Future of Wide-Format Imaging Roundtable, Part 1
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The Future of Wide-Format Imaging Roundtable, Part I

Industry panel looks at future trends and technologies to target.

By Bill Schiffner

Over the last 20 years, wide-format printing has developed into a very profitable sector for cutting-edge shops that have kept their finger on the pulse of the industry and monitored current and future market trends.

Here's a look at our panel:

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  • Many of these pioneering business owners did their homework and invested wisely in the latest equipment and materials to meet the demand for these up- and-coming revenue streams.

    As with any industry, wide-format printing continues to undergo major changes and disruptions because the increasing demand for more customizable products is pushing the envelope in visual marketing and advertising. In addition - thanks in part to new advancements in technology - wide-format is now becoming available to a wider variety of end users. The arrival of more automated printers, capable of handling an increasingly diverse range of media, is helping smaller providers become players. In addition, equipment, ink and media suppliers are helping develop more print solutions in areas such as fabric printing, packaging, 3D, prototyping and electronic signage.

    Where are the future markets? What are some of the next technologies, applications and trends to look for? We assembled a panel of experts to address these questions and explore the future of wide-format printing and revenue opportunities it provides. The following is Part I of the conversation.

    Where do you see the wide-format market in the next three to five years?
    Terry Corman, Firehouse: We will see fewer printers and fewer suppliers as well as a merging of all printing disciplines around inkjet and ink, rather than specific output type. Speed and price will dictate the future.

    Larry D'Amico, Durst Image Technology U.S.: The demand for equipment will trend toward fewer printer unit sales, but more sales of higher speed printers. As inkjet technology continues to gain speed, it will tend to force the consolidation of wide-format printing to larger print service providers (PSPs) that can provide the work at lower cost levels.

    Ken Hanulec, EFI: At the high- volume end of the market, I think we will continue to see faster presses with more precise imaging - including an increased presence of single-pass inkjet - and more media handling automation and integrated workflows. We know our range of customers will expand as there will be an even greater influx of industrial manufacturing businesses adopting digital inkjet that do not really consider themselves to be traditional "printing" companies.

    Bluemedia installers working overnight in Houston, installing graphics leading up to Super Bowl 52 (January 2017). (Image courtesy of Bluemedia.)

    At the mid-level market, I think we will continue to see smaller commercial print and print-for-pay shops that may not have a production-level wide-format device take advantage of the market growth opportunity and add products, such as our EFI wide- format printers, to capture work that they are turning away or outsourcing. The same can be said about in-plant print departments facing similar challenges - adding production wide-format printing in-house can be a money-saving proposition for their parent organizations.

    Brian Hite, Image Options: We see further consolidation in the market with more activity in mergers and acquisitions.

    We also believe we are heading into a recessionary period in 2019 and 2020. Companies should slow investment in technology, reduce debt and conserve cash beginning middle of next year. Be conservative but look for opportunities that do not require much risk to execute.

    Hayes Holzhauer, Bluemedia: More consolidation of manufacturers as companies plan growth through acquisition. The ability to differentiate will be key in maintaining/gaining market share. Customization of goods by way of online technology will continue to disrupt the marketplace. Printing on surfaces and materials not originally intended for printing creates unique competitive advantage.

    Deborah Hutcheson, Agfa Graphics: Print volumes for wide-format production graphics are expected to grow 13% per annum over the next three to five years. This healthy top-line growth is fueled by technological advancements such as single-head arrays and sublimation devices for soft signage. Clients will continue to demand higher levels of service, which in turn is driving steady progress in printhead development, UV ink curing technology, image processing techniques and media transport (i.e., width, automation) with the ultimate goal for faster and more efficient production. Much of this growth is being driven by the conversion of traditional analog printing to digital printing and new applications enabled by advancements in ink and media.

    "Our Agfa wide-format Anapurna (pictured Anapurna H3200i LED) and Jeti systems offer extremely accurate alignment of multiple print layers that are achieved with the combination of precise registration mechanisms and the ability to divide the printheads into separate print channels," said Deborah Hutcheson. (Image courtesy of Agfa Graphics.)

