Wide-format Output--The Bigger Picture
No longer a small niche consideration, large-format printing is elevating POP and outdoor graphics display markets to new heights, allowing commercial printers to break through new profit ceilings.
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO
The bigger, the better. Wider is better. Big is beautiful. If for nothing else, wide-format printing is an attention grabber. And why not? How can any other form of print convey sheer opulence, tender sensitivity, true magnitude and obvious grandeur with the same, well, monumental proportions as do the wide-format wonders driving new trends in outdoor display graphics, point-of-purchase designs and an array of larger-than-life banners, posters and signage?
Why should the commercial printer care about the growth of wide-format print opportunities—or the host of new digital output devices prepared to elevate large-format digital output to bigger and better heights? Scott Champeau, product line manager of Scitex's Wide Format Digital Printing Group, takes a stab at explaining what is so big about wide-format printing for the commercial printer.
"First, wide format offers printers a stronger bond with their clients and suppliers, such as ad agencies, for example. It allows the commercial printer to service them in-house, rather than sending them down the street to an outside servicer," Champeau states.
Second, he continues, wide-format printing provides an alternative revenue stream that fits into a commercial printer's existing workflow. It must be understood that the initial startup cost for wide-format printing can be substantial, but labor—in terms of availability or special skills—probably is already available in-house.
And third, in addition to being a very visible product offering, Champeau says that wide-format printing is the fastest growing market segment in printing today.
Is Champeau correct? If the obvious rise in the number of wide-format digital printing devices—from industry names the likes of CalComp, ColorSpan, Encad, Epson, Raster Graphics, Roland, Hewlett-Packard, Scitex, Tektronix and Xerox, just to name a few—and the attention these devices are getting at industry trade shows and conferences are any indication, the answer seems to point to the affirmative.
Is bigger really more beautiful? Is wider better? One thing is clear: Bigger can be bountiful for the commercial printing operation looking to bring more specialized printing in-house—if the right wide-format technologies are implemented, marketed and executed effectively.
As with all digital printing technologies, the initial investment strategy must rest with the marketing intentions attached to any given leap of faith. In the case of wide-format printing, for instance, is the goal to produce fleet graphics or billboards, banners or posters?
For the sake of enlightenment, electrostatic devices are ideal for applications ranging from fleet graphics, floor graphics, billboards and other outdoor applications to simple graphics and easy text applications, utilizing substrates such as wet-strength paper. These applications require big color and big images for a variety of indoor and outdoor applications, but absolute print perfection is less critical.
Ink-jet wide-format devices, however, are ideal for delivering photo realistic images that must stand up to the scrutiny of close, indoor observation, such as backlit signs, posters and banners. Substrates set for the ink-jet wide-format market include direct-write poly cloth, direct-write poly canvas, nylon reinforced paper and films.
For further product positioning, ink-jet printers are suitable for jobs of less than 10 prints, allowing for more than a one-day turnaround. Fifteen to 20 prints per day of multiple originals is common for the ink-jet large-format device, which typically will deliver that color critical saturation—ideal for up close and personal viewing.
By comparison, the electrostatic printer is suitable for jobs with more than 10 prints and less than a one- or two-day turnaround. Ideal for electrostatic printers are jobs of 20 to 75 prints per day. These are high productivity machines. Appropriate substrates for electrostatic printing include UV-resistant media for outdoor applications.
"Commercial printers should pay attention to the trends in speed and unattended printing capabilities. These factors will increase productivity, thus, allowing the printer to handle more jobs and increase profits," advises ColorSpan's Sandra Crowley, marketing manager.
"A wide-format printer's width; ease of use; output quality; and automated handling features, such as on-line ink replenishing and automatic calibration, are all part of a system designed for high productivity, which is what the commercial printer is interested in the most, when thoughts of wide-format printing hit," Crowley advises.
"As for software RIPs, the variety of RIPs available for the particular device and the ease of use of these RIPs make it easier for commercial printers to select total systems that fit their clients' needs."
Mark Radogna, senior product manager at Epson America, advises commercial printers to look closely at media flexibility when considering the move to a wide-format device. "The ability of a wide-format printer to run a wide variety of substrates and thicknesses, and to offer a strong level of photographic quality that rivals any traditional offset press technology, is a very important consideration for commercial printers," Radogna reveals.
"Commercial printers do not want to wait forever to get a decent wide-format print. They need output in large quantities, but with high quality and at top speeds. The shop wants to be able to deliver enough wide-format jobs to pay off the printer ASAP," he says.
Perhaps it might prove a prudent business move to calculate profit horizons not solely by the standard scope of general commercial printing, but also by the larger-than-life possibilities of the burgeoning wide-format environment. To that end, Printing Impressions offers this look at recent equipment upgrades, new product launches and timely tidbits from the technological forces fueling the rise of wide format within certain segments of the commercial printing sector, notably quick print shops, in-house prepress operations and select segments of the in-plant printing environment.
Check out the various sidebars in this article as a select sampling of wide-format digital output tools, some of which may provide new profit centers for the digitally progressive commercial printer.
