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Size Issues: Implementing Grand-Format Digital Imaging

Super-wide. Ultra-wide. Extra-wide. Really, really big. All of these designations fall under the general definition of 'grand format,' but there's a catch: Define 'grand format.'

By Jeff Burton, Imaging Resource Specialist, DPI

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “grand” as “large and striking in size, scope, extent, or conception.” OK, we’re talking big. Now we need specifics.

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  • Width: Here’s a topic open to discussion! Some believe that inkjet devices more than 183 cm (72 inches) wide should be labeled grand format. Others, however, don’t believe “grand” applies at less than 248.9 cm (98 inches) wide. In my mind, 183 cm wide (72 inch) printers are simply large-format printers that grew over the years (from 152.4 cm (60 inches)) so they could capture a segment of the grand-format market.

    Inks: Grand-Format printers typically use solvent-based inks; and at one time purchasing a grand-format printer was the only way to achieve solvent-ink printing capability. Today, however, the inkjet market has experienced a recent upsurge in solvent-based inkjets that are not in the “grand zone,” range in size from 122 cm (48 inches) to 183 cm (72 inches). You can also buy flatbeds with roll-to-roll and rigid capabilities.

    Speed: Grand-Format printers typically print more square meters (square feet) per hour than large-format printers. When creating large graphics with grand-format printing, it’s less likely that you’ll need to seam the image — the largest grand-format devices can even print billboards seamlessly. Printing speed production of grand-format printers is one of the most important factors that differentiates manufacturers and models in this crowded arena. The speeds achieved are a combination of multiple head configurations combined with lower overall printing resolutions. While speed may be of interest when purchasing a printer, it does not, in and of itself, contribute to the definition of grand-format.

    For the purposes of this article, we’ll define grand-format output devices as solvent-based, roll-to-roll printers 248.9 cm (98 inches) or more in width.

    Defining and Defined by Markets Served In some cases, “grand-format” output devices may be best defined by the products they create, and the markets they serve. Clients for grand-format printing commonly include advertising and media companies representing public transportation, hotels and resorts, retail outlets, restaurants, automotive dealers, financial institutions and special events. Here are some of the most common:

    Billboards a Prime Market
    Printing billboards is probably the most common use for grand-format printing. Nearly every billboard in production is printed onto vinyl, and tensioned onto a frame system, rather than installed in sections using adhesive.

    Wrap it Up to Go
    Vehicle graphics are most likely the second major use for grand-format devices, with images on semi-trailers and delivery vehicles of all shapes and sizes. There have been airplane installations, train applications, and the everpopular bus wrap.

    Building & Construction Wraps are Big
    Building wraps for advertising, construction-scaffolding covers and remodeling create striking displays. Building and construction wraps are always done on a grand-format device because of the sheer size and dimensions of the projects.

    Indoors or Out — Banner Applications
    Grand-Format printing lends itself particularly well to producing the large banners seen inside and outside museums, exhibit halls, sports arenas and stadiums.

    Showing Off at Conventions and Trade Shows
    Grand-Format output devices are great to use in building trade show booths or booth components, because the size of the print is not a limiting factor. While protection or lamination might otherwise add to the cost of most display components, solvent-based prints do not require this extra step when they are used indoors.

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    The Inside Track
    You can print directly onto textiles or use dye sublimation inks to produce sheets, pillowcases, blankets, towels, floor covering, carpeting, ceramic tiles, and flags. Grand-Format imaging will even give you the capability to produce custom wall coverings, upholstery and curtains.

    Getting Started: Q&A with James Gill
    Entering grand-format printing requires much more than purchasing a huge machine. To get some perspective on getting started, DPI recently spoke with James Gill, European Sales Director for Spectra Inc., a manufacturer of grand-format inkjet print heads. We asked Gill, formerly with printer manufacturer VUTEk, how grand format fits into an existing operation.

    What are some of the important points to consider when purchasing a grand-format output device?
    Gill: One of the first things to consider is whether the printer and ink suit your target application. Next, consider how cost effective the output is (include the cost of the printer, ink and warranty) as compared to the final end user price. Additionally, consider whether image quality will meet your customers’ expectations.

    Ink properties like adhesion, weatherability and color gamut are also factors, depending on the market you plan to enter. For instance, a weatherability warranty is important for a fleet customer, but ink gamut is important for a POP customer. Know before you buy.

    How does this differ from smaller units?
    Gill: It’s the same factors as I’ve just stated. Typically, the cheaper the device you buy, the more expensive the cost of ink per liter. This may be perfectly OK. For instance, if you are a small volume user, you would want a low capital cost and a higher, pay-as-you-go ink cost. A large volume user would prefer a larger capital cost for a faster device with less expensive inks.

    Is there an easy and reliable way to determine the return on investment for these units? How is this done?
    Return on investment should be based on the total cost of ownership: the printer price amortized over a period of time, warranty costs per year, ink cost per square foot and speed. A big factor that is often overlooked is production speed compared to output quality. This will translate directly into the final selling price for your market.

    Media, Growth & Other Challenges
    The most commonly used media in grand-format printing is definitely vinyl, although it has printing limitations. Recently, we’ve seen a number of substitutes on the market, and with them comes new opportunities for growth. Such products include digital papers, synthetic papers, Tyvek and textiles or meshes with varied weaves and characteristics. Other materials include wet strength poster paper, polypropylene, substrates for backlit displays, one-way window films and wall covering paper. Some people even suggest that paper for digital imaging products may come into more of a demand as screen printers purchase more and more digital printing equipment.

