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Media & Finishing Drive Product & Market Differentiation

Evolving technologies such as textured finishes and printed fabrics are strong trends towards providing 'step-above' products which yield higher margins and help you to differentiate your company from the average shop.

By Dan Marx

See what new trends in the trade can do to help you with your bottom line. Remember stagnancy is bad!

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  • In the past decade or more, much of the industry's focus has been on digital output devices, particularly print speed and image quality. While these factors continue to be critical for users, gaining a competitive edge has shifted toward other factors. Today, numerous imaging companies are using new and emerging materials, and technologies, to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, and are finding access to new customers and higher profit margins.

    In the early days of wide-format digital, media was media (white, coated paper to print on). Today, printable media products number into the hundreds, with an ever-increasing variety of receptive coatings, finishes and specific uses.

    There has been a great deal of interest in the past couple of years in magnetic and magnetic-receptive media products. 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 in recent years, offering numerous substrates for end-product applications, such as vehicle graphics, full vehicle wraps, window graphics and floor graphics. No longer simply "sticky stuff" - pressure-sensitive media materials now feature adhesives ranging from repositionable (think Post-It® notes), low-tack for temporary applications, to permanent adhesives used for aviation, marine and other critical applications.

    Manufacturers of pressure sensitive media have also moved strongly into new materials that are not designed to be printed, but instead, offer intriguing surfaces, textures and visual effects that can be used alone or in conjunction with printed materials. This creates engaging, tactile finishes that fool the eye and deliver strong added value.

    Whether used for soft signage, exhibit displays, or any of the many innovative end products, printable fabrics have revolutionized our industry in the past several years and offer companies a strong opportunity to differentiate. Some printable fabrics allow direct printing with aqueous, solvent and UV-curable inkjet devices, while others require specialized textile inks and specific processing equipment. Regardless, printed fabrics are seen by many customers as a "step above" many traditional media products. As a result, many graphics producers have been able to seek a higher price point (and margin) when using these products.

    For many printers, the use of environmentally favorable or "sustainable" products has become an effec-tive way to differentiate themselves in the eyes of environmentally-conscious customers. Sustainability-focused products range from fabrics and banner materials, to hardboard products.

    With the countless media products available in today's market, it is essential for any company looking to differentiate to use these products. They should first develop a strong understanding of their appropriate uses, durability expectations and specific application requirements. Failure to do so can result in production headaches (losing revenue) and product failure (losing customers).

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    For many graphics projects, the printing device produces a print and nothing more. To transform the print into the finished, sellable product, finishing technologies are essential. One significant challenge for our industry 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 issue to some degree, viable solutions are needed for those companies seeking to reap the financial rewards of high-speed inkjet technologies.

    Laminate films, once thought to be a thing of the past as UV-curable inkjet printing came to the fore, have continued to prove their importance in helping a printed piece of media become more of a product. Now, textured, clear over-laminates can allow visually-convincing wood grain, brushed metal, flock and other surfaces to be applied over the printed surface, which brings increased value and unique visual benefit.

    Texture, whether through laminate films or other means, is a strong trend for 2012. One significant introduction during 2011 was a UV-cured, single pass system, offering clear, textured printing up to six microns thick. This technology allows for the printing of textures ranging from rough, sandy finishes to smooth, glassy effects. Because it is a digital system, it brings with it all the traditional benefits of digital printing, particularly the ability to customize and do affordable short runs. Vacuum forming and doming systems continue to be used to create tactile finishes and unique visual effects.

    Computer-aided cutting systems - using either plotter-driven cutting blades or lasers - have allowed printing companies to escape the "tyranny" of rectangular end products. Instead, they produce an end-less variety of shapes. Further, print and cut inkjet printers have allowed some printers to enter markets such as short-run decal printing as an easy and profitable side benefit to their wide-format work.

    Graphics producers are urged to consider installation of the printed, finished piece as the critical, final step in the production process. Using a qualified installer and communicating the requirements and goals of the graphics project is a critical step in ensuring the project will be completed successfully.

    For increased success, graphics producers must see the choice of media materials and finishing options as critical components to running a winning imaging business, and should not be seen as add-ons, afterthoughts or secondary business decisions. By thoughtfully managing these important areas, companies can escape an increasingly commoditized market. As an industry, we continue to evolve, which is positive. How to successfully evolve with the industry, however, can be a challenge for today's graphic imaging company. This challenge is solved though a careful mix of business acumen, technology, materials and process improvements.

    Dan Marx, vice president, markets and technologies, has been with the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association since 1991. In his position, he serves as managing editor of the SGIA Journal.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November/December 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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