Beyond Paper: Opportunities in Specialty Printing
With advancements in printing technologies and processes comes a continually expanding market of opportunity for print service providers (PSPs). Print today is more than ink on paper: it’s ink on metal, glass, ceramic, and other substrates, creating products people encounter in their daily lives, from the signage they see, to the doormats they walk on, and the backsplashes adorning their kitchens. But like adding any new service, there are different considerations with these applications, including the technologies involved, and what markets and trends are driving these opportunities.
Specialty Printing Trends
Though the range of products with specialty printing is wide, there are “a ton of different applications that are still being discovered,” says Don Copeland, product manager, UV & DTG Products, ColDesi Inc., a supplier headquartered in Tampa, Fla., with different divisions offering equipment and supplies — running the gamut from vinyl cutters to UV printers — blanks, and training.
“It’s all over the place,” Copeland says of the specialty applications he sees, noting examples of customized basketballs, travertine tiles, tumblers, corrugated plastic signs, cable boxes, and acrylic bands for masks. And the trends, he says, seem to go through waves. “Right now, we’ve had a huge influx of people doing coir (coconut husk) mats,” he says.
Along with the huge wedding market, Copeland notes the seasonal opportunities for specialty and promo product printing, such as graduations and holidays — also a lucrative market for lasers with items like Christmas ornaments. These possibilities are especially evident in what Copeland calls the “exploding Etsy market.” “A lot of the stuff on Etsy is huge because direct-to-substrate works on stuff that’s handmade,” he adds. “You can make [a product] look like you made it by hand when you do it with a UV printer just by being creative with Photoshop.”
Entrepreneurial and home-based businesses are also among the customers for Enduring Images in Golden, Colo., which supplies ceramic decorating systems that combine digital printers with ceramic inorganic toner formulations.
This technology enables high-resolution four-color imagery to be “put on materials that are essentially infinitely durable in the earth’s environment,” says COO Ron Manwiller. “They’re kiln-fired ceramic items, so they’re commercially useful, commercially functional, and yet have the same kind of photographic quality and imagery that you would get in any other type of printing on paper.”
An ideal low-cost entry opportunity for entrepreneurs, ceramic printing is also being driven by the increasing demand for personalized materials in a mass market, says Manwiller. In addition to commercial end uses such as floor, wall, backsplash, and swimming pool tiles, he has seen customers produce customized bourbon stones, beer growlers, table ware, cemetery memorial portraits, dental veneers, and a first he’s recently seen in his 18 years in the industry — fishing lures.
“Everybody wants something personal. They also want something that’s going to last in a lot of end uses that has not been possible in the past. With digital ceramic printing, it’s very possible,” he adds. “Imagination is really the only limitation, and it continues to be exciting for me to see the wild and unique ideas some of our customers come up with when they call us to buy a printing system.”
Metal and Glass Applications
Durability has made metal an appealing medium for PSPs and businesses like Bay Photo Lab, based outside of Santa Cruz, Calif., which was the professional photo lab to put metal prints on the map in 2009, says Marketing Coordinator Mallory Weatherby.
“There’s been a light stability test done, which proved that metal prints last four times the amount of photographic prints, which are already archival,” she says, noting that though it offers ceramic and acrylic products, Bay Photo’s MetalPrints remain its most popular. It also offers its Performance EXT MetalPrints — designed to last two to three years in direct sunlight without fading — and its new EPIC prints, which are 610 dpi photographic prints mounted on aluminum composite.
“Metal is just a limitless medium, because there are so many different surfaces,” she adds. “So that’s a selling point for us. We definitely like to encourage creativity on the photographers’ part so they can really find whatever they’re looking for style-wise with MetalPrints, and not only with the surfaces, but the finishing options, the framing, [and] the mounting substrates.”
Weatherby also notes how these substrates have been especially popular amid the home decoration surge during the pandemic. “We’ve noticed a spike in the home gallery wall trend,” she says. “Sales have increased in prints in general across the industry. I think that people appreciate being able to customize their own displays to what they’re looking for.”
Toren Prawdzik, president of Photo EVO, has also seen increased demand for metal applications during the pandemic. The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based operation features an array of print offerings, including banners, signage, metal prints and ornaments, invitations, and magnets.
