High, Wide and Handsome: How Commercial Printers Profit from Wide-Format
When commercial printers think about the opportunities they have in convergence — branching beyond their traditional lines of business into new profit-making applications — it’s natural for many of them to identify wide-format output as the smartest way to go.
Digital wide-format output has a number of factors that make it attractive. To begin with, as a form of graphic reproduction, it’s the kind of adjacent activity that commercial printers understand and are good at.
Like packaging, the products that can be made with it — such as signs, displays, banners and retail POP — aren’t at risk of being displaced by the Internet. Commercial shops also know that they have a ready market for wide-format items: their existing customers, who could just as easily be buying from them the wide-format work they currently rely on other sources to provide.
And, if the shop operates certain types of production equipment, it may already have a foot in the door in terms of capability even before it invests in dedicated wide-format technology.
If only breaking in all the way were simply about the printing hardware. But there’s much more to it than that.
“You cannot just put in a piece of grand-format equipment and think you are going to do grand-format,” Bob Poole, partner and CMO at Dome Printing in McClellan Park (Sacramento), Calif., points out, referring to the super-sized versions of the wide-format systems his plant employs. Dome and other commercial printers that have embraced wide-format output know that succeeding with it takes the right combination of finance, technology, color management expertise, physical space, finishing capability and strategic planning.
Good Looking and Lucrative, Too
Achieved this way, success with wide-format can be richly rewarding. The six commercial printing companies queried for this story say they owe from 20% to more than 60% of their current revenues to what they define as wide-format production. And they all expect the shares to grow.
“We just keep getting more and more requests for it,” Ron Sizemore, a partner at Influence Graphics in New York, says. Thanks to wide-format, explains Bill Christofferson, president of Foresight Group in Ann Arbor and Lansing, Mich., “we’re finding a lot of opportunities we never dreamed we’d get into.”
Their individual paths into the wide-format market varied, but what the companies all had in common was a wish to expand the scope and the value of their service offerings.
Kirk J. Kelso, executive VP of sales at Lewisburg Printing Co. (LPC), in Lewisburg, Tenn., says that, starting in 2004, “we recognized a need in the market for wide-format and the potential medium- and long-term opportunities to serve our customers.” Today, with the recent acquisitions of wide-format facilities in Dallas and Hackensack, N.J., “we have a much heavier presence in the digital wide-format market.”
As at LPC, the core business of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Lithographix remains commercial printing. But about 15 years ago, Layne Morey, executive VP of sales, notes his company recognized wide-format as its ticket to providing full-spectrum print campaigns for film studios, advertising agencies and other clients it now serves on a national basis. As a result, he says, “our salespeople have no regions.”
Why Not Us Instead?
Poole says Dome Printing became interested in doing its own grand-format output after seeing a lot of work of that type, produced by others, “coming in our back door” for fulfillment (a Dome specialty). The company acquired a retail display graphics business and later folded it — minus its outmoded screen printing equipment — into a 340,000-sq.-ft. facility that Dome’s grand-format operation now shares with its commercial, direct mail and packaging divisions.
According to Mike Graff, president and CEO of Sandy Alexander in Clifton, N.J., a desire to help customers avoid the “frustration” of poor cross-process color matching in jobs obtained from other sources is what spurred his company to make its own initial investment in wide-format, to the tune of $4 million, about seven years ago.
“We didn’t put a toe in the water — we jumped into the pool,” says Graff, who now operates a total of 11 wide-format, grand-format and dye-sublimation devices in Sandy’s Clifton and Orlando, Fla., plants.
Christofferson, on the other hand, says that the Foresight Group “got in small, and gave it a try” with entry-level wide-format equipment that it ran for a few years before adding capacity. It then acquired two sign shops it is in the process of consolidating into Foresight SuperSign, which offers wide-format graphics and many other types of signage.
For all six firms — drawn from the 2018 Printing Impressions 400 roster of the industry’s leading companies — building a substantial wide-format business both organically and through acquisition has demanded a level of financial commitment that not every commercial printer may be able to sustain.
Sizemore notes that Influence Graphics has been approached for help more than once by wide-format shops lacking the scale they needed to stay ahead of the game. While it may be possible to “dabble” in wide-format, he contends, “you’ve got to be a certain size to be efficient at it.”
One way to measure the efficiency of a wide-format operation is to count the number of things it can produce with the resources it has. As the equipment table on page 24 indicates, there’s very little in the way of wide- and grand-format work that these six firms don’t have the machinery to turn out.
