The Future of Wide Format
For the latest insights on the future of the wide-format industry, check out our 2020 report, The Post-Pandemic Future of Wide-Format.
Over the past 20 years, the visual communications market has evolved into a profitable segment of the printing industry — especially for technology-savvy shops who have continued to embrace change. Many of these business owners invested wisely in the latest equipment and materials to meet the needs and faster turnaround times demanded by their customers.
As with any industry, the sign and graphics market is continuing to undergo major changes and disruptions. Additionally, thanks to new advancements in technology and a converging market, wide-format sign and graphics are becoming available to an even wider variety of end users.
Where are the future markets? What trends are impacting the market now and what will happen over the next five years? Wide-format Impressions assembled a panel of experts (see the sidebar on page 24) to address these questions and explore the future of wide-format printing and the revenue opportunities it provides.
What are some of the big trends that will impact the market in the next 12-18 months?
Kevin Duffy: Texture in visual displays will be an attractive alternative for many applications. We’ve seen texture as an emergence through fabric display elements such as soft signage, and the trend is migrating to rigid substrates. We see wood-grain texture gaining popularity in a variety of substrates and this can be captured extremely well with expanded PVC signboard as it is application-friendly, durable and visually appealing. It can be imaged using wide-format flatbed printers, routed for an engraved-look, fabricated into structures that double as signage and withstand the elements for dozens of years; plus, it looks good for the length of installation.
Dan Johansen: Textile printing will continue to make a huge impact on the visual communications market in the coming months. Whether it’s soft signage, direct-to-garment, direct-to-textile or anything else in this space, customers look for these specialty applications with the same quick turnaround times they see in other segments. Even as print providers aim to drive down turn times, expect customers to push for more custom and personalized options in this space.
With soft signage in particular, we are seeing trends across the supply chain to better support direct-to-fabric printing. From equipment manufacturers to ink producers and fabric providers, the industry is significantly changing how print buyers look at point-of-purchase signage. In all sorts of textile-based printing, everything from fashion to décor, we will continue to see dynamic growth as these new applications create new revenue opportunities for print providers and new product options for the print buyer.
Beyond the textile space — but also including it—latex inkjet is continuing to make inroads based on technological strides delivering impressive gains in image quality, color fidelity and substrate diversity. In fact, in 2018 alone, new latex inkjet product families were introduced that create new opportunities for print providers to expand or redefine expectations for print quality and productivity in the space.
As more manufacturers continue to expand their portfolio of substrates for this platform, we will continue to see broad adoption of latex inkjet printing over and above many legacy technologies.
Dean Lambert: There are four major trends we’re staying close to in the coming year:
Décor: Digitally printed décor is in the initial stages of really booming. A big issue that we’re seeing is a rush to own décor content for print — and no one has been able to put the two together. However, we just saw that Walmart purchased Art.com for their library of owned content, so they don’t have to pay licensing fees. So, we’re definitely going to see more companies figuring out how to marry décor print with content.
Customization: Of course, owning the content will give digital printers the ability to further customize and personalize it for the consumer. Digital print technology is the key for print service providers (PSPs) to be able to produce anything from one-off, completely customized pieces to mass customization projects. We’re definitely going to see further development of customization in all print markets.
Soft signage: We continue to see the move from traditional rigid, heavy graphics to fabric/flexible light-weight graphics, especially in trade show, POP and retail environments. And what’s making this trend possible is the increase in printable textiles that can be used in a variety of print technologies, such as dye-sublimation, direct-to-fabric inkjet, latex and even some aqueous offerings.
Sustainability: This is a huge one that’s not slowing down anytime soon. What we find interesting is the generational interest in sustainable products. For example, if you’re selling two canvas prints and one is printed on a traditional cotton/poly blend for $20, and one is printed on the new HP Recycled Satin Canvas, which is made of recycled water bottles and costs $30, nine out of 10 times millennials will pay the extra $10 for the sustainable option. Again, we’re going to see this across all print markets — in particular, we see huge possibilities for PSPs who digitally print labels and flexible packaging.
