I’m currently in my 22nd year serving the specialty graphics industry. During my time with SGIA, I’ve been witness to the complete changeover in imaging equipment technology. Back in ’91, the “S” in SGIA stood for “screen” printing. Since that time, wide-format inkjet made its appearance, excited some and threatened others, was adopted in increasing levels as the years clicked by, and in time became the specialty graphics industry’s primary technology.

It’s well-known that SGIA hosts the annual SGIA Expo, which this year will take place in Orlando, Fla., October 23–25. If you’ve never been to the SGIA event—perhaps your annual tradition has been a fall trip to Chicago—you owe it to yourself to go, and here’s why: wide-format is an ascendant technology, meaning it is still growing, still on the rise, ripe with opportunity, still has space for surprising innovation, and provides strong footholds for those seeking to climb in today’s print industry.

In the widely-defined “commercial printing industry,” blood is being shed daily in the form of company failures and consolidation. Valiant and well-intentioned efforts to “save print” by saving now-outmoded opportunities in print (e.g. direct mail) have been launched, but will not supply enough of a tourniquet to stop the hemorrhaging. Given what I’ve seen in my segment of the industry, long life and strong company health come to those who can (and do) recognize outmoded technologies, markets and product areas, and choose to move into the expanding path of an ascendant technology.

While “print” has been in decline for some time, I am struck by the increasing amount of print I see; not in my mailbox, but instead all around me. The many opportunities—particularly those created and driven by wide-format and a handful of other digital printing technologies—are playing an increasing role in our lives, and much of it is occurring in the specialty graphics industry. Here are a couple of cool examples.

  • First, Smart, the car manufacturer, is offering custom wraps as an option for new car purchases. Think, for a moment, of the amount of print required when the move toward mass customization flips strongly toward the consumer automotive market.
  • Another example: The printed wallpaper market—be it for patterned prints or mural-type images—continues to grow, leading us toward a very near future where what is now seen as a bit of a novelty will become commonplace.

And here’s the thing: digital printing in general, and wide-format digital in particular, have changed the printing game. It is so much more than a new kind of tool, like a better tennis racquet or an improved putter. It has changed the way the game is played, changed the boundaries, rewritten how points are earned. And it is the companies that can take advantage of all the change (and its inherent opportunity) that comes their way that can emerge, transformed and strong, from the experience.

So, then, if transformation is what you seek for your company, and wide-format digital is a part of that transformation, you need much more than a taste. You need to drink from the firehose, and the SGIA Expo is the perfect venue because it is more than an equipment show, and that’s an important distinction. While a great-looking print is critical in wide-format, so too is the correct choice of materials used, finishing technologies utilized, and successful, professional installation (should the job at hand require it). The point here is that the wide-format digital world is complex, with numerous technology and materials choices and myriad potential end-points. Therefore, seeing the whole wide-format picture is essential for those seeking success in this area. That’s why I’d like to see you in Orlando.

SGIA’s Orlando event will have numerous opportunities for those companies looking to enter wide-format digital, or expand what they do in this area, by offering free educational content in a series of “Zones” on the Expo floor. These sales-free, special-interest areas will address color management and workflow for wide-format, digital textile printing, graphics installation tools and techniques, and a view into digital signage technology (a next-step solution for some display graphics). Further, the Expo offers a full schedule of educational sessions, more than 500 exhibiting companies, and more than 15,000 imaging professionals seeking strong opportunities. They will learn, plan, make contacts, grow.

So, 22 years ago, when I first entered this amazing industry segment, it was a different world. Change has been profound. Many of the then-major graphics equipment players exhibiting on our trade-show floor—the ones with the gigantic booths—are now either in much smaller booths or have disappeared completely. And that’s natural. Plateaued or declining technologies are replaced by ascendant technologies, which in turn inject new life into an industry. For the specialty graphics industry, wide-format digital has been the equivalent of a shot of adrenaline, launching many new companies and transforming others, establishing new and lucrative product and market areas.

The broader question at hand relates directly to your company. Has your company done all it can to maximize the opportunities available to it, be they technologies, markets, product areas or even production strategies? Do you have the knowledge you need to take your company into new and lucrative directions, or are you still betting that certain outmoded (or nearly so) areas are going to make a comeback? If you haven’t considered your answers to these questions, then you should, because a great many of your colleagues have already done so.