Wide-Format Finishing and Installation Tips
Wide-Format Finishing and Workflow was the focus of one full day of the PRINTING United Digital Experience. To set the stage, Andy Paparozzi, chief economist for PRINTING United Alliance, gave an overview of the industry. For the graphics/wide-format segment, he noted that sales fell an average of 20.4% in the first half of 2020, due entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, he does see “movement off bottom” as, while sales are still nowhere near 2019 levels yet — and won’t return to that point until the world is comfortable traveling and gathering in large groups again — sales are starting to improve. The decline in March/April was a staggering loss of 52.3% of sales, compared to a 4.9% loss in the July/August timeframe, Paparozzi said. “It is erratic, painfully slow movement. But it is a meaningful first step toward recovery,” he noted.
Print service providers (PSPs) can’t afford to sit around and wait for the economy to improve, however. Rather, Paparozzi noted that the minority seeing sales increasing at a faster rate are those taking steps to build a competitive advantage. While there is a number of ways to do that, a few highlights these shops are focusing on include:
- Lean manufacturing and continuous improvements to efficiency — 85%
- Adding finishing capacity — 26.7%
- Streamlining and improving workflow — 36.7%
Post-COVID, he sees the largest opportunities areas in spaces such as online ordering and web-to-print; “antimicrobial” graphics with protective films and coatings; and graphics for industries related to the home and individual relaxation spaces such as RVs and boats.
The Manufacturing Mindset
Following Paparozzi, the keynote speaker for the day was Ryan McAbee, director, Production Workflow, Keypoint Intelligence, joined by Eric Zimmerman, director, Wide-Format, Keypoint Intelligence, on the concept of an automated wide-format graphics “factory” and why the industry needs to shift to more of a manufacturing mindset.
“If you think about print, even 30 to 40 years ago, it was still very much an artisan/craftsman type industry, that required a lot of skillset to execute on that work,” said McAbee. One of the first pivot points away from that, he went on to note, was in the 1980s, when digitization first started making in-roads, and the first steps were taken toward what would become the modern printshop. And now, he said, we are on the precipice of the next pivot point that will tip the industry firmly into a true manufacturing mindset, driven by data.
“Data has a lot of different purposes and uses,” he said. “You’ll find that data can be used to program robotics or material movements — we’re seeing that already in the industry today.”
Zimmerman agreed that robotics is becoming more interesting as the systems continue to get better and better, but he noted he is also seeing a lot of movement on the software side, with dashboard systems that make it easier to control an entire pressroom from a single screen. “You might not see it at a show, because it’s not the most flashy thing,” said Zimmerman, “but it is exceptionally important in the shop environment.”
The industry, by and large, they continued, has gotten very good at collecting data over the past several years. McAbee believes the next step is not that far off — vendors, he said, will start to execute and use that data to provide further context and insight that in turn will allow the shop to make adjustments automatically based on real-time conditions.
McAbee noted that in general, PSPs fall into one of five broad categories when it comes to the path from “arts and crafts” to “smart print manufacturing” operation:
- Disorder — There is a reactive, crisis mentality; operations are disconnected from each other; there are few cost controls or quality standards; and there are a few “hero employees” that carry much of the work.
- Defined — The shop seeks to preempt crisis mode by thinking ahead; information is exchanged within departments; there is a documented risk plan; there are some cost controls in place; and quality standards are set by the clients.
- Digitized — The shop has begun to seek automation, and information has started to be exchanged across different departments; the risk plan has been stress-tested and refined; costs are tracked company-wide; and internal quality control standards have been set and are digitally captured and tracked.
- Deployed — There is a proactive, continuous improvement outlook; information is exchanged throughout the entire organization; there is proactive risk avoidance; quality standards are regularly tracked, and are provided to the clients.
- Smart — The entire operation is driven by data; information is exchanged not just internally, but with partners and clients; there is active monitoring of potential risks, and rollover contingencies in place; data-drive operational adaptation has been put into place; and quality is machine-driven, with automatic corrective actions that don’t require operator intervention.
