Wide-format digital printing is the current star of the printing industry. What started nearly 20 years ago as an upstart technology has become a force to be reckoned with, bolstering the robust specialty graphics industry and adding strength to the bottom lines of many commercial printing companies. As an industry representative for companies that use wide-format inkjet as their primary imaging technology, I've been witness to a full-blown revolution: a complete movement away from old-school analog technology. The adoption rate for digital technology in our industry segment is around 99%. While I've watched this revolution take place, I've been able to draw out some "essential truths"-real kernels of wisdom-that can benefit any company looking to enter wide-format or grow their existing efforts in this area.

1. It's All About the Product

When getting into the wide-format market and making your first or next capital investment in a piece of equipment, you must first answer an absolutely critical question: What do you intend to make with the machine? The reason this question is so important is that the product you produce will ultimately dictate the equipment you will acquire. A secondary question-before you make your purchase-is, How do you plan to grow beyond your initial plans? As an example: If you decide to enter wide-format with a low-cost solution that allows you to make signs for your customers, and want to branch out into vehicle graphics or window graphics, will the machine you've purchased print acceptably for those product areas?

2. Intended Use Is Essential

The wide-format graphics industry, much like the screen-printed graphics industry that preceded it, is incredibly diverse. Companies in this segment are using the technology to print or decorate everything from circuit boards to skateboards, and from silk scarves to wrapped cars. This high diversity in end products leads us to a wide variety of choices regarding materials and ink sets as they relate to the desired durability and performance of the printed piece. Will the piece be displayed indoors or outdoors? In full sun or in a shaded area? Will it be regularly touched or handled? Each of these questions-and more-can guide you on your path to specifying the right tools (substrates, ink type, overlaminate, etc.) for the job.

3. The Printer Is Important, But…

In terms of image quality, nearly every wide-format inkjet device on the market is capable of producing beautiful work, suitable in quality for color-critical applications such as countertop cosmetics displays. Regardless of the machine used, a skilled operator (well-versed in color management tools and the RIP software associated with the printer) can achieve great results, and the machines are becoming increasingly easy to use. Because of this "relativity" in print quality, the print itself has become somewhat of a commoditized product. Luckily, in this industry segment, we're not selling "print," we're selling products, and that's where differentiation comes in. The strong opportunities in the wide-format segment come from using the print in conjunction with wise material choices and the use of finishing technologies to create a unique product.

4. Speed Is Relative

For commercial-printing companies accustomed to presses running full bore, inkjet technology may seem slow. In fact, among some commercial printers, there is a perception that wide-format inkjet technology is too slow to be profitable. But speed is relative, and so is price. Not surprisingly, both are relative to each other. You can pay $30,000 for a small, excellent machine that runs at a moderate rate of speed, say, 125 square feet per hour. Conversely, you can pay $3.5 million for the fastest machine currently on the market, which can churn out quality prints at more than 5,000 square feet per hour. The real question at play is, How much throughput do you need? Which machine will fulfill the needs of your wide-format plans, at the quality you expect, in the timeframe you expect, and allow you to do so profitably (and make your payments on the machine)?

5. It Requires a Different Approach

As commercial printers have changed from fully analog to a mostly, or fully, digital workflow, they have been forced to change their mindset about the nature of print. As run lengths got smaller and they began to understand and implement some of the inherent differences of digital printing technology, they faced a moment of reinvention. The very same has happened in the wide-format graphics industry where print was priced based on runs of hundreds or thousands. In wide-format digital, it is not uncommon to have a run length of one. This is versioning on an extreme scale-mass customization writ large. Making it profitable required a new approach, new workflow models, new pricing structures. It's a whole new industry-really-and one that is robust and ripe with opportunity for those who find their sweet spot.

How robust is the wide-format graphics industry? According to SGIA's recent Market Trends & Product Specialties Benchmarking Report, businesses in the graphics segment are expecting a 12.6% growth rate for 2012, and retain this optimism into the near future. Where is the money being made? According to the report, retail and corporate branding markets are core areas of opportunity for wide-format graphics companies. Health care concerns, interior design, and retail are seen as the top three growth markets in the industry, while exhibit manufacture, educational institutions, and government/government contractors are the three markets seen as declining the most. Banners are the most served product area for these companies, even though this area is highly saturated and margins are difficult to maintain. Window displays, point of sale/POP, indoor wall graphics, and window displays follow closely behind.

The biggest lessons I can offer are these:

  • Do your research up front and take the time to attend a trade show that presents the complete range of equipment and materials choices.
  • Connect with business owners like yourself and ask what works and what doesn't.
  • Take the time to help your staff and clients understand the changes inherent with this new technology-be it new skills, new sales opportunities and new ways to convey the printed message.
  • Most of all, don't view wide-format as another way to do the same thing. View it instead as a key to unlocking new opportunities.