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Commentary & Analysis

Re-Examining the Inherent Benefits of Wide-Format Digital (Part II)

In Part II of this feature, we examine some of the trends engendered by digital printing, and how they apply to wide-format printing—and how they are changing.

By Dan Marx
Published: September 3, 2014

In Part I of this article, I presented some basic truths about digital printing in general and wide-format in particular. In Part II, we’ll look at some more of these basic truths and re-emphasize that while these basic truths—writ large—have not changed, the details surrounding them have.


So many of the examples I’ve seen to illustrate the possibilities of mass customization come from direct mail. “DAN MARX,” the envelope would read in a large blocky font that didn’t quite match the other printed text, “you may have won 10 million dollars.” Hokey as that was, it is difficult to deny the feeling I had the first time I received something that had been customized especially for me. It sort of reminds me of Steve Martin in The Jerk, shouting, “The new phone book is here. I’m finally somebody!” It seemed kind of magic then, but I can’t say it does now. It was a trick—an effective one to be sure—that no longer packs the emotional punch it once did.

So how, then, does the basic “trick” of mass customization expand beyond its basic, introductory concept? The answer is that it already has. In today’s robust, digitally-driven world, we find ourselves awash in mass customization. Online, we’re seeing dynamically-generated ads that use “big data” to present us with offers that match our needs, our wants, our locations. When this is done with subtlety and tact, the outcomes can be truly engaging. Further, we’re becoming accustomed to mass-customized items: photobooks, truly-personalized greeting cards, one-of-a-kind decorated garments, posters, and banners. A little money and a little time, and it’s yours. On a higher scale, customization is beginning to affect our automobiles, interior wallpaper and fabrics, custom printed, and sized clothing. It’s here. It’s growing.


Format size—at least in the wide-format sense—is a carry-over from the days of analog printing, because in order to print something, you had to first get it through the press. Size was further limited by the cumbersome nature of analog printing. Sure, you could tile together multiple components printed using spot color or four-color process (billboards used to be printed this way), but that meant that each tile required its own plates or screens, and each of plate or screen underwent its own, multi-step process even before the first usable print could be made. Because of all the materials, the time, and the labor that were involved, these types of jobs were viable only in long run lengths—hence the number of billboards that were, until recently, painted by hand.

By providing the ability to profitably print run lengths of one or a few, and to print tile after tile in order to create a larger piece, wide-format companies have been able to create “run length of one” visual displays that truly transcend size, at least as we’ve traditionally thought about it in the printing industry. In one recent display, a 30-plus story hotel was transformed with a more than 200-foot tall graphic of the Super Bowl trophy. In another breathtaking display, massive oil storage tanks in Texas were decorated with printed tableaux from that state’s history. While displays like these could have been printed before wide-format technology came to the fore, they mostly didn’t because cost far outweighed potential impact.

Run Length

While I’ve already touched upon some of the aspects of short runs in the discussion of size above, there is a huge element that was not discussed. Digital printing’s inherent ability to produce short runs has fundamentally changed the way printing is both produced and sold. Going back in time to an earlier, all-analog world, we see an industry based on print volume. Short runs were so time-consuming that most printers didn’t want the business, and so expensive that most customers were unwilling to pay for them. Because of this, a lot of printing that could have been done didn’t get done. Further, large overages were an accepted part of the pricing strategy. In my opinion, printing 500 of something when you only needed 250—simply to get a cut on price—is a waste of time, money and, of course, paper. In many cases, printers were printing trash (or, at least, pre-trash).

Enter digital printing. It’s no surprise that the entry of digital into the commercial printing sector has had a profound effect by shortening run lengths, but also expanding the number of jobs available (at least for those companies that can manage this different definition of volume). Here in the wide-format sector, I know of one company that manages more than 10,000 one-off jobs each day. Yes, that’s 10,000, at a run length of one. In an interesting twist, this company finds itself having to look beyond just making the print and instead focusing their attention on management of orders and digital files and the movement of finished pieces to its many customers. On a more one-to-one scale, numerous small and very small retail businesses are able to take advantage of short-run-based models to present top-shelf graphics and branding that is scaled for their specific needs and budgets. Sounds kind of like customization, huh?

While there is still a great deal of traditional, analog printing being done within the printing industry, it is impossible to deny the profound change printing companies have managed (or not) in the past 10 or 15 years. Anyone who today still views digital technologies as “new” has not been paying attention. The adoption phase is over. Digital—particularly in the wide-format segment—is the primary technology, and this will only grow. The basic advantages listed above, the benefits explained within Parts I and II of this article, and the innovative spirit of those racing to the top serve as the driving force behind this growth.

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.

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.


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Wide Format Editor

Richard Romano

Richard Romano, Section Editor/Senior Analyst
Richard has written about communication, graphics hardware and software trends for the past 15 years.

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