The growth in wide format printing shows no sign of abating, as markets and technologies continue to develop.
Somewhat like the Chinese economy which is one of its main threats the domestic and global wide format market is continuing on an enviable growth curve. Evidence for this is all around, there is barely a public space these days that does not feature some kind of wide format print, let alone the burgeoning usage within the corporate, vents, sporting and retail environment.
Evidence of the opportunity within wide format also comes form the huge investments going on in technological development, with the likes of Agfa, HP, EFI all pouring money in to buying technology, where ten years ago two of these three weren’t even involved and the third HP was a small player, only operating in the aqueous indoor space. Added to this is the R+D spend of some of the biggest companies in the world such as Epson, Canon and Oce and the picture becomes clearer, wide format, while not exactly a goldfield is certainly where much opportunity lies.
Canny investors such as Knox Investment Partners have picked up this trend, with the fund buying up half a dozen wide format printers on both sides of the Tasman, and now claiming to be the biggest wide format printer in the region. Private investment funds and giant imaging companies have plenty of places to park their cash, but they are choosing wide format.
Adrian Morris, product manager Imaging Supplies / Display Graphics at Océ-Australia says, “I think the entire display graphics area is driven by the market primarily. Society as a whole likes what it sees in terms of colourful new displays and promotions, which are more creative than signage of only a few years ago. Clever marketing of products sends a clear message to consumers about brand essence and fit - its crucial to get your message across to the market.
On growth prospects John Wall, marketing manager at Roland DG says, “There are quite a few manufacturers with products in the market now which certainly suggests that they believe there are good growth prospects for the industry. Sales have been strong for our wide format products and they do not look like slowing in the near future. A benefit of the mature market that we find ourselves in at the moment is that companies are looking for additional production capacity and want to take advantage of some of the new technology that is being made available to them.
Many are looking for specialist applications such as white ink to create a niche for themselves and need to invest in additional equipment, all of which is continuing to drive demand and sales.”
And with Drupa representing a major worldwide platform for new developments, we can expect new inkjet machines and technologies to be shown in Düsseldorf this spring.
Trends include a growing shift to UV-curable ink technologies for both roll-fed and flatbed printers across all price brackets, as well as wider options for aqueous-based printers. We also anticipate more environmentally friendly products.
Historically, wide-format inkjet was limited to aqueous-based technologies with Epson's piezoelectric printheads being challenged by thermal options from HP and Encad. With the development of digital techniques, inks and processes, today’s machines can handle everything from photographs to point-of-purchase to building wraps.
Solvent-based products, followed by UV-curable inks, were instrumental in providing the wide-format digital print market with added durability and an expanded range of substrates. Pundits who predicted the demise of aqueous-based printers, however, have been proven wrong, particularly if you consider office and home markets.
On the larger format front, manufacturers such as Epson, HP and Canon all have remained firm believers in aqueous-based printers. These vendors recently have added faster and wider models to their portfolios, suggesting a strong demand across the photography, fine art, proofing and display sectors. Morris form Oce says, “I think high quality output is one area of growth. The high-end display graphics market, in say, retail fashion and cosmetics, requires exceptional quality for indoor and outdoor signage. We’re finding our Océ Arizona 250 GT is making significant inroads into this market because of the demand for quality and consistency. The other area is in the flexibility to print on different substrates. This has grown remarkably from simply printing on self-adhesive vinyl. Businesses are now aware you can print on substrates as varied as glass, plastics, wood, metal and lenticular lenses and are demanding it of our display graphics customers.”
The proliferation of solvent-based machines also has been sustained. Inks range from eco- through mild- and low- to full- and hard-solvents; each contains its own specific properties and suitability for different types of work. The level of adhesion or keying with the material depends on the amount of solvent present in the inks but, in general, this technology has remained popular on flexible media where greater durability and colour fidelity are required.
Nonetheless, UV-curable machines’ popularity has escalated during the past few years and is challenging the roll-fed sector as well as being the only viable production method on flatbed machines, with the exception of HP Scitex’s FB6700. which incorporates Aprion print-heads and uses aqueous-based technology. Early attempts to print to rigid materials using solvent-based inks failed - heat assisted drying is incompatible with some substrates.
Growth of UV-curable technology
UV-curable inks - long established in the screen-printing sector - progressed to digital print for both flatbed and roll-fed machines. New inks, coupled with the continued development of printheads across all sectors, have advanced the adoption of wide-format digital printing. Epson’s piezo printheads are used in some Roland, Mutoh and Mimaki machines; HP and Canon opted for proprietary technologies. Early conversions of aqueous printers to accept solvent-based inks were remarkably successful, and the divide between the low-end machines and the grand-format printer specialists began to narrow. Manufacturers such as NUR (now HP NUR), VUTEk (now EFI VUTEk) and Scitex Vision (now HP Scitex) were producing billboard machines that used solvent-based inks, but the market need for lower-cost production solutions challenged these capital-intensive systems.
