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Jan 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Digital Wide Format

With the help of wide-format digital imaging, you can offer current clients a broader range of services while you broaden your customer base.

Expanding your capabilities can counteract any declines you’re experiencing in your traditional commercial printing business. One potentially profitable rung on the ladder of vertical growth: wide-format digital imaging and the $5.5 billion sign and banner market.

“These wide-format graphic applications—signs, posters, banners for trade shows or POP—while they may be somewhat threatened by electronic signage, are much less threatened than typical offset document work,” says Patti Williams, consulting partner, IT Strategies (Hanover, MA). That’s with proper planning, she notes.

“For a commercial printer to compete in this market, they have to be good [and] fast,” Williams adds. “You have to really think about it and know why a customer would want to do business with you. It’s all about putting together a good business plan and strategy.”

Randy Peters, owner of La Crosse Litho Supply (Pewaukee, WI), created his wide-format digital imaging line about two years ago. Peters notes a trend in traditional large-format offset companies and medium-to-large traditional litho/offset companies entering the wide-format digital market.

“All of your graphic arts suppliers are seeing this as a way to regain sales lost to computer-to-plate,” he says. “They see bringing on wide-format digital imaging lines as a way to grow their businesses, and grow them substantially. Our clients were driving us to look at this.”

Peters cautions commercial printers that the wide-format digital imaging approach to sales and doing business is not like that of traditional offset, and their business plans will need to accommodate those differences. “Traditional offset printers are not used to doing one of anything,” he notes. “Wide-format digital is sold completely differently than offset.”

Look, then leap
Successfully jumping into the wide-format graphics market starts with doing your homework, according to Bill Waycott, vice president and GM for Diversified Images Inc. (Valencia, CA). Waycott advises newcomers to work backward and begin by identifying which digitally printed products they’re likely to sell on a regular basis.

Exhibit displays
Where it's at
The most common applications for wide-format digital imaging
Point-of-purchase (POP) displays 18.9%
Outdoor signage 12.2%
Indoor signage 11.5%
Note: Percentages do not equal 100 percent because respondants were permited multple answers.
Source: "Surveys & Statistics,"

“It all depends on what you’re looking for,” says Waycott, whose shop once did a great deal of fine-detailed screen printing. The company expanded into wide-format digital imaging because it was receiving a growing number of short-run orders for wide-format graphics, and his customers’ requirements prompted a search for a digital printing device that would best produce fine art prints.

“For a commercial printer, it might be that a customer who ordered documents in the past now wants a large window display. If you’re getting a lot of those inquiries, you need to figure out what kind of display your customers want and what equipment will best bring about that print,” Waycott explains.

Popular products
Applications for digitally printed wide-format graphics
Retail and other signage
POP displays
Exhibit displays
Architectural signage
Printed textile products
Interior decoration products
Vehicle graphics
Legal/Engineering graphics
Source: "The Digital Print Sales System," by Terri Nagi,

In examining customer demand, Waycott urges commercial printers to get as specific as possible, even determining where potential sign or banner work would be placed. “That’s going to tell [you] what kind of resolution is needed, which is big factor in production speed. A lot of problems can arise if you don’t know whether the sign is going to be viewed from six inches or 600 feet away.”

Rob Harris, co-owner of CSI (Falls Church, VA), says finding the right equipment is the most difficult part of his company’s—a service bureau turned digital printer—move into the wide-format market. “There are so many equipment choices and so many ways to scale an operation [to be] as large or small as you want,” he says. “I think a common problem most businesses have is that they aren’t fully aware of the scope of criteria involved in really making a well-informed choice.”

Let’s talk proofers
With each ink system comes a variety of strengths and limitations, including durability, weather-resistance and compatible substrates.

The machine your company currently uses for proofing is most likely a roll-to-roll inkjet device running CMYK, or perhaps an expanded color set, with water-based ink. Such aqueous systems are restricted to a relatively narrow range of specially coated substrates, and they have limited use for outdoor, long-term applications—even when laminated to seal out moisture and reduce the effects of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. They’re generally best with applications intended for indoor use.

The width picture
Although digital imaging devices come in a wide variety of widths, the range between 48 inches and 72 inches is the most popular
Companies with at least one machine between 48 inches & 72 inches 68.4%
Companies with equipment 30 inches and 48 inches 39.3%
Companies with equipment 73 inches & 96 inches 20.5%
Companies with grand format equipment (96 inches or larger) 20%
Note: Percentages do not equal 100 percent because respondents were permitted multiple answers.
Source: "Surveys & Statistics,"

You can open the door to a wide variety of signage and display markets by adding the ability to mount aqueous-based prints on rigid or flexible surfaces. With lamination, retail signs and banners, event graphics and other applications are well within your current proofer’s capabilities.

To more fully immerse your business in sign and banner markets, however, you’ll need to seek technology options that produce signs and banners that can be used anywhere—products with significant outdoor durability. Determine the equipment and ink system that’s right for your company by first defining the products you plan to create. Then, let the printing and end-use capabilities of each system make the decision for you. Common options include solvent-based and UV-curable ink systems.

