by George J. Whalen November 10, 2003 -- Most digital printers have long been preoccupied with ordinary A4 or 8-1/2" x 11" page-size products, particularly in the on-demand market. Meanwhile, a world of color graphics larger applications (large format or large-apps) has been developing, both in size and sales. Various research sources say that in 2002, the worldwide retail value of larger-format digital printing reached an estimated $19 billion (US). That market value is forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 9%, to likely reach $30 billion by 2007. What these forecasted revenues represent is predominantly production by inkjet and other kinds of large-format printers. Flatbed printers have only recently been introduced, and will likely increase the revenue forecast as the number of printers in the field increases. The growth rate of digital printing technology for large applications is said to be faster than all other printing processes, such as offset, flexo, screen and.gravure. As printer technology has evolved, the equipment has become faster.Yet, the applications served typically call for print runs that are short-to-very-short. This disparity between “supply and demand” suggests that the large-format roles of larger digital print providers are not yet a fully settled matter. Additional new applications for this technology might come at any moment. Novel results can be obtained, giving rise to the recognition that digital printing is able to invent its own applications. Meanwhile, the fortunate present capability of most such large digital devices to print a "run-of-one" economically remains a driving force behind the large-apps we do know about. THE LARGE-FORMAT MARKET The large-format market is a fragmented, multi-product place, made up of many niche segments. The connective force that joins these segments is simply that those product applications are “large.” This also makes the market hard to define. Generally, “large format” digital printing is considered to start at 60 cm (24”), extending up to the so-called "super-wide" segment, which includes anything above three meters (118"). However, a large app, such as a mural or building wrap, can be made up of many “strips,” each less-wide than a large format printer's output, but assembled to final size, as described later. Large-Format Applications Building Wraps Bus Wraps Murals Giclée Fine-Art Printing Point of Purchase (POP) Banners & Signage Billboards Trade Show Exhibit Graphics Backlit Displays Display Graphics Fleet Graphics Vehicle Graphics Outdoor Graphics Rigid Boards Stage Graphics Flags   Large-app digital printing is seriously challenging screen and offset printing sectors because it economically does things these venerable modes cannot. Thus, it is carving out its own market domain, beginning as a series of niches. One, for example, is producing localized billboards, posters and POP delivering content specific to regional and neighborhood markets. These large-apps make good use of the prime advantage of larger-format digital printers: their capability to economically print large graphics (either seamlessly or in sections), in runsas short as one . Depending upon the printer type chosen (inkjet, e-stat, and now, flatbed presses), larger products can be printed on vinyl, polyester film, cloth, fine art paper, canvas, plain paper, and on an expanding variety of other flexible and rigid substrates. A good introduction to the large-app market is provided by a report offered by TrendWatch Graphic Arts (TWGA), entitled: “Large-Format Graphics: Supersizing the Market?” (*) While this report primarily concentrates on how prepress shops, commercial printers and publishers are satisfying customer needs with large-format printing applications, there are ample suggestions in it of the fertile frontiers presented by the larger-app world. For example, it cites a TWGA survey of prepress and printing businesses which asked “what percentage of substrates do you output your large-format work to?” The survey brought the following interesting results. Percent of Large-Format Work Output To Different Substrates Substrate Commercial Printer Prepress shop Plain Paper 59 % 49 % Fine Art Paper 9 % 5 % Other 29 % 37 % Polyester Film 2 % 5 % Cloth 1 % 3 % Studying the above numbers, it's clear that only digital printing technology could possibly offer the flexibility to output such a range of large-app products for promotional and corporate use, on such a variety of substrates. Plain paper heads the list. But, fine art paper comes next, indicating an emerging hi-res art color reproduction market (due, in part, to recent 75-200-year colorfast improvements in inks). Looking at the next row, one need not be a genius to spot a percentage of very substantial size in the “other” category. It is likely that within this figure, many present large apps have fermented, waiting to emerge as identified market sectors, such as building wraps, murals and promotional signs output onto vinyl; vehicle wraps; fine-art giclée; and flatbed output of posters, POP, photos and signage onto various rigid substrates of all descriptions. While this “other” figure remains high, other new large-apps are likely brewing. Inkjet Printers Proliferate Inkjet printers (especially piezoelectric ink-head printers) have essentially supplanted thermal and electrostatic processes for large-app production. Inkjet printers are now differentiated by the kinds of inks they use (aqueous- or solvent-based), as well as by their ink-head technologies. Aqueous-based printers are the dominant inkjet technology now and account for most of the volume, while solvent-based printers, though fewer in number, are the fastest-growing inkjet segment (with shipments of new printers growing at 21% per annum). Leading ink-head technology providers are Hewlett-Packard, Epson, Canon, Xaar and Spectra. The real cost of large format inkjets is in the consumables and several vendors have recently launched "economy" supplies to keep costs-of-ownership in line. Thus, the versatility of now-available large-format inkjet printers has made it possible to digitally print four-color large-apps that include (among others) building and bus wraps; POP displays; wall