grand-format printing

Finding Customers for Grand-Format Applications

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been covering the automotive industry for more than ten years.

Graphics and sign makers with their eyes on bigger projects have likely wondered what it might take to step into the heavyweight category and be able to tackle the biggest of jobs, from museum graphics to advertising images that cover entire building facades.

The grand-format world, a general category for multi-format printed output exceeding 96 inches, does indeed offer a variety of potential markets for an enterprising sign company. That includes the potentially lucrative world of large indoor backlit signage, the kind seen at airports or other public buildings, as well as soft signage for trade shows, or even a wide variety of P.O.P. signage for retailers.

The major obstacle, as many have discovered, is the cost-prohibitive nature of the equipment required to output such enormous imagery—sometimes requiring large and complicated printers in the half-million-dollar price range—not to mention the logistical issues of the handling the oversized paper or other printing substrates required to get the really big jobs done, as well as the difficulties of shipping and installing finished work with customers.

But Michael Maxwell, senior director of marketing for Mimaki USA’s sign and graphics division, says a range of new equipment is emerging that can more effectively and affordably allow smaller sign shops to get into the game, giving them opportunities to address some of the many grand-format markets.

“In the past, these sorts of printers were usually large, expensive and took up a lot of square footage in the shop itself,” Maxwell says. “We’ve been able to do something with smaller real estate, creating a product that’s easily accessible, even if you’re only doing smaller-format output [44 to 54 inches] some of the time. It’s a way to try to bring that flexibility to a traditional sign shop.”

In Mimaki’s case, the new UJV55-320 is a 3.2-meter wide (128 inch) UV-LED printer that retails in the $100,000 to $150,000 range—not cheap, Maxwell says, but approachable and flexible enough to help a mid-sized sign shop finally be able to do work they might have had to outsource in the past to a bigger and better-equipped commercial printer. It’s also capable of running two 60-inch rolls simultaneously, each with different output.

“Most of our customer base already has an established background of potential clients, but they’ve had to turn down jobs,” he says. “People just need to wrap their minds around a product that’s less expensive—the market has been conditioned to think that it’s better if it costs more.”

Once properly equipped, Maxwell says one of the biggest opportunities for using that grand-format capability is the booming trade show business, as sports, industry and entertainment shows keep expanding across the country. That includes retractable signs for trade show stands or even backlit fabrics, which are also gaining popularity.

“Trade show graphics offer a huge growth curve for traditional sign guys,” he says. “Inevitably something goes wrong when people are preparing for a show—something’s damaged or printed wrong—and they’ve always been at the mercy of whoever did the original printing. Now, a mom and pop business can step in do the fix. It’s also easier to produce and package—you’ve got lightweight output that doesn’t need huge tubes to ship, so you can fit it into UPS boxes. Even better, the end user can just simply replace the signs themselves.”

Nathan Collins, digital imaging specialist with Agfa Graphics, says another major market is the P.O.P. graphics world, as retailers are constantly changing and updating their signage to promote sales items and new products, meaning a seemingly endless need for new larger-format signs.

“P.O.P. is probably the biggest addressable market, as it can be handled by the smaller printers, and it’s an easy business to get into,” he says. “Consider that a company like 7-11 needs signs for every one of its locations. That’s a big market to address, and it’s all printed on specific substrates, like Coroplast or PVC, to make it weather-resistant.”

Agfa has some 17 different products in the grand-format range, including the new Jeti Mira 2.7-meter flatbed printer, which includes roll-to-roll options for flexible media output. That includes a “print and prepare” mode that allows pre-loading during operation to increase productivity.

Collins says the key issue is to maintain output quality control, as those signs are going to be getting a lot of eyeballs and people will be viewing P.O.P. or trade show signage very closely. The good news, he says, is that a properly equipped sign shop can also be the go-to location for others in the sign community who don’t have the capability.

“I have one customer in Dallas who is able to do a lot of overflow work for other POP projects, so he’s able to keep busy,” he says. “There is a little difficulty with the seasonality of the trade show business—sometimes you’ll have days of overtime, and sometimes no business at all.”

Once they’re bitten by the grand format bug, Maxwell says signmakers can also consider what it takes to tackle the really large jobs—building-sized wraps, or billboard-sized imagery—though the level of expertise required for installation alone can pose some additional issues.

“The billboard business is still a little tougher to break into as it’s very tightly controlled, but you might be able to find some opportunities in building wraps,” he says. “Down here in Atlanta, you’re seeing a lot more of those full-building facades along I-85, with ads for companies like Chick-fil-A. That’s a big source of revenue for landlords, and a good source of income for sign companies.” 

—This story originally ran in the September 2016 issue of Sign & Digital Graphics magazine