Commentary & Analysis
Thinking Big In Digital Printing (Part 2)
by George J.
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: November 17, 2003
by George J. Whalen November 17, 2003 -- Last week we talked about the various technology and equipment options for large format printing, and how this growing market is a significant part of the digital printing universe. Now let's take a look at some of the large-format applications that are changing the way we see everything from buildings and buses to fine art and fabrics. Because the large-format market is so fragmented, one will not often find details about the leading large-apps in one place. Therefore, we have gathered information from a variety of sources, to give you a better understanding and market perspective about large-app products. Murals and Building Wraps A mural is typically used to turn a flat surface, indoors or out, into an image, promotion, ad, illustration, logo, photo or message. Indoors, these are typically digitally printed four-color work (up to photographic 300 dpi quality) on substrates such as self-adhesive vinyl or wet-strength paper. For outdoor use, vinyl or poly film are often selected. The work can be printed in strips, joined together to make custom-size murals of virtually any dimensions possible. Outdoor murals are increasingly being used on structures under renovation, to project an artistic image of an edifice as it will appear when the project is completed. Or, they can dress-up a skyscraper, museum, municipal building or concert hall for a coming performance, holiday show or special occasion. A building wrap is simply a mural that “wraps around” the outside of a structure to cover more than one wall. Typically, it is vinyl-mesh, four-color digitally printed, and large enough to cover a building with a four-color dress-up or attention-getting visual. The TWGA report cited earlier presents the astonishing story of how a mural created a traffic jam on the 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles, CA. The jam came about due to startled motorists, gawking at a building on Sepulveda Boulevard that seemed to have a huge, fiery hole blasted through it. (This was before the awful events of 9-11-2001.) Actually, as the TWGA report points out, the visual effect of the “damaged” building had been created by a full-color vinyl mural, measuring 700 cm (146 ft) x 782 cm (163 ft.), made by a local large-app digital printer for Touchstone Pictures, then promoting the movie, Armageddon. The graphics had been output in 280 sections, each measuring 96 cm (20 ft.) x 24 cm (5 ft.), on “window vinyl” (often used for bus graphics). The sections had been precision-aligned and the seams airbrushed to create the scary, large-app visual that snarled traffic until authorities ordered its removal. A US producer of building wraps, Magic Vinyl Printing of Westfield, MA, prints these giant four-color visuals on strips of vinyl that are as long as need be, using Vutek printers. The strips are then woven into a lightweight mesh vinyl which easily withstands the weather. Wraps are typically printed in four colors, with digital resolution choices ranging from 70 to 300 DPI. Finished murals and wraps may have grommets, hang-bars or other means of fastening them to the building. People inside can see out because the wrap typically consists of interwoven vinyl strips in an open-weave mesh that is two-thirds transparent. To someone "outside-looking-in," the wrap seems solid. But, those "inside-looking-out," can clearly see through the open-mesh weave. Bus and Vehicle Wraps Bus wraps are showing up in more cities, mass-delivering ad messages like moving billboards. Trucks also bear wraps for outdoor ads-on-wheels. In addition, more business-owned vans, fleet trucks and cars now also sport large-app graphics promoting their owners' products and services. Wraps and murals are low-cost ways to promote businesses to passers-by. These large-apps have grown as general ad media have fragmented and become too costly for tight marketing budgets. However, New York and other major cities around the world have expressed concerns about “visual pollution” and may soon be putting the brakes on murals and wraps through ordinances, fees and taxes. Point-Of-Purchase (POP) Displays and Posters To advertise in supermarket aisles, marketers have chosen colorful, persuasive POP to get shopper attention. Because large-app, in-store, digitally produced POP displays can be localized to specific areas and turned around quickly, they are fast-becoming a major alternative to advertising among consumer goods marketers. From indoor POP to outdoor posters is but a step. Reger Studios, one of Germany's leading photographic laboratories specializing in oversize digital photo enlargements, now uses a Durst Rho 160 large-format flatbed inkjet printer to produce weatherproof posters on rigid materials, using ultraviolet (UV) inks. The flatbed printer can print the four cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) inks onto a continuously moving medium, and directly print onto unmounted flexible materials such as vinyl, or stiff materials up to 40mm (1.6”) thick. The maximum medium width is 60cm (64”). Roll-fed material up to 750m (2,460') long can be loaded and printed at 45sq m/h and 360dpi. The print head incorporates Spectra piezo inkjet units and has UV lamps to dry the ink on either