In today’s wide-format digital imaging markets, solvent-based inkjet is the go-to technology for the production of vinyl banners, allowing access to a great number of markets at a relatively low investment.

The solvent—the base of the ink—eats into the surface of the substrate, making the ink become part of the substrate. The result is a much more durable print that is capable of weathering storms and intense sunlight.

Based on the aggressiveness of the solvent used, the inks can be used on a wide variety of substrates, including vinyls and plastics, regardless of special coatings.

But, just like your aqueous-based proofer, most solvent inkjet systems are roll-to-roll systems. To create a sign (which is rigid, by definition), you have to print the image on a flexible substrate and mount it—perhaps by using a pressure-sensitive, adhesive-backed vinyl substrate or by sandwiching a layer of double-sided adhesive film between the print and the mounting board. You’ll also need to use a laminator. For mounting such as this, a simple cold lamination system will do just fine and can be relatively inexpensive.

And then, there’s the UV flatbed option: Flatbed inkjet technology ties in beautifully with a sign-making workflow because it allows you to print directly on rigid substrates, effectively eliminating the need to mount the print. Nearly all flatbed inkjet systems use UV-curable inks. While most sign producers’ UV systems print on surfaces such as foam board, Coroplast and Sintra, some users are pushing the envelope of imaging by printing directly on glass, stone, wood and other surfaces that would not be possible with solvent or aqueous inks.

While signs and banners remain market champions in wide-format inkjet, the industry offers incredible market diversity—solvent and UV-curable inks are allowing access to markets not even imagined five years ago. Again, let your end products direct your technology choices.

The print’s not finished
Regardless of the ink system or printing process, the print is rarely the end product—some degree of finishing is necessary to complete the job.

“You really do have to think of finishing as part of the final print product,” says Waycott. “Right off the bat, you print on a photogloss material and it looks beautiful. But if it’s not done with the right materials so that the print is impervious to water, you need to laminate it. And if you don’t have a laminator, you’re going to get one very quickly. You could have a beautiful print end up ruined by a lamination supplier.”

In addition to lamination and mounting, sign production can include steps such as cutting, trimming, routing or die-cutting. The type of sign desired and the materials used will dictate the finishing steps required. Similarly, banner production requires specific finishing steps, depending on the final product, such as seaming and edge welding (vinyl), sewing (fabric) and grommetting. Also consider your space and personnel needs. “People don’t think through what happens to the print once it’s done,” says Harris. “If you’re providing finishing options, then you’re likely adding capacity to your facility to store large prints, and equipment and consumables involved to do the print. Finishing equipment and consumables take up extra space, and finishing is a skill set all its own.”

While most signs and banners are simply shipped or delivered to the customer, some require installation. You have to decide whether your company will provide installation services or work cooperatively with another company that does.

Terry Nagi, author of SGIA’s “The Digital Print Sales System,” says, “You don’t necessarily have to do the work. But the more creative things your salespeople can do [in terms of services and options], the more likely they’ll be listened to and given an order.”

Working signs & banners
Here is Peters’ advice to printers entering wide-format digital imaging and the sign-and-banner market: “Pick a niche in wide-format and go after it. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Attack the business-to-business market, not retail—especially the companies that would change their signage every day if they could.”

Digital imagers and industry consultants say the key to building a solid client base is research and education.

“You must realize it’s a different business,” Nagi says. “You have to educate yourself [or] find someone who understands digital production, sales and the services the customer is looking for.”

Industries in demand
Prospects for wide-format graphic sales
Advertising agencies
Exhibit manufacturers and contractors
Institutions (hospital, edicational, financial)
Architects and engineers
Government and government contractors
Printers (trade)
Fleet owners and operators
Source: "The Digital Print Sales System," by Terry Nagi (SGIA)

One difference in the business is the sales approach: “Most initial digital sales will be of lesser value (for the print portion),” says Nagi. “At the same time, the cost of the individual piece is greater and the profit levels normally higher. These initial small orders often lead to continuity programs with large dollars of billing.”

Remember that establishing a client base will differ from operation to operation, Williams warns. “There are different ways of getting into the business. A larger commercial print shop might want to consider buying a digital shop. That way, they’re bringing in customers and experienced salespeople. It depends on the printers’ situations. It’s difficult in this business to have any kind of concise answer that applies to everybody.”

Peters notes that many of his customers keep their sales and production needs for signs, banners and other wide-format digital imaging products separate from their commercial printing units. “At least 10 clients in the last six months have added solvent [inkjet printing] and/or UV flatbed,” he says. “A lot of companies are putting a division in place that can run autonomously according to the unique workflow and technology demands.”

Open your eyes to wide-format opportunities
Thinking about going wide-format digital? If you’re looking at the sign market—or any or market for that matter—keep these tips in mind:

Know your markets | Talk to your clients. Network with peers. Chat with suppliers. Find out what end products your current customers need—and which requests they’re taking to printers who already have wide-format capability.

Know your end products | Decide what you’ll print, and let that decision guide your choices of equipment, substrates, ink systems and complementary technologies.

Know how to sell it | This isn’t traditional litho/offset sales. Get ready for super-fast turnaround and orders for single prints and short runs.

