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Wide-format inkjet marches on

Oct 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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Revenues from the sale of inkjet printers, media and ink are expected to grow to about $50 billion by 2007, up from $33 billion in 2002, according to research firm I.T. Strategies (Hanover, MA). Furthermore, the retail value of wide-format graphics, which measured $19 billion in 2002, has been projected to grow to nearly $30 billion in five years. Clearly there's a market for wide-format inkjet printers beyond merely producing digital proofs.

Of course, you can't just plunge into the sign, banner, poster, billboard or fleet graphic market. We asked Quali-Graphs, Sukolsky-Brunelle, the Campos Group, Graphic Storm, Kew Digital, Print Atlantic Express and H&S Graphics to tell us about their wide-format experiences.

Short-run presentation pieces

Despite the growing number of signage companies and reprographics shops serving the Omaha/Lincoln metropolitan area, service bureau/print brokerage Quali-Graphs (Lincoln, NE) still gets requests for short-run posters in addition to offset press runs. “One of our bigger customers really loves our Agfa Sherpa 43,” notes Quali-Graphs' vice president of production, Randy Wiegand. “They ask us to produce large printouts for their in-house presentations or flowcharts that show their business processes. They've even discovered an added benefit — dry-erase markers work well on Agfa's inkjet paper!”

Quali-Graphs originally purchased the Sherpa to provide its advertising clients with color-accurate digital proofs, not even considering the printer's poster-making ability. “We probably should have known that people would ask for this,” says Wiegand.

While some companies might reject a poster request rather than determine how to price and schedule them, Wiegand says this is just one of many value-added services Quali-Graphs provides. “Our clients appreciate that we'll go the extra mile for them, and we're able to turn jobs around quickly when they need it.”

The six-employee prepress company doesn't feel the pressure to compete on price with the local storefront sign shops. “A lot of people in town have wide-format. They can do it cheaper than we can, but their quality is not as high,” says Wiegand. “We'll give someone a break if it's just a poster for an in-house display, but if they want a high-quality presentation piece, it takes time to do the mounting, and we have to price it accordingly.”

How do you wrap a Hummer?

Sukolsky-Brunelle (Pittsburgh, PA), a photographic imaging company that has embraced digital production methods for years, has used its five wide-format inkjet printers for a variety of unusual projects. The company prides itself on its reputation as a creative print-problem-solver. So CEO Tony Marshall wasn't surprised when a nearby resort, Nemacolin Woodlands, asked Sukolsky-Brunelle to wrap a Hummer to promote a golf tournament.

The H2 graphic was printed on removable self-adhesive material using a 60-inch Encad inkjet printer. To find the best substrate, Sukolsky-Brunelle tested many alternatives, eventually selecting Oce material for its outdoor endurance. The company covered the SUV's windows with one-way vision self-adhesive that allowed passengers to see out but looked opaque from the outside.

“Since this was our first project of this sort, I applied the materials myself. The layout was created to include a half-inch overlap, which called for careful positioning. It took 19 hours to do,” reports Marshall.

Sukolsky-Brunelle also has used its large-format inkjet equipment to create a custom backlit transparency for a restored vintage pinball machine as well as wall graphics for the interior of a laundromat. “The inkjets have been a great tool for us and have given us new imaging options because of the different materials they can print on,” enthuses the CEO. “We've even printed onto pasteable wallpaper and cotton materials to create unique wall coverings.”

How do you print and mount a 40-ft. banner?

It was a learning experience for the Campos Group (Tonawanda, NY), a 12-employee company providing digital printing and imaging services. “A large supermarket chain asked us to create some 40-feet displays to use as dividers in its stores,” explains George Campos, group leader. “We didn't want the printed images to cast a shadow through to the other side.” That required five layers: laminate, print, the in-between board, the second print and finally more laminate. “Working right from the inkjet rolls allowed us to do this in our facility without requiring a lot of space,” continues Campos.

Since these graphics were in close proximity to shoppers, print consistency was essential. “After extensive evaluations of what the market had to offer, we chose the Roland HiFi JET Pro II device because of its six-color reproduction system,” Campos explains. “The orange and green expand our color gamut possibilities, and we're especially happy with its ability to create solid, glossy blacks.”