Similarly, while the main manufacturers of production machines were the first to introduce printers using UV-curable inks, the demand for entry-level and midrange systems soon became apparent and, in the past two years, this sector has seen a massive number of new products. Océ, Agfa and Screen joined established players, such as Mimaki and Gerber.
Solvent-based printers’ relatively cheap output makes them an attractive choice for posters, banners and point-of-purchase applications.
The price advantage is tempered by the technology’s distinctive odour, a smell that lingers on finished jobs. Also, because solvents are heavier than air, they tend to fall and taint in-store goods. Moreover, as pressure mounts on all manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints, ink and waste are coming under closer scrutiny, in some cases to the detriment of solvent-based output. For short-term point-of-purchase work, aqueous printers are making a comeback; but if durability is a priority, UV-curable inks have the edge.
Many commercial printers create proofs using a roll-to-roll inkjet device running CMYK, or perhaps an expanded colour set, with water-based ink. Such aqueous systems are restricted to a relatively narrow range of specially coated substrates, and they have limited use for outdoor, long-term applications - even when laminated.
John Wall at Roland DG says, “We and our dealer network are certainly seeing a lot of interest and take-up of wide format printers from the traditional commercial printing market. They too are looking to bolster their product offerings to both retain and offer additional services to their client base.” According to Morris commercial printers, who have been producing offset output equipment for years and now have a digital small format press, have been wary of entering the wide format market. He says, “They see it as an entirely different market for which they will need new marketing and sales approaches. We see it however as an extension of their current market. There is a desire by organisations to have a one-stop shop approach, which printers can exploit. So our advice is to them is to use their existing customers and markets to sell the additional wide format service to their current customers. It can add substantially to their turnover and profits.
To make a serious move in the sign and banner markets, you’ll need equipment that produces output with outdoor durability. Common options include solvent-based and UV-curable ink systems.
In today’s wide-format digital imaging markets, solvent-based inkjet is the go-to technology for the production of vinyl banners, allowing access to a great number of markets at a relatively low investment. The solvent - the base of the ink - eats into the surface of the substrate, making the ink become part of the substrate. The result is a much more durable print that is capable of weathering storms and intense sunlight. Based on the aggressiveness of the solvent used, the inks can be used on a wide variety of substrates, including vinyls and plastics, regardless of special coatings.
Like an aqueous-based proofer, most solvent inkjet systems are roll-to-roll systems. To create a sign (which is rigid, by definition), you have to print the image on a flexible substrate and mount it - perhaps by using a pressure-sensitive, adhesive-backed vinyl substrate or by sandwiching a layer of double-sided adhesive film between the print and the mounting board. A simple cold lamination system will do just fine and can be relatively inexpensive.
Flatbed inkjet technology allows users to print directly on rigid substrates, effectively eliminating the need to mount the print. Nearly all flatbed inkjet systems use UV-curable inks. While most sign producers’ UV systems print on surfaces such as foam board, Coroplast and Sintra, some users are pushing the envelope of imaging by printing directly on glass, stone, wood and other surfaces that would not be possible with solvent or aqueous inks.
While signs and banners remain market champions in wide-format inkjet, the industry offers incredible market diversity - solvent and UV-curable inks are allowing access to markets not even imagined five years ago.
Some degree of finishing typically is necessary to complete the job. In addition to lamination and mounting, sign production can include steps such as cutting, trimming, routing or diecutting. Banner production requires specific finishing steps, depending on the final product, such as seaming and edge welding (vinyl), sewing (fabric) and grommetting.
drupa’s emphasis on wide and superwide-format confirms digital inkjet's maturation. The entire printing industry is undergoing an analogue to digital transition and, as a result there significant developments and growth opportunities emerging in the superwide field for everyone involved in that transition.
Print engines continue to improve, both in terms of print quality and output speed. Image quality, once a barrier for many applications, is no longer an issue with today's printing machines delivering high-definition output that satisfies even the pickiest buyers. In addition, the overall productivity of the engines continues to drive profitability, with breakeven points for digital printing continuing to climb.
Superwide applications have expanded beyond banners and billboards. New inks, substrates and applications continue to open up new and exciting products and revenue streams for service providers in this market. These machines now offer new capabilities in terms of the number and variation of substrates that can be used, as well as innovative new inks and techniques for applying and using them.”
Drupa will feature lower emission machines in response to heightened environmental awareness.
Wide format printing, may not yet be the river of gold, but it’s on its way, and visitors to drupa will see virtually every type of machine possible.