Wide-format print is one of the most vibrant sectors of the digital print market, as evidenced by the 22,000 people who made their way to Fespa London in June 2013. Three groups are driving this growth: conventional sign shops and screen printers adding or switching to digital printing methods; existing wide-format users wanting to increase capacity or improve quality and/or productivity to meet customer demand; and commercial offset printers or prepress specialists who are keen to capture a larger proportion of their customers’ print spend.
Industry analyst InfoTrends predicts a growth in the retail value of the North American digital wide-format print over the five-year period 2011 – 2016 of over 46 per cent, from US $16.1 bn (€12.4 bn) to $23.6 bn (€18.1 bn). A late 2012 survey carried out by the UK’s Image Reports magazine showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents were expecting wide-format work to become a bigger part in their businesses over the next two years, and just over half were expecting to recruit additional staff in this period.
There is still a high rate of technological development in wide-format print. New applications continue to unfold as new substrates, inks and marking technologies are brought to market, leading to new opportunities such as label printing, packaging and package prototyping, interior décor, soft signage and fabric/garment printing and a wide range of consumer and industrial applications in ceramic printing, in addition to the established signage and display graphics markets.
While the capabilities of individual wide-format printers continue to evolve apace in terms of resolution, colour gamut, speed of production and range of supported substrates, the integration of these devices into both the production workflow and the wider environment of their owners’ businesses has largely been neglected.
The majority of wide-format printers are operated as stand-alone devices, often with one RIP per machine, and are isolated from other print production workflows or MIS/ERP systems. Products to facilitate this integration are available, but lack of customer focus, awareness or trust in automation have been barriers to their uptake
Wide-format work typically requires more complex finishing than other types of print, sometimes to the point where the direct print costs are only a small part of the total job value. Complex one-off jobs will typically require creative input, management time, shipping and installation in addition to the printing process. With high levels of customisation being the norm, there may be a reluctance to believe that automation can help in what has always been a labour-intensive business.
This manual approach can lead to inefficiencies in production management, and may result in material wastage and quality inconsistencies both between devices and over time. Inability to load-balance work across different machines because colour matching cannot be achieved reliably can cause delays and waste production capacity, leaving some machines idle while others are running full-time.
Every point at which manual processes occur is a point at which costs can rapidly be added and yet these costs are often unaccounted. Job costing models based on ‘per square metre’ pricing can lead to work being done at a loss, especially where time spent on file preparation before output is not recorded. Lack of detailed information about job set-up times and finishing operations, with missing or inaccurate media consumption figures make it difficult to analyse where bottlenecks are occurring and where money is being made or lost.
Inventory management requires accurate information both on consumables used and forecast demand based on quoted jobs. Without this, the printer will have to over-order to be sure of meeting demand, with a negative impact on both cashflow and storage space, or else risk production stoppages.
As the wide-format print provider market becomes more crowded and competitive, margins will come under increasing pressure as they have in offset print. This trend may be exacerbated by new entrants to the market offering wide-format services at rates based on litho pricing models that neglect the amount of non-print activity that is included in most wide-format work. Even if these players subsequently exit the market, it is hard for remaining wide-format print providers to raise prices once they have been depressed.
Existing wide-format operators will therefore need to maximise the return from their investment through the improved efficiencies that integrated workflow and production management bring. As well as reducing the costs of producing current work, increased production management efficiency may also free up additional capacity from existing large-format printers, as well as releasing staff time to pursue these opportunities or to carry out other roles that add more value.