By Nancy Ingalls Wide format printing may be the golden nugget value added offering you need April 26, 2005 -- Innovative solutions are all around us to help grow our business. Have you thought about introducing wide format printing into your business? If not, let's take a look at market trends, economic stability and a few thought-provoking ideas. You never know, wide format printing may be the golden nugget value added offering you need to boost your business and your competitive advantage. Which is which with Wide Format Printers? Wide-format graphic market describes its printers as aqueous, solvent, eco-solvent and UV printers. Aqueous inks are difficult to dry quickly due to the high heat needed to vaporize the water. This makes aqueous inks most suited to porous surfaces such as paper and slower speed applications. Aqueous ink is less suitable for non-porous surfaces, such as plastics, glass, and metals and high-speed industrial and commercial applications. Solvent-based ink is caustic and volatile. When ink dries by the evaporation of a solvent, volatile chemicals are released into the air, leaving the dyes, resins, and pigments on the page. New environmentally-friendly legislation calling for the reduction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and addressing the health concerns associated with them, are making necessary the development of less volatile, less smelly inks in the pressroom. Eco-solvent inks contain less, if any, dangerous solvents and spread far less VOCs and fumes into the air, allowing printers to create durable graphics without having to install special ventilation or environmental equipment. Ultraviolet (UV) curable inks can be successfully applied to both flexible and rigid substrates. The UV inks have instantaneously cure rates, low VOC’s, UV curable inks exhibit excellent durability and have high print gloss. Wide format Worldwide Strength Expect to see significant growth in entry level systems as sign shops expand their business. The current state of the wide-format graphics market from a world wide perspective is strong even though the US economy is rebounding rather cautiously. The installation of new printing equipment continues at a strong pace across all sectors of the industry with the exception of aqueous-based technology. It is estimated that 43- to 60-inch aqueous market is shrinking at about six percent a year mainly because of the invasion of eco-solvent printers into this segment. In the 42-inch market segment, solvent is not making strong headway because of quality and environmental concerns. Steady Growth Expected Industry leaders expect to see significant growth in entry level systems as sign shops expand their business. Wide-format digital printing will become the key factor in succeeding in tomorrow’s printing market. As digital print technology costs are driven down, wide format digital printing technologies will increase margins, and provide the differentiation and competitiveness in the future. Tim Greene, Director of InfoTrends/CAP Ventures’ Visual Communications Technologies consulting Service indicates the UV-curable inkjet market will continue to grow by more than 40% per year over the next five years. UV-curable print technology, and the wider adoption of the next generation of low-end and mid-range equipment based on UV-curable inkjet, will drive UV-curable inkjet revenues, including hardware, ink, and services, over $580 million by 2008. Industry experts estimate that more than 4,000 ultraviolet wide format units will be sold during the next four years. Further more, industry experts estimate that more than 4,000 ultraviolet wide format units will be sold during the next four years. In 2004 alone, more and more screen printers began to adopt wide-format inkjet printing systems as a replacement technology rather than as a complement to their conventional screen printing technology. The trend was initially more apparent in Europe, but the US has started catching up. The photo market is growing into digital and bringing the equipment in-house. There are more choices in inks and media. Many photographers are moving to wide-format inkjet for photography and fine art applications. 3M, Durst, Océ, Scitex Vision, Vutek (recently acquired by EFI), and Zund, among others, have jumped on the UV bandwagon with machines designed to print on everything from wood to glass to vinyl. What Do I Need to Know? Investment in digital wide format technology should either enable you to capture incremental business or increase efficiencies. Any investment in digital wide format technology should either enable you to capture incremental business or increase efficiencies. This has been the major reason flatbed and combination printers were able to grow quickly over the past few years. Remember to look at total cost of operation not just initial equipment capital costs. Shops can utilize increased print speeds to grow the print volumes and therefore grow their business. Take a serious look at the UV wide format digital printers. These printers provide an opportunity to offer new applications that may not have been possible before. The price of entry may seem daunting at first. Eco-solvent systems using piezo technology are one-and-a-half to two times the cost of aqueous systems using thermal technology. However, in the long run, the typical lower consumables costs of eco-solvent technology can return a respectable ROI. Factors to Consider First, decide what types of applications you want to print, then look at the printers capabilities. How versatile is the printer? Does it print on vinyl so I can do graphics? Does it print on rigid substrates for point-of-purchase signage? Does it print on fabrics for banner applications? Is it a complete system, i.e., software, ink, materials, printer, service? Who is backing the quality of the product? Whether you are looking to invest in ultraviolet media or just exploring the landscape, experts say it is inevitable that you will start hearing more about this technology. Many Applications There’s little question you can generate significant revenue through wide format digital printing. Wide format applications are numerous, but they can be categorized into two broad groups: indoor and outdoor applications. There are however some applications which appear both as indoor and outdoor, for example banners, backlit, rotating displays and more. Experts say upscale department stores, exhibit companies, sports stadiums and schools are among those beginning to realize the unique benefits of fabric signage. Think of customized high-quality billboards, fleet marking, banners, street advertising, point of purchase displays, floor and window graphics, home and commercial furnishings(wallpapers, flooring laminates and the printing of home furnishing textiles, and packaging. What about the corrugated packaging industry? The trend here is to go from ``commodity`` to ``specialty`` product offerings, enabling all services under one-roof for both their existing and new customers. Upscale department stores, exhibit companies, sports stadiums and schools are beginning to realize the unique benefits of fabric signage. Wide-format printing fits this bill. This market can hardly be considered hidden. After all, wide-format applications are everywhere in plain sight as posters, backlit displays, banners, billboards, building wraps, exhibition graphics, point-of-purchase displays, street furniture ads, transit posters, fleet graphics, and wall murals, to name just a few. As this list indicates, wide-format applications are diverse, serving a variety of markets. While no individual market can be considered large, the overall opportunity is big enough to be of interest. As you look into ways to expand into new markets and add new value to your business, look at the less publicized areas such as Wide format. Wide format is growing, technology is advancing and is definitely worth exploring. Keep your eyes open, as it is all around you. Next time you're in a supermarket or department store, a theatre or a trade show, identify the wide-format applications. What is interesting to you? What might be of interest to your customers? What might they already do? Talk to your customers. You never know, next week, you may uncover the golden nugget you have been looking for.