    Mike Kyrits, SwissQprint: One of the trends that we've seen is a transition toward UV LED curing. Companies are getting more and more conscious about their ecological footprint and are looking at technologies that help them reduce it. LED curing is not only environmentally friendly but also highly energy-efficient. The SwissQprint UV LED systems consume far less energy than latex and conventional UV systems. Another huge advantage that brings the industry toward LED curing is the little heat it produces, which gives them much wider media diversity. We anticipate that the trend toward a small ecological footprint will continue over the next few years.

    Efficiency is growing to become a key factor of success for any company. Automation possibilities have been added to the portfolio of manufacturers. This trend will influence the wide-format market in the next years, and manufacturers will focus on solutions that offer a more efficient use of their equipment.

    Michael Maxwell, Mimaki USA: UV LED technology is emerging as the dominant go-to technology for a large portion of the wide-format space. While this space is currently still by and large dominated by solvent technologies, the need for faster turnarounds and more versatility will most likely drive this forward.

    Mike Kyrits said automation will continue to play a huge role in print design's future. The company's new Nyala 3 is said to be a good fit for high-volume, demanding environments for advertising technology and industrial applications. (Image courtesy of SwissQprint.)

    Ken Hanulec said soft signage is and will continue to be a major trend: "We have had tremendous success worldwide with our VUTEk FabriVU soft signage printers." (Image courtesy of EFI.)

    The HP Latex R2000 true hybrid for flexible and rigid printing was introduced in spring 2018. (Image courtesy of HP.)

    Other ink technologies are trying to capitalize on the just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing movement, but do not have the capabilities or overall functionality that UV LED curable technology provides. PSPs need to respond quickly to consumer demands and must do so with a shorter delivery window. Additionally, these printed goods are being used in more hands-on, high-traffic areas and need to be able to not only survive handling, but in many cases, must be able to survive longer in an exterior setting.

    Solvent technology provides the most durability and longest-lasting prints, however, the production bottleneck for today's consumer can be restrictive. Additionally, this durability comes with some challenges for the PSP, such as outgassing. Latex ink technology reduces the outgassing and delivery window, but at the cost of durability and exterior longevity. UV LED curable technology bridges these limitations, all while performing more like solvent in exterior settings. So, UV LED is truly the more beneficial technology to focus efforts on as new products are developed. Now, solvent technology can be utilized in more specialized environments that require the longest outdoor durability and other added features, such as petrochemical resistance. Meanwhile, latex can fall into the category more suited for interior graphics, like the other aqueous- based inks that have previously dominated those types of applications. Brent Moncrief, Fujifilm North America Corporation: Third-party projections and anecdotal feedback from our customers indicate that overall this market is mature, with some sub- segments showing signs of decline, with others growing. Retail suppliers' biggest macro influence is the ongoing pressure on retailers with continuing store closures.

    Andrew Ornasky, Roland DGA: The fastest growth will be in applications outside of the signs, banners and posters that have been the primary products within this market for years. The traditional offerings will still be very popular, but wall coverings, personalized consumer products and décor applications will be more mainstream in five years than they are now. Hardware will continue to become more specialized, with devices and the ink they use increasingly engineered to address specific applications and surfaces. We also expect to see greater adoption of single-pass technology for high-volume applications.

    Randy Parr, Canon Solutions America Inc.: In many ways, we think it will look remarkably the same as it does now - but primarily on the surface. Banners and posters will continue to be commodities but print runs will be shorter though more frequent and typically with shorter turnaround times. Digital printing will also be more and more integrated as part of an overall manufacturing process of some other finished goods.

    Tom Wittenberg, HP: We believe there will be technology advancements that will lower the pricing for the purchase and use of digital signage. One advantage here is that the images can be either static or dynamic based on the needs of the market. However great the digital signage is, though, there is still the issue of size and electrical to run the signage. By this I mean that the larger the size, obviously the costlier the electronic versions versus the printed versions. In addition, power needs to be available to make any sort of digital signage happen, which can add to more costs, especially in older buildings. As a result, co-existence with the printed signage will be necessary since it will be relatively less expensive and will occur within the same setting.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Randy Parr sees the demand for personalization with digitally-printed décor, such as wall coverings, panels and flooring, continuing to expand as fast as B2C companies can build awareness of the applications and build out the systems to facilitate new web-to-print business models. (Image courtesy of Canon Solutions America Inc.)

