Commentary & Analysis
Changing the Game in Superwide Printing
By Noel Ward,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 22, 2006
By Noel Ward, Executive Editor August 22, 2006 -- The town of Meredith, New Hampshire is not a place where you'd expect to find world-class technology or product strategies that could transform a marketplace. Yet Meredith, on the edge of a big lake and not far from where Bode Miller learned to ski fast, is the scenic backdrop for the team that makes VUTEk printers, one of the leading product lines in superwide format printing. I drove up for a technology preview last month that showed how the company is working to bring new levels of efficiency and performance to the superwide market while bringing big changes to the printing of big images. Two printers and new software tools for the superwide market are clear differentiators for EFI There is no question that the market for all types of outsized graphics is hot. I.T. Strategies reports that the worldwide retail value of wide format graphics prints hit $19 billion in 2002 and is projected to reach nearly $30 billion in 2007, a CAGR of 9 percent. The graphics seen in large retailers, franchise businesses and trade shows make it clear the largest wide format applications are POP signage and trade show graphics. These were among the first applications for wide format graphics, and with the relatively low entry cost for machines up to about 4 feet wide, are actually becoming commodities where price is king. This is forcing print providers to look for new markets, such as the extensive variety of outdoor applications, which are especially attractive as print engines in the super-wide category (1.5 to 5 meters in width) improve in speed and image quality. These market changes are behind two new machines and other technologies announced last Friday that I saw at the technology preview. They place EFI in an excellent position against competitors, and in two instances are clear differentiators that can be drivers of significant change throughout the industry. New Engines One new machine is the QS2000, a 2-meter (80 inch) wide machine that's equally adept at imaging on a full range of roll-fed substrates as on flat stock such as foam core board, plexi-glass or even doors. It features 7-color printing using UV-curable inks, including white, a growing requirement across the super-wide format market. Dubbed HDP (High Definition Print) by EFI, each print head has 512 nozzles each that provide 363 x 1080 DPI to deliver some of the best image quality I've seen on a wide format device. As on any digital printer, details are the real test, and while small text is not a requirement on an image hanging 15 feet above retail store shoppers, it's an excellent indicator of overall image clarity and is critical for Point Of Purchase (or POP) displays. As it happens, the QS 2000 (the QS means Quality and Speed) puts down 4-point text that's on a par with some high-end electrophotographic digital presses currently on the market. It does this at up to 800 square feet and hour, or up to sixteen 4’ x 8’ boards per hour. And those boards, by the way, can be up to two inches thick. From the dozen samples I saw, anyone looking at the output from this machine will be hard pressed to complain about print quality. Dot placement was tight, consistent and the colors on a variety of images and substrates were excellent. (Please see the news release for more detail.) Also new is the UltraVU II 3360, a 3-meter machine that comes in four, six and eight color models and prints at up to 1622 square feet per hour--roughly the equivalent of 41 letter-size pages per minute for those of us who think in laser-printer terms. The eight color model can be switched between high-speed and photo-quality modes providing big images at an apparent 720 dpi resolution that looks fine just a few feet away. One of the best features is a new automated system for ultra-precise alignment printing of double-sided graphics, a vital ability for printing many large graphics that may be viewed from both sides, and where light transmission is an issue. The new machines were great to see, and will further heat up an already hot market, but two other announcements could be the winds of change the superwide landscape. Ink You Could Drink? Well, maybe not actually drink, but certainly dramatically alter one of the industry's challenges. Inks for superwide and grand format printing fall into three general categories, aqueous, UV-curable and solvent-based. Aqueous (water-based) is fine for indoor applications with a relatively short life-span (a few months), and is popular as it doesn't have many environmental limitations or restrictions on its use. UV-curable inks cover more applications but can have issues with color gamut and are not all that nice for the environment or the people running the printers. Solvent inks, the choice for outdoor applications (think vehicle wraps, billboards, signage) and have been the choice for most higher speed super-wide printers, but set off alarms due to real hazards to health and the environment. These oil- and chemical-based inks include fun ingredients the EPA tags as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and as hazardous or toxic air pollutants (HAP and TAP). So while superwide print providers use them, the costs to mitigate the dangers and contain waste are not inconsequential, and can exceed even those of traditional offset print operations. So what's a forward-thinking, industry-leading company to do? "As EFI sees it," explains Judith Vandsburger, marketing manager for VUTEk ink product lines, "the solution is to make environmentally friendly inks based on renewable resources." The company's new BioVU inks are based on corn rather than oil, are biodegradable, and