Last week, the latest installment of SGIA’s weekly Webinar series looked at one wide-format shop’s implementation of a Web-to-print portal. Although Web-to-print is not an especially new technology, it has tended to have more implementations in general commercial printing rather than wide-format—largely because the idea of “specialty printing” would seem to preclude the template-based approach that is the hallmark of many web-to-print offerings.

Milwaukee’s Mandel Graphic Solutions is a fourth-generation company founded in 1892. “We started in the wood engraving business,” said company president Rick Mandel, who presented the “Web to Print for Large-Format Printing” Webinar. The company has evolved with the technology and today offers a wide variety of large- and small-format digital printing services, including digital dye-sublimation for textile printing, finishing services, and more.

One of Mandel’s primary concerns was justifying the investment in Web-to-print to begin with, the question being, why do it?

The reason Mandel Graphic Solutions went in that direction was for the basic reasons of saving money and increasing productivity. “The hope was that, through this portal, we can allow our customers to create their own job tickets, do their own prepress, and do their own prepress,” said Mandel.

It was also the result of demand from clients—and as e-commerce in general becomes more prevalent throughout our economy, “self-service” print procurement portals are in keeping with current trends. “It makes you look like a progressive company,” said Mandel.

One of the hallmarks of Web-to-print has been its ability to produce customized and personalized materials. The use of templates has also proven invaluable for brand protection (older materials are deleted from the templates so what’s available to customize and print is only the latest). In the case of wide-format, Mandel said, you have to think about “personalization at scale. Don’t chase one-to-one.”

Once they decided to opt for a Web-to-print portal at all, the next step was evaluating which one to use. Mandel outlined the options that were available, from create-it-yourself, to a SaaS (Software as a Service) approach, to “shelfware,” to some kind of hybrid approach. Mandel ultimately liked the SaaS approach, but much of the commentary in the Webinar focused on issues that are specific to wide-format. Most of the solutions on the market are geared toward smaller-format printing,” said Mandel. “Most vendors are not used to our industry [wide-format], and they’re used to smaller file sizes.” Key questions to ask a potential Web-to-print solution provider include, “What the largest file size allowed?” “How much storage is allotted?” When working with templates, “What file size limitations are on the template file? Does large file size create issues while the client builds the graphics?”

Many simple Web-to-print portals, Mandel said, also have very limited design capabilities—along the lines of business cards and other simple marketing collateral materials—but the types of applications wide-format producers are creating need more robust design tools, and canvas sizes, which can also be a limitation.

“Many of the SaaS vendors allow only 2GB of data of free storage and keep the files on their server for a year,” said Mandel. If you’re doing wide-format work, you can chew through 2GB in a hurry. “You also have to look at the size of the pipes for file transfer,” he added.

With these caveats in mind, it is possible to find a Web-to-print solution that works for wide-format; Mandel ultimately went with Presscentric. Mandel’s online storefront——offers nearly a dozen product types, from vinyl banners, to lawn signs, to truck graphics, to retractable banners. There is even an option to ask for a custom quote.

Mandel discussed the two types of jobs he tends to get: transactional and program jobs. The former (not to be confused with what we normally think of as “transactional printing,” or the printing of invoices and statements) are jobs where someone sends an RFP, the printer quotes, and then may or may not get the job, or any future job from that client. The latter are longer-term, ongoing relationship-type jobs. “We like program jobs,” he said, and has found that Web-to-print can foster those program-type jobs. In essence, he said, “you create a ‘golden handcuff’” when you are the repository of all their imagery.

Ultimately, when deciding on a Web-to-print portal—be it a specific solution or whether to even get one at all—Mandel said, “know thy client.” That is, the real question is, does a particular Web-to-print strategy suit a particular client base?

There are many advantages to Web-to-print, but ultimately it has to make sense in terms of the company that is using it and the types of clients it has—or hopes to get. Asking the tough questions of potential vendors—specifically where its suitability for wide-format is concerned—is imperative. After all, the technology should serve the user, not the other way around.

Upcoming SGIA Webinars include “What is a Professional Employer Organization (PEO)?” presented by Adam Corin (January 14); “Your Color Toolbox: Solving Process Control Problems,” presented by Jim Raffel (Janaury 21), and “Dye-Sublimation for Industrial Manufacturing Applications,” presented by Syd Northup (January 28). More information, and registration links can be found here