After all, there is money to be made in billboards and other forms of outdoor signage; there are new profit opportunities in display graphics, posters and banner applications. So, is bigger really more beautiful? For the adventurous commercial printer looking to broaden an already expanding capabilities portfolio, bigger may, in fact, prove to be financially beneficial.
Scitex, throughout the latter chunk of 1998 and at present, is placing its high production wide-format eggs in the Idanit-162Ad basket. Termed a digital color press for wide-format applications, the Idanit-162Ad pumps out point-of-purchase displays, outdoor posters, fleet marketing, street advertisements, billboards and bus advertising. The Idanit-162Ad offers a media size variable of up to a maximum of 64.2x102˝ and a minimum of 47x63˝. The devices uses solvent-based pigment CMYK and offers random frequency modulated (FM), or stochastic, screening. Resolution on the Idanit-162Ad hit 300 dpi. The unit can produce 30 to 40 sheets per hour at high resolution mode. At 200 dpi, the device can deliver 50 to 60 sheets per hour, printed on coated paper, self-adhesive vinyl, banner, PVC and other flexible media.
Epson's Stylus Pro 9000—launched at Seybold Boston—offers a newly designed micro piezo DX3 printhead technology with 1,440x720 dpi and the capacity to handle 13˝, 24˝, 36˝, 42˝ and 44˝ wide media in a variety of paper weights, up to 1.5mm thick. The device accepts manual cut sheet media at up to 44˝ wide. The Stylus Pro 9000 prints approximately 22 square feet per hour in photographic modes and up to roughly 66 square feet per hour in draft modes.
Available with Epson's RS-5100 external EFI Fiery X2 RIP for high-performance Adobe PostScript 3 functionality, the Stylus Pro 9000 is capable of simultaneously spooling, RIPing and printing jobs over an entire network. The unit includes EFI's new ColorWise Pro Tools suite for color management.
Hewlett-Packard's timeline on wide-format stretches back to 1991, when HP introduced its first large-format plotter based on ink-jet technology. The HP DesignJet line of ink-jet plotters experienced success in the CAD industry—paving the way for new large-format printing movements for Hewlett-Packard in other markets. In September of 1995, Hewlett-Packard introduced DesignJet 2500CP/2000CP, suited for design professionals, offering output at 600 dpi.
In April of 1997, the 54˝ DesignJet 3500CP/3000CP, featuring HP's large-capacity system, PostScript Level 3 and dye-based or UV-resistant pigmented inks, hit the graphic arts market. The DesignJet 3000CP ships ready to be integrated with an external RIP. It has 12MB of RAM, upgradeable to 68MB, and can be used with HP-developed drivers for auto-CAD and Microsoft Windows. The HP DesignJet 3500CP offers a plug-and-play solution, with built-in Adobe PostScript 3 RIP, PostScript drivers for Windows and Macintosh, as well as a pre-installed HP Jet-Direct card for easy connection to a network, PC or Macintosh. The device features 36MB of standard RAM, which is upgradeable to 68MB. The DesignJet 3500CP can also be used with a third-party RIP as needed.
New from Xerox ColorgrafX is the ColorgrafX 54e digital color large-format printer, enhanced with a full-screen graphic user interface (GUI) to enable ease-of-use and print consistency. Xerox pioneered the large-format digital color printing market with the introduction of the first series of large-format color printers in 1983.
Announced in March, the ColorgrafX 54e is 50 percent faster than previous Xerox models and produces large or multiple 54˝ print jobs at 300 dpi, at speeds as fast as 600 square feet per hour. The intuitive GUI lets operators check, at a glance, critical printer conditions and supplies levels, as well as easily change performance settings with a standard computer mouse.
ColorgrafX 54e uses a four-color, multi-pass electrostatic printing process, relying on a data interface that is anchored on Ethernet 100BaseT. The device includes an automatic sensing system that replenishes inks as needed with clear liquid dispersant and ink concentrate. Automatic stirrers maintain an even mixture of ink components.
ColorSpan recently announced its DisplayMaker Series XII of Gamut+ variable mode wide-format printers. DisplayMaker Series XL products include 12 600 dpi ink-jet printheads, reaching beyond the CMYK color gamut. DisplayMaker Series XII ink-jet printers include 52˝, 62˝ and 72˝ widths. Each of the 12 600 dpi ink-jet printheads use ColorSpan's Endura Chrome or Perma Chrome inks to produce images with apparent resolution of up to 1,800 dpi. The DisplayMaker Series XII includes several productivity tools, including AutoInk, AutoSet, AutoJet and
AutoTune, designed to result in higher quality output in an unattended environment. ColorSpan's DisplayMaker HiRes eight-color printers, in 42˝, 52˝, 62˝ and 72˝ widths, include eight ink-jet printheads for using ColorSpan multi-density inks to produce continuous tone printing with an apparent 1,200 dpi image resolution.
With Pantone's blessing, Roland recently announced Hexachrome certification for its Hi-Fi JET 1,440 dpi wide-format printer. As part of the licensing agreement for the Hi-Fi JET, Pantone has completed certification of the Hi-Fi JET for PANTONE Hexachrome colors. The device is now calibrated to ensure accurate and consistent color reproduction of PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM colors using CMYK, orange and green archivable pigmented inks.
