Last month’s ISA show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center was a good opportunity to review the wide-format graphics market and some of the spinoff products in adjacent markets. (See also Richard Romano’s ISA recap here.)

UV-curable inkjet printing has all but become the major platform of innovation, and has shown itself to be scalable and fully adaptable to high-level production markets across a large range of applications. It may not be the biggest market yet, but it is already a major vector for change.

Other ink chemistry types are also driving innovation, extending the range of applications that can be printed by wide-format inkjet printers. At ISA, these specifically included dye-sublimation transfer inks for soft signage textile applications and latex inks.

The show was lively and appeared well-attended, optimistic, and busy, and that more or less reflects the state of the market. These were the trends that struck us this year:

UV Focus

Most of the interest, buzz, and innovation is in UV even though vendor (i.e., exhibitor) revenues for UV systems are only $860M, or 16% of all wide-format vendor revenues. But that reflects users’ (PSPs’) sense of the value and potential of UV wide-format printing.

Super High-End UV Flatbed

There is almost a new sector within UV, which you could call the “super” high-end with flatbeds from HP, EFI, INCA and Durst (Agfa was a participant until pulling M-Presses from the market last week). These are presses running from 3,000 square feet/hour up to 10,000 square feet/hour. This “sector” grew strongly in 2012.

EcoSolvent: Market Stays Big & Strong

EcoSolvent markets are large ($1.6B vendor revenues at 37% of all wide-format vendor revenues) and still growing and have not apparently been seriously damaged by latex’s appearance, and are even being boosted by seriously modernized offerings from Epson and Roland.

Respectable Latex Progress

Successful latex products from HP have still not yet been joined by similar products from say, Canon, and even Mimaki’s latex offerings seem so far to have had a minimal competitive effect.

Digital Signage & Systems Modest Presence

There is still no palpable sense of digital signage competing seriously with printed graphics in a direct way, even if ISA is not where you would expect to see such systems shown, but it was interesting to see—and perhaps it is a harbinger of the future—that Roland for one is now selling small-scale LCD closed-loop display systems alongside printers to PSPs for them to sell on to retailers. Not entirely unrelated in the way of co-selling electronic systems, EFI also offered a partnered real-time video poster-viewing tracking system.

There were many product upgrade announcements, too many to cover in detail.   A few new product announcements stood out as examples of the desire to expand the application range that can be printed by inkjet technology, highlights of which are as follows:

Epson showed their new F range of dye-sublimation transfer printers aimed at fabric printing. The F6070 is 44 inches wide and the F7070 is 64 inches wide. The choice of transfer rather than direct printing reflects perfectly Epson’s consistent absolute loyalty to best quality. These systems are an organic response no doubt to the continuing popularity of soft signage and specialist textile design applications. The systems can print at up to 630 square feet per hour and use Epson’s TFP technology heads with 760 nozzles per each of 4 colors.

Expanding its participation in the soft signage textile market, Mimaki showed a new textile printer called the TX500 1800DS (dye sublimation) printing at a maximum of 1,614 square feet per hour with 6 printheads in 6 colors. Also on the subject of Mimaki, their success with the JV400SUV R2R printers available with latex and UV inks seems to have been limited last year. At ISA, Mimaki announced a new set of latex inks, so 2013 will be another interesting year to see what competition HP will see in the latex sector.

Roland showed a new hybrid UV printer in its LEx series, the LEJ 640, a 64-inch CMYK, Wh, gloss 6-color system. It can print up to 133 square feet per hour. The success of the LEx series has been relatively good given it has been targeted at a kind of proofing and strike-off market for packaging markets rather than mainstream graphics. The quality is high even though the rate of print is low, but perhaps acceptable for its target markets. This is the only printer series anywhere using Epson heads with 100% solids UV inks, and it would be interesting to understand why the system seems to require to run at relatively low print rates.

Roland’s entry into electronic signage with its first product offering is expected to be released by the fourth quarter of 2013. The complete “electronic sign-in-a-box” package solution is expected to include software, media player, and a variety of basic content templates, along with optional displays in a variety of sizes.

The evolution of the wide-format graphics inkjet printer market continues. New ink technologies in particular are enabling new opportunities for print-for-pay shops to differentiate their product offerings. It’s a journey, one that continues to be far more profitable to printshops than most general commercial print applications.