Last week, the Printing Industries Alliance hosted an all-day “Post-drupa Report” at Manhattan’s Club 101, which drew an audience of more than 100 printers, mailers, and graphic arts service providers. The full slate of presentations and panel discussions ran the gamut from color management and prepress to postpress and finishing, and highlighted technology and product introductions at last spring’s drupa. One of the panel discussions covered wide-format graphics.

Moderated by Denise Gustavson, editorial director of Wide Format & Signage magazine, the panel included David Kehoe of Canon Solutions America, Marc Johnson of HP, and Kristof Dekeukelaere of Landa Digital Printing.

Introduced by Gustavson as “truly one of the bright spots of the industry,” wide-format printing was highly visible at drupa (as our coverage indicated), and while there were few new product introductions (save for corrugated packaging) display graphics of all kinds were, well, on display, the response to a market that by virtually every metric is experiencing strong growth.

The panelists were in agreement that the number one issue for wide-format print providers was increasing speed. “In display graphics, there’s the need for faster turnaround time, while maintaining the highest print quality for indoor and outdoor graphics,” said Kehoe. 

Retailers—perhaps the most conspicuous of wide-format print buyers—are eager to speed time to market, while at the same time striving to customize in-store POP and other displays. “They want to hyper-localize information to a specific city, to a store, even to a season,” said Johnson. Retail displays that would at one time have been printed in long, static offset runs, kitted, and shipped en masse to all of a brand’s stores are now more and more produced in short runs tailored to each specific location. Sometimes this localization is for very practical reasons. “Prices can differ from one state to another,” said Dekeukelaere, “and even from the city to the suburbs.” At the same time, a retailer’s product mix can very often vary by geographic region: you don’t find many snow shovels and ice melter in stores in the Southwest, for example.

Brandowners are also standardizing the look and feel across all elements of a marketing campaign, and display graphics are playing a bigger role in those campaigns. Take direct mail. “It’s mailed to customers and they bring that direct mail piece to the store,” said Johnson. “The poster, all the way down to the endcaps, are all drawn off the same campaign.” And, at the same time, “it’s hyper-localized to the store,” Johnson added.

So when we talk about growth in wide-format volume, its not what we normally think about when we think of volume. “There’s a lot of volume, but it’s a lot of small pieces,” said Kehoe. “Brandowners are asking, ‘who can turn this the fastest?’” Hence the need for speed without sacrificing quality.

It’s not just retailers. The hospitality industry, for example, is taking advantage of display graphics. “If a hotel is hosting a corporate meeting for, say, Boeing,” said Johnson, “the graphics in the meeting space reflect that.” Then, when another company books the space, the graphics are swapped out. “The margins you can make on this are great,” he added.

So what market segments did the panelists see as the biggest growth areas?

Wallpaper and other forms of décor were cited by virtually all the panelists. “Take wallpaper,” said Kehoe, “People wouldn’t change their wallpaper for 20 years. Now they can change it once a month. These are extremely profitable segments to be in.”

As the number of print applications expands, many micro-segments are appearing. HP’s Johnson identified architectural firms and even hospitals. “Hospitals are putting clings on an MRI machine,” he said. “These are all things that weren’t possible 10 years ago.”

Floor coverings, draperies, and more were also cited as strong growth areas. The panelists also mentioned a feature that will be debuting at the upcoming Graph Expo 2016: “The House That Print Built,” a show floor destination in which the floor, walls, and furniture were all printed on wide-format or other specialty graphics equipment. We’ve seen this kind of thing at past SGIA Expos, but these applications are now moving more decisively into general commercial printing.

Another driver, related to localization, is personalization, especially at the consumer level. “Vehicle graphics are a consumer product,” said Johnson. “And using wide-format printers, it’s easy to print phone or tablet covers.” That’s a function of the versatility of today’s equipment. “These may not be applications you bought the printer for,” said Johnson, “but you can do them.”

As you may have gleaned from this space over the past year or so, fabric and textile printing are also big growth areas. Why?

“There are very low manufacturing costs, the colors can be more vibrant, and you can overcome the challenges of shipping since you’re just shipping a piece of fabric,” said Kehoe.

“Fabric is the new signage,” said Johnson. “Look at how  many trade show booths now have some kind of textile-based signage.”

Despite all the interest in fabric printing, the panelists agreed that apparel printing is not an area that they have found too many commercial printers looking to get into, except perhaps screen printers eyeing a move into digital.

And then there’s Maude: what about corrugated packaging? “The limitation had been that there was no digital technology that could print corrugated, said Dekeukelaere. As a result, brandowners have a pent-up desire for the ability to do short-run corrugated.

“Before they do long runs, they want to prototype everything,” said Kehoe. “They want to do test runs.” There are also more and more customers who don’t need to do long production runs and are asking for short-run corrugated packaging. “They’re saying, ‘we don’t want 10,000 boxes,’” said Kehoe.

So, how do commercial printers—or anyone else—take advantage of these new growth areas?

“You need to have a plan,” said Kehoe. “You can’t just buy the equipment and hope customers will come.”

Digital wide-format printing is disrupting some of the traditional display graphics markets. “Sign companies are completely different today than they were five years ago,” said Kehoe. For commercial printers, that’ a good thing. “They want commercial printers to come in,” Kehoe added, “because there is just so much work.” However, the one important piece of advice Kehoe stressed was: “Don’t drop your margins.”

Other panels at the Printing Industries Alliance event included drupa observations and an offset vs. digital discussion, both moderated by WhatTheyThink’s Patrick Henry; a session on color management, labels, and packaging, moderated by Steve Katz, editor of Label and Narrow Web; and a conversation about postpress and finishing moderated by yours truly.