    What are some of the big trends we will be seeing in this area?
    Parr: If we look at recent trends, we know that print in general is increasingly becoming more personalized and more frequently crafted to speak to the individual rather than to the masses. Digital printing is the enabler here, and that includes wide-format printing. That said, there is no reason wide-format inkjet printing couldn't be even more accessible to the average consumer as it instead continues to remain largely B2B-focused. We expect the demand for personalization with digitally-printed décor - wall coverings, panels, flooring, etc. - to continue expanding as fast as B2C companies can build awareness of the applications and build out the systems to facilitate new web-to-print business models.

    The Fujifilm Acuity Ultra, a high-quality, cost-effective UV platform, produces almost photographic quality at speeds of up to 2,540 square feet per hour. Ideal for high-end interior graphics and outdoor signage, it makes its North American debut at SGIA Expo 2018. (Image courtesy of Fujifilm.)

    Moncrief: Our customers are generally content with the quality of output from the current generation of wide-format print platforms. The primary trends we forecast are the need for higher print speeds and increased automation.

    Apparel will continue to be a growing area. This dress was printed on the Roland Texart RT-640 dye sublimation printer. (Images courtesy of Roland DGA.)

    Hanulec: Inkjet technology continues to evolve to accommodate growth and market demands. Our customers want faster printers for short job turns and more capacity, so we have been developing automated material handling options to manage larger volumes and eliminate additional labor costs. Soft signage is and will continue to be a major trend. We have had tremendous success worldwide with our VUTEk FabriVU soft signage printers. Industrial markets will take the analog-to-digital transformation into a higher gear as single-pass printing evolves in the market. We are already seeing this in corrugated with our Nozomi C18000 press. EFI sold nine of those presses worldwide through the first quarter of 2018, and each one of those installations has huge potential for shifting more work to digital. The industry transformation to digital will only continue to accelerate with new technology, such as investments EFI has in developing single-pass for textile and other applications.

    Maxwell: For trends we are seeing related to UV-LED, we have experienced a new front of printing capabilities not currently served with solvent or latex. Backlit printing, for example, is more functional with UV LED products as a result of layered printing methods. It has opened new potentials for point of purchase (POP), point of sale (POS) and retail printing, all while retaining the additional functionality PSPs require on one platform. We believe that as PSPs embrace UV LED, more demand will be placed on this technology. We have already experienced a push for vehicle wraps with UV LED, so wrap providers can produce and laminate faster.

    Solvent is still the go-to, but latex doesn't have the exterior longevity many wrap providers require. UV LED gives the best of both worlds, and as a result, we have partnered with 3M and Avery Dennison for vehicle graphics applications on their respective warranties with our UCJV Series printers to offer this as a viable solution.

    D'Amico: More speed and ultimately one-pass technology will be a factor in wide-format printing. The quality level we are producing today has really hit the necessary ceiling and we don't see the need to drive it higher. Manufacturers will continue to deliver more speed at lower price points.

    According to Michael Maxwell, layered printing is opening up new retail markets for PSPs in the signage space. (Image courtesy of Mimaki USA.)

    Hutcheson: Digital printing offers the flexibility, productivity and market expansion for unique and one-off production runs or short runs to accommodate personalization and versioning. It is now economical to digitally print one, 10 or a thousand of something at the same speed, for almost the same production price. Graphics are easily customizable, so imagery can be more region-specific. Imagine wall graphics produced for a national hotel chain with the Colorado site featuring skiing scenes on their wallpaper and the Florida hotels showcasing beach scenes. The construction industry, including buildings, schools, roads, homes and public infrastructure, offers a large opportunity to sell wide-format products. Digital printing on window, wall, floor, glass, wood and ceramic tiles are making a big impact in these vertical markets.

    The healthcare industry is one of the fastest-growing vertical markets and shows no sign of slowing as the current population ages. Like all industries, healthcare needs to promote its offerings, and wide-format graphics are a great way to accomplish this goal.

    Backlit printing is more functional with UV LED products as a result of layered printing methods. Signage printed on the Mimaki UCJV300 series unit shows unique transition effect. (Image courtesy of Mimaki USA.)

