We don’t normally associate drupa with wide-format printing, and much like domestic shows such as Graph Expo and Print, wide-format and specialty graphics have been more or less niche areas. The focus at this year’s drupa, as our various preview stories have indicated, is production inkjet and other new and evolving technologies geared more toward commercial printing. That said, wide-format has been playing a more and more important role in general commercial printing, and as a result is going to have a much more conspicuous presence in Düsseldorf.

In terms of hardware, we’re in a phase of printer evolution where there really aren’t likely to be any major technological revolutions, at least not this year, unless someone is really holding back a big announcement. The offerings have shaken out into well-delineated ink technologies—solvent/eco-solvent, flatbed UV, latex, dye-sublimation—and new product introductions are more of the portfolio expansion type. Look for faster, more productive units, yes, but also new product launches intended to bring certain printing technologies to a broader range of print service provider companies. Entry-level and mid-volume—however we want to define those categories—are those areas seeing the most activity, and “entry-level industrial”—I’m thinking of HP’s new Latex 1500—is now a thing.

It’s not just speed but also versatility. The goal is for PSPs to do more with less—what one machine can produce the bulk of whatever it is you want to produce? The idea of “one ring to rule them all” may not be entirely possible, but “one ring to rule a fair number” may be. As a result, like at every wide-format show, “Application Zones” are where those in the market for wide-format equipment should focus their attention. Ask: what types of printed materials do you want to produce, and what kind of printer will be able to produce as many of them as possible?

There are lots of areas of overlap, as well. How distinct is, say, packaging from what we think of as “traditional” wide-format? Companies that produce packaging for prototypes or even small-quantity production runs may also find that brandowners are eager to have the same company also produce retail signage and other related display graphics. This doesn’t mean that your HP Scitex Corrugated Press is also going to print soft signage POP displays (although it might, especially the latter), but those are two applications that complement each other fairly well.

Speed, versatility...and productivity. Automation is coming to wide-format equipment, with automatic board loading and unloading units. At ISA Sign Expo last month, Agfa, for one, was previewing automation options for its Jeti Tauro flatbed press, and at the time told me they were taking this to the next level at drupa. 

Textile and fabric printing are the top growing applications du jour, and there are a number of technologies available for producing fabric-based output, be it signage or all the myriad forms of apparel. Few people attend drupa to see the latest in textile printing, of course (Heimtextil in January is a big one for that), but fabric printing has been weaving itself into more and more commercial shops, be it transfer dye-sublimation, direct-to-fabric dye-sublimation, or other types of direct-to fabric printing. You’re likely not going to see the full breadth of textile printing options, but it is useful to see these types of specialty printing equipment in the same context as general commercial printing.

In addition to the printing hardware, finishing is finally starting to get the recognition it so richly deserves. Cutters and routers have become vital tools in the specialty printing arsenal, and new units with greater capabilities and versatility are appearing. Laser cutting—once an option only for those with really deep pockets—is gradually becoming an affordable option, and not just for rigid materials but also for fabrics. Also, too: automation. If you’ve never seen a robotic arm unload boards from a cutting table, then you’ve never been to the Zünd booth.)

But where the real action today is happening at the front end of the workflow, and production software specific to wide-format printing is becoming more important. RIP hardware and software is now about more than just converting PostScript data to printer dots or even managing color profiles; “RIPs” today are vital control centers for the workflow, and as befits the wildly variable nature of specialty printing, individual RIP modules add application-specific tools and features, since the requirements for vehicle graphics are different than those for banners, which are different for those for textiles, and so on. Thanks to these modules, “one RIP to rule them all” is not an unreasonable proposition.

Again, the emphasis is on maximizing productivity. Take something as simple as “nesting,” which is akin to imposition for wide-format printing, where you’re trying to strategically squeeze or gang as many images on a page or board as possible, so you can use fewer boards, which can be expensive. The traditional way to do this is to manually position all the images in a program like Adobe Illustrator, but front ends from the likes of EFI, Onyx, Caldera, and more offer nesting features that will attempt to automate image and job nesting. Launching at drupa is Ultimate TechnoGraphics’ Nesting Optimization Engine for its Impostrip suite of automated imposition software, which automatically creates “smart nests.” It’s worth checking out.

More and more front end developers have also been partnering with Enfocus Software to bring enhanced levels of automation to wide-format-specific workflows.

Getting one’s wide-format offerings to pay nice with the rest of the business, from a workflow and from an ERP/MIS perspective. Although wide-format and specialty printing have tended to be seen as having a more “handcrafted” nature than general commercial printing, those days are coming to an end, and it is more and more necessary to plug specialty graphics into the rest of the enterprise, to capture accurate data, as well as streamline and automate production. It’s really becoming a necessity, and the paucity of tools available that were specific to wide-format has finally being overcome.

Part of drupa’s mandate is to bring to the fore the various printing “specialties,” be it packaging, 3D printing, industrial printing, functional printing, and wide-format spans virtually all of those categories. As I said earlier, wide-format, packaging, and industrial printing (however one chooses to define “industrial printing”) have many things in common—and drupa is a good opportunity to see where those points of overlap may be. Part of functional or industrial printing is being able to print on unique, not necessarily “wide,” substrates like ceramic and glass. As I have said in this space on many occasions, these kinds of unconventional substrates open up opportunities in new, unique product niches.