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How Did The Graphics Market Get Where It Is Today?

Understanding the Graphics Market's Development: Part Two in a Series of Three

By Michael Flippin

For those of you who took the time to read my first installment (and are also choosing to read this one) I want to thank you. For those of you who might have missed that March edition, I opened this three part series with an overview of the graphics market with some comments on Web Consulting’s analysis on inkjet’s growing position within the wide format graphics industry.

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  • There is no question that these markets are complicated, quickly changing and the target of many products and vendors. This second of the three-part series will focus on the development of the U.S. market for signage and digital graphics and will include some indication of where the market is today. The final edition will provide some insight and thoughts about the future and how shops may capture future success.

    How the Heck Did We Manage to Get Here?
    I live in downtown Boston. And I honestly can’t dismiss the reputation about drivers in this city. But to be fair, the city’s streets were not planned in advance as a nice orderly grid. Instead the streets evolved from the paths made by livestock choosing the easiest route between two points. Plus, the street signs are lacking and confusing. So like a visitor driving in downtown Boston, the wide format graphics market has developed by some trial and error, a bit of wet finger in the wind and in some cases, with a bit of luck. The course was not clear and the development of these markets will continue for some time. Now I do not want to imply that this was at all easy, as many tens of millions of dollars have been spent in the development of new technology and new products for this growing graphics industry.

    I bet that most of what you have read recently from consultants and analysts like me talks about how stagnant the sales of new wide format inkjet printers have been, how many of them are aqueous versus solvent and how big the opportunity UV-curable and flatbed printers will be. But rarely do I see the reasons “why” this has happened. And please don’t get me wrong as I won’t be able to do this in one column either. But I did want to provide our take on how inkjet, as well as other digital imaging techniques for the production of graphics, has led us to where we are today.

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    When looking at the development of the market for wide format inkjet graphics I typically use 1993 as “Year One.” And as with most of what we do, there is always room for discussion. And I would be happy to share my thoughts and reasons should anyone wish to ask.

    If we think back to the early 1990’s there was no economical or simple way other than silver halide photography to produce a large formant (greater than 24”) image. And in most cases the quality, speed and cost of silver halide made that process impractical. Enter inkjet, a technology offering a constant cost per copy (no costs for plates or films) making print runs of one quite practical. And while the quality of inkjet 10 years ago was nowhere near the level of what printers of today are, the ability to provide text and graphics for one print, overshadowed any shortcomings of quality.

    So why was the adoption into signage slow relative to photography? Well, virtually all of these early systems were using water-based inks requiring sophisticated media (read expensive) with multi-layer receptive coatings. Most of these media grades were made by photographic paper manufacturers, and the longevity of the print was suitable enough for indoor use ­ our some outdoor if protected by a UV laminate. This situation didn’t match the applications, the product environment, the technology or the skill set of most sign shops and graphic screen printers.

    Soon after the turn of the millennium most of the talk about inkjet was on flatbed platforms using UV-curable technology and then new solvent chemistries (eco, lo, light, etc). Solvent inkjet printers allowed shops to use familiar materials (e.g. uncoated vinyl) for applications that performed in outdoor settings. Flatbed printers allowed cost savings in printing directly onto rigid substrates, and since more than 50% of all printed graphics ended up on some kind of rigid substrate, that made sense. And while there are still questions surrounding UV-curable inkjet technology’s ability to stick on a very wide range of materials (this is a whole article in itself) many shops have achieved great success with these systems. Lower-priced UV-curable inkjet systems will continue to enter the market, expanding the availability of this technology to a larger number of shops and graphics providers.

    So Where Is This All Taking Us?
    Where will this market be in five years? How much will it grow and how rapidly will new technologies disrupt traditional ones? To be honest, I don’t know for sure, nor does any one else for that matter. But based on some observations and assumptions that history will repeat itself (as it often does) I do have some ideas. But that’s the topic of the third edition of this series. So while there is no crystal ball, I can say with certainty that it will be filled with change and at times very confusing. In fact there may be times when we just don’t know which way to go, what printer to buy or what technology to investigate. You’ll know you have to go in some direction, but which one may not be very clear. It may be a lot like my favorite driving experience in Boston where it is possible to be driving on a road (as seen above) going north and south at the same time. That is confusing, but we’ll get there. So until next time, let’s just keep our eyes on the road.

    Web Consulting
    Michael Flippin, an avid Red Sox fan, is the president of Web Consulting, Inc. Founded in Oxfordshire, U.K. in 1993, Web Consulting ( is a leading global consultancy to the digital printing, screen printing and industrial decoration industrie based in Boston. Web Consulting provides a flexible range of services including primary market research, market modeling and forecasting as well as strategic analysis and supporting services such as implementation, training and project management. For more information on the nine annual industry reports on the U.S. graphics market or three global reports, please contact Michael Flippin at (617 536 5925) or at In addition to its head office in Boston, MA, Web Consulting has regional offices in Shanghai, China and associates in six countries across Europe and Asia

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