“We’re getting a lot of requests for metal because of the antibacterial aspect,” he says. “You can hose it down, you can spray all kinds of nasty bleaches and chemicals on it, and nothing happens. So that’s been a big one for places looking to reopen and have signage, but have it be clean signage.”
Personalization plays a role in 95% of what Photo EVO does, even on signage, says Prawdzik, noting people’s desire to identify with and support their local economy and community. “That simple change is a personalization of some extent, whether it be a name, location, town, or school logo, it all comes down to getting it more identified as local or regional,” he says. “They also equate that with it [being] bought locally. If they’re getting the local town name on it, well, that’s not getting sold out of China, that’s getting sold here. So, they feel like they’re contributing back to more of a local establishment as well.”
When it comes to printing on glass, Kris Iverson, marketing and creative director of Moon Shadow Glass in Sandy, Ore., which offers everything from sandblast-etched glass to direct print on glass and laminate, says many of its customers in the hospital, hotel, school, and transit spaces are looking for transparency.
“We’ve found more and more people want transparency so you can kind of see through, but not always see through, the glass,” he says, noting common security standards in the transit industry where people’s outlines should be visible from particular distances. “That’s one of the big issues we run into, and that’s one of the reasons we do a direct print versus some of the other methods you can do in glass.”
Navigating Technology Options
When adding specialty printing to a business, Copeland says the lower-entry level is sublimation. “The downside to sublimation is it has to be a white substrate, in most cases it has to be coated, it has to be pretty flat unless you get one of the high-end vacuum systems, and it requires a heat press,” he says.
Prawdzik also notes the most popular and easiest being dye-sublimation. “You can go onto fabrics, you can go onto hard substrates — it really kind of crosses over a lot of different areas that you can do,” he says.
However, he adds, dye-sub means dealing with technology that’s less than accurate when compared to building color profiles in a solvent printer. “A lot of times it’s hard to build a profile printing to a piece of paper, and then heat transferring it into a material and trying to read those colors,” says Prawdzik. “It becomes a little bit difficult because, depending on whether you do it at 400, 405, or 395 degrees, that color changes, so it’s not as accurate as what most people are used to. It’s a low-cost point entry, but it’s a high-complexity entry as well.”
Using dye-sub for its MetalPrints, Bay Photo Lab has worked to get it down to a science. “We’ve really fine-tuned the process, narrowing down the exact temperature, the exact time to make a perfect MetalPrint,” says Weatherby. “The print itself is infused into that aluminum coating through the sublimation process, so that’s what gives it that depth and luminosity. It’s because it’s not printed on top of the aluminum — it’s really in the material.”
Another option, says Copeland, is a white toner transfer printer. “There are hard substrate types of papers you can use in the white toner printers to generate things to apply,” he says, adding that it is hard to use on products that are not relatively flat, giving the example of a pocket knife with a plastic handle for which it would be difficult to transfer to the corrugations and gaps.
Direct-to-substrate UV printers, Copeland says, offer the widest gamut of things that can be decorated directly without involving weeding, transferring, or heat pressing.
With these technologies, it’s also about the material being right, with the additions of adhesion promoters or pretreatments to help ink adhere to areas where it might not. Because these promoters essentially raise the surface energy of the area being printed, Copeland says this is a very sample-intensive industry.
For example, a lot of times ceramic tiles have to be treated, he says. “Everybody wants to walk to Home Depot, grab a bunch of tiles, and print on them. They do, and then they put them in a backsplash in somebody’s kitchen, and after a month, things are starting to fall off because they didn’t have decent adhesion.”
For sublimation, “You have to buy the specially coated materials,” adds Prawdzik. “For metals, it’s sublimated, so you’re sublimating or ‘dyeing’ into that metal polyester coating.”
Because it’s usually a polyester coating that’s put on items to make them sublimatable, and UV inks like to adhere to polyesters, Copeland says a lot of items that are sublimatable are also UV printable.
The technology that Enduring Images supplies for ceramic printing takes off-the-shelf commercial laser printers and changes the internal settings that are designed to print conventional organic toners. Due to their inorganic ceramic pigments, the way the printer moves the material around has to be adjusted for it to be optimized. It prints a ceramic decal that can then be dipped in water, applied to a substrate, and fired in a kiln. “There are a lot of dye-sub printers out there that make beautiful tile, but it scratches easily, fades in the sunlight, those sorts of things,” Manwiller says. “So, it’s great for giftware or marketing and promotional items, but for commercial end uses where the typical ceramic durability is demanded, you can’t use dye-sub.”