Point-of-purchase signs

Selling wide-format output can be challenging. But that hasn't been the case at Graphic Storm (Franklin, PA). According to John Prettyman, owner and president, “Even our most experienced sales person, a veteran with 30 years of selling offset, has found that his customer base ties in perfectly with these new digital processes.” Graphic Storm specializes in digital color printing and design but also offers traditional lithography, reprographic services and finishing.

“We've had a couple Hewlett-Packard (HP) printers for four or five years, and they've really been workhorses for us,” says Prettyman, who bought the wide-format equipment for point-of-purchase jobs. “We use them for two-sided signage for Wal-Marts, grocery stores and other retail outlets. The speed of these machines allows us to produce 50 to 100 large signs in two days or less, with excellent quality.” Graphic Storm plans to add another HP 5500 soon.

Accurate spot colors

HP's inkjet devices are also the preferred tool for digital imaging and large-format applications at Kew Digital (Norwalk, CT), a full-service commercial and photographic imaging lab. Of six HP 5000 printers, four are dedicated to photograde paper, one for backlit images and one for banner printing.

“Customers prefer the digital process we can now deliver using the HP printers, since critical PMS matches and logos are much better on the inkjets than with traditional photographic processes,” says co-owner and administrator Steve Zoref. Staff members closely monitor the calibration and performance of every machine to achieve consistent spot-color matches.

Zoref credits the inkjet printers with helping Kew Digital prosper in a difficult economy. “We just had the best year we've ever had,” relates the exec. “Our volume has grown while many competitors have gone out of business.”

While customers were learning how inkjet printers could supplement lithography for short-run, large-format graphics, Kew Digital was preparing for future orders. “We continuously invested in our infrastructure and equipment, including an extensive mounting and laminating area,” recalls Zoref. “This enables us to accommodate rush jobs, like the 300 display panels we produced in late December, a time at which we usually paint the walls. This year we were working weekends!”

Workflow enhancements enable multilocation proofing

Despite new trends and alternative uses, many printers continue to use wide-format inkjet devices in their traditional proofing role. Recent workflow improvements now offer maximum productivity and reliable outputs for graphic-arts companies with more than one location.

Canadian firm Print Atlantic Express (Halifax, Nova Scotia), a recently acquired division of Transcontinental, has installed a new workflow to yield more dependable, accurate results from its inkjets. “We have several locations, so we've installed five Creo Integris 800 proofers,” states Mark McGowan, prepress director for the commercial and web offset printing company. The inkjets can be found in four of the company's nine manufacturing plants; the other locations use Iris proofing. A color-management workflow with custom press profiles allows Print Atlantic to use its inkjet devices for both contract and double-sided imposition proofing for sheetfed and web jobs.

McGowan notes, however, that true reliability with the proofers didn't occur until the company added RIP Once, Output Many (ROOM) capabilities with a Brisque digital front-end. By driving its proofing devices with the same interpreted data used to make printing plates, Print Atlantic's Brisque workflow has brought stability and peace of mind. “We had problems with font substitution and reflow until we went with the ROOM workflow. It works — it's predictable, consistent and you don't run into any problems,” says McGowan.

Centralized prepress matching

Getting a perfect match between proofs and printing plates was a priority for H&S Graphics (Rolling Meadows, IL), but this premedia company needed a solution that could serve multiple platesetters and locations. Serving as a central prepress facility for all Von Hoffmann Press (St. Louis, MO) printing plants, H&S Graphics opted to use fully RIPed and screened one-bit TIFF files to drive its three Canon inkjet printers as well as Von Hoffmann's on-site platesetters. (This past July, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and DLJ Merchant Banking Partners created a new company encompassing Von Hoffman, Arcade Marketing and Jostens.)

“We qualify the data in the one-bit TIFF files by proofing them on our Canon W8200 inkjet printers before sending them to the appropriate location,” explains H&S technical services manager Andrew Giovanni. “This way, there are no interpretation errors at the destination. This process also reduces the need to have prepress knowledge in every plant.” H&S' Canon printers are equipped with CGS Oris RIPs.