The six-color Hi-Fi JET ink-jet large-format printer is available in two models, 40˝ and 50˝ widths, both capable of achieving 1,440x720 dpi printing with 64 nozzle micropiezo printheads.
Prices & Points
Making the Big Decision
Pricepoints for wide-format printing devices fluctuate wildly, from piezoelectric systems with 160 dpi resolutions with price tags of $5,000, to thermal output devices boasting 600 dpi at $12,000, to elaborate 720 dpi—or higher—resolution devices based on the piezoelectric printing method starting around $15,000.
Prices will differ, depending on the extent to which an individual wide-format device is bolstered with bells and whistles, including high production output power and the print quality of the device's maximum resolution. For example, prices for more production environment output devices can hit as high as the $300,000 mark—or considerably higher.
Epson's Stylus Pro 9000 wide-format printing solution, designed to handle paper up to 44˝ wide on media as thick as 1.5mm cardboard, lists at under $8,000. The HP DesignJet 2500CP lists at more than $11,000. The Xerox ColorgrafX Xpress 54 lists at more than $49,000. DisplayMaker Express by ColorSpan lists at more than $49,900. Alpha Meric's Spectrum 5248-PR, a 51˝ media-width printer with 300 dpi maximum color resolution and Ethernet 10BaseT interface power, lists at more than $70,000.
The Scitex Idanit-162Ad lists at more than $300,000. The Idanit, by the way, can print at super-turbo speeds of 2,650 square feet per hour.
When shopping for a wide-format output device, research maximum media width capabilities, media format flexibility, print method (thermal or piezoelectric), ink capacity (how regularly the device requires operator attention during long print runs), maximum color resolution, installed RAM, PostScript power and the power of the device's network interface.
Q&A: Xerox's Barry Lathan
Barry Lathan, president and CEO of Xerox ColorgrafX Systems, discusses wide-format market trends, the requirements for high productivity in large-format work and the strong pulse of the electrostatic alternative.
PI: What is happening in the large-format printing market? What's the direction of this market?
Lathan: We've seen an incredible amount of growth and several trends emerge over the past year. Foremost, large format is no longer a niche market segment reserved for specialty shops. Rather, it is quickly becoming a mainstream application, offering new business opportunities for virtually all members of the graphic arts industry. We're seeing print providers in the for-profit, as well as the corporate environment, embrace the technology and integrate it with their existing digital color offerings.
But this popularity has brought increased competition, which is especially fierce in the low end of the market. Here, the proliferation of low-cost thermal ink-jets has caused large format to move from a specialty to a commodity service. As a result, print-for-pay shops are now facing smaller profit margins. In order to sustain profitability and continue to grow their businesses, print providers must seek ways to differentiate themselves while meeting the increasing large-format demands of customers. This is where 'high production' printing comes in.
PI: What is the high production large-format market? What are its demands?
Lathan: Xerox defines the high production large-format segment as print providers that produce roughly 5,000 or more square feet per month, or 25 prints per day. Many of our customers are succeeding in this environment because it has significantly fewer participants, increasing demand and significant room for growth. But the bottom line is that the high production segment presents an opportunity to differentiate and start seizing opportunities with higher profitability.
The requirements of the high production large-format market are similar to those in other areas of the graphic arts industry. Systems must be extremely productive and reliable, be based on proven technology, and come with superior service and support. High print quality, print-to-print consistency and ease-of-use also are requirements.
PI: What are the technology options for high production large-format printing?
Lathan: Currently, electrostatic technology is the only viable technology for the high production printing segment. It excels as a high quality, cost-effective solution for high volumes, allowing customers to produce large jobs in a short period of time with great print-to-print consistency. This is supported by the fact that electrostatic printers now produce about 25 percent of all large-format graphics. This is impressive given that the technology represents only 5 percent of installs.
Electrostatic also offers print providers many new applications, including transfer to vinyl, as well as fleet, window and floor graphics. The technology is perfect for any outdoor application and for graphics where the viewing distance is several feet, including overhead advertisements, banners and multi-panel wall murals.
Vendors such as Xerox have demonstrated a strong commitment to developing, marketing, supporting and servicing electrostatic technology, as illustrated by the recent introduction of the ColorgrafX 54e. The 54e is now Xerox's fastest and most user-friendly large-format printer.
PI: Is high production large-format printing a realistic opportunity for commercial printers?
Lathan: Absolutely. The future of large-format printing is likely to see continued competition and price erosion in the low end of the market. This will make growth areas, such as the high production segment, all the more important. High production printing is for print providers who want to differentiate themselves from the competition by taking their business to the next level. Although it requires a bigger commitment than the low end, the rewards can be lucrative.
PI: What advice do you have for commercial printers looking to pursue the high production large-format market?
Lathan: Foremost, the high production large-format market offers much opportunity. To seize this market, commercial printers should seek vendors with long-term commitments, staying power and the ability to support their offerings. Because fierce competition among vendors has and will continue to result in fallout, merger and acquisition, it's critical that print providers research their options carefully before selecting a vendor with which to partner.