Walls of Wonder: Mastering Wide-Format Installation
There’s still craft in printing, but to be entirely honest, the output devices that in-plant print shops use are now responsible for a lot of it. Wide-format printers, in particular, can be counted on to produce consistently beautiful work from the job files their operators feed them. The need for people to finesse the reproduction is minimal.
But, things quickly turn artisanal once the printing is done and the yards of the brightly colored substrate have to be mounted or hung where they are meant to be displayed. At this stage, there’s no substitute for the sharpness of human eyes and the precision of human hands in the final step of installation. Increasingly, this is a service in-plants are learning to add to their portfolios as their wide-format products grow in popularity.
The four shops profiled here — three serving universities, one attached to a major manufacturer — mastered wide-format installation out of necessity, relying mostly on self-taught skills. They measure their success with it, not in terms of income (two don’t charge for the service) but mostly in the extra visibility and perceived value they earn from putting up the signs, wall coverings and window graphics they print.
Officially in Business
Kris Tanner, manager of solutions support and print-on-demand for Schneider Electric in Nashville, Tenn., recalls a request two years ago to find out what it would take to decorate the company’s Denver office with branded graphics. Tanner determined that he and his team could get the job done, including printing and installing, for half of what a third-party provider would have charged — and that is what they proceeded to do.
“We were officially in the installation business then,” he says.
At the General Support Services unit of the University of Alaska Anchorage, which includes the school’s in-plant, “we eased our way into it” by starting with small-format window graphics, says Kim Stanford, director. The in-plant promoted the new service with a promise of no-cost do-overs if anything in an installation went wrong.
When, a year and a half ago, Gary Warren joined the Bronco Printing Solutions in-plant at Fayetteville State University, in Fayetteville, N.C., as its print services supervisor, his mission was to bring the shop back into full operation. He says the school took his recommendation to add wide-format output as one way to restore profitability. An added benefit of DIY installation, Warren says, is the positive exposure it creates for the in-plant: “It gets us out there with them — they see that we did it.”
That sentiment certainly rings true for Steven M. Barrett, manager of SeaPrint Graphic Solutions at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Installation, he explains, is part of the “creative existence” the shop forges for itself by doing whatever it takes to serve the campus community.
“We’re in existence to cater to the university,” Barrett declares. “The more creative we are, the better our existence is.”
Tools of the Trade
Each in-plant has a complement of wide-format output devices (see sidebar) that it supports with the more mundane tools of the graphic installer’s trade: heat guns, squeegees, scrapers, level gauges and cutting implements (“I never knew there were so many types of X-ACTO knife blades,” Tanner comments). Yellotools, an online hardware store for sign makers, is a good source for items like these, Warren recommends.
The tool kits parallel the learn-by-doing skill sets the shops have acquired as providers of installation services, which they mostly deliver on their own, without external help.
At UA Anchorage, the go-to person for installation is production technician Kenna Bates, who received some training in the task from the vendor that sold the in-plant its contour cutter. Stanford says that unless the job involves a boom lift or requires installing on an unusually complex surface, Bates and other in-plant staff will have the know-how and resources they need to carry the project out. Installers can find plenty of tips in vendor-produced instructional videos on YouTube, Stanford notes.
Barrett says that most of the time, when wide-format jobs at SeaPrint Graphic Solutions need installing, “I do it myself.” He’s grooming another staff member to take over the task, and that person, as Barrett did, is learning as he goes.
“We do have some pretty crafty folks here,” Barrett says of his staff of six. When it comes to handling installations, “we’ve already moved beyond trial and error, and now it’s just trial.”
Diana Richardson, print technician and large-format specialist at Bronco Printing Solutions, is that shop’s master installer, according to Warren, who describes himself as second-most experienced in the work. He says Richardson is also adept at wrapping vehicles, a skill she acquired in previous employment and sharpened with the help of training from a vendor.
Tanner says that as a rule, whenever wide-format graphics need to go up at Schneider Electric locations, “the installer is me.” This has required a great deal of travel on his part, as the company, a Fortune 500 supplier of energy management systems, has offices in 120 cities around the country.
Tanner says that in 2018, he visited nearly two dozen Schneider addresses on installation assignments. To cut back on some of that time and expense, the in-plant has developed self-install versions of single-panel murals and other simple pieces that the field offices won’t need Tanner’s help with once they’ve received them.
Decorative to Protective
The wide-format items that the shops print and install span the gamut from decorative and wayfinding to safety and security. An application in the latter category at UNC Wilmington is the placement of frosted vinyl over windows of various school buildings — a safeguard, Barrett explains, aimed at preventing would-be attackers from spotting potential targets inside (still a fresh worry after a shooting at UNC Charlotte in April). The in-plant also has printed signage directing the campus population about what to do in the event of an attack.
More common for the shops to produce are items such as:
- Sun-blocking vinyl window panels for the Capel Arena at Fayetteville State and, elsewhere, precisely aligned door and elevator wraps;
- At UA Anchorage, signage that looks almost good enough to eat for campus dining spots, and specialty displays for offices and student centers;
- Conference room visuals and murals with raised lettering at Schneider Electric locations;
- Street signage and wallpaper printed on Photo-Tex adhesive paper at UNC Wilmington.
