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Over the last decade, digital printing within the sign and commercial graphics markets has proven to be a very lucrative business for savvy output providers who did their homework and kept up with market trends. Many of these thriving shop owners gazed into the future, looked at emerging trends and then invested wisely in new equipment and materials to meet the demand for these future revenue streams. Those shop owners who are paying attention to the direction of the industry and who keep abreast of the latest technology developments have the best chance of success because markets are always changing.
Current technologies such as latex ink systems, UV-cure, UV-LED, and direct-print dye sublimation inkjet are all expanding as shop owners continue finding new markets and applications. These technologies have provided ways to push out a wider variety of products at faster speeds.
The wide format sector continues to undergo major growth, with increasing demand for products in the visual marketing and advertising arenas. There are also a number of newer and emerging markets that are also coming to the forefront.
Thanks to rapid advancements in technology, wide format printing is becoming more accessible to a larger volume of end users. The arrival of more automated industrialized inkjet printers, capable of handling an increasingly diverse range of substrates, and at reasonable cost, is helping spark interest in this area.
Printer manufacturers are also helping develop more print solutions in areas such as packaging, prototyping, thermoforming and fabric printing. This is being met with new product launches in inks, varnishes, paper and other substrates. In addition, large-format 3D printing is a high-visibility new technology that brings some interesting application possibilities to the marketplace.
“Right now, wide-format printing offers an ideal opportunity for shops to diversify their service mix, offer new applications, deliver faster turnaround times and develop new revenues,” says Josh Hope, senior manager of industrial printing business development and marketing for Mimaki USA, Suwanee, Georgia. “And, keeping up with the latest printing technology trends is key,” he adds.
Hope says that one trend he sees today is that shops are trying to do more with less. “They are looking for new ways to automate and streamline their workflow. Shops are looking for ways to take a piece of equipment that they are comfortable with and expand its capabilities into new areas.”
Industrial, Promotional and Thermoform Opportunities.
Increasingly, the lines are blurring between printing and manufacturing, reports Hope. “Right now the industrial printing space continues to grow and is very strong," he says. "In addition, on-demand, mass-customization capabilities are now enabling shops of all sizes to produce a number of new applications for their clients.”
Hope says that new developments in technology are allowing output providers to customize pieces at much faster and more economical rates, adding that they can make good money even with smaller print runs. “The technology allows smaller shops to enter these areas and to produce promotional customized printed pieces. It allows print campaigns to be produced regionally by smaller printers who can customize them with local information. Printing onto small promotional items such as golf balls is also another growing area. Boutique packaging is also on the rise,” he adds.
Hope says that Mimaki’s just-released LUS-350 UV-LED thermoforming ink set was developed in part to serve this growing industrial space. The ink was recently demoed at an international trade show, running in Mimaki’s UJF-7151 plus UV-LED flatbed printer. “After printing, the ink is fully cured onto a hard surface, it won’t crack after the molding process, and it’s resistant to scratching. The ink also offers a new finish for a host of applications such as molded signs, auto parts and prototypes,” he adds.
Resurgence in Textile Printing
Paul McGovern, at the time of this writing the director of marketing and business development at Inkjet Technology Inc., is seeing huge growth in textile printing. “We are witnessing a major resurgence in the domestic textile printing market in North America,” McGovern says. “There was a time when sampling and pre-production as well as production were all outsourced overseas. All three of these areas are coming back to the U.S. big time. We see digital textiles as one of the fastest growing markets in the wide-format space. Soft signage is also continuing to grow and beautiful fabric backlits are replacing traditional film in many areas.”
McGovern says that dye sublimation printing continues to gain more market share in the soft signage and trade show display sectors. “This is based on the overall benefits offered for using these fabrics and materials for indoor use or short-term outdoor exposure in producing everything from banners, trade show graphics and sports apparel.” he reports.
He says fabric displays are becoming more popular than conventional polymer-based film products and are being utilized in hotel, home furnishing and retail industries.
“For example, backlit LED panels are being used in retail signage that offer the brightness as well as a wider color gamut of dye inks instead of the conventional film products. These stretchable fabrics fit nicely into LED light boxes and provide an extremely high quality color image for a host of sign and graphic applications.”
Other Growth Areas
McGovern says that many output providers are thinking outside the box and that is leading to new applications and markets. “Online on-demand printing is becoming very important right now for customized fabrics for the home décor market. These specialized customized pieces are really coming into their own for the home furnishings and hospitality industries.” He adds that gaming tables for casinos are also another emerging market. “Today, even the chips are printed on flatbed printers.”
“In apparel, polyester uniforms for high school and college sports are dominating the market. The customization of digital printing of putting the player’s name on the back of jerseys is really driving business.” This market is really big in states such as Texas where many schools are putting the players’ names on the backs of jerseys for each season so shops get to sell new personalized uniforms every year. This means a ton of business in the print market because everyone wants his or her own jersey to keep,” he adds.
Keeping it Personal
“It’s clear that both UV and dye sublimation have opened up new digital printing opportunities beyond the traditional sign and commercial graphics markets,” reports Chris Medrano, group product manager, color products for Irvine, California-based Roland DGA. “The trend that is largely responsible for creating these opportunities is a growing consumer demand for personalized products," He says. "Today’s consumers want to personalize everything from cell phone covers to clothing to interior décor.” He points out that printer manufacturers such as Roland have developed devices, such as the VersaUV LEF series UV-LED printers and Texart dye-sublimation printers that make it easier and faster than ever for businesses to personalize a vast array of items.
“It’s this convergence of consumer demand for personalization and advanced technologies that make it easier to capitalize on this demand, that’s allowing businesses to tap into new, lucrative markets,” Medrano says.