    Hite: Fabric will continue to be a growth area as well as digital garment printing. Manufacturers will be pushing water-based ink systems and single-pass technology with very high throughput. Some of the larger players will be investing in this technology for the packaging market to replace analog devices.

    Holzhauer: Use of online tools will allow customers a quick and efficient way to customize goods. Quick turn times will become the norm.

    Corman: Some printers have solved the issue of automating order writing and pre-press. This will lead printing into an Amazon.com or Vista Print-type business model. The front-end interface will become more important than the actual printing.

    What are some new and emerging markets that will be coming to the forefront?
    Maxwell: We see layered printing opening up new retail markets for PSPs in the signage space. In textile and apparel, complete pre-print and finishing solutions, such as the Mimaki Tiger-1800B and Rimslow combination, will open up full manufacturing capabilities to more businesses looking to add or displace analog technologies, and enable new companies to offer textile-specific goods in the JIT market.

    Hite: Fabric will continue to gain market share as a deliverable to the graphics space. Additive manufacturing or 3D printing will have an impact on the POP and retail markets as technology improves with color and speed. This technology has the ability to replace traditional manufacturing for many of the standard POP, retail and display products fabricated by our industry.

    The new Durst P5 250 HS is targeted toward high-volume industrial production, as well as one-offs in offset quality. The P5 technology consists of a series of new generation printers along with newly, in-house developed software and workflow solutions. (Image courtesy of Durst Image Technology U.S.)

    Kyrits: Interior design and décor that incorporates digital printing is one of the most important emerging markets for wide-format printing.

    Moncrief: Dye sub printing continues to show growth, from both a soft signage and textile perspective. Industrial inkjet marking continues to grow, which we look at as both unique applications for existing print platforms and the integration of inkjet print bars into larger manufacturing processes.

    D'Amico: Many of the innovations in the wide-format market are being driven by the media companies. New and innovative applications, such as floor and window graphics, have emerged over the last few years fueled by new media. I think this trend will continue to evolve in wide- format. New market opportunities are developing in segments such as corrugated packaging and industrial inkjet that will create opportunities for many in the industry. Inkjet is expanding into many new areas. You only have to look at the impact in the ceramic tile market to understand what could develop in other applications.

    Parr: Décor has a huge potential when you factor in consumer demand. Home improvement stores could consider installing wide-format printers and offering custom design services much like they offer today to match the color of your seat cushion to a can of paint. They could now take that to the next level and produce coordinated wall coverings; dye- sublimated tablecloths; custom paneling that might look like marble but is printed on fiberboard; imitation-stained glass; stretched canvas wall art; and so on.

    Oransky: We're already seeing some applications like wall graphics and ceramic tile grow, but décor applications will continue to increase. Surface decoration, laminates for flooring and counters, and architectural panels are all likely to transition to inkjet. Direct-to-object printing is driving a transition from screen and pad printing to digital in the promotional products and personalized consumer goods markets as well. Finally, several manufacturers have released high-volume printers for corrugated applications that will transform packaging markets over the next few years.

    Holzhauer: Fabric and textile printing will continue the strongest growth. In addition, use of thin LEDs will allow digital signage to become more affordable.

    Hutcheson: The food and beverage industry is another sector that invests in a variety of digitally-printed wide-format graphics to drive sales, build awareness and decorate eating establishments to enhance the dining experience. Other growth areas include the retail/wholesale trade markets, including wine and beer wholesalers, liquor stores/bars and the hospitality industry, which continue to be major consumers of wide-format graphics.

    Soft signage and digitally-printed fabric products are projected to grow about 20% per year. Soft signage and printed fabric are growing in POP, trade show/exhibit graphics, décor applications and indoor advertising display markets due to their ease of installation and economical shipping characteristics (folding, lightweight). Digitally-printed fabric is opening the door for new applications and new markets like home décor and industrial.

    Be sure to check out Part II of our panel in the November/December issue for more on future growth opportunities, printed versus digital signage and what's happening now for research and development.

    Bill Schiffner has covered the imaging industry for more than 25 years. He has reported on the many new digital technologies that have reshaped the imaging marketplace.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September / October 2018 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2018 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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