Contributing editor Hal Hinderliter serves as director of the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly State University (San Luis Obispo, CA). Contact him at

So many substrates…

Substrates for wide-format inkjet printers include glossy photo-quality stock, adhesive-backed vinyl, watercolor paper and a multitude of printable fabrics. Both printer and RIP manufacturers offer media, as do some papermakers specializing in acid-free archival media for fine-art reproductions.

Many printers buy their inkjet printer and paper from the same vendor. Agfa, Canon, CGS, Creo, DuPont, Epson, Heidelberg, HP, Kodak, MacDermid ColorSpan, Pantone, Roland and 3M all offer a variety of substrates. Hahnemühle FineArt or Lyson are popular choices for fine-art reproductions (giclee prints).

Keep that color accurate

Calibration and color-management make it possible for inkjet proofing systems to compete with high-end halftone dot proofs. For best results, look for models that feature extensive self-calibration routines and maintenance utilities. Run a dozen copies of a single test target to check repeatability, then average the results of multiple readings when creating a color-management profile for your printer. Consider the recently introduced ECI2002 (now being packaged with most profile-making software programs) for a color gamut that's wider and more balanced than the classic IT8 target. Be sure to create individual profiles for each of your most popular substrates, and recreate these profiles if you switch to a different brand of inkjet cartridge or replace the printer heads.

The need to focus on your firm's core competencies means that the option of outsourcing the calibrating and profiling of equipment could look quite attractive. Consider the experience of Todd Zolla, production coordinator for Capital Printing Corp. (Middlesex, NJ), which owns four Epson 10600 and 10000 printers as well as a Fuji FinalProof for halftone-dot proofs.

“Our customers demand the best quality and accuracy we can give them, so profiling and calibration are essential,” declares Zolla. “But we don't have the luxury of time to calibrate and update the profiles on our printers. The technician we bring in to do our inkjet profiles needs almost a full day.”

Take note of potential wide-format finishing needs as well. Constructing any large display or signage will require some form of mounting, most often onto foam core using a spray adhesive or heat-activated dry mounting sheets. The mounting process can take up a lot of floor space when large projects are handled flat, so some shops will prefer to outsource these services — look to local reprographics companies (former “blueprint shops” serving the architecture and engineering community), who typically are well-equipped for this.

If increased volume or the need to shorten your production cycle convinces you to bring mounting and laminating processes in-house, you'll be glad to know there's dozens of manufacturers to choose from as well as a thriving market for used equipment. Roll laminators resemble inkjet printers and take up a similar amount of space, but be sure to check the electrical requirements of both laminators and mounting equipment when making your selection.

Non-paper-based wide-format inkjet media captures 59% of market in 2003

A study by Web Consulting (Boston) reports that non-paper-based substrates (including banner materials and PSA vinyl) made up 59 percent of all media purchased for the inkjet market in 2003, up 10 percent over 2002. The survey suggests the increase is due to the growing strength of pigment-based systems (both solvent and aqueous) within the overall printer installed base, as well as a shift in media types, applications and ink usage in the inkjet media market.

The report also confirms the rise of total sales generated by wide-format inkjet printing, which rose 7 percent between 2002 and 2003 to the current 32 percent. Outdoor applications have become increasingly common as printers realize the benefits of durable graphics and higher-quality pigment-based inks. Last year the top inkjet applications in wide-format were banners, exhibit graphics and point-of-purchase. POP has declined, however, from 27 percent in 2000 to only 16 percent in 2003.

For more information on the 2003 Inkjet Media Trends report, contact Michael Flippin of Web Consulting, (617) 536-5925.

Working with wide-format files

Not surprisingly, wide-format graphics often are created using large files. While many signage shops print directly to their devices using non-PostScript print drivers, prepress departments with large-format printers are ideally suited to offer high-quality PostScript imaging for more complex designs. By using an external RIP with large buffers for spooling multiple print jobs, your operators can queue up multiple large jobs for output rather than waiting for the previous job to be printed. These shops can market the advantages of a powerful RIP platform, high-speed networking and archival file storage as differentiating factors between their service and the local copy shop — a distinction that justifies higher margins, when necessary.