Commercial Printers Pursue Wide-Format Printing Rewards
The current industry buzzword is “convergence” and for good reason — as the printing industry shifts and new technologies continue to gain acceptance, more commercial printers are looking at applications outside of their traditional menu of services. One of those options gaining traction is digital wide-format printing, which opens up new revenue streams for those willing to take the risk.
That said, wide-format inkjet printing is different than other technology. It can’t be sold like offset or production inkjet, and it requires an entirely different knowledge base in order to find true success.
“We just didn’t know what we didn’t know,” admits Mike Corridori, the director at Westlake Village, Calif.-based CR Print. He notes that the biggest challenges came from just trying to understand everything from how the printers themselves worked, to the much broader range of available substrates.
“We had all the technology, but we didn’t know how to operate it,” he says. “We thought it would be like a copier, but it’s really not — it is pretty different. It’s also sort of a moving target — things get hot, and then something else comes in and takes its place.”
Corridori says that his shop was also surprised at how different the substrates were. “It’s not like paper,” he notes. “The inventory is totally different, and the price fluctuations are greater as well. … We found that out the hard way.”
That experience was echoed by David Ashton, a partner at Linemark Inc. in Upper Marlboro, Md. “When we first began, the easier items like the boards and banners were not a significant challenge,” he says. “What did become interesting were all of the projects that went with those items that our clients considered to be large-format … the booths, the pop-ups, custom boxes, the hardware. We had very little experience with these, and getting up to market speed and sourcing it successfully was a huge challenge. We needed to not only become experts in the plant, but also our entire account management team needed to be competent.”
With Risk Comes Reward
While adding wide-format printing capabilities to a commercial operation can be challenging in more ways than anticipated, for those who stick it out and commit to learning the new business, it can bring an equally wide range of rewards.
For Statesboro, Ga.-based Lewis Color, wide-format has not only given the establishment an opportunity to get back in front of customers in a time when many were pulling back on print projects, it also helped to increase morale across the entire shop. According to Justin Lewis, president, and Steve Owens, VP of large-format, when the pandemic hit and it became difficult to make sales calls — even virtually — the addition of a Ricoh Pro TF6250 LED-UV flatbed printer made all the difference.
“We have a lot of clients in healthcare,” Owens points out. “[So we were] printing floor decals, posters, and signs for hospitals and restaurants. We were able to capture that business because we could give them what they needed. We also tried going into selling personalized masks, but everyone was doing that and it wasn’t a good fit for us. But overall, adding wide-format gave us a little more opportunity to get in front of clients again, especially those who needed that [specialized] material for their businesses.”
That is a long-term benefit that Linemark has seen as well. The commercial printer first invested in wide-format equipment in 2010, and today is running several EFI UV flatbed presses, including a new Pro 30f LED-UV printer installed in February of this year.
“Being able to support various products for our clients has allowed them to be more efficient with their purchasing and sourcing,” Ashton notes. “That, in turn, has further strengthened many of those relationships and has resulted in additional business in other areas. We have also used the service as an entry into accounts where there may not necessarily be room currently for some of our other services.”
CR Print added its first piece of wide-format equipment in February 2020 — just before the pandemic hit. Corridori notes that COVID-19 certainly changed how the equipment was used and the types of applications being produced, but he foresees that changing as the vaccine rollout continues. By next year, he hopes to see a return to the types of jobs the Fujifilm Acuity flatbed printer was originally purchased for, including window graphics and event signage and displays.
That said, Corridori notes that installing wide-format equipment when they did was a big case of “right place, right time,” since it allowed the shop to pivot quickly and offer the types of products customers needed to get it through such unprecedented times, instead of having to turn all of that work away.
He adds that having the flatbed press has also “been good for referrals — and it looks good on LinkedIn. If you do a nice install and post it on social media, it’s cool and really creative, and we get calls from that. Just posting a business card doesn’t cut it.”
