The Future of Wide-Format Imaging Roundtable, Part II
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The Future of Wide-Format Imaging Roundtable, Part II

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.

By Bill Schiffner, Industry Author
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November / December 2018 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2019 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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.

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  • 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 continues the conversation from Part I in our September/October edition.

    What are some of the new applications you think clients will ask for?

    Randy Parr, Canon Solutions America Inc.: Expect to see more use of wide-format printing to esthetically improve the looks of things in our everyday lives rather than to simply promote a product or service. For instance, some cities are wrapping their utility boxes on their streets with self-adhesive vinyl to blend in better with the surroundings or serve as a platform to promote the work of local artists.

    Larry D'Amico, Durst Image Technology U.S.: It's not just new applications, but new ways of doing business. We see a growing trend for web-to-print solutions in our segment, and we see customers continuing to demand these solutions. Clients will want their work faster and cheaper, but they will also want to interact in a way that is streamlined and efficient. The workflow element will become increasingly critical.

    Andrew Oransky, Roland DGA: Fast, cost-effective 1:1 customization is going to become the norm. Several years ago, we saw the rapid adoption of variable-data printing in the direct-mail industry, and now we're surprised if we receive a mailer that isn't personally addressed. The same will happen with consumer goods of all kinds. Technology will be deployed in factories, fulfillment centers and retail stores to offer consumers the ability to put their name, image or logo on virtually anything. Manufacturers and retailers are quickly realizing that the blank space on almost all the objects we use, wear and interact with daily can be 'real estate' for personalization and, more importantly, that personalization can significantly increase profits.

    Mike Kyrits, SwissQprint: Generally speaking, in today's crowded market, it is crucial to find ways to differentiate from competition. So, speed alone is not enough. It takes efficiency and new application ideas to succeed.

    How will 3D printing play a role in these emerging trends?

    Ken Hanulec, EFI: 3D will likely continue to evolve as we have seen over the past few years into two distinct applications areas: one for manufacturing and rapid prototyping, and another segment for decorative display applications. In that latter market, we see some areas where 2D superwide-format inkjet is an essential enhancement to 3D, creating graphics used to wrap and enhance 3D-printed displays.

    Brian Hite, Image Options: Additive manufacturing/3D printing is playing a role already in many areas of manufacturing. From airplane and vehicle components to prosthetics, artificial joints and organ replacements - the applications are limitless.

    Brent Moncrief, Fujifilm North America Corporation: Additive printing continues to be an interesting, but commercially challenging topic, primarily due to speed, or lack thereof. Fujifilm Dimatix continues to supply a wide variety of printheads to original equipment manufacturers and integrators in the 3D printing segment.

    Parr: 3D printing will be ever increasing in popularity on its own and as a further extension of inkjet. Canon recently released Océ Touchstone software that - while not 3D - enables designers and print providers to design and produce UV prints in what we call 2.5D, essentially allowing them to implement low relief texture on their 2D prints. Aside from Braille, addressing the tactile senses through print is something that is very new and we hope will become very popular.

    Oransky: Many of the same trends in personalization and shrinking run sizes - developments that are driving the adoption of digital print - are also driving the growth of 3D printing. As more color-capable devices become available and increasingly productive, they could replace direct-to-object printing in some applications. Otherwise, the technologies are complementary in that many 3D-printed products will ultimately need to be decorated using various digital printing technologies.

    Deborah Hutcheson, Agfa Graphics: UV inkjet has enormous capabilities that stretch the imagination. With today's advances in UV inkjet printing, the addition of varnishes, primers and white inks put PSPs in the position to create a wide range of special effects such as multi-layer and textural printing. Eye-catching output can be achieved by layering and isolating inks and varnishes at various points throughout an image. Our Agfa wide-format Anapurna 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.

    What are some other areas that could provide future growth?

    Parr: Digitally printed packaging is still in its infancy with lots of growth potential - particularly corrugate. Otherwise, new substrates and media can help support new applications. Additionally, new jet-able liquids that have some unique characteristics that are key to a particular application could drive growth into entirely new areas like manufacturing. For instance, this might include the printing of circuitry utilizing conductive inks.

    Hite: There have been significant advances in printing technology and wearable electronics printing to fabric for garments. There has also been development in the medical industry printing sensors digitally into apparel and wound care products. At the recent Winter Olympics, an SGIA member printed heating elements into the jackets worn by some US athletes. I don't think we have seen the extent of what's possible with digital printing.

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    Hayes Holzhauer, Bluemedia: More affordable recyclable material would be of great benefit to all. Manufacturing goods using recycled material is costly but hopefully advances in science will bring down the cost. Both printers and advertisers like to tout sustainable practices, but if the cost is too high, it makes the 'green' option too pricey.

