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Wide-format Inkjet: Many Communities, One Process

By Dan Marx
Published: March 20, 2013

Wide-format inkjet technology has become the “go to” technology for a number of traditional and non-traditional printing segments, offering companies a strong opportunity to differentiate themselves from growing competition, expand the quality of the customer experience by offering a broader range of products, and to bolster the bottom line by serving areas that have not yet succumbed to the sad powers of commoditization. That said, not all players in the wide-format industry approach it the same way, or have the same needs for the technology. The purpose of this article is to define the differences between these segments, in general terms.

Graphics Industry

Having come from the printing industry—its strongest roots are in screen printing—the graphics industry was an earlier adopter of wide-format technology, which allowed its companies to address much of the short-run work that analog systems rendered cost-ineffective. As the capabilities of wide-format evolved—offering continually increasing production speeds and ink systems that expanded print durability—wide-format inkjet has become the primary technology of most graphics companies. Because of this reality, this segment uses the widest variety of wide-format equipment, and which will benefit most from ongoing technological developments. These companies are the most likely to possess the broadest range of imaging and finishing technologies, and utilize the widest range of materials, and take advantage of the highest-productivity inkjet equipment.

Sign Industry

The sign industry’s foray into wide-format digital came from a long history in custom sign manufacturing, where paints, cut vinyl letters, and other imaging materials were used to make numerous one-off or short-run signs for mostly commercial applications. Because of this industry segment’s long identification with one-off manufacturing, its wide-format focus tends toward narrower (less than 96 inches in width) low- to medium-production inkjet machines, and away from the increasing number of high-production machines that are causing a strong expansion of production grade printing in the graphics segment.

Commercial Printers

While many commercial printing companies are jumping into wide format, most likely as a way to grasp the advantages outlined in my introductory paragraph, it is important to note that the use of the technology is seen within this segment as a lucrative add-on—a value-add opportunity—and not the core of the company’s business. Because of this reality, many commercial printing companies that offer wide-format inkjet printing likely do so on a limited scale. In a conference I attended last year, I was able to review the equipment lists of several commercial printing companies. While many advertised “wide-format inkjet,” few had the imaging or finishing equipment needed to offer more than posters or simple signage.

Photo Imaging Industry

Photo imaging companies were also early adopters of wide-format digital technology, though at the time they were skeptical of inkjet’s ability to produce strong image quality and resolutions that could meet or beat “photographic output,” which, at the time, for wide-format photographic printed purposes, meant the use of Lambda (Durst) and LightJet (Océ) systems. It is particularly important to note that inkjet has replaced these technologies fully, as advances in image quality and higher versatility in media has eclipsed these once-dominant systems. Seeking new and profitable opportunities, many photo imaging companies have branched into graphics and sign production, the redefining much of their business. An increasing number of photo imaging companies now see themselves as graphics producers, and are taking advantage of opportunities outside their industry’s traditional core.

Industrial Printing

Industrial printing companies—those companies that use printing as a step within the multi-step process of manufacturing product (non print-for-pay)—are increasingly using a variety of “off-the-shelf” and custom-designed inkjet systems. These types of systems can be used for applications as common as parts marking and container printing, and as esoteric as the manufacture of snowboards and video screen technologies. While some of these applications utilize inkjet as a process for high-quality color printing, others see it as tool that bridges the traditional divide between production speeds and mass customization within a manufacturing setting. This is one of the areas where the greatest amount of innovation is currently underway, the benefits of which will trickle down to the machines we use.

Interior Decoration

Wide-format inkjet printing is increasingly used in the manufacture of custom materials for interior design. Prior to the emergence of the technology—and before the current trend toward mass-customization—interior design was really an exercise in shopping. An “interior designer” would piece together existing elements. With the advent of wide-format inkjet, designers can truly design, instead creating custom spaces where printed wallpaper, window treatments, upholstery, and even carpeting work together to convey a unified look.

One Process, Many Choices

As you can see, wide-format inkjet technology is not limited to just simple signs and one-off banners. It is in fact a technology that continues to revolutionize numerous industries where surface decoration is a crucial step. Showing production speeds ranging from 123 to 6,458 square feet per hour, and ink systems that offer a durable print on myriad exotic surfaces, and utilizing the inherent qualities of digital printing: full color, customization, print size, affordable short runs/versioning, a simpler process and shorter turn times, it continues to push the boundaries.

If your company is seeking opportunity in wide-format digital, start by thinking big: investigate a broad range of equipment, materials, finishing technologies, markets and end products. Plan for success by building your wide-format efforts strongly into your business plan, and realize that to develop a wide-format plan based only on one-offs and short runs is to deny yourself the robustness that this technology has to offer.

Dan Marx is the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association's Vice President-Markets & Technologies. With SGIA, he works to raise awareness of the specialty graphics industry, and helps printers and their customers identify and adopt new technologies and access lucrative market areas. In his more than 20 years at SGIA, he has authored numerous articles for industry publications worldwide, presented at a variety of industry events, and served as an enthusiastic ambassador for innovative imaging technologies. He can be reached at dan@sgia.org.

 

Discussion

By Joel Salus on Mar 20, 2013

Dan, nice article, but it looks like you left out the "Reprographics" Industry. "Reprographers" were actually the first one's in the large-format, short-run, digital color space. Screenprinters did not get into that business until several years after Reprographers did.

 

By Dan Marx on Mar 20, 2013

Joel: You are correct -- the reprographics industry has been in the wide-format game since the early days, and like the graphics, sign and photo industries, it undergone profound change (and redefinition) as a result, blurring the lines between these industry segments.

 

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