Medrano says that Roland’s cutting-edge UV-cure and dye-sublimation printers are enabling all types of businesses to get in on this growing personalization trend. He explains that the affordability and ease of use of these devices, combined with their ability to feasibly handle one-offs and shorter runs, are opening up opportunities for businesses of all sizes—even smaller companies and kiosk owners.
Wide Range of Products
“Branding houses and advertising firms are taking advantage of these state-of-the-art technologies to create a wide range of products, decorated with vibrant graphics, to promote their clients’ offerings.
“UV printers, such as those within Roland’s VersaUV LEF series, make the process simple, efficient and profitable. They allow the user to print directly on virtually any type of substrate or item, including three-dimensional items up to 3.94 inches thick. For example, Roland’s VersaUV LEJ-640 UV flatbed printer expands the creative universe even further, making it possible to print colorful, detailed graphics directly on objects up to six inches thick and weighting as much as 220 pounds. These cutting-edge devices make it simple to personalize everything from smart phones and computer covers to lunch boxes and coffee tables,” he explains.
Medrano adds that advancements in dye-sublimation are also creating new opportunities and markets for personalization. “Sublimation printers, like the Roland Texart RT-640 and XT-640, allow users to transfer vibrant graphics and eye-catching photos to fabric, making it easier and more cost-effective than ever to create personalized apparel, interior décor items and accessories.
“The applications themselves aren’t necessarily new. After all, people have been personalizing clothing and hard goods for a long time. It’s the digital printing technologies themselves that are new. In the past, personalizing these items required a significant amount of time and labor. Longer runs were often required as well. Now, these UV and dye-sublimation printers make it relatively quick and easy for businesses of all sizes, and even individuals, to personalized a vast array of items,” he says.
3D Printing Adds a New Dimension
A new market segment that is continuing to grow is 3D printing. This additive manufacturing process has already been long utilized in prototypes or the aerospace industry and is poised to provide more applications. One company that is leading the charge is Massivit 3D Printing Technologies with their 1800 large-format 3D printer.
“The ability to combine 3D with 2D enables advertisers to continue to innovate and make brands more engaging. With this in mind, we anticipate that we will soon see more and more promotional campaigns that incorporate 3D printed elements, whether it be point-of-purchase displays, exhibition designs or billboards,” comments Lilach Sapir, vice president of marketing and business development at Massivit 3D, Lod, Israel.
“In this instance, the print providers themselves could serve as the trendsetters, demonstrating to their customers how to enhance their current projects by realizing the benefits of 3D printing for promotional and advertising activities.”
She says that while 3D printing may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, with a number of attention-grabbing stories highlighting how the technology will and is already changing our lives; it has in fact been around for over three decades.
“We will continue to see it evolve and play an increased role in the production process. With this being said, 3D printing is ‘alive and kicking’ and is already making its mark in the manufacturing process. Today, it is firmly established across a vast spectrum of industries including aerospace, automotive and media, to name a few,” she says.
Opening the Door to New Opportunities
Sapir points out for the owners of large format print and sign businesses, 3D printing technology could be an enabler to unlocking the door to new business. “The ‘traditional’ large format printing industry remains a difficult environment in which to operate and the need for higher impact output is essential for making a change and increasing profitability.”
She points that brands and marketing managers are more than ever seeking to maximize their budgets and seek out new business opportunities. “Retailers are looking to transform their shops into an interactive environment, to engage and entertain their shoppers. Using 3D printing, retailers can secure increased customer footfall through the 3D printed ‘selfie points’ or with larger-than-life 3D printed displays that really get the customers talking. These offer attention grabbing; added-value visual communications that better engage target audiences. In fact, research shows that 3D printed advertising has five times more stopping power and four times more staying power than 2D. It’s no wonder why more and more companies are introducing 3D printing to their projects,” she adds.
Sapir points out that following the launch of the Massivit 1800 in Europe earlier this year, their customers continue to push the boundaries of the technology by exploring new sectors. “This goes beyond large-format 3D printed applications for retail/promotional applications and into sectors such as hospitality/hotel and interior design.”
3D Customers Explore Markets
“For example, our first European customer, Stylo Graphics, is branching out of its traditional large-format 2D printing roots and is producing a number of bespoke pieces for the hotel and interior decorating markets. The company saw a gap in the market and the opportunity to up-sell and offer a wider array of printed products and displays in addition to its traditional 2D printed projects.”
Another customer, New York City-based Carisma, used its Massivit 1800 to enhance a number of its visually-striking ad campaigns with 3D elements for a number of blockbuster movies, including “The Angry Birds Movie” as well as the new “Ghostbusters” movie.
Sapir reports that Carisma produced a number of spectacular, larger-than-life “Angry Birds” and “Ghostbusters” models that were installed onto a number of double-decker buses in the run-up to the release of the movies. “In fact, thanks to the Massivit 1800’s super-fast turnaround time and robust, lightweight Dimengel printable material, Carisma produced ten 14-feet 3D printed ‘No-Ghost’ 3D graphics in just ten days before mounting them onto double-decker buses nationwide,” she adds.
Sapir says that since its launch, sales of the printer have far exceeded their targets. “With our extensive and growing distributor network, we are now well into double-figures sales around the world. Overall, we think that the way the technology has evolved generally in other sectors is probably a good barometer for where things might eventually be headed.”
“This is also true of the traditional 2D large format sector where, over time, customers started to demand higher printing speeds, improved output quality and an ever-expanding range of printable substrates. As such, we will continue to work closely with our customers and R&D team to ensure that we ascertain their changing requirements and develop technology that meets their needs,” she says.