Most shops, McAbee noted, fall somewhere in the first three categories. This takes into account everything from what the process are, to how applications and jobs are flowing through the shop, to the number of touchpoints, to the types of tools being used. This ranges from the first stage, Disorder, where the mentality is just “putting out the fires” and moving from one crisis to the next, to Digitized, where systems are in place to try and catch problems early and get them fixed before they become a major issue.
“No one is really at the Smart category yet, but that’s where we need to really get to,” he said. “The message here is that we have to define our processes and our workflows, we have to automate as much as we can in those workflows, and we also have to start collecting data — machine data, or augmented by us as operators from the shop floor — because without those base levels in place, we won’t be able to move and take advantage of these emerging technologies, and get to this smart print manufacturing perspective.”
While there has been a push toward automation, McAbee noted that 28% of graphics and wide-format printers surveyed noting they are still fully manual in their systems. Another 21% are “mostly manual,” and just 5% are “fully automated, with another 14% reporting they are mostly automated. For shops looking to create a competitive advantage and find new opportunities in different segments of print, closing this gap is going to be essential in the coming years.
To get to this point and start to revamp workflow, McAbee advised PSPs to take a look at the top three applications the shop offers, since there will be differences based on the type of work produced. “Literally walk those through each step, from the point that you get the information from your customer, until you are actually shipping it, or delivering it, or whatever the destination is for that particular product. Document the ‘People, Processes, and Technology’ that are being used, and see if there are any process loops, or exceptions that have to occur where it goes two steps forward and two steps back. You want to document those too, because those are often where your bottlenecks lie,” said McAbee.
He noted that shops should pay attention to each step of the entire chain:
- Job On-boarding — capturing customer intent, estimating, confirming the order, and receiving the files
- Business and Information Management — creating the POs and job tickets, materials management, scheduling
- Process Management — file and data preparation, imposition, color management, proofing, approvals
- Production — RIP, output, print, finish
- Logistics — warehousing, fulfillment, mailing, delivery, installation
Some of the workflow and finishing advancements to help improve any or all of these areas include nesting and ganging automation, intelligent finishing automation solutions that talk to the workflow software and provide continuous feedback, production dashboards, and mobile access. All of these allow more work to get done with fewer manual touchpoints, and allow one operator to keep a closer eye on the systems to ensure quality control.
Installation Tips & Tricks
In the graphics and wide-format segment, often the final step after printing is installation. Ray Weiss, Ray Weiss, director of digital print programs for PRINTING United Alliance, led a panel of expert installers to talk about the tips, tools, and tricks to getting a perfect installation. They included Ken Burns, president/CEO, Axis Graphics; Pete Kouchis, president, VisuCom Signs & Graphics; and Shane Lloyd, CEO, GeckoWraps.
The group walked viewers through what’s needed to get a perfect installation every time. First, get the measurements right, said Kouchis. “Get your measurements right, and get them accurate,” he said. “And that includes not just the size of the walls and windows, but the location of obstacles — your doorknobs, fire alarms, etc.” He noted that paying attention to things like the slant of the floor is also important, since it could impact the height of the wall from one side to the other, which a designer will need to know to compensate for in the final product. And that goes for the ceiling as well — make sure going in you know exactly what is level, and what isn’t.
“Most of the time,” Kouchis continued, “the designers are not going to be on site in the location. They’re counting on what we send them to be thorough.” There are a lot of tools that can make the process of measurements quicker and more accurate, including laser measuring devices instead of tape measures.
He also notes that a useful tool for this is using a photo app that allows measurements to be dropped directly into a photograph of the space, allowing designers to completely visualize where the graphic is going, the sizes, and the obstacles to work around far easier and faster than trying to sketch it out on a sheet of paper, for example, or trying to transpose measurements onto a photo later manually.