For glass, Iverson says, “If you’re getting into more of these big commercial applications, UV seems to be the way to go. But you also have to worry about fading protections [for outdoor applications] and other stuff like that. The way we do it is we use a bonding agent that’s 99.9% UV protected, so that helps with colorfasting or any kind of burn through.”
In order to achieve the in-demand transparency, he notes this usually involves printing directly on the glass, and then laminating it so it’s sealed as one unit and can’t be damaged or scratched.
Since glass is very smooth, he says PSPs have to make sure that whatever process they’re using, whether eco-solvent, sublimation, or UV, it must be able to stick. And while adhesion promoters are available that act like glues, he says these can sometimes change the color or make it bleed.
When it comes to helping PSPs determine the right technology fit for their business, “No. 1, you have to look at what the application is, you have to know what their budget is, and you have to look at space,” says Copeland. For example, if this is a small part of a business, white toner is likely the best option because it won’t clog if unused.
Iverson also attests to the need for a lot of space — and equipment — for glass printing. “It does depend on the largest size you’re going to go up to. The equipment itself is really space-consuming,” adds Weatherby, also noting different safety requirements that can be involved in handling different materials and processes, along with accounting for time to perfect the process. “There are so many different variables with the temperature and the timing and everything — experimentation is big on that one.” Meanwhile, with acrylic printing, an expensive material by nature, she emphasizes needing a clean room to avoid dust particles interfering with the required optical adhesion.
As another consideration, Prawdzik stresses the importance of where PSPs source their materials. “You’re not going to just go on Amazon; you can probably try to find some stuff on Amazon, but it’s already going to be marked up three times higher than what you’re going to need to sell it for,” he says in reference to metal. “There’s probably a half dozen distributors that sell those blanks, so it’s finding those distributors and getting those relationships.” He also notes being mindful of the difficulty of shipping these materials that can carry a lot of weight depending on the specs.
Similarly, Iverson says, “A case of glass weighs a lot more than standard materials — almost as much as most metals. So, you have to figure out, ‘Can I put that on my machine?’ There’s a whole bunch of those variants you’ve really got to be careful about and look at before you start just diving in.”
A Learning Curve
When entering the specialty printing market, the experts would unanimously agree it’s a learning process, and not an overnight miracle. “Don’t overestimate what you’re going to be able to print on; understand that there’s a learning curve to adhesion,” says Copeland. It’s also understanding how many types of a particular substrate there are (i.e. aluminum versus anodized aluminum), and how they are treated. “It’s really cool, but it’s not magic,” he says. “If there’s something you feel like you’re going to do, make sure you get it sampled, or that you do enough research to know it works.”
And because of that learning curve, he stresses to not wait to buy the equipment. “If you’re looking to add it for the Christmas season, buy it in the second quarter/beginning of third quarter so you have 90 days to get yourself comfortable with it and you’re able to handle pressure.”
“A lot of it for us has been trial and error, and just figuring it out and working at it,” adds Iverson, specifically noting Moon Shadow’s three-year path to being the only certified company in the U.S. to produce braille on glass. “The biggest consideration is just making sure you understand how things can react on the glass.”
He says with his first time printing on glass, though it stuck, about two weeks later, they could pick at and peel it off. “You have to figure out, does that need an adhesion promoter, does it need to be laminated, or is there another way of making it stick?” he says.
And while it is a learning curve, sampling and prototyping can also lead to new product lines, as Weatherby notes has been the case for Bay Photo Lab.
From his own experience, Prawdzik emphasizes the power of networking, and finding people doing something similar, who aren’t necessarily direct competitors. “Most [people] in this industry I’ve found are very helpful to tell you what they’re doing, how to do it, the whole nine yards. You just have to have the guts to actually talk to them,” he says. “Maybe they learn just as much [from you]; maybe it spurs them to think about something completely different. [Communicate] with people at PRINTING United, people from different states. Get a hold of somebody that’s a friend of a friend of a friend. Try to make those partnerships. It’s really the best way to do it.”