5 Specialty Printing Businesses That Will Have You Thinking Outside the Box
For the majority of print service providers (PSPs), wide-format printers are foundational tools for core applications, ranging from signage, banners, labels, and decals to POP, vehicle wraps, and the like. However, for some imaginative entrepreneurs, these devices enable printing in unique ways on unusual surfaces and materials — helping to create a host of specialty and industrial products that form the basis of new companies and industries.
Personalized Plates on Demand
Take Estes Park, Co.-based Z Plates, for example. What started out as a hobby for Owner Mike Bertrand soon became a booming business, thanks to wide-format printing processes.
“I was fascinated with license plates,” Bertrand says. “About 10 years ago, I started collecting them, and then to help support the hobby I started selling license plates.”
While U.S. plates have been popular with Bertrand’s customer base, it was European license plates — and German plates in particular — that quickly became best sellers.
“I bought a box of used German plates and sold out of them right away,” he says. “These used plates had marks and nicks on them. The registration stickers had been scratched out. I realized that I wanted to do this, but I wanted to make new plates.”
Bertrand subsequently purchased the standard manufacturing equipment used in Germany to make license plates.
“I have all the same equipment — my plates are actually street legal in Germany,” he says, adding that he now operates a 30-ton embossing machine and hot foil stamping machine to create lettering for his line of custom plates. He also purchased a Roland LEF series UV flatbed printer.
“The LEF does a ton of things,” he says. “I have customers who want to put a state flag on a plate — or a different country code — and instead of carrying hundreds of plates for each state or country, I can carry the blank plates and custom print any image, any color, on the fly.”
Hit the Jackpot with Custom Slot Machines
For Sussex, Wis.-based Color Ink, the move into industrial and specialty printing was driven by the company’s existing wide-format clientele.
“About 10 years ago, one of our retail clients gave us an ultimatum, informing us that they would only work with printers who could supply their full range of signage needs,” says Todd Meissner, president of Color Ink. At the time, the company was producing most of its wide-format prints on 40" litho presses and outsourcing graphics that were too large for the equipment.
Today, Color Ink serves its clients with an array of print platforms, including a Komori 6-color litho press, Fujifilm’s J Press, a Komori Impremia IS29, two toner color printers, and a lineup of UV flatbed printers that includes an Agfa Jeti Mira and two Fujifilm Inca devices, a SpyderX and Onset Q40i.
“For our digital finishing and embellishing needs, we utilize two Zünd digital cutters, and we also have an MGI JetVarnish 3DL for digital raised UV coatings and foil,” Meissner says.
He adds that the move into UV printing has resulted in tremendous growth for Color Ink over the years. “We have been able to successfully retain business while adding new business opportunities that we never imagined,” he says.
Today, wide-format printing represents 40% of Color Ink’s overall sales volume, with packaging, direct mail, commercial print, and trade show marketing making up the rest.
“Digital printing has opened up the ability to produce really small runs — down to individual units,” Meissner says. “As a result, we get these interesting requests for one-off, interactive displays.”
All of which has taken Color Ink from a one-stop shop for commercial and wide-format print services to a full manufacturing operation for custom kiosks and slot machines.
“About four years ago, an ad agency client in Philadelphia was working with a realty association in California that wanted an interactive slot machine produced,” says Meissner. “A really big one — 8-ft. tall, 5-ft. deep and 4-ft. wide. With it, you could pull a lever and win a prize. The goal was to create traffic and engagement and to drive curiosity. There was also a social media campaign involved in it.”
It wasn’t long before Meissner and his team found themselves building slot machines from the ground up for an array of clients, including casinos.
“We are now building turnkey machines,” he says. “The interactive graphics include branded company logos, and we create special emojis for the spinning mechanisms. We produce the sounds, the lights — handle the programming, install the switches, computers, and monitors. Everything works together.”
He adds, “A common theme for all our clients is that they are marketing or advertising something — so all the things we are doing are purely marketing related. Getting the wow factor is so important to them — especially for retail clients operating brick-and-mortar stores. They want to create an experience for customers coming into the store, and they are tasking us with adding value to that experience.”
Bringing Art to Life with Tactile Effects
For Atlanta, Ga.-based DAC Art Consulting, specialty printing must meet the high standards of the world’s most discerning art buyers. A full-service art consultancy, the company specializes in providing artwork for the hospitality and health care sectors, managing more than 900 projects a year.
