During my tenure as an “enthusiastic ambassador for innovative imaging technologies,” I’ve had the pleasure of addressing group after group about wide-format digital technology, its market and product areas, and the many strong opportunities therein. Whenever I speak about wide-format, I always take a minute or two present some basic truths about digital printing in general and wide-format in particular.
In this two-part article, we’ll cover these basic truths. However, the theme of this article is that while these basic truths—writ large—have not changed, the details surrounding them have.
Remember the days when full color was a choice, when the printer would ask the customer whether they wanted a beautiful, full-color piece or something that looked like a church newsletter? One color? How about two? Digital printing has changed the game, and now even most church newsletters use full color. Designers have begun to “think” in full color, as have customers. This is good. In the wide-format printing world, this transformation to full, digital color has profoundly changed the way products are marketed and brand identities are presented.
But full color also brought about production challenges, as color control on early wide-format systems could be a significant challenge. Color control became a “must do” for anyone seeking to do quality work, and great color became a point of differentiation, if not a competitive edge. In the past few years, color has caught up with user and customer expectations (for the most part). Good color, along with other aspects of print quality, have become a given, and no longer provide a strong area for production-focused differentiation. Today, differentiation in color is achieved mostly through opaque white and metallic effects.
Analog printing processes are cumbersome by nature, whereas digital processes are simpler. For instance, screen printing requires companies to undertake roughly 10 distinct process steps even before the ink can hit the substrate (and this must also be done for each color used), while digital printing, at its most basic, requires just a few. As I’ve talked to numerous business owners about their transition from analog to digital printing, many have discussed the very obvious savings in materials and labor. In some operations, what used to take 10-plus employees to keep production moving through an analog-based shop now requires only a handful. While this is perhaps not good news for the broader production workforce, it is a welcome reality for company owners operating in a highly competitive environment.
What is often overlooked, however, is that with a simpler process comes inherently less risk. If you turn your thinking around and consider each of those 10 screen printing process steps as an opportunity for something to go wrong—thus ruining the job and sending the company back to “Go”—then you can surely see the strong benefits a simpler process can bring. Any printing that falls short of the quality expected by the customer should be seen as waste. Customers don’t pay to correct a printer’s mistakes (and they’re not likely to seek return business either). Given print of equal quality, a simpler, more controllable process (digital) brings less risk, hands down.
The “simpler process,” just discussed, has also had a strong effect on turnaround times. Because the digital process is shorter, the job can be up on press sooner—in some cases by a matter of hours, in other cases by days. This has moved the boundary line for customer expectations, making the turnaround time the customer considers to be normal increasingly short. And this should come as no surprise in a culture that is accelerating. Just as faxes shortened the expected response time over snail-mailed letters, emails shortened even more. Think of the advantages digital signage technology may have over printed signage as a medium for quickly delivering a message to the marketplace. Where does it stop?
While my expectation is that turnaround times will continue to compress, ongoing developments in software, printers, and finishing technologies will serve to increase the throughput speed for many graphics projects. The bigger question is, how soon is it needed? Whether jobs are for corporate branding, events, or retail, relatively few of the messages we print really need to be dreamed up today and delivered tomorrow. In many cases, digital signage or limited on-site print production may be used to produce “need it now” elements within a broader graphics setting. Time will tell, though likely less time than we expect.
When I’ve talked with business owners—particularly those coming to wide-format from the commercial printing sector—it’s easy to see that calculating the cost of producing the print, and its related end-products, can be somewhat of a puzzler. Wide-format is not a standard ink-on-paper industry, and many of the materials we use are expensive, diverse, and sometimes even exotic. This is not commodity printing, and those companies that for some reason choose to operate as though it is find themselves in a non-profitable race to the bottom.
While there are certainly some commoditized end-product areas in the wide-format sector (I’m talking to you, grommeted vinyl banner), many companies instead choose to compete in a race to the top by seeking to differentiate among even rather commonplace end-products through an inventive and enterprising mixtures of materials, custom printing effects and finishing technologies. One strong advantage wide-format veterans (including salespeople) have over wide-format newbies is a deep understanding of a great many variables, how to keep the customer happy, how to differentiate, and how to keep profits comfortable.
We’ll look at more of these basic truths in Part II.
If you are seeking to enter into, or grow within the wide-format graphics sector, I wholeheartedly urge you to seek the richest source of knowledge you can find by attending this year’s SGIA Expo in Las Vegas (October 22–24). We’re expecting 20,000 attendees, a sold-out exhibit floor of more than 515 exhibiting companies, plus more than 100 educational opportunities for industry education equals an unprecedented opportunity for the future of your company. Sign up today and get your free SGIA Expo pass at SGIA.org/expo.