The wide format graphics community has transformed dramatically in the last fifteen-plus years. The industry has progressed from a marketplace dominated by a single imaging technology—screenprinting—to a multi-technology marketplace, where digital imaging is the primary technology.
According to SGIA’s 2011 Market Trends and Product Specialties Benchmarking Report, more than 97 percent of companies are using digital technology exclusively or within a multi- technology facility. The number of companies today using screenprinting exclusively is very small (less than three percent), but it’s important to stress the legacy of this technology, a significant “value add” for companies offering a broad range of imaging services.
A New Era
The rapid technology development during the last few years has opened new markets by providing imagers with capabilities that have proven to be a great fit with their customer base. Print buyers want fast turn-around, low waste, and customization; the imager can meet these challenges (and more) using the mix of technologies now available.
Although the integration of digital imaging has provided exciting opportunities for imagers, it has also brought new challenges. When screenprinting dominated, image quality and run consistency were key competition points among imagers.
Today image quality and run consistency expectations are set high, and imagers are required to find their competitive advantage in value-added support before and after the print.
For many in the community, changing from a business plan centered on image quality to a plan that must compete on value-added services has proven to be a major hurdle. The leaders in the imaging community see their role in the marketplace today very differently from the role that was successful just a decade ago.
In a rather dramatic turn-around, screenprinting has become a competitive advantage for many in the community using the process to apply coatings, textures, single colors, and many other capabilities that simply can’t be achieved using digital imaging. Screenprinting also provides advantages over digitally produced products in cost, longevity, durability, and volume.
Looking forward, the big challenge will be slowing the commoditization of the imaging process.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword: The more controlled the imaging process becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to commoditization. Margins on imaging processes are getting tighter, and commodity-based bidding approaches (e.g., reverse auctions) are being employed. Leaders in the SGIA community are changing their value propositions to adjust as best as possible.
In addition to having business plans that bring added value to the customer, successful imagers are maximizing efficiencies, gaining every bit of profitability possible from the production process and using the latest technologies to improve their competitive position.
Progress of Print Components
Inks. Ink systems have come quite a long way in the last decade—in terms of durability, gamut, third-party, pigment, and dyes. Aqueous or water-based inks are still used mostly for retail point-of-purchase (P-O-P), short-term outdoor prints, long-lasting indoor prints, and indoor backlit materials, and they tend to have a relatively clean handling process.
Solvent inks, commonly regarded as the most economical ink for digital printing, produce highly durable outdoor prints. Although the ink dries quickly, it emits volatile organic compounds, which continues to be a “hot-button” issue in environmental regulation and work safety debates. Mild solvent or “eco-solvent” inks, on the other hand, do not have the ingredients or aggressiveness of true solvent inks.
UV-curable inks are more versatile in terms of what they can be printed on, and they can help achieve fast production because there’s no wait time for prints to dry. However this ink tends to be more expensive than other inks.
The most recent innovation in ink—water-based resin—gives prints a high-stretch performance and conformability but is only available in limited models.
Printheads. One of the most significant recent developments for wide format printing is the increased use of variable drop (or grayscale) technology. New improvements, which provide P-O-P-level image quality when used with UV inks, have helped imagers maximize production efforts and enter new markets. Adding another print bar can also double the speed or image resolution. Consequently the advantage of variable drop compared to binary inkjet is high-quality text and graphics in a single pass.
RIP Software. A Raster Image Processor (RIP) solution optimizes the performance of virtually every wide format device available today in terms of color reproduction, throughput speeds, and workflow efficiency. RIPs can translate postscript instructions, while Windows or Mac printers simply cannot.
Today some RIPs also have the capability to create and tweak media profiles and help keep the color of the output device in control. RIPs also provide enhanced workflow production with varied feature sets.
Media. In the early days, media was white, coated paper on which to print. Today printable media products number in the hundreds, with an ever-increasing variety of receptive coatings, finishes, and specific uses.
For example, magnetic and magnetic-receptive media products have generated a lot of interest lately. These materials allow for easy, non-skilled graphics installation to metallic or prepared surfaces, and can save on shipping costs associated with large, rigid signage.
Pressure-sensitive materials have also exploded, offering numerous substrates for end-product applications—such as vehicle wraps and window and floor graphics.
For many printers, the use of sustainable products has become an effective way to differentiate themselves in the eyes of environmentally conscious customers. Eco-friendly products range from fabrics and banner materials to hardboard products.
Finishing. To transform a print into a finished, sellable product, finishing capabilities are essential. One significant challenge for the industry today is that, as inkjet printers continue to increase in speed, finishing is replacing it as the slowest step in the production process.
While adding or upgrading finishing technologies or improving efficiency can address this particular issue to some degree, viable solutions are still needed for those companies seeking to reap the financial rewards of high-speed inkjet technologies.
Today’s Widespread Technologies
UV. The introduction of UV-curable inkjet printers quickly opened doors to untapped markets, due to the added capability of printing directly onto rigid substrates. While there are still barriers to overcome, production efficiencies and technology developments will propel the future growth of UV-curable inkjet.
As equipment and ink prices continue to drop and regulatory pressure on solvents continues to increase, UV will ultimately become the dominant technology.
Solvent/Eco-Solvent. Solvent and eco-solvent inks are still in wide use, as UV prices inhibit widespread adoption. The durability and costs associated with solvent/eco-solvent systems make them attractive, but persistent regulatory pressure will continue to drive UV-curable R&D dollars.
Flatbed. Flatbed inkjet systems have bridged the gap between digital and traditional screenprinting processes and have opened new markets, expanding the possibilities of what digital imaging can do.
Dye Sublimation. The growth of sublimation printing has relied on the prevalence of polyester and other sublimation-receptive materials and coatings. This type of printing can reproduce images on a world of flexible and rigid-receptive substrates that can withstand the amount of heat, pressure, and dwell time necessary for image transfer.
One of the hottest trends in the industry today, dye sublimation is used to print on a wide range of products—including soft signage, promotional products, and high-end apparel.
Innovations on the Forefront
UV LED. Although still early in its development, the industry has started to take advantage of tremendous advances in UV LED light sources. This technology enables a new generation of imagers to print for a greater range of applications and to provide better reliability, easier operations, and lower operational costs.
The use of UV LED also allows users to image heat-sensitive materials that are difficult for mercury vapor UV systems.
Latex. Latex and water-based resin inks deliver image quality, print durability, and outdoor display permanence comparable to low-solvent inks on a wide variety of substrates, including uncoated vinyl.
This innovative technology has enabled printing with the environment in mind, offering benefits to the customer purchasing the prints and the print service provider.
The changes we’ve experienced in the wide format imaging community have been dramatic and well timed. The new technologies continue to be the best available response to the needs defined by the print buyer as they focus on cost controls, sustainability, and effective messaging.
The future is certainly bright for those imagers who see the larger picture and use the latest technologies effectively.
Michael Robertson is president and CEO of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA). http://www.sgia.org