Kelso says that at LPC, where wide-format output comes from both offset and digital platforms, the product portfolio includes “large-format signage for retail, POP, banners and projects with miscellaneous substrates. We serve local and national customers from the corrugated/display market to various other vertical markets.”
With its movie industry clientele, Lithographix has grown accustomed to doing wide-format production on a blockbuster scale. Morey recalls that the advertising campaign for the 2006 film “The Da Vinci Code” “absolutely turned us upside down, and we learned a lot from it.” He says the experience has taught Lithographix how to handle projects comprising, for example, scores of bulletins — standard, 14x48-ft. outdoor billboards —imaged on clear, backlit substrates.
“Wall and floor graphics, banners, vehicle graphics, all kinds of rigid board products, acrylics and polymer ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) signs,” are among the things keeping a wide-format team of about 20 employees busy at Foresight Group, says Christofferson. A recent job consisting of 225 3x5-ft. corrugated metal realty signs was worth $150,000. “It’s pretty tough to get a $150,000 offset job anymore,” he reflects.
Playing a Complementary Role
That may be a fact of life nowadays, but there’s no conflict for commercial printers in adding wide-format output to their traditional repertoires. In fact, the two lines of business can be complementary — if the provider positions them to customers that way.
That’s a matter of communication. “We always assume that our customers knew we had wide-format,” says Sizemore, adding that this often turns out not to be the case. The good news is that once Influence Graphics customers are encouraged to start tapping its wide-format assets, the conventional side of the house prospers, too. “They always need some kind of regular printing,” observes Sizemore.
Poole, similarly, says now that Dome Printing is consolidated under one very large roof, visiting customers are telling him, “I didn’t know you did grand-format — here’s an order.” The same kind of light comes on for wide-format buyers discovering the existence of the company’s six-color, 38˝ web offset press.
Something else that synchronizes wide-format and conventional production is the fact that very-large-format (VLF) offset equipment straddles both realms. It’s true that roll-fed and flatbed digital inkjet devices hold sway everywhere in the wide- and grand-format worlds. But, three of the companies profiled here, Dome Printing, LPC and Lithographix, also are using 81˝ sheetfed offset presses in support of these applications.
Kelso, for example, notes that what comes under the heading of wide-format offset at LPC — sheets and top sheets for corrugated, displays, folding cartons, commercial, POP and packaging — accounts for the biggest piece of the company’s wide-format revenue. There is some complementary overlap with the output from LPC’s digital wide-format equipment, which delivers signage, banners, POP, packaging, corrugated packaging, decals and printing on canvas.
VLF offset isn’t the only type of printing equipment that can do double duty in wide-format environments, even though wide-format for signs, banners, etc., isn’t what it was made for. Poole reports that after installing a B2-format sheetfed inkjet press, Dome found it more efficient for producing 20x28˝ store signs than some of its dedicated wide-format devices. The wide-format business, in his view, is “blurring all the lines” in its search for the right solutions to get the work done.
This is why Graff speaks of “cross pollinating” wide-format with other technologies at Sandy Alexander, where, he says, solving problems for customers always takes precedence over selling them processes. It also explains why the company prefers to categorize its wide- and grand-format operations within its retail visual merchandising division. “Retail comprises everything,” declares Graff, because of the diversity of the products that Sandy Alexander can create for it.
Color Management: Indispensable Skill Set
This requires paying strict attention to coordinating color spaces across all processes used — a discipline Sandy Alexander pioneered as one of the earliest adopters of the G7 methodology for color profiling. “I knew we were excellent at managing color,” comments Graff. “Having the skill set is what encouraged us to get into the wide-format business in the first place.”
Kelso agrees that there’s no substitute for color management in a setting like LPC, where wide-format production consists of both offset and digital output. “There is a lot of crossover between the two types of printing, and color consistency is critical,” he says. “This is one of the many reasons why we are a G7 Master Printer.”
Foresight Group is G7-qualified on a number of the devices in its signage division. “Color is very important to customers,” says Christofferson, noting that every device has its own set of printing characteristics. Fortunately, he adds, “as commercial printers, we’re used to matching color.”
Color space is one kind of space for wide-format providers to be good at managing. Getting physical space right means having a lot of it. A 3m-wide inkjet device, for example, needs that much lateral area, as well as leeway behind and in front for media feeding in and out. Factoring in storage for rolls and boards and the placement of finishing equipment adds urgency to a growing wide-format business’s need for extra elbow room.
