is a positive sign, as economic recovery will not reach full strength until people are comfortable traveling, staying in hotels, being in large crowds, and participating in all types of activities they enjoyed prior to the pandemic.
Another point of optimism is the versatility of applications that can be printed on digital wide-format printing devices. Today’s wide-format printers can produce an impressive array of applications from sign and display graphics, to apparel/garment decoration, to functional/industrial applications. For organizations looking to add wide-format printing capabilities or expand current application offerings, there are opportunities to pursue in 2021.
NAPCO Research’s surveys on opportunities in wide-format printing typically indicated a strong level of optimism. In surveys conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, respondents were overwhelmingly optimistic about wide-format application opportunities. For example, in a recent survey, 87% of respondents reported they were optimistic about their prospects in this space.
Providers with Wide-format Demonstrate Resilience
As the pandemic has changed the opportunity landscape, many providers with wide-format printing capabilities are changing the applications they offer, or markets they serve. For example, companies with wide-format printers are providing products born from the pandemic, including personal protective equipment (PPE) — face masks, gowns, and face shields — to social distancing signage — posters and floor graphics — as well as signage promoting current services (i.e., “We’re Open for Take-Out,” “Curbside Pickup,” and more).
Digital printing and cutting technologies have shown their true benefits, allowing providers to create these new products and meet new customer demands.
NAPCO Research and the PRINTING United Alliance track business indicators across application segments, including sign and display, apparel decoration, and industrial and functional applications. The ongoing effort was started in response to the pandemic as a way to track its influence on the industry, and define a path to recovery. An important overarching message from this research is that respondents offering wide-format are confident that business conditions will improve, and the customers gained from offering COVID-related products will become long-term clients.
Sign and Display Graphics: Opportunity for Essential Communications
Sign and display graphics are key applications printed on wide-format printing devices. While banners, posters, and signs are dominant in this segment, there are many other unique and interesting wide-format products, with growing demand. A recent NAPCO Research survey of Wide-Format Impressions’ (WFI) readers highlights the growth opportunities in many graphic and sign applications. As shown in Figure 1, over half of respondents indicated that demand for nine of the 14 applications tested were growing. Overall, respondents report these applications were growing or holding steady versus declining.
When asked an open-ended question to identify their reasons for optimism, producers of graphics and sign applications said:
“The combination of more media choices, better inks, and various printing technologies (aqueous, latex, solvent) is allowing us to produce a greater number of applications.”
“This is clearly a growing area. Consumers are realizing all that they can do with wide-format and adopting it as a great form of advertising.”
“Everywhere you go you see wide-format graphics ... hospitals, airports, retail ... they surround us, and there is still a lot of application growth possible for technology.”
“It seems like the manufacturers are always coming up with devices that offer faster throughput and higher quality.”
“Technology keeps improving the market.”
“It has been our fastest growing department over the past three years, and it has been growing 30%+ year-over-year.”
In addition, NAPCO Research expects the following few broad trends to continue to drive demand in this segment:
- The ability to print a wide variety of substrates enables nearly every surface the opportunity to carry a printed message or image.
- Organizations are looking for a mix of media — including signage — to communicate more effectively with customers and employees.
- The “Amazon Effect” is driving consumers to want quick turnarounds, including curbside pickup and delivery, which in turn requires the right signage to direct them through the process.
In 2021, signs and graphics will continue to play critical marketing, communication, and functional roles. Demand for graphic and sign products born from COVID-19 will continue as healthy and safety messaging and instructions will be required as the vaccine process continues. Banners, exterior flags, window graphics, floor graphics, and others will still be necessary to communicate rules, hours of operation, occupancy levels, mask requirements, and social distancing requirements.
An essential component for success will be identifying and meeting customer requirements. According to a NAPCO Research survey of marketers that influence or purchase sign and display graphics, over half select providers based on their ability to offer unique ideas to enhance what they purchase, investment in environmentally sustainable technologies, and focus on customer education (Figure 2). These are factors to keep in mind when marketing and selling sign and graphic services.
Apparel/Garment Decoration: A Big Market with Many Options
Apparel and garment decorators serve a large and diverse market that includes fashion, nonprofit, and education to any organization with a need for customizing fabric. This segment offers growing product opportunities for items that can be printed on wide-format printers, as noted in Figure 3. NAPCO Research surveyed WFI readers on opportunities in garment, textile, and industrial printing applications, and more than half of respondents that print performance wear, T-shirts, apparel, bags, and hats/caps report demand for these applications is growing. Few respondents reported declines.
While this data was collected pre-pandemic, digital printing of these applications on wide-format printers address many key customer requirements that will continue to grow in a post-pandemic world. Demand for faster adaptability to design trends, shorter fashion cycles, lower production costs, and reduced waste all are addressed with digital printing. Improved printhead design and higher-quality substrates are set to further drive growth in this segment.