Becky McConnell: A trend I think we’ll see continuing to grow and impact the market is PSPs that are diversifying the type of work they print and clients they serve. Just like any business, in an effort to be as productive and profitable as possible, the ability to successfully expand the markets served opens the doors for additional business opportunities.
Greg Neath: The market is becoming saturated with so many commercial printers having invested in wide-format very rapidly — leaving much of this equipment under-utilized. This has led to increased competition and margin pressures as they try to fill this capacity. We also expect that like the traditional commercial market, wide-format will begin to see consolidation due to this excess capacity. In order to remain competitive, printers need to identify specialized/niche wide-format markets that they can credibly own in their local market.
At TC Transcontinental Printing, our in-store marketing product printing services represent an avenue of growth for us. We are seeing growing enthusiasm and continue to pursue potential opportunities with both retailers and non-retailer customers. We hope for 2019 to gain more market share in this vertical.
Mark Radogna: If the GDP growth rate stays above 3% for the next few quarters, many companies will continue their investments in visual communications.
What are some new and emerging market/applications that will be coming to the forefront in the next 12-18 months?
Duffy: Continuing the discussion about wood-grain texture, the potential applications include indoor and outdoor POP signage for sporting goods and home improvement stores; wayfinding for parks, playgrounds, zoos and marinas; and corporate identity signage. Other applications may include restaurant menu boards, custom home-address placards, museum displays, durable award displays — if wood is the texture of choice and the application requires durability and longevity, then wood-grain PVC is the logical choice.
Brian Hite: Soft signage and fabric will continue to gain market share as new applications emerge and traditional applications are replaced by fabric applications.
Visual communications and applications will shift to more interactive and immersive experiences that engage consumers on a more personal level either through direct interaction or social media applications.
Printed visuals will continue to grow and evolve to remain relevant to the changing demographics.
Interior surface decoration will increase in popularity as companies create more attractive work environments.
Johansen: In the last year alone, we’ve seen a lot of excitement growing in the décor segment, as well as increased demand for and interest in direct printing to substrates as part of manufacturing processes. Wide-format inkjet technology is being used today to directly print to substrates for everything from furniture manufacturing, to small component production, to rigid wall- and floor-covering creation and direct printing to architectural surfaces, such as glass, for construction applications.
Since the advent of wide-format, markets and opportunities have been created on an ongoing basis, rooted in both the print buyers’ and print producers’ desire to push the boundaries of what technologies can do. That continues to be the case today — and now there’s more progress to build on than ever before. While much of the advancements in the last decade have created a variety of solutions for devices to print with, what is fueling today’s emerging markets is what can be printed on. As the industry moves forward, we will continue to see substrate-driven evolution of wide-format technology into new markets.
Lambert: Get ready for more options in wallcoverings. We were working with one of our customers, Screaming Images, who needed a digitally printable vinyl wall paper, but with a self-adhesive backing, rather than the typical wall paper paste. So, we worked with our manufacturers to use the Type II-certified Gold Mylar wallcovering from Vescom, and then we engineered an adhesive to match their specifications. This customized product was used to create customized wallcoverings on the ships in the Virgin Voyages cruise line.
Another cool application is printed textiles in SEG frames used for trade shows, retail environments and exhibits. We’re seeing some great ingenuity in new products that make these easier than ever. These advances allow retailers a lot more flexibility to quickly change out their seasonal messaging. It’s so easy to change the graphics that any retail employee can handle it.
Bryan Manwaring: Digital inkjet printing is always growing, evidenced by new and innovative print applications. Soft-signage and textile applications are making their way into digital print and more offset printers are moving to digital as color output and speed, in particular, improves.
McConnell: Although custom interior design and environmental graphics are a quickly growing market already, we will continue to see growth in this arena. Even high-end brands can use environmental graphics as visual communication and with a short amount of time to catch the attention of those that interact, brands and businesses are hard pressed to be eye catching. The use of non-traditional items for printing will continue to grow, as well, as the importance of visual communication will continue to grow based on consumer behavior. In the same way that packaging and the way consumers interact with it has changed, the impression of communication will continue to gain importance.
