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The wide world of specialty imaging

Sep 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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Many commercial printers accustomed to long runs and tight margins first react to wide-format digital printing with, “Can I make money printing so few of anything?” The answer: Absolutely.

In most specialty graphics applications, the margins are much better, even though the runs are short. As those who have installed toner-based digital printing equipment have experienced, there is profit potential for printers in the trend of providing customers what they need when they need it, as well as value in offering specialized services.

A “one-stop shop” business model has evolved from these efforts to add value with specialized support, and it has taken hold throughout the printing industry. With this customer-centric approach, you and your team help customers take full advantage of new and traditional printing technologies. In doing so, you increase customer contact, keep print orders flowing and reduce your customers’ need to look to your competitors for capabilities you don’t offer.

Discussions with several successful printers indicate that adding digital printing technology goes beyond creating new revenue streams: It brings in more jobs for traditional printing technologies. The added interaction with customers that digital printing requires leads to more opportunity.

A new way for a new day
Unless you’ve been locked in the darkroom for the last few years, you know that digital printing and imaging technologies have dramatically changed the business landscape for commercial printers. That change continues as improved technology expands the capabilities and effectiveness of the printed image. The wide-format digital imaging technology explosion has thrown open the door to profitable new markets and triggered dramatic change in the business-to-business marketplace.

When FedEx acquired Kinko’s, it went into the printing business, selling banners, posters, signs and other specialty graphics to small businesses. It made good sense to build the new FedEx Kinko’s around large-format and personalized graphic services, because specialty graphics is such a rapidly growing market.

Businesses of all types and sizes require an endless array of highly targeted communication materials. These materials characteristically are short-run and personalized, and have lots of color. But they don’t fit conventional lithographic production methods.

Wide-format digital imaging uses breakthrough technology to deliver exciting new opportunities and profits. If you haven’t added wide-format specialty imaging to your capabilities, chances are you’re not providing full printing and imaging services to your existing clients and new markets—and you’re leaving money on the table.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in wide-format digital imaging has been the success of UV ink systems. UV inks dramatically reduce the need for post-print finishing and are compatible with a range of media. The versatility of these systems is amazing, and it’s just one illustration of how technology-driven the specialty graphics market is—the equipment and consumables are capable of more than we’ve discovered.

Commercial printers are producing signs, banners and promotional displays for trade show customers for whom they once printed just the exposition directory. Commercial printers once hired solely to produce menus and promotional flyers now are creating wall graphics, posters and table covers. They provide retail signage, static cling window decals and point-of-purchase displays in addition to sales flyers.

To make this profitable jump to specialty imaging, you must educate your customers. They might not be able to tell you how they could benefit from wide-format imaging, so you have to tell them. You’ll grow the value of your relationship when you help them take advantage of, and profit from, your capabilities.

Flower power
In the early 1990s, offset litho printer Flower City Printing (Rochester, NY) shifted its market base, moving from serving a regional offset market to being a nationally-known package and display printer.

Mid-2004, Flower City brought on wide-format digital imaging technology. Barely a year later, its wide-format imaging department is operational five days a week, 24 hours a day. With this success, Flower City Printing has created a strategic partner, Excelsus Solutions, which is bringing on a second wide-format device. Most of Excelsus’ wide-format digital work involves in-store signage, short run display projects and a wide array of non-paper materials such as wood, metal and plastic.

According to Mark Laniak, president of Excelsus Solutions and former vice president of operations at Flower City Printing, “When you call someone and say you do digital, they want to talk to you right off the bat. Their perception of digital is that it allows them to do things creatively that they weren’t able to produce before.”

Looking to the future, Laniak added, “We want to be in a position allowing us to go where the technology takes us and where our clients want us to go.”

The next step
Lake Lithograph Co. (Manassas, VA) opened its doors in 1980 and brought on digital document printing in the early 1990s. Now, Lake is investigating a wide-format digital technology investment.

“About 10 or 12 years ago, we recognized we can’t make money just doing printing,” president Pam Pell says. That’s why Lake added support areas like Web services, fulfillment, pick-and-pack and online document creation. “The purpose is to open up the arena of capabilities, to show your client partners that you can do more things,” Pell says. “The beauty of it is you can take what you’ve learned from one job and bring it with you to another client.”

Currently, Lake Litho subcontracts its wide-format digital imaging work, but Pell sees bringing this technology in-house as a logical next step. “Wide-format is a natural progression,” she says. “We’ve gone from being a commercial printer to being a digital specialist. The whole dynamic of ink on paper is changing. You have to be more flexible, offer more solutions for the client.”

Escape the commodity trap
The lithographic market has reached such a high level of consistent quality that competition has gone through the roof. As a result, too much work falls into the commodity trap—high-quality printing with margins so tight they squeak. Worse yet, customer loyalty has gone down as the percentage of commodity work has gone up.

As an emerging technology with off-the-charts capability, wide-format digital imaging provides a great escape from the commodity trap. It provides the capability to create value-added services that strengthen customer loyalty. For many commercial printers, wide-format digital will be the first step toward a new day in printing as they learn to tap multiple technologies and produce an ever-widening array of imaged products.

Michael Robertson is president and CEO of Specialty Graphic Imaging Assn. (SGIA). Contact him via

See also "What's so special about specialty imaging?" and "Go far with flatbed."