    Michael Maxwell, Mimaki USA: Manufacturing facilities and automated processes are embracing inkjet technologies, and Mimaki has introduced an "internet of things" initiative to address automated cross-functionality with other existing workflows that would not have otherwise been able to communicate with an inkjet product.

    How will printed signage co-exist with digital signage?

    Holzhauer: These two will co-exist until digital signage can compete with printed on cost. The cost of digital signage is coming down every day.

    Parr: I expect to see digital and printed signage co-existing more often for a couple of reasons. Flat panel technology is getting very inexpensive and supports a faster pace of changing messaging that we are increasingly becoming accustomed to in our smartphone-enabled lives. Printed signage essentially provides the "frame" for digital signage and is better suited to deliver more static messaging.

    Tom Wittenberg, HP: An opportunity for current signage printers is to stay close to your customers who are discussing the possibility of digital signage and work with them. Set up an IT/web infrastructure to house digital images to be sent directly to retail stores on a store-by-store, schedule-by-schedule basis while also doing the printing that would match with the dynamic images being sent. In essence, the graphics company provides both a printing and an image delivery service to provide greater value to the customer.

    Hite: Printed signage will have a space alongside digital signage primarily due to footprint and cost of digital installations. Certain high-end applications will be all digital, but most will use digital as an accent or changeable content component, allowing consumers to interact with displays. For example, in retail or environmental design; traditional wall coverings; possible 3D letters/logos and fixtures with graphics applied; and digital screens running video, interactive digital storefronts or lead capture.

    Maxwell: Digital signage offers some broad potential with the concept of changeable graphics controlled by a computer. However, these are still dependent on costly peripherals and require a constant data connection. While this convenience is adopted in certain businesses, such as supermarkets and fast food restaurants that have ever changing menus, these are still not capable of replacing printed goods completely. A mixture of the two is what we often see our customers embrace.

    What are companies doing with their research and development (R&D) as far as future printing technologies?

    Moncrief: Fujifilm's R&D focuses on leveraging our core competencies to innovate and disrupt imaging applications including photo, industrial, medical and graphics.

    Hanulec: EFI spends a significant amount of its revenues on R&D, and our R&D is 100% focused on imaging to any material. While we can't disclose everything we are working on, some of the near-term innovations include an expansion of single-pass beyond corrugated packaging and LED-cure, water-based inks.

    Hutcheson: For UV curing, the continued development of UV LED curing has allowed UV-curable applications to grow in areas where the size and heat generation of traditional lamp systems were a negative. Printhead technology is continuing to advance and probably has the most significant effect for both single-pass and multi-pass (wide-format) applications. For single-pass, the development of larger, scalable and more cost-effective printheads is helping to make the possibility of single-pass inkjet more of a reality for industrial applications. Developing ink capabilities that match these printhead capabilities while providing the color and physical characteristics that are required for the application - and in many cases tuning to the needs of the specific substrates, which can vary widely - has been key. UV-curable formulations have played a large part in this development. For food and pharma-related packaging, there has been a significant development in low migration UV-curable ink sets.

    Hite: We are always exploring and looking at technology, evaluating whether it has a place in our business and if it is something we can sell to our clients profitably.

    Parr: We are always pushing the boundaries of image quality, cost, productivity and application range to provide the greatest possible value to the print provider.

    Holzhauer: I think larger companies (a rare few) will make their own ink and re-engineer machines to make them more efficient. We are not on that level.

    Terry Corman, Firehouse: It's all about merging management information systems (MIS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) to eliminate the friction between the buyer and the printer. For MIS, it would be the quotation, order entry and billing systems. ERP offers a broad set of activities and systems that are used to run a business. For example, it would mean their web-to-print software, or perhaps a stand-alone inventory system.

    We have two major sayings that are a part of the Firehouse culture: "What can be automated, will be automated and everything in printing can be automated" and "We live in an Amazon world."

    Oransky: Manufacturers will continue to develop specialized inks that meet the requirements of a variety of markets. Long term, for inkjet to be viewed as a viable replacement technology for all the applications that pad, screen, offset and flexo printing currently address, it will need to be capable of printing to the same substrates as those processes without specialized coatings or treatments. Once the chemistry is perfected for a particular application, the hardware will follow. Recent activity in the corrugated market is a good example of this phenomenon. Without the development of inks that image well and dry fast enough on commodity grades of corrugated stock, the hardware would never be successful.

    Maxwell: For Mimaki, listening to the customer and developing smarter devices that address the potential pain points are key. Our R&D is constantly focused on answering the question of what the purpose of the product will be and then developing it with that type of customer in mind. As an industry-leading innovator, we are always looking to develop products that deliver consistently on demand. Repeatability and worry-free operation are our focus.

    D'Amico: Development will continue to provide more speed at a lower price. In addition, new workflow software will allow PSPs to provide streamlined customer interaction that will require less labor cost for customer service functions through print production.

    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.

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