murals and hanging signage; vinyl mesh banners; vinyl billboards; fleet and vehicle graphics and signage; outdoor billboards and signage; stage and trade show exhibit graphics, as well as flags and pole banners. That app list merely scratches the surface. Coming down a bit in size, we also now find digitally printed wall maps, point-of-purchase displays and signs; backlit graphic displays and posters. At the large end of the large-app market, Vutek is said to be the leading worldwide supplier of superwide format digital inkjet printers. The company pioneered super-wide format printers, and sets the standard for super-wide/grand format and specialty printing, using digital inkjet technology for advertising applications, including billboards, fleet graphics, banners, bus shelters, point-of-purchase displays and posters. Vutek's product portfolio includes the UltraVu line, for high-quality, high-speed printing in 2m (79”), 3m (118”), and 5m (197”) formats, and its PressVu family of digital inkjet flatbed printers, capable of printing on both rigid and flexible substrates using UV-curable or solvent-based inks. Vutek inkjet printers work with cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) inks, using different combinations to provide the eight-color option of the top model. MakroArt AG, Switzerland acquired the first European Vutek UltraVU 5300, an eight-color, 5m (197”) printer, and uses it in large-app digital printing for facades, posters, murals on plastic sheet covering building construction, on the sides of trucks, for trade show exhibit displays and for other advertising materials. This printer is said to offer photo-realistic reproduction quality. At the smaller end of the large-app market, the Epson Stylus Pro 9600 and 7600 are said to be professional-class printers and are equipped with UltraChrome inks to deliver brilliant, light-fast results. The ink set includes a seventh, light-black color, for improved gradation in monochrome printing, and an optional matte-black ink for printing on matte-finish papers. Resolution to 2,880 x 1,440 dpi is provided by Micro Piezo printing heads, enabling use of the printers for portrait and advertising photography, proofing, and art printing. The Stylus Pro 9600 handles print media widths to 110 cm (44”), and the 7600 to 60 cm (24”). Flatbed Printers Emerge As much as 30% of the volume potential in the large-app graphics market involves printing rigid substrates, a task for which traditional inkjet printers are not equipped. This makes the emergence of digital flatbed inkjet sheet printers welcome news. Flatbed ink jet printers are now available in three categories: modified aqueous-ink jets, solvent based inkjets and UV curable. All can print untreated, rigid substrates. A modest growth in advertising expenditures (such as outdoor signage) is expected to fuel growth in large-app printing. Many UV inks can accommodate a variety of substrates and offer an extended CMYK ink set or hexachrome six-color set for a broader color gamut. The new flatbed printers, particularly those that use ultraviolet (UV) curable inks, are capable of printing on practically any substrate currently being screen-printed, including glass, aluminium, ceramics, fabrics and uneven or textured substrates. At this early stage, however, market enthusiasm for digital flatbed printing may exceed reality. Time may be needed to enable optimization of designs. Sources say that an “ideal” flatbed printer would be able to print both rigid and roll-to-roll substrates, have a bed size that accommodates a 3m (118”) x 2m (79”) sheet, print at photo-realistic quality, print directly onto substrates without the need for finishing, print at a speed of up to 1000sq m/hr at a cost comparable to screen printing, and interface with stackers and feeders for full automation. Other than speed and cost, a number of these points are already being met by printers coming onto the market. As printer speeds increase and digital ink costs pull-even with those of inks used in screen printing, digital printing will likely take an increasing share of the rigid substrate market away from traditional screen printing. Curable UV Inking Arrives Flatbed technology's arrival coincides with development of more robust piezo ink jet heads, from Xaar and Spectra, and improved inks, notably ultraviolet curing formulations. Such inks dry rapidly without absorption by the substrate, offer high productivity, emit virtually no volatile organic compounds and do not dry in printheads. They are unsuitable for thermal printheads, featured in most currently installed printers. Large format inkjet printer vendors Scitex and Aprion, Durst Phototechnik. Inca, Olec, Zund, Siasprint, Tampoprint, and Vutek are all introducing printers based on new ultraviolet (UV) curable ink jet technology, suitable for printing on rigid substrates. These are also said to be more environmentally friendly than solvent-based inkjet printers. Growth and potential continue to improve for Nur as its print-size, print-quality, and range of substrates continue to expand. Nur says its opportunities now include anything from wraps for buses, displays for bus shelters, and POP, to window substrates with one-way visibility. Also included are large-format applications, such as billboards, formerly the domain of specialized screen printers. The Nur Tempo prints at up to 120sq m/hr at 720 dpi in eight colors. Nur has also entered the textile printing market with its FabriGraph, a high-production, dye sublimation printer line which Nur claims is the world's first digital, production-oriented dye sublimation printer developed for textile applications. The FabriGraph line includes the 3.2m (126”) DS3200 and the 1.5m (59”) DS1500. Both print at at a resolution up to 600 dpi, at up to 430sq ft/h, in four or eight colors, using piezo drop-on-demand inkjet technology. Substrates include all textile fabrics containing a minimum of 50% polyester, as well as rigid and flexible polyester-coated materials. So that's a high-level view of the technology and equipment options that are behind the growth of large format printing. Next week we'll take a look at some of the applications, how they workand where the opportunity lies.