Four Commercial Printers Report Success Since Adding Wide-Format Digital Printing
There’s a reinvigorating quality associated with wide-format digital printing. Much like package printing, it’s creative, fun and interesting. It is big, sometimes loud and more than a little colorful, like your crazy Uncle Marty. And the substrates...if you have a bit of avant-garde floating about in your DNA, and your customers tend to walk against the flow of traffic, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
Why get into wide- and grand-format work? For one, it’s everywhere. Also, it has a low-cost entry point relative to other technologies. Not to mention it doesn’t require a great deal of pavement-pounding effort to scare up wide-format action; chances are, your current customer black book is riddled with possibilities.
For some commercial printers, wide-format printing becomes a natural evolution. Take SunDance Marketing Solutions in Orlando, Florida, which originally was an art publishing company when it was acquired by John Henry Ruggieri’s family 10 years ago. In 2007, Ruggieri split the company, starting a commercial printing concern that focused on fine art work, servicing its sister firm.
Backed by the addition of wide-format work, SunDance Marketing quickly grew to a $10-plus million-per-year operation in furnishing high-end collateral. Its client list includes the vacation ownership market, hotel and health care, along with art reproduction.
SunDance had experience aqueous printing on a 44˝ Epson machine, but moved into wide-format in 2012 while doing work with Thomas Kincaid. When the printer moved to a larger facility in January of this year, it acquired an HP Scitex FB700 and an HP Latex 3000. The company had previously been exposed to HP products through the Indigo 5600 digital press it obtained in 2011.
“We had some other equipment that really wasn’t performing in the wide-format arena,” Ruggieri notes. “Through the exposure to HP—we had been in their demo room—we learned more about their other products. We fell in love with their Latex machine and decided to upgrade our flatbed machine from varnish and CMYK to the HP with white ink.”
Ruggieri puts his HP equipment through the paces; he’ll run 24-pt. board on the 3000 as a bridge from the Indigo, which is rated for 18 pt., but has been used to handle 24 pt. as well. As far as substrates are concerned, the flatbed sees metals and mirrors, with the 3000 handling paper, synthetics, canvas and vinyl.
SunDance didn’t have to look far to find takers for wide-format action. The existing hotel, entertainment and hospitality clients made it known there was work to be had.
“We like to position ourselves as a customer service company rather than as a commercial printer,” he says. “We had to outsource bits of jobs previously or say that we could produce it a little bit smaller on our offset press. Now, the customers love the product and love the quality. It just grew rapidly.”
Initially, substrate availability was an issue, and some paper mills Ruggieri used went out of business. With the overall growth of wide-format, getting even the most esoteric materials has become easier.
Ruggieri envisions upgrading his laminating capabilities. He encounters more applications that require adhesives—double-sided clings and double-sided, low-tac pieces that require adhesive being added postpress. Capacity is a double-edged sword, and Ruggieri is mindful of over-purchasing equipment. The Scitex FB700 is a nice hedge bet for the shop, as he can add a second and third shift when needed to satisfy demand. The machines all enjoy a “pretty high uptime,” he notes.
His advice to printers venturing into wide-format work is to start off conservatively. “HP has some of the smaller latex equipment, and I wish we would’ve started there instead of going with the lower end, industrial piece of equipment,” he says.
Tom Morrison is a 40-plus year veteran of the printing industry and owns Creative Sign, a nine-employee job shop in Huntington Beach, California, which traffics in plastics, decals, vinyl and glass, among other substrates. The onset of the digital revolution allowed the shop to be more efficient and profitable on the lower quantity runs. Morrison relied on screen printing for larger runs, as setting up film, the screen and the color mix is cost-prohibitive on a run of 25 pieces.
The turning point came after Morrison had acquired a wide-format press that, following a year of frustrating results, was clearly not the panacea he’d sought. He then turned to Ricoh to obtain a Mimaki JFX200-2513, which has the added bonus of being able to lay down white. This is particularly helpful for dark wood substrates that need to pop with color.
Wealth of Substrates Available
In addition to wood, Creative Sign is using the Mimaki to print pressure-sensitive vinyl, rigid vinyl, foam core, gator boards and even metal signs. The inks used are extremely durable, adhesion-wise. The marriage of substrate and ink chemistry can be a challenge, and trial and error is the best teacher.
“I had a job recently that didn’t work. It was printing on an exercise mat, and we weren’t familiar with the process of the rubber,” he says. “It was almost like a silicone finish, and it didn’t stick. The (mat) manufacturer put a release agent in the mold so it wouldn’t stick to the mold. And the mat may have residue of that silicone left on it. This was an example where it wasn’t the press’ fault.”
Point-of-purchase/point-of-sale applications represent a lion’s share of the wide-format jobs. Morrison is doing a fair amount of clear, polycarbonate name plates with printing on the reverse that can be read from the other side. Since the Mimaki can handle nearly 2˝-thick substrates, that opens the door to a wide variety of applications.
Four months after Creative Sign implemented the Mimaki inkjet flatbed printer, wide-format jobs comprise 20 percent of Creative Sign’s monthly billing sales. Morrison’s next target is to acquire a computerized flatbed router, which would complement his steel-rule diecutting capability.
While Morrison doesn’t anticipate retiring his screen printing work, as it has a definitive role at Creative Sign, the flatbed is certainly pegged for solid growth. Like Ruggieri, Morrison is thrilled with the availability of various substrates formerly difficult to obtain. “I have vendors in Southern California knocking on my door weekly,” he says.
