Pimp That Ride with Wide-Format Technology
Demand for vehicle graphics and wraps continues to increase, creating a promising growth opportunity for print service providers (PSPs) looking to expand their market reach. In fact, according to Grand View Research, the global market for automotive wrap films — the materials used to create the graphics — is growing at a full 20.8% annually and “will reach $4.12 billion by 2022.”
While most PSPs already have many of the design and production resources in-house that they need to successfully enter this lucrative industry, the application presents some unique challenges.
“A lot of people coming into the industry are experienced in wide-format, and may have done, for example, door graphics,” says Tony Palmer, owner of Roseville, Calif.-based Palmer Signs. “They see you’re getting $2,800 to $3,000 for a vehicle wrap, but they don’t realize the amount of time that goes into a vehicle wrap.”
Nick Woodward is graphics manager for Welcome, N.C.-based RCR Graphics Center Powered by Roland, which designs, produces and installs more than 400 wraps each year for Richard Childress Racing’s race cars and other vehicles.
“When you’re designing a wrap for a tractor-trailer [in 2D], you have to think about the big fenders and the hood as you design,” he says. “And you quickly see that your stripe is not going to work over this fender and this hood like it does on the computer screen.”
For Justin Pate, president of The Wrap Institute, a global provider of educational videos, hands-on trainings and other resources for the industry, great communication is essential.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” he says. “Designers aren’t always taught how to design wraps; production people don’t automatically know how the materials behave. If there isn’t good communication, it fails pretty quickly.”
Setting Up for Success
What steps can PSPs take to succeed?
According to Trish Dill, co-founder and marketing director of We Print Wraps, an online provider of wholesale wrap printing services throughout the U.S. and Canada, PSPs “should take the time to get formally trained. They should learn about different print materials and look into good equipment. Also, they need to know the local market and not undersell their vehicle wraps.”
Lucinda Zittrouer is director of wide-format for The Kennickell Group, a Savannah, Ga.-based PSP that serves as a one-stop shop for print buyers. She encourages aspiring wrappers to reach out to vendors for guidance.
“They know their products better than anyone,” she says. “We recently did a fleet of VW Beetles for a customer, a small, but complex car, and we worked with Orafol to make sure the media would stretch and conform for that project.”
And choose your materials wisely, advises Nicholas Lowry, president of St. Paul, Minn.-based Brand ink.
“If you are new to creating vehicle graphics, customers will be gambling on your ability to successfully complete the work in a quality manner,” he says. “Choosing a quality film means you can focus your time on all of the other variables involved in making an unfamiliar new product.”
Variables like installing, he adds. “Proper installation techniques are critical to a successful project and cannot be neglected. If you managed to earn your customer’s trust, design something great and manufacture it in a quality manner, you can’t afford to blow it on the install.”
Getting It Right
To ensure their success, Dill notes, shops should only invest in quality equipment.
“The basic minimum equipment you need to print wraps in-house is a printer, laminator, plotter, clean production table, RIP software, design software and tools for finishing,” she says. “You can expect to invest anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 to get started. You could also opt to purchase wholesale wrap to get started in wraps to make sure you have a strong client base before making an investment in equipment.”
Pate explains if a shop is new to wraps, it should choose its equipment strategically.
“If you are starting a wrap shop today, your printer has to be 60". Eco-solvent is a proven ink that doesn’t have a lot of issues and is super stable,” he says.
Zittrouer’s production team uses latex inks. “The colors are vibrant — and we have a UV printer if we need it. The technology of latex and the laminate means we don’t need to UV print most of the time.”
Regardless of formulation, Lowry recommends using only original equipment manufacturer (OEM) inks. “While it may be tempting to try and cut corners on your ink costs, this is not the place for it,” he says. “Similarly, using premium materials is worth the extra cost. The faster install speeds alone will make up for the cost difference.”
For Woodward’s installers, wraps need to go on quickly — very quickly — and the materials have to support this paradigm. In fact, RCR Graphics Center installers work in teams of two and are expected to wrap a race car from start to finish in less than four hours.
“In our case, we look for media that we can print quickly, that offers vibrant color and that is lightweight because weight is a big thing on race cars,” he says. “We also look for a product that is as efficient as possible to put on and take off and that will not cover the car in adhesive. And because we place graphics on top of wraps, the media needs to come off itself.”
