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The Digital Opportunity in Wide Format Printing

Screen printers are rightly proud that they are part of an ancient tradition that is as much an art form as carrying out an industrial process. While digital inkjet printing has none of those familiar associations, it does offer technical and economic solutions to the very real challenges faced by today's screen printers.

By Itai Halevy, Chief Marketing Officer & Executive Vice President, Scitex Vision

While some screen printers feel threatened by the spread of digital printing technologies in their market, others have recognised that wide format inkjet printing offers an effective, complementary process that can enable them to expand their businesses and increase profitability.

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  • Screen printers are rightly proud that they are part of an ancient tradition that is as much an art form as carrying out an industrial process. While digital inkjet printing has none of those familiar associations, it does offer technical and economic solutions to the very real challenges faced by today's screen printers.

    These challenges include:

    • Handling short and medium runs cost-effectively and profitably
    • Accommodating more complex campaigns (those with multiple formats, some of which are unfriendly to screen printers)
    • Increasing competition and pressure on margins
    • Proofing
    • Tight schedules and the pressure for print on demand
    • Tiled applications (window graphics, building wraps, etc.) that are time-consuming to set up

    An analysis of the demand for graphics shows that screen printing is best-placed to meet the requirements of jobs of ~400 copies or more. However, the evidence also shows that there is an even larger market for graphics in the ~200 copies range. This market is essentially defined by the challenges cited above: shorter runs, on-demand, greater complexity, etc. This is also precisely the area where wide format digital inkjet printing can deliver high quality products quickly and profitably.

    Screen printers who add the capability to do this are able to move into new market segments including short and medium run paper and self-adhesive vinyl printing; last-minute POP applications; short and medium rigid material printing and specialty applications printing. These are not only lucrative markets in themselves, but they will transform a traditional screen printing operation into a 'one-stop-shop,' enabling printers to sell more services to their customers while also becoming more attractive to new ones.

    Wide format digital inkjet printing is an effective process that can be integrated into existing businesses with minimal disturbance, and the benefits will be readily apparent.

    Since jobs are produced direct from digital files (in standard formats), there are no set-up costs or time-consuming screen making. A job is ready to run within a few minutes of arrival.

    Production is efficient because jobs can be put in queues ­ a new job’s file can be loaded while the previous one is being printed. If using printers with a dryer, one job can be in the dryer while the next is being printed.

    Screen printers can analyze their jobs, considering set-up time (and costs) and run-lengths to determine whether it's more cost-effective to print digitally or conventionally. The point at which a job becomes more viable for one process or the other is called the 'cross-over point.' Typically, it is currently around 400 copies, but this can vary according to the nature of the job and a printer's production schedule. Just having the choice of printing processes will ensure optimal margins.

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    Wide format digital inkjet printing is space and manpower efficient, too. There is easier management of the process, and virtually no waste. The precise number of copies required can be printed and there are no registration problems that can waste valuable substrates during make-ready. Color accuracy is ensured by ICC supported profiles.

    A wide format digital inkjet printer can also support the screen process operation by providing fast, high quality and accurate proofs on final substrates.

    Apart from being able to offer one-stop-shop convenience to customers, other profitable, value-added services can be offered by screen printers with a digital inkjet production capability. Faster time-to-market is of great importance to all market sectors today. Digital printing is the fastest process, providing a premium service with associated profitability.

    'Short runs' in digital printing terms means runs as small a one. This is ideal for special edition graphics; it also makes it possible to produce graphics for specific retail outlets, areas and in language versions ­ all cost-effectively.

    Integrated prepress software enables easy production of large untiled sheets, roll-to-roll. Consistent high quality prints make digital inkjet printing suitable for production of warranted graphics, too.

    None of these features and benefits threatens screen print production. By transferring short-run, complex, or otherwise less profitable (or unprofitable) jobs from screen to digital output, screen presses are freed up for the long runs, or jobs requiring special colors or varnishes for which screen print is best suited.

    There are even opportunities for using digital inkjet printing in conjunction with screen printing, for example, for backlit double-sided graphics.

    User-friendly high technology
    While digital inkjet printers and presses use highly sophisticated technology, they are also highly user-friendly with most operations from media handling to drying fully automated.

    Inkjet printers use piezoelectric, drop-on-demand technology where each of up to 512 nozzles on a single print head is fed ink by an oscillating crystal. An electric charge causes the crystal to distort, drawing ink into a chamber at one phase of the cycle, then forcing it out by its reciprocal distortion at the other. (See diagram). While speeds of oscillation vary, they are measured in the tens of thousands per second, and each oscillation produces a perfectly formed drop of ink.

    To ensure quality and compatibility, digital inkjet printers and presses are available in a variety of sizes and formats, including roll-to-roll, roll-to-sheet, and sheet-to-sheet.

    A technology with a future
    Currently, screen printing accounts for around 50% of the POP market, with digital and offset litho sharing the balance about equally. However, the market for large format inkjet graphics is set to double by 2008 from its 2003 levels. In 2003, some 1.1 billion square feet of media was used for inkjet graphics. This is expected to grow to 3.3 billion by 2008. The comparative retail value of the market is projected to grow from US$2.03 billion in 2003 to US$5.13 billion in 2008 (Source: I.T. Strategies).

    The current trends towards shorter runs, print on-demand, shorter life cycles of outdoor products, more substrates and higher quality, favor digital inkjet technology. Already, digital inkjet printers are being used across a wide spectrum of industries to provide custom wallpapers, and products with graphics on substrates as diverse as cork, wood, glass, textured materials, corrugated plastic and other substrates suitable only for non-impact printing.

    Digital inkjet printing is an opportunity and not a threat to screen printers; indeed it offers them a means to a more profitable future.

    Itai Halevy, Executive Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer joined Scitex Vision on January 2003. He previously served as Vice President of Business Development at Clal Industries and Investments Ltd., one of the main shareholders of Scitex Vision. Prior to that, he held several product, marketing and business development positions at Scitex Corporation that he joined in 1991. His last position within Scitex was as Corporate Vice President, Business Development and Strategic Planning. Mr. Halevy holds a bachelors degree in industrial engineering from Tel Aviv University and an MBA degree from INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France.

    Scitex Vision is a supplier of a broad range of wide and super wide format inkjet printers, using water-based, solvent-based or UV inks.

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