This year's SGIA Expo in Las Vegas was a sight to behold. I arrived at the event prepared to be amazed, and the results certainly exceeded my expectations. Exhibitors were happy, attendees were in a buying mood, and the "buzz" on the Expo floor was one of optimism and possibility. Behind the many accolades SGIA has received from all quarters of the broader graphics communications industry-"great show," "really busy," "lots of excitement"-is the undeniable fact that the specialty graphics industry in general, and the wide-format digital graphics industry in particular, is the current epicenter of today's printing industry. The purpose of this article is to define why.

A New Way to Communicate
A common reality in today's printing environment is that things are not what they once were. Yes, "print" is alive, but it is different. Today, the broader idea of "print" has expanded to include specialty products, innovative short-run and mass-customization projects, and the use of myriad platforms from which to convey a message. The heyday of direct mail is over, given increasing postal rates and the recent quantum shift toward both online marketing and purchasing. "Cheap print," based on massive print runs, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The new opportunity in "print," is based on thoughtful, targeted, creatively executed campaigns and innovative conveyance of corporate brands, The many products either produced or embellished by the specialty graphics industry-and its related technologies-present a hotspot in today's new opportunity.

More Than Ink on Paper
The specialty graphics community presents much more than ink-on-paper solutions. Sure, ink is a critical factor, but the materials used within this industry segment allow for the presentation of graphics on interior surfaces such as walls, floors and windows; outdoor surfaces such as sidewalks, shelters and buildings; and mobile surfaces such as cars, buses and even airplanes. We're talking glass, metals, plastics, rigid and flexible, opaque and translucent. In fact, the thoughtful combination of ink and media/substrate can present vast opportunities for new, creative applications. The spoils go to those who can make these combinations profitable.

A Hotbed of Creativity
Creativity abounds in today's specialty graphics industry, as enterprising companies find novel ways to print and present materials to convey visual messages in unexpected ways. It is because of this creative opportunity that specialty imagers are able to locate lucrative niche areas where the profit-reducing effects of commoditization are less present. The driver for this reality is variety: variety in expertise, variety in choices for customers, variety in ways to sell. The takeaway is that this segment of print is ripe with opportunity, and the opportunity has never been more available.

A Bridge to Opportunity
Back in the 90s, any company looking to enter, say, the large-format graphics market would be forced toward complicated analog processes and technologies-and at a great cost. Since the rise of digital printing, accessing the wide-format market has become easier due to commonalities in digital prepress. Today, for many companies approaching specialty graphics from the commercial printing industry, the possibilities of new technologies and end products represent a bridge to new opportunity with profit potential. If you are looking to specialty graphics markets and products as a way to strengthen an existing print business, please know that while opportunity is available, competition can be fierce.

A Method for Exposure
In today's increasingly competitive printing industry-and especially in commercial print sectors-fierce competition has led many print service providers to differentiate themselves from the competition, but with only one tool in their toolbox: price. While some companies have chosen to play a nobody-wins, rush-to-the-bottom price game, often with less than favorable outcomes, others have sought to differentiate themselves by widening the range of services they can offer their customers. But increasing services is an ongoing game of cat and mouse, where innovative companies enjoy a brief advantage before the rest of their industry catches up. Today, the opportunity for differentiation via specialty graphics is strong for those who navigate it successfully.

A Change in Thinking
As an industry segment, specialty graphics was once held together by a common print process: screen printing. But as digital printing-and wide-format inkjet in particular-revolutionized the segment, something amazing happened. Specialty graphics became galvanized instead by something farther upstream than a printing process: the digital file. Think of it. In today's post-analog printing world, it is the digital file that is the common denominator. From there, the work branches down in a complex decision tree of materials choices, imaging technologies, ink systems, and finishing technologies, resulting in any of the many end products created or embellished by specialty imagers.

Last month, I had the honor of presenting on the specialty imaging industry at the Print Buyer's International Print & Media Conference in Chicago. Throughout the presentation, I was impressed by the interest level of the attendees, and their desire to build their skills and begin to more broadly specify specialty imaging jobs, and I was pleased to help them better understand the segment. Further, they learned that all wide-format printers are not alike, and just because a print service provider has a wide-format inkjet device does not necessarily mean they can produce vehicle wraps, soft signage, or printed wallpaper. It is the depth of these very details that was on display in Las Vegas. All these choices, all these technologies and all these materials were on display. If you we there, you saw specialty graphics in its wide-format, full-color, highly-diversified glory. If you weren't there, then we'll see you next year in Orlando, October 23–25, 2013.