Next, when arriving for installation, be prepared to problem solve. Kouchis noted that while everyone is working off the same blueprints, “sometimes guys go rogue” and put things in different places because it’s easier for them. Graphics installers, he said, have to walk in ready to be the person who identifies issues and how to get them fixed, rather than kicking it back to someone else to solve.
In that same vein, before starting installation, measure everything again — don’t assume everything is accurate, especially in a new-build space. Ensure the walls are the same size as the specs, that the floors and ceilings are still level, etc. before beginning installation, since it will allow for any problem solving before materials are used, rather than wasting graphics that will then need to be reprinted.
The group then walked through a wide range of installation types, from vinyl on walls, to dimensional lettering, to graphics on textured or painted walls, to graphics installed in difficult to reach areas. They noted that one of the single best things an installer can do to ensure perfect graphics every time is to get certified, particularly the PRINTING United Alliance PDAA Certified Installer program, which is rolling out a new badge program that will allow buyers to see which types of installations a shop has perfected, to match up the right installers to the job.
Focus on Finishing
The final session of the day focused on finishing, and the advancements in the space. The panel was led by Denise M. Gustavson, editorial director – printing and packaging, NAPCO Media, and included Craig Tinkelman, CEO, Quaker Chroma Imaging; and Richard Beto, director of document solutions, at the University of Texas at Austin.
Too often, the investment is made in faster, more efficient presses, without a thought to how those pieces will be finished. But finishing equipment can be just as critical to growing and expanding operations as a new press will be.
Both shops purchased their finishing equipment after the presses, with Tinkelman noting that he tends to want to keep people working, but then finishing became a bottleneck, and he had to start turning jobs away because the shop just couldn’t keep up. Capacity, he said, was the original driving force for investing in new equipment, but the automation and advanced features have also allowed him to branch into other revenue streams — such as masks once COVID-19 impacted normal operations.
“For us, first and foremost it was capacity,” he said. “I don’t want to spend a couple thousand dollars on a piece of equipment and not be sure I have the work for it…. But then as you do that, you also can introduce new opportunities.” The masks were one, but he noted he’s also looking at producing clothing in the future, since the laser fabric cutter he purchased would make that a potentially profitable application to get into.
For Beto, the finishing services weren’t originally a big part of the plan, but as his University discovered the in-plant’s skill with the new cutting equipment he installed and what it could do, demand started rising for him as well, pushing both shops to invest in newer, faster finishing options just to keep up.
“I’ve never been one to be on the bleeding edge or the cutting edge,” said Beto, “so I’ve tried to listen to my peers,” when it comes to knowing what to invest in, and when to pull that proverbial trigger. “Sometimes I’m slow to follow, but I’ve found it works out pretty well for me.” He also listens to his customers, ensuring that he is installing the equipment that will allow him to meet the demands they have for him, rather than just installing pieces to have them on the shop floor.
In terms of deciding what, ultimately, to install, there are a few factors to keep in mind, the panel noted:
- The footprint is critical, since, especially in smaller shops, it will dictate exactly what is — and is not — possible.
- Who is going to service the finishing equipment, how reliable is it, and can the shop perform regular maintenance on its own, or will it need to have a contract to have a third-party come in to handle it?
- Who makes the equipment? Have them been around a long time, and what are they known for? Are they selling the equipment directly, or do they sell through dealers, and if so, what is the reputation of their contractors?
- Who is going to operate the equipment? Will the manufacturer provide training — both for running the equipment, as well as maintaining it?
At the end of the day, both men had advice for other printers looking to invest in wide-format finishing equipment. “Do your due diligence,” said Tinkelman. “Make sure you talk to people in the industry, people who already have the equipment, who are using it. Don’t just go out and buy a piece of equipment — that would be a huge mistake.”
“I would also say this,” noted Beto, “the margins are great, and we find this is one of our growing revenue streams as time goes on. If you’re not in — get in, and get in quickly.”