“We work with hotels, restaurants, health care facilities, organizations of that nature,” says President and CEO Anthony Deljou. With 50 artists on staff to paint original artwork, DAC also distributes its pieces through a network of art galleries and interior designers. “We produce our own artwork,” he says. “We don’t have other people bring in their images for us to produce.”
Deljou and his staff operate more than 15 wide-format printers, primarily from Epson and HP, equipped with pigment, solvent, and latex inks for printing on paper and canvas. DAC has also invested in an Agfa Anapurna FB2540i LED-UV flatbed printer which, according to Deljou, “prints on anything.” Its specialty, he adds, is creating textures.
“We have a team of graphic artists who will take an image and impose texture on certain aspects of it — and we will take seven to 10 passes so when you view the figurative image, the lips and the eyes will stand out because of these textures,” Deljou says. “The quality is phenomenal.”
DAC also uses the device to print on unusual substrates, including woods and metals, and to create relief patterns for images using layers of white ink as an undercoat.
“We have found that there are images that look better when printed on the flatbed than the actual originals look,” Deljou says. “This is because of the tremendous detail we can achieve digitally. So, this device is not just a production platform for us — it has also become another artist. We’ll sit around and discuss which artist might be good for this project or that, and often the job goes straight to the flatbed machine.”
High-End Art Goes 3D
Max Art Productions is a publisher of fine art based in Las Vegas, whose clients include the National Geographic Fine Art Galleries and renowned artists such as Michael Godard. Founder Nick Landis also knows all too well the unforgiving nature of the fine art world.
“We ran into problems some time ago because in the giclée business, longevity of the prints was becoming an issue,” he says. To ensure print quality and longevity for the company’s clients, Max Art Productions began printing in-house six years ago.
Today, the company’s 50 employees serve the production needs of 600 artists and photographers, working with “all the latest Epson printers,” as well as a Canon Océ Arizona 1280 series UV flatbed printer and Trotec SP2000 laser cutter.
Among Max Art Productions’ top clients is David Beavis of Park City, Utah, who Landis describes as “one of the pioneering photographers to request 3D multilayered printing.”
He notes, “He will create, for example, a piece featuring a horse, and we print it in such a way that you can see the texture of its hair,” Landis says. Max Art Productions uses Canon’s Océ Touchtone software to achieve just the right effect. “He is one of our first clients who is doing this type of printing on a large scale, and we are planning a gallery release in the coming months.”
Max Art Productions also serves the needs of casinos through an acquired company. “We purchased a local company who had been doing work for casino gaming manufacturers, including laser-etched toppers and components for slot machines and gaming products,” Landis says. He adds that the quality controls in the gaming business are stringent. “They are very strict and give us a report card on our work every quarter,” he says.
One challenge Landis sees in the market is that many of the company’s photography industry clients continue to prefer continuous-tone reproduction processes over digital printing.
“We are still running two Océ LightJets,” he says. “There is a really strong niche photography market that loves film — and believes it can’t be replicated on an inkjet. That is kind of neat, actually. But one of our biggest challenges is that the technology in this space has struggled to keep up with the market when it comes to photographers — especially in wide-format.”
Lenticular Prints on Various Media
Anaheim, Calif.-based Direct Edge also serves the photography industry with specialty printing. “We founded Direct Edge with the goal to print large-format photo enlargements at an affordable price,” says Ryan Clark, who co-founded the company with business partner Ryan Brueckner. “By concentrating on expanding various verticals, Direct Edge has transformed into a full-service print communications company that includes specialty printing.”
According to Brueckner, a big factor driving Direct Edge’s growth in the segment has been the company’s technological investments, including software automation and equipment.
“Direct Edge is capable of working with all types of materials,” he says. “Part of what we enjoy is the discovery of unique and never-created surfaces and materials through working on projects with clients, along with extensive research and development.”
As a case in point, Direct Edge recently partnered with a local action sports company to produce 4x8-ft. lenticular prints. “To achieve the best results, we ended up modifying our Fujifilm Onset X3 UV flatbed printer to be able to handle large amounts of white ink while still printing at a high density and maintaining speed,” Brueckner says.
According to Clark, businesses today are increasingly looking to non-traditional production methods to capture the attention of customers by creating unique signage, displays, promotional products, and other branding elements that make up the consumer experience.
And to succeed in this market, Brueckner emphasizes, it is important to take risks. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” he says. “Everyone can buy a printer and be able to print accurate, high-quality images. It’s staying curious, evolving with the technology, and setting yourself apart from competitors that allows you to exceed your clients’ expectations.”