Search for a Niche and Strive to Become an Expert
One thing to keep in mind when adding wide-format capabilities is that one size does not fit all. There are a wide range of applications, each one not only requiring different substrates, but also different ink technologies, printers, and installation expertise. One piece of advice that resonated across the board was to find a niche and become the expert at producing that type of work — but, at the same time, staying flexible enough to pivot when the situation calls for it, such as during the pandemic.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out,” Lewis says. “We’re trying to find a niche, something to produce day-in-day-out, and really perfect. We haven’t found it yet, but we’re close.
“We have been doing cut vinyl, car wraps, wallpaper, even the outside of an arcade machine. We’ve also been doing acrylic prints, and something really growing right now is short-run packaging, he adds. “We have a few partners located nearby that do a lot of that work, and they are companies with big machines and big dies. But they also need to do prototypes, which only need 50 or 100. We can help them with that, and it generates a nice profit for us.”
Another potential niche Lewis Color is exploring is producing and shipping prints directly to consumers. Owens notes that there is a strong market for prints on substrates such as wood, glass, or acrylic. Just this past May, the shop launched a dedicated website where people can upload photos and have them printed directly onto the rigid substrate options.
The shop also sells accessories such as frames that allow a customer to take it out and hang the print directly on a wall as soon as they receive it.
“We feel confident this is going to be something that will grow for us,” Owens says. “We’ll add more products as we go — we just launched it. We’re doing a lot of social media and getting ready to shoot a commercial for this market, and hopefully will go national in the next few months.”
Up until the pandemic hit, Linemark was primarily outputting conference support products, such as banners, displays, signage boards, floor graphics, etc. “
“When COVID shut that market down, we were just getting going with wall art,” according to Ashton. “That started to grow when the other business decreased dramatically. Also, due to supplier issues, we were more broadly introduced to the custom box market. So now, we are doing quite a bit of wall art (acrylic, metal, canvas) and custom boxes/packaging. We are also seeing the demand for more projects supporting in-person meetings.”
Advice From Peers With Wide-Format Experience
All three shops have good advice for other commercial printers looking to follow in their footsteps and add wide-format to their production capabilities.
Corridori has three pieces of advice for fellow printers — the first is to partner with a re-seller and get a feel for how to sell wide-format, what your customers are asking for, and how in demand it really is before branching out and installing the equipment yourself. His second piece of advice: “It’s a really good idea to buy a cutter. We haven’t purchased one yet, but that will be our next [investment].” Thirdly, Corridori warns that pricing wide-format is very different from pricing offset jobs, so he recommends shops spend time to understand that aspect of it and get their pricing right early on in the process.
Lewis advises other print providers to look at all the machines out there, what they’re capable of, and compare that to the needs of your customer base. Also, compare the quality of service provided by each vendor.
“That’s really key in our area in rural Georgia,” he points out. “All wide-format machines can print pretty pictures, but what sets them apart is the service and response time. It can be the best machine in the world, but it’s a major issue if it goes down [during the week] and the closest tech can’t help us until Friday morning.”
As such, research the vendors and distributors as much as the equipment to truly understand what you are purchasing.
Ashton echoes his fellow printers, noting that it is important to train your team in selling and producing wide-format output once you have the equipment in-house. “Look within your existing client database for opportunity and do your research. Purchasing the correct printer — and all [the additional peripheral] equipment needed — from the start, and then doing some significant team education should improve the prospect of success.”
Ashton also suggests starting out by leveraging outside partnerships for production as a good way to enter the market, while also mitigating the risk.
Wide-format printing can be a fantastic opportunity to add new products, new applications, and new revenue streams to a commercial printing operation. It opens the door to not only capturing more of the work current customers are producing elsewhere, but also serves as an entry point into clients that currently aren’t doing business with you at all.
It is an investment that is worth the risk, if a commercial print shop is willing to take the time to ensure the right equipment, with the right substrates, and the right training for staff, are all in place.
This October, we’ll help you discover more new profitable growth opportunities being driven by the convergence of printing technologies and markets. The PRINTING United Expo, formerly SGIA Expo, will gather the global printing industry, across all market segments, under one roof. Network with peers, discover new product applications, and much more this Oct. 6-8, 2021, in Orlando, Florida. Register for the PRINTING United Expo today.