Perhaps the biggest development driving digital printing of apparel is the growth of pigment inks as an alternative to dye-sublimation. Pigment inks offer versatility because they are compatible with a wide range of natural and synthetic fabrics, and don’t require extensive washing, steaming, or other water-intensive pre- or post-treatment processes, making them a more environmentally friendly alternative to other printing methods.
Another potential growth driver is online ordering of decorated garments/apparel. With platforms such as Amazon and Shopify — and the ability to set up custom online storefronts — e-commerce ordering is becoming more popular. In addition, the pandemic has increased the overall volume of online product purchasing, as people looked to avoid contact with others. Growth in e-commerce sales will likely continue in the year ahead as consumers have become accustomed to the online ordering, and the supply chain has adapted to meeting increased volume.
In a different survey conducted by PRINTING United Alliance, apparel decorators were asked what management and sales steps they planned on taking to build competitive advantage. The top response was increasing internet presence/e-commerce capabilities, a recognition of shifting customer ordering requirements (Figure 4). As one survey respondent said, “E-commerce will be bigger than ever. If your company isn’t prepared to compete in the e-commerce space, you will get left behind.”
Other actions planned to improve competitive advantage include re-hiring additional sales staff, maximizing the value of current customers, and pursing new vertical markets.
Adding garment and apparel applications is not without challenges, however. Respondents to a NAPCO Research survey reports that hiring and training staff — both production and sales — are top challenges. Other key challenges are funding technology, workflow, and defining sales opportunities (Figure 5).
Survey respondents offering garment/textile printing report it has increased work from current customers, led to winning new customers, improved profitability, resulted in higher revenue, and enhanced competitive differentiation.
For companies looking to add garment/textile print applications, respondents report using various resources to learn about the opportunity and the best steps for preparing to offer it. The top response was attending trade shows, as these events offer a broad look at the types of equipment necessary to add this application. Another key step was to work with current customers to understand their needs and willingness to purchase this service — recall that the top benefit identified by those respondents offering garment/textile printing was an increase in business from current customers.
Functional and Industrial: Broad Segment, Many Applications
Functional and industrial printing encompasses a broad segment of applications that include printed components that are part of other products (i.e., instrument panels, logos, part numbers) or serve a functional purpose beyond communication (i.e., printed tiles or wallpaper).
A few examples of industrial/functional printed products include:
- Floor coverings
- Decorative laminates
- Electronics (including displays, parts, sensors, and controls in products such as cars, boats, trains, medical devices, and many other products)
- Aerospace and automotive
- 3D Printing
- Inkjet printed textiles
- Product decoration
- Promotional and miscellaneous items
Few respondents offering these functional and industrial print applications report declines in demand; most reported demand was either growing or holding steady.
Survey responses highlight the “floor to ceiling” opportunity in functional and industrial printing. Floor coverings, floor tiles, printed ceiling tiles, textiles, cut logos, silicone edge graphics, window graphics, and tabletops are all surfaces that can be printed on with a wide-format printer.
Though screen printing holds the largest share of the industrial print applications, digital wide-format printing is increasing its share. Factors expanding digital printing in the functional and industrial printer segment are:
- Demand for shorter lead times.
- The focus on minimizing inventory carrying costs as digital enables printing quantities as required.
- Increasing speed and productivity of digital print equipment.
- Reduced labor costs resulting from digital printing.
A majority of those respondents expect that offering industrial print applications will enable their businesses to gain more work from current customers, capture new customers, and increase profits.
Hiring new staff is the top challenge reported by survey respondents that offer industrial print applications or are planning to add them . Adding these types of wide-format print applications may require higher skill sets.
Over half of respondents offering or considering adding industrial print applications rely mostly on technology vendors and suppliers for readying their operations to add these products. Attending trade shows and visiting vendor websites were the top methods for learning about these services. Other important sources for preparing for adding industrial print applications include speaking with customers, reading trade publications, and watching online videos.
Setting the Course in 2021
The year ahead offers much opportunity for wide-format printing applications. Sign and graphics, garment/apparel, and functional/industrial applications all present solid growth opportunities. A key unknown for 2021 is the economy. But as more people are vaccinated for COVID-19 throughout the year, the return to normal — and economic recovery — is on the horizon.
Lisa Cross is the principal analyst of NAPCO Research (a unit of NAPCO Media) where she conducts market research and analysis on emerging trends and changing dynamics in the commercial, in-plant and packaging industries, and the market forces that are driving those changes. With decades of experience covering the graphic arts and marketing industries, Cross has authored thousands of articles on a variety of topics, including technology trends, business strategy, sales, marketing and legislation.