A Closer Look at Graphics Installers
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A Closer Look at Graphics Installers

For many graphic projects, installation is the final, critical step toward a successful result. Many graphic producers utilize the skills and expertise of Professional Decal Application Alliance (PDAA) installers to complete a broad range of installations.

By Dan Marx, Vice President of Markets & Technologies, SGIA

To learn more about these installers and the services they provide, Dan Marx, Managing Editor of the SGIA Journal, interviewed three PDAA Master Certified Installers: Rob Ivers of Rob Ivers, Inc., Pete Kouchis of VisuCom Graphics and Rick Stemmler of Creative Sign Resources.

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  • How has ongoing product development in pressure sensitive films changed the way graphics are installed? How has it affected the ease of installation and how has it expanded the possibilities of what you can do?

    Ivers: The introduction of air egress technology and enhanced conformability features led to new tools and techniques that apply films better and faster to more complex shapes. Felt and Teflon squeegees and covers for standard squeegee edges reduce scratching and friction. A variety of foam rollers provide a completely new dimension to graphic application.

    These advances have made some installations easier. As a whole, however, installation has grown increasingly complex. Installers must stay on the cutting edge of the staggering amount of new films and the tools and techniques required to apply them to a wide-range of challenging shapes and surfaces. Business opportunities include sidewalks, brick and stucco walls, among others. These were nonexistent a few years ago.

    Stemmler: The air egress vinyl has changed the ease, quality and speed of application. We are seeing more specialized films such as materials designed for textured surfaces like carpet, stucco and concrete and the possibilities are expanding. The caveat is that the experience and skill of the professional installer is more critical as specific films require specific installation techniques.

    Kouchis: Manufacturers have done a great job developing more conformable, user-friendly films with a wider variety of adhesive systems. This has allowed the graphics community to be more creative with the use of vinyl films and the surfaces they decorate. From walls to windows, sidewalks to bricks, vehicles to helmets - the current range of highly engineered films offers a viable solution to almost any client demand, limited only by the imagination of the producer and the willingness of the installer to step outside the box.

    Any time a graphics producer works with an installer, strong communication is critical. What are some common problems stemming from less-than-favorable communication?

    Stemmler: Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have encountered is the wrong vinyl media being used for a particular application. Specific applications require specific media; one film will not work for all applications. For the printer, choosing a less expensive film may cost more due to higher application costs. When we estimate a job, we require the printer to tell us what film will be used and the manufacturer's name. The printer needs to be more specific than "standard" or "regular." This helps us understand potential difficulties and allows us to review the film's tech sheets regarding application guidelines.

    Ivers: Some of the more common issues include graphics that don't fit, are produced from the wrong film or are in a less than optimum configuration; jobs that fail to adhere or fail to meet the customer's expectations; scheduling conflicts and pricing and payment disagreements. A great job is one that accomplishes the client's goal and leaves all parties completely satisfied with the outcome. Poor communication will always result in at least some of the parties regretting their involvement.

    Kouchis: Lack of accurate information about both the media and the installation requirements leaves the installer in a bad position. For example, for flood-coated window graphics, is it a water- or solvent-based adhesive system? A typical wet application with a water-based adhesive would be disastrous and could put the installer at risk of being blamed for the failure and asked to pay for replacement graphics and the return trip. This could be avoided by clear communication in advance of the installation.

    What are three things graphics producers can do to ensure that an installer has everything needed to do the job correctly? What helps you most?

    Kouchis: It is important to bring the installer into the equation early in the process. Our experience in the field offers a valuable perspective into the material selection process. Provide detailed specifications of the materials being used and of the installation surface and the environment.

    Too often, we arrive at a jobsite to find obstacles or circumstances we have to adapt to, sometimes compromising the chances of a successful installation. Include drawings or schematics that clearly identify the finished look with dimensions and placement. Use the correct material for the job, do not scale back for cost savings on the front end and expect the installer to absorb the additional time and effort involved to "make it work."

    Ivers: After the first conversation with a client regarding a new project that requires installation, contact the installer immediately. Value the installer's expertise and follow their recommendations. Keep everyone in the loop on all communications, in writing. Also, set attainable goals and expectations that are clearly understood by all involved and work in concert with the installer to accomplish those goals.

    Stemmler: The experienced producers have project management down to a science. Each film has specific requirements for maximum ink coverage and proper solvent out-gassing (curing). Failure to follow the film manufacturer's guidelines will result in project failure. They make sure the graphics are packaged properly for shipment. All graphics should be shipped together in a properly packed parcel that protects the graphics from damage. Last, they should provide supporting documentation: A packing slip for included graphics, tile-maps for multi-paneled jobs, photographs of the installation site and any specific instructions.

    If a graphics producer is looking for an installation company, what should they look for to make sure the installer is qualified to do the job?

    Ivers: First and foremost is experience. In many cases, it's extremely important that the installer has a lot of firsthand experience with the exact job type. For example, if a person has been installing small vinyl on flat signs for twenty years, that does not mean they would be capable of wrapping a car. On the other hand, an installer with years of graphic installation experience covering a wide variety of films and applications may be perfectly qualified to install floor graphics, even if he has never done floors before.