side, as well as a UV lamp trailing the print head, so that ink is dried immediately after printing. A linear motor drives the print head across the bed at right angles to the direction of substrate movement. Backlit Vinyl Outdoor Signs and Trade Show Graphics Colorful, attention-getting large-app backlit graphics are a powerful way to advertise to people on the street or draw them out of the aisle and into an exhibit at a trade show. Large-app backlit graphics can now be directly output onto rigid vinyl using flatbed inkjet printers. Backlit signs are equipped with a vinyl panel bearing graphics that are large-format four-color process printed, usually with UV inks. Though signs can be made any size, a typical-size backlit sign for outdoor use measures 120 cm (4') x 180 cm (6') and is waterproof, color-fast, and durable, to stand up to rough handling as well as the elements. Because light shining through the printed graphics has a tendency to “wash-out” the apparent color saturation, some large-app experts have mastered the art of “double-striking” the large-format ink image at 300 dpi, to super-saturate the color on the vinyl panel. The laminated back of the graphics panel is typically a bonded diffuser that evenly distributes the back-light across the image area. Digital Textile Printing Europe is expected to become the next growth area for large format digital textile printing following its extensive popularity in the US and Australia. Digital's low set-up costs and capacity to produce high resolution process color work give it a major advantage over the traditional and more costly screen printing method. Its markets include short run textile printing for point of sale (POS), general retail and exhibition banners and coverings, served by companies, such as Mutoh, B and P Light Brigade and Nur. In the past, printing methods have split between dye sublimation, requiring special inks or toners, yet offering superior outdoor durability, and direct ink jet methods, typically using Hewlett-Packard and Xerox machines. Dye sublimation has been a complex process presenting challenges in color accuracy. The direct route can make good results on lighter weight fabrics hard to achieve and results are not sufficiently waterproof for durable outdoor situations. The amount of experimentation required for good results can make exacting new jobs uneconomic unless more orders can be obtained to justify the development. Yet, some believe that demand for fabric printing is set to explode. Fine-Quality Giclée Art and Photo Printing The TWGA report cites this as “one of the most interesting and dynamic of the applications for large-format output.” It is no accident. Artists and photographers have been powerful forces in getting suppliers to upgrade processes, equipment, media and consumables. Inks, in particular, have vastly improved to true archival quality. Some makers now guarantee their inks color-fast for 75 years (at least one says 200 years). The French word giclée ( zhee-klay ) roughly translates to “inkjet.” But what makes giclée a fine-art inkjet process is the high resolution, the media used (typically, canvas or fine-art papers). Original paintings, illustrations, sketches and photos that have been scanned, as well as digitally created works of art or photos, all can be output with giclée printers. Maps-On-Demand Maps Worldwide Ltd. in the UK has introduced a customized map printing service that allows the user to exactly specify the boundaries of the area they want mapped, and then have a custom wall map printed at a flat-rate price of 55 pounds. This unique large-app is produced by a digital printer, using cartographic data from updated databases such as Map Marketing's UK Planners' Base; Bartholemew's UK Route & Counties Base; Bartholemew's Greater London Base; and The Ordnance Survey Landranger Local Base. (The latter is popular among hikers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts, as it offers detail on parks, lake areas and other recreational venues.) The customer can specify the style of map, the point on which it is centered, the scale, postal code areas to be included, city insets, and radials, all to create a true, custom map. The maps are typically four-color digitally printed on 75 cm (30 in.) x 107 cm (43 in.) substantial paper stock and may be had film-laminated or in a variety of other custom finishes. In Conclusion It is fascinating to see how digital printing, once thought best-suited to creating books and page-size products, has now spawned exciting new "scale" capabilities in visual media production. The separation of "creative" and "output" steps is a stunning advance. The two-step process vastly improves on the old masters' one-step analog world of brush and palette. Michaelangelo, for example, painted the ceiling of the Cistene Chapel while enduring agonizing days lying on a scaffold and precisely applying every brush-stroke to an image far too large for him to perceive close-up, guided only by his own immense artistic genius.Today, images can be digitally created in a scale that matches the artist's sensory perception and skills. Then, the image can be re-scaled in size and faithfully re-created during digital printing. So, in ways we have only begun to appreciate, ongoing innovations in large app digital printing are going to change the way we see the world and it will never be the same again.