P.O.P. Success!

P.O.P. advertising comes in all forms, but the most familiar to sign and graphics producers is the printed variety. Success in this market relies on a combination of several ingredients, including (but not limited to) good design, production efficiency, reliable equipment, impeccable service and quality people.

And while all these factors are important to success, the printing equipment dictates which part of the P.O.P. market segment a graphics provider can serve.

In the current P.O.P. marketplace, there is a growing trend to use flatbed printers in combination with digital cutters as the production equipment of choice. Such a combination can be the foundation of a strong profit center, or it can complement existing workflows.


Companies from diverse backgrounds have invested in digital print technology for P.O.P. production needs. For instance, in the past 24 months, Berkeley, Ill.-based Buhl Press has acquired the Océ Arizona 250 GT and 350 GT flatbed printers as well as a Zünd PN Series digital flatbed cutter. Buhl is what might be considered a traditional offset printer.

“We were expanding into digital P.O.P. signage, which is a logical extension of our core offset lithography business,” says Buhl president Charlie Barkley. He says a lot of time was spent evaluating and testing various printers for the price and performance levels his company needs.

“Our clients expect offset quality, so variable drop technology is important for us because it comes the closest to offset quality,” Barkley says.

Atlanta-based Parallax Digital began producing photographic P.O.P. advertising for high-end clients in the mid-1990s with its Océ LightJet photo image, but owner David Clevenger says he “saw the handwriting on the wall” several years back and invested in inkjet equipment. The company now uses a variety of digital inkjet printers from Hewlett-Packard, Roland and Mimaki as well as a 5' x 10' Zünd cutter and a 4.5' x 10' Techno CNC router to complement the LightJet.

In Denver, King Kolor has migrated from screen to inkjet printing and uses an array of HP roll-to-roll aqueous printers, an EFI VUTEk PV 200 hybrid UV printer for direct-to-substrate printing, two Seal 60" wide laminators and a Gerber M3000 cutting table for die cutting and other finishing functions. Owner Scott Cohen says he’s seen a lot of growth and change in the industry, especially having jumped from screen print to digital. “The quality is very high and pricing is competitive with screen printers,” he says.

Norton Shores, Mich.-based Source One Digital originally was founded by an advertising agency that needed P.O.P. creation for one of its clients. Jeff Morton, vice president of sales and marketing of Source One Digital, says for its local and wholesale to the trade business, the company now has five grand-format, roll-to-roll Gandinnovations printers (four 10' and one 16'), two Gandinnovations UV-curing flatbed printers, a UV-cure liquid laminator, a digital iCut system and a CNC Router. They produce P.O.P. materials about 80 percent of the time.


Simply put, equipment makes it possible to both expand your P.O.P. product offerings and produce more products faster.

“Customers in the current marketplace are trying to maximize their budgets and do more with less,” observes Clevenger. “But, still, they feel a need to continue with their advertising and marketing programs.”

In addition to “more with less” P.O.P. graphics, customers increasingly want shorter runs produced on demand; they want good quality, a good price—and they don’t want to inventory any of it.

Parallax’s Jerry Dubroc says he finds that those clients will often do the same quantity of prints but on a less expensive substrate or with a less expensive output method. He says an important selling point is to have the capability to get those demanding clients precisely what they need.

“We always look for better quality equipment with faster throughput because, if you don’t have the capability, you could be shorting them.”

Barkley says it translates into Buhl’s ability to offer unique P.O.P. products that would not otherwise be printed without the digital print technology.

Cohen agrees that it’s enabled King Kolor to expand. “By adding this new equipment, we have not only been able to offer a wider range of products but also much longer runs,” Cohen says. “We become the choice printer, as our quality is very high, and pricing is competitive with screen printers.”


The addition of major equipment, such as a digital flatbed printer or cutter, affects how work flows through a shop, but most shops adapt to the requirements of the job, which is always changing. Dubroc says each workflow configuration is set up to meet the demands of a particular project. “In a lot of cases, because you have the equipment, you can do more of the steps that are involved in complex projects, which can make workflow more challenging. You have to adapt.”

About 30 percent of Parallax Digital’s output from flatbed printers also is cut, but if roll products are added to the mix, about 80 to 90 percent of total output is cut. The Zünd can be equipped with either a knife or rotary cutter, but Parallax Digital uses it exclusively with knives. For beefier stock, they make use of their Techno CNC router.

Barkley says that at Buhl, the Zünd is used with both types of cutting tools, depending on the job’s unique requirements. Even with the speed capabilities of offset, Barkley says some pieces are too large to print on offset equipment. “We’re a job shop, and each production event is unique, so we gear the equipment to meet the needs of what we’re trying to do. Each piece of equipment in the manufacturing process has its own sweet spot.”

Economies of scale have a large influence on the impact equipment has on profitability and return on investment. Cohen believes that from an overall perspective it’s good and will get better as digital technologies mature.

Morton says Source One’s P.O.P. business has grown dramatically since the addition of a second UV-cuing flatbed printer in December and, to date, is ahead of projected return on that investment.

But for Buhl, the investment is a business strategy question and how well it complements the product mix is most important. “We’re not exclusively a digital printer,” notes Barkley, and he sees the profitability factor in a different light. “If you’re a small two- to three-person shop and this is the only arrow in your quiver, it better be running all the time and have nice margins. For us, if it sits a day or two, we don’t sweat it. When we have a job for it, we put it on it.”


Barkley says he’s pleased with the printers they acquired, noting that others could have done similar tests and found something else that met their needs. “When considering investing in this kind of equipment, you need to evaluate your budget, the equipment’s speed, your print quality requirements, the substrates you will use and how to balance those needs with the right piece of equipment. The variety of equipment available is a testament to the idea that one size does not fit all. Today, the market is pretty mature, so it would not be wise to buy without having a plan,” Barkley says.

Morton says Source One’s primary challenge has been being able to overcome production speed in order to meet tight deadlines. “We usually win the business based on the quality of our output,” he says. “Duplicating that quality on a larger scale under tight deadlines is a good problem to have.”

Clevenger says business is pretty robust. And while good equipment is certainly necessary, he thinks customers mainly understand performance. “If you are able to perform and you understand the market, there are tons of opportunities out there,” he says.

Barkley sees the biggest barrier to drop-on-demand inkjet is speed, and that once solved, companies that own the quicker equipment are going to be more competitive than those that have older, slower equipment. “It’s analogous to conventional offset in terms of new technology, making what’s already in the field obsolete. Those who make the investment in new technology then become the industry leaders.”

In the end, though, as Dubroc points out, equipment doesn’t help if you don’t have people who know how to work it. “Anyone can push a button. A good technician pushes a button and gets a good print.”