In a crowded print segment like graphics production, differentiation is an essential strategy for those companies seeking to avoid competing on price, or who wish to avoid competing in commoditized application areas. Simply put, finishing is what converts the print (that which comes out of the printer) into the product (that which your customers specify). For graphics producers, finishing is a primary opportunity for differentiation across the spectrum of applications we call “wide-format.”
In some cases, simply having a specific finishing technology, such as a digital embellishment system, in place creates its own value-add. Not many producers have the technology and those that do have something truly different to offer. In other cases, such as with a lamination system, simply having one is not a differentiating factor. What is interesting, in these cases, is when the systems are used in novel or specialized ways.
To illustrate how key wide-format print finishing technologies are being used by companies to differentiate, provide a value-add, and access higher-margin work, representatives of three finishing system manufacturers provided their insight. They are Brian Buisker, president of AGL, Inc., a producer of lamination systems; Heather Roden, sales director, North America for Kongsberg Precision Cutting Systems, a producer of cutting and routing tables; and Jeff Sponseller, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Miller Weldmaster Corp., a producer of vinyl welding and seaming systems.
The Finishing Opportunity
Roden is a strong believer that wide-format producers use finishing technologies to differentiate their businesses. “As someone who has spent time in the inkjet device space,” she says, “I see how many applications are enabled by using, for instance, a cutting, routing, or milling solution.” She sees finishing as a way to diversify, and to also create a scenario where a broader mix of products can be offered to customers. Through finishing, she adds, graphics and sign businesses can easily move into a manufacturing space to create additional avenues of revenue.
One of the struggles facing companies just getting into wide-format production, says Sponseller, is that they tend to underestimate the amount of time needed for finishing. For them, he says, it becomes a new production bottleneck. In his experience, it is their better customers who invest heavily in finishing because they understand that finishing capacity must be proportionate with printing technologies. He further notes that as printing devices become faster, thus too must finishing technologies, which means finishing capacity is somewhat of a moving target.
Buisker says that, specifically, laminators are go-to tools for wide-format graphics producers, and changes in that space are underway. He says that with the rapid growth (and speed) of UV-curable inkjet printers, producers are seeking more robust lamination solutions that can both laminate UV output effectively and keep up with increasing production speeds. He suggests that those seeking to differentiate must seek the “right tool for the job.”
As a source of value-adds, finishing systems can enable access to new opportunities, and should not be taken lightly. Sponseller conveyed a story about Miller Weldmaster purchasing a wide-format printer with the intention of doing its own trade show graphics. The company was surprised to learn how difficult it was to set up workable internal graphics production, including finishing — a realization he found surprising.
Sponseller says that those companies that can truly glean a “value add” from their finishing processes are those who have been in the industry for a while and who can capitalize on their investment. For the most part, he says, “when companies get behind in their work” — meaning when printer output exceeds the ability of finishing to keep up — “that’s when we get calls.”
Regarding value-adds stemming from finishing technologies, Roden says companies must really consider what their examples of real or potential deliverables will be, and how they are going to be presented to the customer in an engaging way. Further, she says it is important to allow the operators of finishing systems the time and materials to get creative and to develop the possibilities and proficiencies needed to offer new things. As an example, she says Kongsberg’s VariAngle tool, which allows bevel cuts of up to 60 degrees, has enabled companies to create attractive three-dimensional structures — an inspiring possibility that takes both exploration and practice.
Accessing new opportunities and creating value-adds that can bring stronger margins is about being prepared, says Buisker. He adds that lamination has changed in the last decade, with a strong migration from thermal (hot) lamination to a broader use of cold lamination using pressure-sensitive materials. Despite this reality, he says, being limited only to cold lamination may also limit capabilities to innovate or expand. “Many larger shops,” he says, “monitor trends in printing and want to have the equipment on hand to capitalize when trends occur.” Buisker says these companies will invest in devices that, “give them the versatility they need in the ever-changing printing universe.”
Seeking or Fulfilling Promise
In lamination, while many companies in the wide-format space use their systems to apply a simple, protective overlaminate, those companies operating at a higher level of sophistication in lamination have found ways to offer more by taking greater advantage of their capabilities. For a pop-up display, for instance, lamination can provide an improved look, performance, and durability with the layering of a few products. This could include a matte overlaminate to improve viewability and durability, a light-blocking layer for displays that may be subject to light from behind, and even a rigid backing layer to help prevent “curl” on the edges of the print. Buisker says that fabricators of trade show displays, in particular, are always finding creative ways to “combine products to create something that stands out from the crowd.”
One “holy grail” opportunity to be found among wide-format producers — particularly those with flatbed printers and cutting tables — is the ability to “converge” into certain short-run packaging applications, and it is finishing that really makes this possible. Roden says companies operating in the retail display space may have better access to packaging opportunities because they have familiarity with the materials. She says that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “many people found themselves looking for new opportunities, and we now have a North American culture that is reinvigorated into starting businesses.” Because of this, she says, there is a need for smaller, shorter runs of packaging, which may allow graphics producers the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a starting business. This type of packaging, Roden says, is often an approach closer to online fulfillment than it is to custom work: decoration of standard sizes and shapes, as opposed to full creation.
While the experts interviewed for this article are pleased that graphics companies have invested in, and are seeing great value in the systems they offer, each can offer a suggestion as to how companies can gain additional value from their respective systems. Roden urges companies to keep in mind their ability to scale up production by moving more into automation, and by seeing their initial investment as a “base purchase” upon which finishing (in this case, cutting and routing tables) can be expanded. “Automation can increase efficiency to the point where it’s ‘set it and forget it,’” Roden says, “and lots of people are looking into automation today.”
Buisker says laminators should be seen as one of the most versatile tools in any shop, but adds that too many shops see them as one-dimensional. “A laminator laminates,” he says, “but it can also be used for masking, and especially as a mounting device.” He notes that in shops that have limited space and the need to do many things, companies should not forget that “a quality laminator will effectively handle all three of these tasks without creating bottleneck issues.”
Echoing Buisker’s suggestion to use equipment to its full extent, Sponseller says companies with vinyl welding and seaming equipment are well-advised to recognize the full versatility of the equipment — truly understanding what it can do. “Most companies are using the systems to make banners,” he says, but he notes the systems can be used to expand a company’s product mix into, for instance, awnings, printed wall or ceiling panels for vinyl tents, and three-dimensional items such as the cylindrical tire-stack covers often seen outside service stations.
Based on the advice above, one “nature” of the opportunity inherent to finishing equipment comes to the fore: understanding the capabilities of the equipment you possess (or seek) opens doors of possibility. Further, it can give you a better sense of the feasibility of jobs outside of your normal, or what it would take for your company to access new product, or even market, areas with your existing equipment.
Finally, it is important to note that graphics installation is often considered an essential, final step in many graphic projects. Whether the end goal is a flashy vehicle wrap, decorative window graphics, or the hanging of digitally-printed wallpaper, the job is not complete until the product is in place. Whether this is done via in-house installation teams or contracted professional graphics installers, many graphics producers have included installation services as a part of offering a complete, finished product.
Just like the wide-format printer's graphics producers use to make the print, finishing technologies come to market in a dizzying variety of sizes, widths, levels of automation, and price points. It is up to the graphics company — perhaps through consultation with a trusted supplier — to source a system that will serve its needs and facilitate differentiation.