Neath: It will be critical for wide-format printers to have a deep knowledge in the industries they wish to serve. As retail makes up the largest market for wide-format, printers will be expected to have expert staff that understands retail-activation and in-store marketing. Printers who become industry experts will have the most long-term success.
There are many niche and specialty markets of retail that a printer could work on to become the local expert/supplier. Specialties such as light boxes fabrication along with fabric printing capabilities is a fast-growing segment that is open to local printers to become leaders. From a national printer standpoint, we are looking at the same type of opportunities, but we are also using our national leadership to provide personalized solutions that are unique to individual stores in a large chain. This works especially well in the franchisee model where stores may have unique regional/seasonal signage needs.
Radogna: The use of traditional sign printing and digital projection technologies allowing PSPs to offer non-signage related products to their customers. This can be anything from customized, on-demand promotional products to impactful digital projection mapping and large video walls to get attention.
What non-traditional (non-sign/graphics) markets could prove to be an area of growth for PSPs?
Duffy: Architectural designers are also seeing the benefits of using wide-format printing and varied textured substrates to customize the interiors or exteriors of their building projects — think rustic lodge interiors, with custom-imaged components such as wayfinding and common room elements that can be either structural or signage-related.
Hite: I believe the quality, speed and increased automation of equipment and software tool advances will create new opportunities for companies prepared to adapt and focus on customer desires.
Johansen: We’re seeing PSPs today introduce newer print technologies like UV direct-to-substrate printing alongside expanded digital finishing capabilities. With this there are now more opportunities than ever before to look at both short run and prototype packaging applications as potential new revenue streams. For many companies already producing signage and graphics, this opens up an opportunity to deliver the applications many of their B2B customers are looking to fulfill anyway. Right now, as with many other printing technologies, the demand for shorter runs and customization in packaging is large and increasing. This creates a new business opportunity for many PSPs that have experience with short runs and tight turns, allowing them to empower both small and established clients to approach their product packaging at a more localized and unique level. That’s a benefit customers won’t soon forget — and one they’re bound to tell their friends about, driving new and repeat business.
Lambert: For digital inkjet printers, the world of labels and flexible packaging is a lot closer to what they do now than they might think. Digital technology, like HP Indigo, along with the materials, supplies and services needed, are developing rapidly. Providing the benefits of digital — quick turnaround, short runs and customization — will be a huge growth opportunity in labels and flex-pack in the coming years.
McConnell: With so many markets experiencing mergers and consolidations — as well as generally shrinking run lengths, whether that is due to markets changing or customized and localized marketing efforts — this will prove to be an opportunity for PSPs as those markets experience changes. Because many sign and graphics PSPs have adjusted or are in the process of changing the way they do business due to market changes, the experience they have in shorter runs can help open the door to new and different applications like industrial or packaging opportunities.
Neath: Wide-format equipment, paired with the right finishing capabilities, provide printers with the opportunity to chase promotional short-run packaging opportunities. Promotional short-run packaging is an area that the packaging printers are generally not able to compete with due to their long-run equipment and long lead times. Printers who can position themselves as experts in this niche will find the doors open at local manufacturers and will find this is a growing segment of the packaging market that wide-format printers can exploit.
Where do you see the wide-format market in the next three to five years?
Duffy: From our perspective, the wide-format market will continue to grow with UV-cure equipment still quite popular and the emergence of latex rigid printing. While some analysts are projecting that the overall digital print market is maturing, we see enterprising owners and operators of the equipment seeking out new and innovative ways of maximizing their capital expenditures by thinking outside of the box through expanded offerings — often including inventive display graphics solutions.
Hite: I see continued consolidation of mid-market companies allowing smaller more agile companies to move up market.
