A Better Bang for the Buck
It’s been fascinating to watch the rise of wide-format inkjet technology over the last quarter of a century. What started out as a way to make lower-quality photo reproductions and higher-quality signs, has morphed into a large, very diverse printing segment that, through developments in printheads, ink systems, and finishing technologies, is a strong focus for opportunity for printing facilities seeking something different.
In-plant printing operations are increasingly looking to wide-format inkjet as a way to enhance revenue, offer a broader product mix, and build increased value with their parent companies. Though the wide-format segment is competitive, opportunity and differentiation exist there. That said, jumping into wide-format the right way — having made careful choices and good decisions — gives you the best bet for success.
The first step, obviously, is a capital investment in a wide-format inkjet device, of which there are roughly 300 individual choices. Roll-to-roll, flatbed, hybrid systems, in a wide range of widths and sizes, with varying amounts of throughput — where do you start? What size or width do you need? How much throughput do you need? These are not hypothetical questions, and they are best answered with another question, “What are you planning to produce?”
Few of the “choices” outlined in this article are matters of personal preference. They are, in most cases, chosen (or indicated) by the intended end product(s). Simply put, wide-format inkjet machines come in three basic types:
- Roll-to-roll, which prints onto substrates (or media) that are acquired on a roll, and are hence flexible;
- Flatbed systems, which essentially take a sheetfed approach using flexible or rigid materials;
- Hybrid systems, which possess both roll-to-roll and flatbed capabilities.
These days, many machines can be considered hybrid, and they are a safe bet for operations getting started in the segment because the flatbed capability is there if needed. Whether it is needed (or not) is defined — here it is again — by the end product.
Which Ink System(s)?
The major ink systems for wide-format are aqueous, solvent, and UV curable. Once again, choice of ink should be driven by the end product, but in this case, also based on a consideration for the material upon which you are printing, and the expectations for the durability of the print. That said, all ink systems can be used to produce beautiful prints.
In simplified terms, aqueous inks are great for low durability, short longevity applications. One example of this would be short-term indoor signage for a conference.
Solvent inks allow for greater durability because their base (the solvent) eats into the substrate. This makes them great for higher-durability applications such as long-term outdoor signage. Solvent inks can also be easily stretched without cracking, which makes them the “go-to” inks for fleet/vehicle wraps and similar applications. Please note that it is highly common for both aqueous and solvent-based prints to be “finished” with a laminate film, which means you need a laminator. This adds additional, but essential, cost to your capital investment.
Finally, there are UV inks, which are most commonly associated with flatbed inkjet printers. UV inks can achieve acceptable adhesion and high durability on the widest variety of substrates, and while some of the inks are specially formulated to allow for flexibility and/or stretch, not all do, so ask those questions up front.
Other common ink systems also exist. Latex inks fall into a middle ground between solvent and UV-curable, offering fast drying and good stretchability (lamination is needed based on the desired application). Dye-sublimation inks, which are most associated with fabric applications for soft signage, exhibits and apparel, can also be used for rigid applications that have been pre-coated with a receptive polyester layer. Understand that completing the dye-sublimation process requires either a flatbed or calendared heat press, depending on the application — again, an additional, essential cost.
Choices in Materials
On numerous occasions, I’ve used the image of an hourglass to illustrate the variables available for wide-format producers. The middle, narrowest part of the hourglass is the output device. The choices, though important, are fewer. The top of the hourglass represents the substrates or materials available for wide-format production. They include coated papers and rigid boards, pressure-sensitive materials, vinyls, various types of sheet plastics, clear and translucent materials, special-effect finishes that sparkle, metals, and more. Those wide-format producers that have mastered the use of a variety of materials also increase their opportunity for differentiation within their product mix, which can often draw a higher margin and expand choices for the customer.
The flip side of this is that the deep joy of so much variety can get out of hand, leaving some companies with loads of unused, though well-intended material, achieving “advanced age” on their supply shelves. This creates an unacceptable drag on profitability. In my opinion, some of the most successful wide-format producers are those that can perfectly balance material variety with inventory control — very much like chefs who produce great amounts of food with little or no waste.
Print to Product
The bottom part of the hourglass is print finishing. Again, there are numerous choices in this area, and it is finishing that truly transforms the print (onto whatever substrate) into a final, saleable product. It can include lamination, mounting, trimming, cutting, computer-driven contour cutting and routing, sewing, seaming, or grommeting. While lamination is a common finishing technique — and is essential for many prints requiring durability — many more finishing options exist.
For producers using flatbed inkjet to print onto rigid substrates, computerized cutting systems are highly recommended, as cutting by hand, particularly for contour cuts, can be both labor and spoilage-intensive. If you’re interested in providing vehicle graphics, also consider that producing the print is the easy part. Who is going to install the graphics on your car fleet, team bus, or other vehicles? Will you need to hire a qualified graphics installer to do the job, or do you have someone on staff who is trained to do that?
Again, print finishing is one of wide-format’s great differentiators, and those companies that have mastered their finishing steps and found novel ways to offer a value-add to their work, have a leg up on the competition. In the wide-format sector, the most simple, common applications — for instance a 24x36˝ poster — are available at your local quick printer (or even Walgreens). So, for success and profitability, it is those who can provide what is beyond the basic, be it through exemplary color control, knowledge and use of materials, or exceptional use of finishing technologies (or all of these things), who become go-to providers. For your in-plant operation, it’s about keeping your parent organization looking to you as their partner and provider of wide-format applications.
Maximizing Your Investment
Here are a few final bits of advice I can offer you to ease your way toward success:
- Wide-format is not a machine but a process. While the inkjet device only makes a print, your customers are looking for products.
- Do your research before you make the jump. Define the products you want to make, then choose materials, equipment, and finishing technologies accordingly.
- Consider expansion, either through increased throughput or your wide-format product mix, but don’t base your plan on hopes.
- Understand pricing. Many wide-format projects are labor-intensive, high-touch endeavors. Make sure you get your cut for the time and effort spent.