Posters, stencils, perfs, decals and clings for windows, wall-mounted photography, and floor graphics are other examples — essentially, whatever the customer wants that the shop can find a way to deliver. It’s a continuous learning curve. As Tanner puts it, “we’ve offered more complex products as we’ve learned to create more complex products.”
Installations, the shops say, tend to go smoothly, pleasing customers in almost every case.
“Everyone here is pretty patient” with the pace at which Bronco Printing Solutions works, according to Warren, who notes that customers appreciate the convenience of having their graphics printed and installed by the same source.
Occasionally, though, customers ask only for the printing and leave the in-plant out of the loop of what comes next. This can happen, Stanford says, when “they know a guy” or opt to use a third-party installer. Customers bent on doing it themselves must sign a waiver acknowledging that the UA Anchorage in-plant does not have to supply reruns at no cost when graphics are damaged in self-installations gone wrong. Fortunately, mishaps of this kind are rare. People realize, says Stanford, that “it’s usually to the benefit of the customer to let us deal with that for them.”
The one exception that Barrett remembers at UNC Wilmington was a customer determined to save a few dollars by self-mounting printed signage on Coroplast backing instead of letting SeaPrint Graphics Solutions do the job for them.
“We never heard from them again,” Barrett says.
More often, installation gives in-plants valuable opportunities to show off the kinds of things that they do best. Barrett says his shop scored points for aesthetics and economy by rehabilitating a concession trailer that had lost its looks after languishing “under the bleachers for 10 years.” An outside supplier offered to do a makeover for $10,000; Barrett and his team got the job done, including repainting the trailer and affixing wide-format printed school logos, for $6,000 less.
“It was one of our prouder moments,” he recalls.
No Straight Walls
As every in-plant that has broadened its service offerings knows, experience is the best teacher in new undertakings — and installing wide-format graphics gives a clear indication of why this is so.
Tanner says he has learned, for example, “that there is no such thing as a straight wall, ever. Nor is there ever such a thing as a straight drop ceiling.” Off-angle surfaces can make even the most carefully positioned graphics appear crooked. This is why accurate measurement is crucial and why, Tanner advises, “you’ve got to have a good level — and typically a long one.”
Stanford insists on the same kind of precision. “We do our own measurements,” she says. “We don’t take the customer’s.” She also notes that in a climate like Alaska’s, following the substrate manufacturer’s temperature guidelines for window decorations and other outdoor graphics is a must. For proper adhesion to the surface, “you either have to warm it up, or you wait.”
Warren recommends testing substrates prior to installation and allowing freshly painted walls to off-gas before attempting to place anything on them. Barrett has two precepts for installers: “cheap is not always better” in decisions about choosing materials; and, when in the midst of a job, “patience is a great thing — don’t rush it.”
The Going Rates
The shops’ billing practices vary. The UA Anchorage in-plant charges $75 per hour for Kenna Bates’ time and $40 per hour for an additional installer, if one is needed.
“Keep in mind we are in Alaska,” Stanford explains, alluding to the high cost of providing services in the nation’s largest state. But she adds that at these rates, the in-plant usually can offer customers a lower price than what outside installers would charge.
Bronco Printing Solutions asks $2 to $3 per square foot of installed material for wall murals and other “simplistic” jobs, according to Warren. For vehicle wraps, an hourly charge of $64 covers costs, enabling the in-plant to perform them for $500 to $1,000 less than third-party wrappers.
“Creative existence again” is Barrett’s explanation for why SeaPrint Graphic Solutions almost always installs at no additional charge. Part of the reason for free installation is the in-plant’s mission of service to UNC Wilmington: “that’s why we’re here.” But, as Barrett also notes, “this protects us from outsourcing” as it represents a type of service that facility management organizations typically don’t provide.
Tanner says Schneider Electric’s field offices cover his travel costs in lieu of paying an installation fee; there is no charge for design, either. But, he says that “we’ll raise the flag during the design process” if the project shows signs of becoming more than the in-plant can handle by itself.
In such cases, some of the work might be outsourced to Astound, a design and fabrication service. Tanner also can turn to a network of graphics installers certified by 3M. He then aggregates these charges with his costs into a single bill for the Schneider office where the work is performed.
Tanner declares that in the 25 months that have elapsed since the in-plant first began performing installations, the work “contributed 50% to us being able to continue to exist. It has kept us relevant.” He points out that as parent organizations grow less reliant on in-plants for traditional products like color copies, having a strong track record in wide-format printing and installing helps to attract positive attention to the rest of the things the shop provides.
“We want existence,” Barrett reiterates. Installation upholds the objective by “letting the university see our value” in a new and different way.
And, as he reminds other in-plants offering or thinking about offering installation services of their own, the best way to let that value shine forth is simply “grabbing a ladder and going out there and dealing with it.”
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