Not surprisingly, Morrison advises his colleagues not to put their screen printers out to pasture. “There’s always going to be that job you can bid on that requires screen printing,” he says. “You can go entry-level (with the flatbed) like we did for under $80,000. And I was able to go entry-level because I had the screen device as a backup. Otherwise, you can spend half a million dollars (on a flatbed).”
Another smaller shop that has enjoyed stellar results with wide-format printing is Cambridge Offset, which has locations in the Massachusetts towns of Cambridge and Fall River. Owners Kris and Greg Potter acquired the firm in 2006 from the person who founded it from his basement 40 years earlier. Potter inherited a number of one- and two-color presses with the shop, but didn’t realize at the time that the key to his future was hiding in plain sight.
“We quickly realized those printers weren’t going to fit the bill,” Potter recalls. “One day a supplier said to me, ‘You’ve got a printer here, why don’t you use it?’ He was talking about an Epson 9600 that was only used for color proofing. We used it to get into signage, and now it’s a larger portion of the business than offset.”
High Demand for Political Work
Cambridge Offset sees a wealth of demand for political work, most notably mailings and signage, in the New England area. The company had been farming out the signs to a screen printing shop that suddenly went belly-up without warning. Potter decided to bring the work in-house and acquire a printer that could handle wide-format roll and rigid material. He found that solution in 2008 with the Mutoh VJ-1608 hybrid/flatbed printer.
Two years later, with demand outpacing capacity, Potter acquired a Fujifilm Acuity Advance UV flatbed, which expanded his rollfed capabilities from 64˝ to 83˝. In 2012, an opportunity came down the pike that Potter couldn’t resist: a client needed a weekly run of posters, initially about 25 to 50, but it soon turned into hundreds per week. Plus, the client required fulfillment. At this point, Potter tapped Mutoh again, this time installing the VJ-1638.
When the same client asked Potter if he had dye sublimation capabilities, or could add them, the call was made for a 44˝ Mutoh RJ-900X machine, along with a 64˝ Geo Knight Maxi-Press Air 4464 AR heat press. This opened the door to a wealth of oddball items: ties, socks, board shorts and picture frames to go with posters, T-shirts and tote bags. And this one customer who Potter has accommodated profusely keeps piling on work. Potter is now actively looking at new printers, additional heat presses and adding second- and third-shift seasonal positions for at least five people.
Eight years after Potter decided to give that Epson proofer a little more action, Cambridge Offset’s wide-format sales now represent 70 percent of receipts through UV, dye sub or eco-solvent printing. This operation has no salesperson, yet continues to grow at an impressive rate. In 2014, with equipment bulging out of its Cambridge shop, Potter decided to lease space in Fall River and duplicate all of the wide-format equipment gear that was in Cambridge. He purchased an even bigger space this past July to accommodate expansion.
Even today, Potter is on the lookout for new equipment—roll-to-roll dye sublimation in the 64˝ range and a 67˝ calendar dryer in order to go roll-to-roll with fabric. It’s a somewhat significant departure from where Potter began his printing efforts.
“Diversification has been key for us,” he says. “If we relied on offset from the time we bought the company, we’d be closed like a lot of shops. There’s no question that our diversification into wide-format has kept us going.”
It comes as no surprise that Potter advises newcomers to the wide-format arena to make better use of their proofers, as it is an economical way to start down the path with items such as posters and banners.
Hopkins Printing began its wide-format journey in earnest three years ago, with the acquisition of a 54˝ Roland DGA SolJet Pro solvent-based press. The Columbus, Ohio, printer followed up on the flatbed side with an Agfa Jeti Titan HS machine, which services point-of-purchase retail signage clientele in need of posters, retractable banners and indoor/outdoor banners. Roy
Waterhouse, president of Hopkins Printing, points out that Columbus is a haven for retail giants, plus the firm serves the finance and religious spaces with small-batch signage.
Getting Sales Up to Speed
In three short years, the printer has enjoyed a brisk ramping up of wide-format business. One of the greatest challenges the company has faced, according to Waterhouse, is acclimating the sales staff to the new technology and its cornucopia of substrates.
“It took a while to get educated on a totally different set of substrates and different types of finishing processes,” he notes. “You take a print rep who’s been selling commercial offset for 20 years and say, ‘Here’s something new to sell.’ Any time there’s change, it takes a little time and training. But all of our salespeople are selling it now.”
A vast majority of Hopkins Printing’s wide-format work has been gleaned from existing clients. Waterhouse loves that the materials are cheap enough to do one-off examples of the work that can either be given to the customer or sold to them at a heavily discounted rate. The samples are fantastic conversation starters and the price point to entry is usually too enticing for clients to pass on.
From a production standpoint, Hopkins Printing benefitted from adding personnel with extensive wide-format experience, while the two machines have performed in an exemplary way. Waterhouse notes that the company has stuck to the basics with substrates, such as vinyl scrim, styrene and foam core. They’ve done white-on-clear with two-sided printing, but the sweet spot has been posters on paperboard or styrene.
Hopkins Printing has carved out a reputation for excellence in Central Ohio by providing a four-pronged offering: commercial printing (including direct mail), digital printing, technology (Web-to-print/storefronts) and wide-format. Being a G7 master qualified printer, Hopkins has the ability to pepper all areas of its operation with quality and consistency.
“We’ve found customers like not having to source with multiple vendors if they don’t need to,” Waterhouse concludes. “We see wide-format growing nationally, while printing—although it’s not shrinking anymore—is at a lower point than it’s been in the last 15 years. Wide-format provides a chance to add sales to the top line, as well as take care of more customers.” PI