VISOgraphic: Thriving, Not Just Surviving, as a General Commercial Printer
In 1946, VISOgraphic started as a small litho company with just two clients. It has come a long way from those humble roots, and today offers a wide range of products and services, including offset printing, digital output, and even package printing.
The changes, notes John Dahlke, the current COO, happened slowly, with the Addison, Ill.-based company expanding where customers led them, rather than pushing hard into a specific market. “It grew over time, organically,” he says. “We’re a fairly conservative company.” His father, Bob Dahlke Sr., who purchased the company in 1979, is a “fairly conservative guy,” according to Dahlke, which has shaped the form that the growth has taken.
In the beginning, Dahlke notes, VISOgraphic had just a few one- and two-color Heidelberg devices for many years. It eventually upgraded to a five-color press in the late 1980s, adding a four-color, 40˝ Heidelberg in the mid-1990s, followed by a five-color plus coater, and an eight-color plus coater, both Heidelberg as well. “We just kept growing slowly over the years,” he says, “and about 15 years ago we got into digital as well.”
Three years ago, Dahlke says, the pressroom got a major upgrade, replacing several of its older offset presses with a six-color RMGT 10 Series sheetfed press equipped with LED-UV curing, followed by an RMGT 9 Series LED-UV press installed last year. The shop today also has a full complement of digital presses, including a “full array of Ricoh equipment” that has allowed it to offer services such as variable data printing and verified mail pieces. The installation of the RMGT LED-UV presses was accompanied by single-pass AMS Spectral lamps, with a goal of increasing efficiency and eliminating extra time and labor from jobs to improve the business’s profitability. Goals, Dahlke notes, that the upgrades achieved.
“I run the plant from a production aspect, while my brother, Bob Dahlke Jr., is in sales and administration, and my father handles the computers and accounting,” he says. “So, when we sat down to talk about upgrades, we all had different goals. Mine was improving the quality and efficiency of the shop. My father’s was the dollars and cents aspect, and my brother questioned what value-add we would be gaining aside from higher speeds.”
Investing in the RMGT LED-UV offset presses, Dahlke says, hit all three marks and opened up new markets for the operation, including the ability to offer packaging, soft-touch and high-gloss spot UV coatings, hybrid digital/offset applications, unique print embellishments, and a much wider selection of substrates, including plastics. All of these have combined to make VISOgraphic a well-rounded commercial printer that can produce nearly anything that comes through the door.
“We can run a wide array of substrates now,” he notes, “such as plastics, mirrorboards, or three-point materials. We can even run static clings — things we would shy away from in a conventional print shop. After three years [with LED-UV], our product mix hasn’t just changed, but has expanded.” That ability to be flexible and run whatever substrate a customer might need has helped VISOgraphic survive the COVID-19 pandemic, Dahlke says.
Not Focused on a Single Market, Product
One thing that makes VISOgraphic stand out, according to Dahlke, is that even today, it isn’t interested in being a “niche” player. “We’re kind of the dirty description of a general commercial printer,” he jokes. “Which is both good and bad.”
Rather than target a specific vertical market or product type, the company just strives to print whatever its customers might ask for. This means that the product mix includes everything from marketing materials, to book manufacturing, to direct mail, to short-run digital, to packaging.
“Rather than changing, per se, and forgetting or moving away from the work that we did” as the shop has continued to evolve, Dahlke says, “we just expanded the product lines we offer and the services we provide.”
Prior to 2020, Dahlke notes that he would hear how it was “terrible” to be a general commercial printer, since the growth opportunities could be higher by targeting specific verticals or niches. But now, he says, “we’ve seen some printers hurting so bad because they were so focused on one niche or marketplace. That can be great, and there is a lot of value-add and profit potential there, but when that market takes a hit, it really kills your business.”
By focusing VISOgraphic’s efforts instead on expanding the technologies it offers, Dahlke believes his company is set up for longer-term success. When mailing takes a dip, for example, “we might have packaging work, or a variable data digital job. We might not have the best foothold in any one particular market, but we are so spread out that we really hedge our bets.”
Today, the shop serves customers in a wide range of markets, including automotive, hospitality, packaging, and direct mail. “It’s nice to have that broad product mix,” he notes. “We never have to turn away jobs.”
One area that Dahlke is particularly excited about is the world of print embellishments, which add a lot of value to practically any job. “There is always a new substrate or coating being introduced.” In the beginning, he says, they started with simple gloss and satin coatings, but since then, the shop has pushed the limits of its single-pass lamp system, experimenting with what effects it can achieve, such as grit textures or raised coatings. Adding unique elements to printed pieces allows its customers to stand out and catch the attention of their target audiences in ways that a simple printed piece alone would struggle to achieve.
In terms of what’s next, Dahlke notes that he did look at wide-format or signage work. While it appeared attractive at the beginning, “everyone and their neighbor is getting into it,” saturating the market and making it less of an opportunity for commercial printers, in his mind.
Not only does he not feel he has the work to fill those types of machines, they also require a large amount of floor space and inventory. Instead, he says, they just send the occasional job out to another shop if a customer does have any wide-format needs.
Photography is another area that VISOgraphic offers, but it has remained a fairly small offering. “We have a couple of prepress operators that are great with photography, and they’ll go on sites and do some unique and creative things,” he says. “But a lot of people are experts at taking great pictures with their cell phones, so we’re now manipulating more pictures than actually taking them. It’s something we offer, but not actively pursuing.”
On the more distant horizon, Dahlke says that larger-format production inkjet presses are one technology he’s looked at to further expand his digital capabilities and to improve efficiencies and offerings in that space. But that said, he doesn’t see that as a short-term goal; rather, that is an investment that will likely be a few years out.
VISOgraphic is the perfect example of a commercial printer that has withstood the test of time. Rather than getting pigeon-holed into a single market, or pushed out as technologies change, it has evolved and grown with its diverse customer base, adding new services, new products, and new production efficiencies to stay relevant in a highly competitive space.
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