Designing for the Install
While equipment and materials can make or break a wrap — so can the design. It helps, Woodward says, for designers to get familiar with the cars themselves.
“You have to have your template right,” he says. “And you need to see the car, touch it and feel it. It’s going to take a little bit of work up front to make that wrap fit, or you’ll be redesigning and reprinting in order to make it work.”
Zittrouer notes that there are companies offering wrap templates online that can help. “We have a membership with Pro Vehicle Outlines, and there are others,” she says. “If we are wrapping a random car that is not a flat box truck, when we quote we offer templates to our customers who are doing their own design work. It is less of a headache for us in the end if we give them the templates. For example, it will make sure their phone number isn’t cut off by a wheel well.”
Taking time to evaluate a vehicle and prepare for the wrapping process is crucial, Dill explains.
“The secret to success is taking proper measurements of the vehicle from the start, pricing it properly and getting a clear understanding of what your customer wants to be achieved in their wrap design,” she says. “This will avoid wasted time, money and energy on numerous design revisions and result in a great wrap and lots of repeat business from your customer.”
Plan for some initial trial and error as well. “Wrap your own vehicle first,” Palmer says. “Try it out on yourself. You’ll learn things like ‘that graphic shouldn’t go through that door handle,’ or ‘I didn’t know that curve existed.’”
And design with your buyer’s objectives in mind. “Buyers need designs that are on-brand and that meet their marketing goals,” Lowry says. “You need to determine the best route to achieve that.”
For many, simplicity works best. “Simple really sells,” Pate says. “In the sense that you have one to two seconds to get your message across on the road, this really is an art.”
No one knows this dynamic better than Woodward. “Our designs need to be seen at 200 mph and visible on TV,” he says. “Sometimes that gets challenging, especially if we have to place graphics for Caterpillar on the car somehow next to those for Bass Pro Shops. We have to think about how the two companies are going to play together.”
Also consider current design trends. “Textures are trending right now, especially for backgrounds,” Palmer says. “Brands are not just looking for a flat, monolithic color. They want you to create something you cannot do in paint. We have wrapped almost 100 food trucks in our area, and we are known for our textures — like adding a stucco effect in with the background color.”
Dill says, “The big design trend for business wraps is the ‘less is more’ approach, bright colors and abstract geometric patterns incorporated into designs.”
Zittrouer also sees demand growing for dimensional graphics. “We’ve recently gotten into 3D graphics,” she says. “While we aren’t printing with 3D printers, the way the design is set up to make it look 3D. We just did one for a seafood company that looks like a big aquarium. Everyone wants their vehicle to stand out.”
No more so, Dill adds, than consumers. “In terms of the consumer side, it’s all about fun, wild colors, camo prints in every shade, galaxy prints — distressed and rusted prints are also big. People with exotic vehicles, muscle cars and even trucks are getting designer vehicle wraps and custom designs.”
And while specialty inks like metallics can add a “wow” factor, Woodward advises PSPs to consider the print time involved.
“Metallic and reflective inks take more time to print,” he says. “We have to adjust for that time because we need to be very efficient in production. The same goes for sign shops wrapping 20 vans for a telephone company. They need to think about being efficient in order to make money.”
Running a Successful Business
Being profitable, Pate emphasizes, should be every wrapper’s ultimate goal. “In our workshops, I talk a lot about business,” he says. “For example, create your pricing structure and stick to it. Remember, you don’t get to haggle with Apple. This is your value proposition, and it’s hard to run a wrap business.”
For Palmer, being upfront with clients is another best practice to follow. “That is where our greatest success has been found,” he says. “We are very transparent about things like the limitations of materials. We let clients know that vehicle wrap material will last for three years if they don’t wash or take care of the car. It may say eight to 10 years on the website, but that is only if you take really good care of the car.”
While the application itself is complex, he adds, there is tremendous market potential for wrappers that know their craft — and do it well. “There’s great ROI on vehicle wraps, and as people start to see them work — that they are getting noticed in a sea of vehicles — they will go from, say, a three-quarters wrap to a full wrap. In fact, we are seeing many of our clients allocating their marketing dollars toward wraps.”
Zittrouer notes, “For us, it is a lot of fun — seeing what our customers come up with. Every project is different.”
“And never stop learning,” Pate advises. “If you are learning all the time, you are profitable. If you’re not, you will see the fallout very quickly. Plus, it keeps it interesting. This is a fun industry to be in right now, and it’s not going away any time soon.”