    PDAA's Master Certification program takes the mystery out of it for graphic providers. They simply go to the PDAA Web site and use the "Find An Installer" tool to locate PDAA Master Certified Installers. They've proven their ability to handle virtually any type of graphic installation. They're also smart enough to seek help and additional information if a project or film type is unfamiliar to them. The search allows the graphic producer to pinpoint the area where their job needs to be installed and provides them with a list of Master Certified Installers in that area.

    Kouchis: They should be certain that the installer demonstrates a commitment to their craft. Have they spent the time and money required to certify themselves? Do they have experience with the type of installation you need? Do they carry liability insurance and worker's compensation? Do they have a website showing examples of their work? Will they provide references? Let's face it - a squeegee doesn't make you an installer anymore than a box of tools makes you a mechanic.

    Stemmler: I would suggest looking for installers that are affiliated with professional trade organizations like PDAA. PDAA has three levels of membership including Basic Certified and Master Certified. This means that the member's proficiency was evaluated using PDAA's unbiased testing standards. As one who has taken and passed the PDAA Master Certification test, I can attest to the rigorous nature of the testing. It is not "pay your fee and collect your certificate." If an installer carries the title of PDAA Master Certified Installer, rest assured, they are qualified for the job!

    Graphics producers should request to see photos of an installer's completed work. If an installer claims to have experience with a particular application, they should have no problem emailing examples of their work. If they won't, they are not the right person for the job.

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    What are the biggest challenges facing today's graphics installation companies? Getting business? Getting paid? Getting noticed? Staying on top of new opportunities or trends?

    Stemmler: Getting business is difficult because of the current economy. I see 2010 looking more like 2008 than 2009 in terms of the number of projects we are estimating and jobs that are selling. Staying on top of all the new media and techniques that are hitting the market is an ongoing challenge, although it's just part of the job. It's what separates a professional graphics installer from someone who "sticks on stickers."

    Kouchis: In these challenging economic times, the financial end of the business is a major issue and consumes a great deal of time. Just as the producer should qualify their installer, the reverse is true. We need to be comfortable with the financial condition of our clients and their ability (and willingness) to pay within the terms of the agreement. As the last step in the graphics process, we take on an enormous risk by extending terms without some assurance or guarantee of payment. As more and more companies fold, the struggle to replace lost business needs to be balanced with the risks of an unstable economy.

    Ivers: In general, keeping up with all of the new innovations: Equipment, tools, films, techniques and applications. Personally, my biggest challenge is trying to keep my pricing at a profitable level in the face of an oversaturated market inundated by new businesses that work for prices well below what's reasonable.

    For your installation business, what application areas are strong and growing and where does the most opportunity exist for today's highly-skilled graphics installer?

    Kouchis: The abundance of short-term, affordable media solutions is opening up a wide range of opportunities for clever and creative promotional graphics. Floors, streets, sidewalks, brick and concrete are some of the growing opportunities for installers. Many installers might disagree, but I see a strong opportunity for quality vehicle wrap installation. As more and more people enter the production side of the business (smaller sign shops, instant printers, etc.), I have seen more low-quality installations and premature failures. As some printers realize that installation is not as simple as they were led to believe, many of them are looking to partner with a good installer. The money in wrap installations becomes good when the installer becomes proficient.

    Ivers: For my business, I see indoor store and office decoration utilizing a variety of floor and wall products as the next expanding market for graphics applications. Strong opportunity exists in the installation of themed graphics for large venues, corporations and retailers, including vinyl graphics, wallpaper and fixtures.

    Stemmler: Some industry professionals believe the vehicle graphics market has reached its peak. That may be the case in some of the larger markets, but I feel that vehicle graphics, including full and partial wraps, public transportation and over-the-road trailers continue to provide new opportunities in smaller markets. We are seeing more "non-traditional" applications such as graphics applied to brick or retail shop floors. These graphics are so striking that many viewers can't believe that it is a graphics application. The typical response we get from the client is: "Wow, it looks like it's painted on!" I tell them: "That's the sign of a good installation!"

    Dan Marx, Vice President, Markets & Technologies, has been with the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association since 1991. He is Managing Editor of the SGIA Journal and project lead for PDAA. dan@sgia.org

    Rob Ivers began installing vinyl graphics in 1978, has provided training since 1993 and is widely known for his innovation and technique. He is PDAA's Authorized Training and Certification Provider. rob@robivers.com

    Pete Kouchis has nearly 20 years of experience in the vinyl graphics industry. His company, VisuCom Graphics, specializes in vehicle wraps and graphic installation, including retail installations with a focus in servicing the high-end client. pete@visucomsigns.com

    Rick Stemmler has been the Art Director of Creative Sign Resources (CSR) in Fort Wayne, Indiana, since 2001. The company joined PDAA in 2006 and became Master Certified in 2007. rstemmler@creativesignresources.com

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 2nd Quarter 2010 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2010 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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