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WIDE FORMAT: A LARGE OPPORTUNITY

Aug 1, 1998 12:00 AM


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What's making a big impact around the world and potentially worth billions of dollars? No, it's not Titanic or any other recent cinematic blockbusters. It's wide-format printing, the versatile printing technology poised for explosive growth in coming years.

According to Boston-based graphic arts consulting firm I.T. Strategies, the worldwide printing market will be worth close to $20 billion by the year 2002 (see sidebar). As digital technology and personalization become increasingly popular, the potential for wide-format applications grows too. Yet commercial printers are among the last of the professional market segments to adopt this technology.

According to John Shaw, coordinating director of the Digital Printing and Imaging Assn. (DPIA), a recent survey, which looked at the different types of businesses producing wide-format work, showed commercial printers bringing up the rear.

The number of traditional commercial printers was so small that it didn't even show up on the survey, he states. Conversely, prepress service bureaus, with their strong digital acumen, have found large-format printing to be a natural fit.

Perhaps one of the stumbling blocks to wide-format success in a commercial environment is sales culture. Most firms are set up to sell long runs, notes Patti Williams, consulting partner for I.T. Strategies. "It will be a little bit of a learning curve to learn how to sell short-run graphics. For example, if an account uses any kind of signage, it could be sold on doing some short-run signs that are personalized for a campaign, time of year or special event."

Once the selling techniques are refined, a market must be established. "One of the biggest problems we have found with established firms doing [large-format] printing is the assumption that the biggest hurdle is buying the equipment," Shaw notes. "First and foremost, these companies should understand the market, have a good marketing plan, know who their customers are and what products will be created."

Shaw cites an example of an established screen printer who was having trouble making a go with wide-format production until it made the wide-format business an autonomous entity with its own administration, sales and technical staff.

Most large-format printers will tell you that the possible product mix for large-format output is limitless. "There are a ton of new markets," attests Don Dickens, general manager of CAD Graphics in Warrenville, IL. "Your imagination is the only limit. We're just in the infancy of wide-format printing. People are used to big press runs; they don't know how to sell just a few. What we've been able to do is show customers new ways of marketing their materials for fewer dollars."

According to Dave Watry, owner of DW Graphics, a Stockton, CA-based digital printer, printers must find and build their own markets, discovering innovative uses for the new output device. DW Graphics uses a 48-inch Encad Pro50 for products as diverse as floor plans, trade show displays and bank posters. In addition to the Encad, Watry points out that a multitude of auxiliary items are needed to successfully produce large-format work.

"You'll also need mounting and laminating abilities," he states. "Like a printing press, you need a cutter and folder. But these are rarely talked about until the end of the purchasing decision. Also you have clients who come in with a 35mm slide and want it blown up to 3 x 4 ft. You can't do that with a flat-bed scanner, so you will need a drum scanner."

Watry has found that 50 dpi to 100 dpi suffices for most wide-format work even though he is capable of up to 300-dpi resolution. Also, the entrepreneur has found a secondary revenue source from his drum scanner in the form of scans for the trade.

When shopping for equipment, it is crucial that printers look beyond their immediate wide-format needs and buy for the future, even if it means putting off the purchase. Watry waited to buy until a 48-inch model was available, knowing that he quickly would have outgrown a 36-inch machine.

Similarly, Scott Stuart, owner of Nebraska Printing Center, watched the market for a high-speed, reasonably priced inkjet device before finally choosing a 54-inch Piezo Print 5000 from Raster Graphics. It was installed over a year ago and Stuart still believes it is the best machine available for his needs.

"If you're going to get into color, never buy what you need today--buy what you need for the future," recommends CAD Graphics' Dickens. "Once clients learn what they can do with wide-format, they'll start doing more than you thought they could!

"We had a job come in for 70 posters that were 50 MB each. We had to move those over the network and turn it around in three days," remembers the printing exec.

CAD Graphics is a digital printer whose product offerings include trade show work, POP displays and business graphics in runs that are typically less than 50 pieces; although, they can reach up to 125.

Among the conceivable market niches for large-format printing are products ranging from banners to trade show displays, bus wraps and even building wraps. And substrates needn't be a limitation since wide-format graphics can be transferred to virtually any surface, including cloth, wood and tile. Perhaps the most promising application is an obvious one: signage.

"In the not-too-distant future were going to see the market for signage go to shorter runs," I.T. Strategies' Williams predicts. "For example, right now there are five retail seasons of 10 weeks each. For each season, the retailers change their stock and their signage. Retailers would like to see 10 seasons of five weeks each. Imagine what that would mean in terms of signage."

Williams' forecast is right on target for at least one printer. Stuart's Nebraska Printing Center produces rotating signage for athletic facilities, banners, trade show booths and POP displays under the marketing name Lion Art. These king-sized graphics have given the 103-year-old firm a distinct edge in its marketplace, and customers are making Lion Art a part of daily business.

"Wide-format printing is a complement to our other products. It gives our sales team an opportunity to provide another service to the customer," Stuart explains. "We have one client who is in the process of building a new retail store, and is going to do its interior signage based on our technology so that the signage can be changed whenever required. In essence, this client is designing the whole store around wide-format printing."

Stuart's clients definitely see the value-added of large-format printing. "The first booth we designed and produced was for a regional manufacturer who took the booth to a national trade show," Stuart recalls. "The only difference between this year and prior years was the graphics in the booth. The exhibitor had more leads in the first day of this year's show than in the entire show the previous year."

Commercial printers are in a prime position to bring benefits like these to their diverse customer base. As commercial printers start educating clients about wide-format graphics, more and more clients will utilize this marketing tool, which will, in turn, further spread the news. To paraphrase Don Dickens, wide-format color creates more wide-format color. It seems this cycle can only benefit all the parties involved.

"Commercial printers could play a key role in this market if they could apply wide-format technology to the kinds of customers they serve," Williams states.

Regardless of whether you choose to adopt wide-format printing in coming years, this market segment seems destined for greatness on a global scale. According to comprehensive global market research conducted by I.T. Strategies earlier this year, the worldwide large-format output market will reach nearly $20 billion by the year 2002.

The North American market is expected to expand by 21 percent annually, and data shows growth predictions in all market areas and geographic segments, with dramatic growth projected for consumables and end-user values.

This optimistic outlook is based on recent enthusiasm in the professional or business-to-business marketplace.

"Until recently, many of the professional channels have held off installing wide-format devices," states I.T. Strategies consulting partner Patti Williams. "The most active have been the color photo labs, repro houses, graphic arts service bureaus and digital print shops because they understand digital technology and they have the customers."

When it comes to wide-format technologies, I.T. Strategies' research predicts the strongest growth will be in inkjet output devices as they become capable of faster speeds. The projected installation base of large-format inkjet devices is expected to grow by 30 percent annually until 2002.

Finally, the only area in which the research data shows a decrease is in retail prices. Increased demand and volume will lower the price of consumables, and current markups of 1,500 to 1,700 percent will recede to an average of about 1,000 percent.

More information about the future of the wide-format printing market can be found on the I.T. Strategies web site at www.it-strategies.com.