are certified by the EPA as a "green solvent." They present a low risk to human health and the environment and have no harmful vapors, so special venting is not required by OSHA. They are even FDA approved for use in food. As EFI sees it, the solution is to make environmentally friendly inks based on renewable resources Vandsburger says the time is right for BioVU inks, technically, practically and politically. For example, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 makes it mandatory for any government agency to buy bio-based products if they are available (even if the cost is higher), so there is an immediate market among federal agencies. But in an age of uncertain, unstable and expensive oil supplies bio-based inks make sense for any print provider looking to control costs. The new inks, which will be commercially available this fall, are initially compatible with the new UltraVU II 3360 with other machines to follow, subject to testing. The print quality shown at the technology preview was very good on pressure sensitive vinyls and coated papers. The color quality looked fine and Vandsburger says it can offer most of the color gamut presently available with full solvent inks. Testing shows the bio-inks should be durable outdoors for about 2 years in most climates and abrasion and chemical resistance are also acceptable. Pricing, which all the printers in attendance wanted to know about, is not finalized but is expected to be similar to that for other premium inks. This makes sense as the key to adoption and acceptance is getting customers using it and cost will be a key driver in making this happen. Something New and Different--for Superwide When EFI bought VUTEk in the spring of 2005 a whole lot of people were trying to see where the logic was. Certainly the ink revenue was appealing, but EFI had a far more astute view of the market and how its technology could lead a workflow transformation in superwide printing. At the technology preview I found that superwide shops typically run on analog workflows and job management processes. Sure, the job is a digital file, but it is quoted, job-ticketed, submitted, preflighted, proofed, managed, and invoiced manually. "There are too many islands of activity and information in a print shop," says Bob Raus, Vice President of Marketing. "Islands are good for travel agents and reality TV shows, but not in a printing business." EFI believes print providers are missing out on the advantages workflow software tools bring to the print shop and believes EFI's Print MIS solution provides a winning combination of tools, technology and services to superwide print providers. Islands are good for travel agents and reality TV shows, but not in a printing business. --Bob Raus, Vice President of Marketing Some of the superwide shop owners I met in Meredith were skeptical, but many agreed the new tools have the potential to solve some issues they have been wrestling with. One capability that piqued their interest was a digital storefront that could be part of a web-to-print program. Superwide print providers often have to reprint jobs on an as-needed basis for regular clients, but the manual processes involved are often unwieldy and require planning and lead time. EFI's digital storefront can be used to support reproduction of posters, billboards and bus wraps just as easily as it supports reprinting of marketing collateral and business cards on traditional or digital presses. Digital workflows with quoting, job ticketing and preflighting are part of the new tools available to superwide guys. Beyond the storefront, other print management tools now available to superwide shop owners can help integrate manufacturing processes, provide process management and communication, business and inventory management. Adoption of these "new" tools may take awhile, as it has among commercial and digital print providers, but judging from what attendees told me, the combination of printers and software seems to be a clear differentiator for EFI. While some of the capabilities can be replicated by other firms via strategic partnering, such solutions would likely lack the depth of EFI's color management and RIP technology and the integration with workflow software to provide a comprehensive solution. My Take When I saw VUTEk's offerings at PRINT 05 last fall I was pleasantly surprised with the image quality the company was delivering and machines that handled a wide range of substrates. But I like to see things that set a company apart, be it technology, unique applications, or clear differentiating advantages that can show up on a customer's bottom line. Digital workflows with quoting, job ticketing and preflighting are part of the new tools available to superwide guys The technology preview showed how the integration of EFI and VUTEk is beginning to set the company apart from other superwide competitors. The QS2000 is particularly compelling because of its flexibility, speed and quality. There's a lot of money to be made with this one machine. BioVU inks are especially important and are probably the wave of the future in ink technology. They make it easier for printers to "be green," a trait I believe will become an important element of a print provider's image over the next several years. Finally, enabling superwide shops to take advantage of digital workflow and print management software is certain to benefit their businesses. It may take time to be broadly implemented or have the same impact as in some high volume traditional and digital shops, but as all aspects of the printing industry become more competitive, print MIS and workflow tools present advantages too great to ignore. Graph Expo and SGIA are coming up and EFI will be at each with VUTEk printers. This stuff is all worth a look.