Bring in experts | Think about setting up a separate division for your sign-and-banner and other wide-format digital imaging needs, and staff it with people who know the workflow and the business. Consider not starting from scratch: Lots of companies are acquiring digital imaging shops that come complete with experienced staff and clientele.

On the cover
Imagine! does it all

Imagine! Print Solutions (Minneapolis) printed this large- format job (58 x 52 inches) for a major retail customer on its new EFI VUTEk 320 digital printer. On the MIS side, Imagine! also uses EFI’s PSI management information system.

This project was printed four-color process on 16 pt. C1S. The signs on our cover were part of a larger holiday promotional kit that included some traditional offset work. Coincidentally, Imagine! was featured on AMERICAN PRINTER’s cover at about this time in 2005. As we noted in last February’s “Through thick & thin,” Imagine! pushed beyond the 40-inch market with the installation of a 64-inch, seven-color KBA 162 press in 2001. In 2005, Imagine! became the first printer in the United States to install KBA’s Rapida 205, an 81-inch press. And just last month, the company installed a second 64-inch, four-color KBA 162 press.

From prototyping packages to fulfillment services, Imagine! serves customers in seven core sectors: commercial print, UV, point-of-purchase (POP), packaging, flexo, digital and screen printing (with the January installation of a new M&R 40 x 61-inch, six-color screen press). See

SGIA resources

  • “The Digital Print Sales System,” by Terry Nagi, published by SGIA. (SGIA members, $39.95; nonmembers, $59.95)
  • “2007 Guide to Digital Imaging,” by SGIA. (free with membership; nonmembers, $24.95)
  • “Making Print into Product,” by Dan Marx, SGIA News, June 2006.
  • “Digital Ink System Choices,” by Jeff Burton & Marguerite Higgins, article.
  • “Virtual Trade Show & Buyers Guide.”
  • “Surveys & Statistics” (

    Do your homework
    Get started at (keyword “COMPRT”). SGIA maintains an interactive online guide to wide-format output devices. Updated regularly, the “Wide-Format Output Device Guide” allows you to create listings of machines by specifications such as manufacturer, print width and ink system. Doing your homework before you take the equipment plunge will ensure you make a better choice.

    Get involved
    Attend SGIA’s “Introduction to Digital Imaging” workshop, explore and join SGIA for access to all the data, analysis, news and opinions available to members. AMERICAN PRINTER readers who join SGIA for the first time as corporate members will receive the “2007 SGIA Guide to Digital Imaging” and “The Digital Print Sales System” at no charge. Join online at (keyword “COMPRT”).

    “It’s all about putting together a good business plan and strategy. And SGIA can provide a lot of education about how to do that and what’s going on in the market,” says industry analyst Patti Williams, IT Strategies.

    Digital wide-format comes through for last-minute memorial
    When former Texas governor Ann Richards died in September 2006, her family, friends and former colleagues had only a few days to put together a memorial service for more than 4,000 guests. Held at the University of Texas Frank Erwin Center in Austin, business and government leaders from around the nation attended as speakers including U.S. senator Hillary Clinton, New York Post columnist Liz Smith and Richards’ relatives shared memories of her life and work. The event was covered by international and national media, and it was broadcast live on C-SPAN and National Public Radio.

    The most visually important elements of the memorial service were the two enormous banners featuring photos of Governor Richards. Offset, digital and wide-format printing company CC West (Austin, TX) produced the banners for advertising agency GSD&M.

    “GSD&M called us on Friday afternoon and the job was due on Sunday,” says CC West vice president Rex Couch. The 20 x 20-ft. banners took more than 160 ft. of material (Avery Saturn 12-ounce banner material) and required about 10 hours to print on two Mimaki JV3 160SP machines. The original artwork was black and white, but CC West converted the photos to CMYK to add depth. The job was proofed and produced on Saturday, then seamed together prior to delivery on Sunday.

    “Under typical conditions, the turn time for a job like this would be three to four days,” Couch says. The cost for the project would have been approximately $5,000, but CC West discounted it by 20 percent. “We knew this was not a billable project for our client, and we wanted to help out of respect for the family,” he explains. “It was amazing to see these enormous banners as the backdrop to national print and broadcast media coverage. We were proud of the work we were able to do under an extremely tight deadline.”

    CC West recently opened a new facility dedicated entirely to wide-format printing, finishing and portable display systems; the company will break ground on a new 15,000-sq.-ft. building in December. See

    Read more about it
    Find these and other wide-format inkjet printing articles at
    “Wide format,” Nov. 2006
    “HP thinks grande,” Oct. 2006
    “Inkjet invaders,” Sept. 2006
    “Massive media,” Sept. 2006
    “Inkjet advantage,” June 2006
    “Proof positive,” Nov. 2005
    “Go far with flatbed,” Sept. 2005
    “What’s the big idea?” March 2005
    “Wide-format marches on,” March 2004

    Kate Achelpohl is a communications associate for SGIA, Marguerite Higgins is an editorial associate for SGIA, and Dan Marx is vice president of markets and technologies for SGIA. Contact them via