“That’s my worry,” admits Sizemore of the possibility that the 12,000 sq. ft. that Influence Graphics’ wide-format operation now occupies might not be enough one day. “We have tight quarters, but we get it done.”
Christofferson says that despite adding 12,500 sq. ft. to accommodate Foresight Group’s growth in signage, “I already need more space.” In wide-format production, he observes, “everything is big.”
The others, facing the same squeeze, have expanded their wide-format footprints accordingly. Sandy Alexander doubled its dedicated space in Clifton to 40,000 sq. ft. and opened up the same amount for wide-format in Orlando. LPC created a 25,000-sq.-ft. digital wide-format facility in Lewisburg and gained another 85,000 sq. ft. when it acquired the firms in Texas and New Jersey.
Poole reports “we’ve got plenty of room to grow” within Dome Printing’s vast plant, of which about 30,000 sq. ft. is set aside for wide-format (not counting 125,000 more for racks, inventory, kitting and fulfilment).
Three years ago, according to Morey, Lithographix completely reorganized its plant workflow around grand-format, including the addition of “a ton of finishing capabilities” to support it. With these assets, he says, “we can take on the biggest products.”
Finish First With Finishing Expertise
Finishing is a critical investment for every wide-format provider, because what’s true in commercial printing holds just as true in the wide-format business: finishing is the step that turns printed output into the usable product that customers are paying for. Because finishing for wide-format is specialized, competence in it is a make-or-break proposition for a provider’s success.
As Poole expresses it, “anybody can put ink on paper. It’s how you finish it that makes the difference.” Christofferson advises wide-format beginners that “it takes a few years to learn how to use all of the different substrates, along with lots of time experimenting with cutting and finishing.”
Over time, the experimentation prompts wide-format providers to acquire routing and cutting tables, diecutters, folder/gluers, taping and sewing machines, and laser cutters, as well as equipment for grommeting and film lamination. Precision with these finishing devices is crucial, because, as Morey counsels, “you don’t want to be three inches short on a 198-ft. piece,” when installing it.
Finishing’s potential as a profit center for wide-format became clear to Christofferson after he installed an automated cutter and a routing table. “You’ve got to commit to a cutter,” he says, explaining that “you quadruple the opportunity” to produce wide-format applications with the help of custom cutting. He says that teaming the finishing devices with a flatbed printer caused Foresight Group’s monthly wide-format volume to leap from $5,000 to $20,000 — “and it never went down.”
To be sure, this was a gratifyingly fast ROI. But, for commercial printers, long-term success with wide-format output takes time and effort to lay the groundwork for.
Risk, Reward, Reassurance
The right approach, according to Kelso, is “successful strategic planning combining sales and operations to look ahead at customer needs well into the future.”
“It also requires capital,” he adds, “and the willingness to take calculated risks.” There is risk, for example, in deciding whether a piece of equipment “has the ability to sustain itself” in profitable operation not just now, but years down the road as well.
Graff also counsels choosing equipment carefully. Due diligence should be based, he says, on “having clients that need the product.”
“Confirm your market,” urges Graff. “We don’t buy anything that a client doesn’t need, as simple as it sounds.”
Once the capability is in place, says Morey, “it all starts with sales.” The better to grow its wide-format business, Lithographix has built up what he calls “an extremely strong sales staff” trained to cross-sell all of the processes a campaign requires.
Make sure that the selling is consistent and that sales representatives understand why wide-format is good for them, Christofferson advises. “You must get the sales team on board to sell it. If they’re willing to learn the wide-format business, they can add income for themselves almost immediately.”
Picking the right targets is the other part of the sales equation, according to Poole. Mobile phone retailers, for example, are opening up “brick-and-mortar all over the place” and need signage for these outlets. In contrast, the chain-store market, shaken by bad news from key players like Sears and Gymboree, is a sector that Dome Printing has become “very cautious” about.
Commercial printers know better than anyone else that there are no guarantees in business — only strategic initiatives that reduce uncertainty and point the way to new sources of profit. Venturing into wide-format output can provide some of that reassurance.
At Influence Graphics, concludes Sizemore, wide-format diversifies the portfolio, broadens the customer base and “makes us a little less susceptible to a recession. There’s less worry about someone reinventing the business online.”
In the commercial printing world, that’s as reliable a prescription as anyone could want for a sound night’s sleep.