    Expect China to become a dominant player in the media market, complete with media prices that impinge upon domestic suppliers. This might materialize as a consolidation of suppliers, a drop in media prices, or some companies getting out of the business of media altogether.

    One of the major challenges facing grand-format imagers is the prospect of over-capacity. Currently, there are nearly 3,000 grand-format printers in the installed base worldwide. According to SGIA estimates, there could be 1.5 to 2 times that number (i.e., 4,500 to 6,000) installed by 2006, each machine capable of producing between 74.3 square meters (800 square feet) and 186 square meters (2,000 square feet) per hour. That’s a lot of printing. At that rate, the growth in grand-format capacity could likely outpace the growth in demand for outdoor advertising, the primary application for grand-format printers.

    About the Inks
    Grand-Format inkjet printers using certain types of solvent-based inks can print on uncoated vinyl and other substrates, because the solvent bites directly into the surface of the substrate. Different solvent-system inkjet printers, however, use different types of solvents, and don’t work equally well on all uncoated substrates. Therefore, pre-testing of media is important.

    Commonly, a solvent-based printer uses a heating element (dryer) to evaporate the solvents from the print. Though the print may look and feel dry, it is generally not fully dried at this point. It may be several hours before you can finish or laminate the product. Typically, the print is laid out on the floor to dry, because solvent prints will not dry when spooled up on a core.

    On average, solvent-based inks are designed to last 2 to 5 years in outdoor conditions without additional protection from over-laminates or coatings. However, durability hinges on where and how the digital prints are displayed. Sun exposure, humidity and other factors significantly affect longevity.

    Grand Format, Grand Files
    In grand-format printing, large files are typical. However, the larger the size of the image, the further the viewing distance — and that reduces the resolution required to print. Most grand-format jobs print at resolutions well under 39.4 dots/cm (100 dpi), largely because of the size of the graphic. Optimize printing by getting files at 19.7 dots/cm (50 dpi) at full size. From that size, interpolation can be used to achieve the required resolution.

    Permits (or, Can I See Your License?)
    Think about it: When a machine is bigger and faster, it uses more solvent-based ink per hour than smaller units. Those factors increase the machine’s potential for worker safety and environmental issues. If you’re using a true solvent, you must be aware of air emissions and worker exposure issues.

    US companies that use products containing a regulated chemical are required to provide engineering controls to reduce employee exposure. In the graphic arts industry, ventilation is the key engineering control; with ventilation comes air permits. An air permit is essentially a license to emit pollutants into the atmosphere. The amount a facility may emit is based on its geographic location. Pollutants include volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants. Based on your facility's potential to pollute, permits may be required for each piece of equipment, or for the entire facility. The type and complexity of your permit is determined by the location of your facility - requirements are handed down by the state and often by separate air quality management districts. Each has distinct requirements for permitting manufacturing equipment.

    For example:

    • In one case, the state of Tennessee determined that a digital printing operation (using grand-format equipment), was a major source for hazardous air pollutants, specifically the solvent methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). Tennessee therefore required the printer to obtain a major source permit.
    • In 2002, digital printing equipment located and operating in the Los Angeles basin area, specifically the South Coast Air Quality Management District, received permits under the District's rules. The district imposed emission limitations on facilities to ensure compliance with its solvent usage regulations - but did not require major source permits for MEK.

    Last, let's say you or your client has a large sign project going up. Will your local city ordinances require you to obtain a permit? Do the research before you take the job!

    Once the Print is Done
    An important final consideration is the following: do you have the square footage needed to utilize this type of equipment? Not only do you need the space for the printer, but you must also consider the space required for drying, lamination and finishing.

    You need to have the room to roll out the graphics on the floor for last-minute, preshipping checks, and to make sure panels match up correctly. More often than not, seaming together of multiple strips is required, usually done using vinyl-welding machinery. Grommets or sewing are also a common part of grand-format finishing, as is liquid lamination for added print protection.

    During production and installation, it's critical to match panels and seams. You must understand what it takes to create such large-sized graphics, and the care required when matching up panels.

    Let's consider for a moment something truly huge, like a building wrap. Building wraps typically use a mesh vinyl material. Since the vinyl has a relatively open weave, being roughly one- third opaque, wind can easily pass through it. As a result, occupants of the building are able to see outside, outsiders cannot see in, the design appears as a solid image and the wrap is wind resistant.

    In the overall cost of a grand-format job, the installation of the print is definitely a key factor. Every machine is unique, as are every job and every installation. Many jobs are installed by outside firms that obtain the proper permits and have a staff dedicated to installation. (Some printers have added installation to their services.) Other types of installation might include vehicle wrapping, billboard installation, banners, flags etc.

    For help with installation, DPI maintains a listing of graphics installers at For training in installation procedures, you can contact either the Professional Decal Application Association, Inc. ( or the United Applications Standards Group ( for more information.

    Investigate Choices in Grand Format
    Equipment at SGIA's exhaustive Wide Format Output Device List includes a large number of grand format devices. The list presents specifications such as print width, ink type, number of colors, resolution and more. To access the list, visit Members of the Association will receive access to the list via their member number and password. Non-members can access the list by using the guest book.

    This article was originally published in the 2004 Volume Eight, Third Quarter SGIA Journal magazine and is being reprinted with permission. Photos courtesy of VUTEk.

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