Johansen: Three to five years is seemingly a lifetime from where we are. Technology and demand move fast in this market. We fully expect unique types and colors of ink to continue to evolve, expanding the boundaries of wide-format. We’re already seeing some of this, as companies have expanded from traditional four-color printing to include spot colors for everything from metallics to neons. This type of ink development, in addition to delivering eye-catching, unique splashes of color, will provide opportunities for greater color fidelity.
As inks evolve and improve, we also expect continued significant development in the diversity of substrates available for PSPs to print on. The last five years have seen remarkable growth in unique products, many of which started off as niche offerings and then, based on customer demand, have grown into market-changing substrates that PSPs can use to expand their footprint. The dynamic growth in soft signage is a perfect example of how the marriage of printer manufacturer and substrate manufacturer has helped to create an entirely new segment within wide-format that has had a profound impact on the economics of POP display graphics. While there is no crystal ball that can deliver specifics, we can confidently expect to see evolution happen quietly at first before catching on and having a profound, lasting impact. The trick is keeping your eye on the early ripples, so you can position yourself well to ride the wave when it comes.
Lambert: We’re seeing fulfillment operations allowing their customers to go global and deliver finished products anywhere in the world within two days. Companies like Society6 and Ikonick are just a few examples of artist-centric companies with proprietary designs that partnered with global print fulfillment operations to help their businesses explode worldwide.
This, of course, adds to the growing e-commerce options for consumers. For PSPs and fulfillment houses, e-commerce expands customer cases infinitely, as long as they’re willing to ship to them.
Manwaring: We expect to see more of what has become a trend this past year. From print buyers, we see a desire for higher quality output and faster turnaround times, both of which are rooted in their increased knowledge of industry output standards and the “Amazon-style” consumer culture that has blanketed all sales transactions.
What does this mean? It means PSPs are needing the kinds of solutions that help them meet their evolving needs, such as increased automation in their end-to-end print workflows, verifiable output accuracy that can be proven as consistent over time, and the ability to show print buyers that output quality before printing in order to differentiate themselves in an already competitive landscape.
There is also a huge demand for data, primary from the production workflow, more of which we expect to see over the next several years. Having site-wide control using actual data that is not dependent on human input or estimations is becoming a necessity for success in running a productive and efficient print environment. A solution that can monitor all print jobs in one location and provide production capacity, efficiency and cost information are just some of the ways PSPs are growing their profitability and reducing waste.
McConnell: Based on the changes we’ve seen over the past 10 years, I believe we’ll see the wide-format market maintain growth with PSPs diversifying and printing on a greater number of substrates because demand will continue to grow. I think customization and localization of marketing campaigns, which have proven themselves successful, will become the standard for all campaigns, which will continue to aid in the growth of digital printing in the wide-format market. And as print quality continues to improve, print speeds get faster and PSPs require optimum performance for ink, the technology developing in the wide-format market will also allow for growth to continue in this market.
Neath: Consolidation: We see significant consolidation happening in wide-format and accelerating each year (as we have seen in traditional commercial print). Many printers have gotten into wide-format because it was “the thing to do” and did so without a long-term vision.
Fabrication Capabilities: A big trend will be to move toward print and fabrication. This would include multi-substrate displays or signage and the ability for the printer to provide the fabricated piece — a great example is building light-boxes and printing the fabric that retailers use for displays that are easy to change out. Being the fabricator means you can “own” the annuity of replacing the printed sign that usually change with each season or promotion. This is where the long-term value lies.
Specialization: Smart printers who have invested in wide-format will begin to find specialized niches that they can “own” in their market. From product niches like fabric or vehicle wraps to industry niches like commercial real-estate or promotional packaging — specialization is the best way to ensure success in the wide-format business.
Radogna: The economic condition of the United States is a key driver for most visual communication markets. If we can continue GDP growth of at least 2.5% over the next three to five years, companies will need impactful visual communications to help them sell product.
Related story: The Post-Pandemic Future of Wide-Format
Denise Gustavson is the Editorial Director and Special Projects Editor for the Printing & Packaging Group, which includes Printing Impressions, packagePRINTING, In-plant Graphics and Wide-Format Impressions magazines, among other brands. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Wide-Format Impressions.