With advancements in printing technologies and processes comes a continually expanding market of opportunity for print service providers (PSPs). Print today is more than ink on paper: it’s ink on metal, glass, ceramic, and other substrates, creating products people encounter in their daily lives, from the signage they see, to the doormats they walk on, and the backsplashes adorning their kitchens. But like adding any new service, there are different considerations with these applications, including the technologies involved, and what markets and trends are driving these opportunities.
Specialty Printing Trends
Though the range of products with specialty printing is wide, there are “a ton of different applications that are still being discovered,” says Don Copeland, product manager, UV & DTG Products, ColDesi Inc., a supplier headquartered in Tampa, Fla., with different divisions offering equipment and supplies — running the gamut from vinyl cutters to UV printers — blanks, and training.
“It’s all over the place,” Copeland says of the specialty applications he sees, noting examples of customized basketballs, travertine tiles, tumblers, corrugated plastic signs, cable boxes, and acrylic bands for masks. And the trends, he says, seem to go through waves. “Right now, we’ve had a huge influx of people doing coir (coconut husk) mats,” he says.
Along with the huge wedding market, Copeland notes the seasonal opportunities for specialty and promo product printing, such as graduations and holidays — also a lucrative market for lasers with items like Christmas ornaments. These possibilities are especially evident in what Copeland calls the “exploding Etsy market.” “A lot of the stuff on Etsy is huge because direct-to-substrate works on stuff that’s handmade,” he adds. “You can make [a product] look like you made it by hand when you do it with a UV printer just by being creative with Photoshop.”
Entrepreneurial and home-based businesses are also among the customers for Enduring Images in Golden, Colo., which supplies ceramic decorating systems that combine digital printers with ceramic inorganic toner formulations.
This technology enables high-resolution four-color imagery to be “put on materials that are essentially infinitely durable in the earth’s environment,” says COO Ron Manwiller. “They’re kiln-fired ceramic items, so they’re commercially useful, commercially functional, and yet have the same kind of photographic quality and imagery that you would get in any other type of printing on paper.”
An ideal low-cost entry opportunity for entrepreneurs, ceramic printing is also being driven by the increasing demand for personalized materials in a mass market, says Manwiller. In addition to commercial end uses such as floor, wall, backsplash, and swimming pool tiles, he has seen customers produce customized bourbon stones, beer growlers, table ware, cemetery memorial portraits, dental veneers, and a first he’s recently seen in his 18 years in the industry — fishing lures.
“Everybody wants something personal. They also want something that’s going to last in a lot of end uses that has not been possible in the past. With digital ceramic printing, it’s very possible,” he adds. “Imagination is really the only limitation, and it continues to be exciting for me to see the wild and unique ideas some of our customers come up with when they call us to buy a printing system.”
Metal and Glass Applications
Durability has made metal an appealing medium for PSPs and businesses like Bay Photo Lab, based outside of Santa Cruz, Calif., which was the professional photo lab to put metal prints on the map in 2009, says Marketing Coordinator Mallory Weatherby.
“There’s been a light stability test done, which proved that metal prints last four times the amount of photographic prints, which are already archival,” she says, noting that though it offers ceramic and acrylic products, Bay Photo’s MetalPrints remain its most popular. It also offers its Performance EXT MetalPrints — designed to last two to three years in direct sunlight without fading — and its new EPIC prints, which are 610 dpi photographic prints mounted on aluminum composite.
“Metal is just a limitless medium, because there are so many different surfaces,” she adds. “So that’s a selling point for us. We definitely like to encourage creativity on the photographers’ part so they can really find whatever they’re looking for style-wise with MetalPrints, and not only with the surfaces, but the finishing options, the framing, [and] the mounting substrates.”
Weatherby also notes how these substrates have been especially popular amid the home decoration surge during the pandemic. “We’ve noticed a spike in the home gallery wall trend,” she says. “Sales have increased in prints in general across the industry. I think that people appreciate being able to customize their own displays to what they’re looking for.”
Toren Prawdzik, president of Photo EVO, has also seen increased demand for metal applications during the pandemic. The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based operation features an array of print offerings, including banners, signage, metal prints and ornaments, invitations, and magnets.
“We’re getting a lot of requests for metal because of the antibacterial aspect,” he says. “You can hose it down, you can spray all kinds of nasty bleaches and chemicals on it, and nothing happens. So that’s been a big one for places looking to reopen and have signage, but have it be clean signage.”
Personalization plays a role in 95% of what Photo EVO does, even on signage, says Prawdzik, noting people’s desire to identify with and support their local economy and community. “That simple change is a personalization of some extent, whether it be a name, location, town, or school logo, it all comes down to getting it more identified as local or regional,” he says. “They also equate that with it [being] bought locally. If they’re getting the local town name on it, well, that’s not getting sold out of China, that’s getting sold here. So, they feel like they’re contributing back to more of a local establishment as well.”
When it comes to printing on glass, Kris Iverson, marketing and creative director of Moon Shadow Glass in Sandy, Ore., which offers everything from sandblast-etched glass to direct print on glass and laminate, says many of its customers in the hospital, hotel, school, and transit spaces are looking for transparency.
“We’ve found more and more people want transparency so you can kind of see through, but not always see through, the glass,” he says, noting common security standards in the transit industry where people’s outlines should be visible from particular distances. “That’s one of the big issues we run into, and that’s one of the reasons we do a direct print versus some of the other methods you can do in glass.”
Navigating Technology Options
When adding specialty printing to a business, Copeland says the lower-entry level is sublimation. “The downside to sublimation is it has to be a white substrate, in most cases it has to be coated, it has to be pretty flat unless you get one of the high-end vacuum systems, and it requires a heat press,” he says.
Prawdzik also notes the most popular and easiest being dye-sublimation. “You can go onto fabrics, you can go onto hard substrates — it really kind of crosses over a lot of different areas that you can do,” he says.