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Large format signage Trends and threats

Printing, for some an art, for others merely a production process. For those involved in the process it is more than the means to earning a livelihood, it is a way of life. There are those, however, who consider it to be a dead process. This is possibly wishful thinking on the part of the people with an alternative they would like to see grow or desperation on the part of those that have been unable to evolve as the demands on printing have changed.

Printing is a very general term. Here at The GAPP we define printing in the very broadest sense, the placement of ink – whatever its formulation – onto a substrate – whatever that may be. One sector of printing which is growing rapidly is large format. Many companies have made a very successful business from large format printing, while many existing printers have seen the benefits to be accrued from offering this as an add-on service to their customers.

As with every sector of the printing industry, large format printing experiences highs and lows as new trends and fads arise and existing offerings fall out of fashion. The success of a company can be measured on its ability to navigate these cycles and maintain an even keel. As with all other sectors of the printing industry, signage is increasingly being affected by environmental concerns. The use of solvents and solvent-based inks is rapidly becoming a sore point as more governments around the world – including South Africa – adopt a more stringent policy with regards to the ecological impact of these types of chemicals.

One of the most important trends which signage companies here in South Africa will face in the coming year is the move away from solvent-based inks, including eco-solvent. This is something of a double-edged sword in that reducing the use of these inks brings with it an environmentally-friendly tag but at the same time pushes the cost of prints way up. It also means that those companies, for whom the environmental aspect is important, will be hard-pushed to compete with the more mercenary printers. Alternatives to solvent-based inks include aqueous inks and UV curable inks. The drawback of aqueous inks is their durability. HP, however, has solved this problem with its Latex inks.

UV curable inks are seen as one important way of avoiding the ecological quagmire of using solvent. The downfall is the cost and it is for this reason that its acceptance has been slow with more installations in Europe than in America and again more in the USA than in some of the larger developing markets where there is very little concern for environmental issues. The rate of acceptance of UV curable inks also has something to do with the product which first made inroads – this is a question of heritage.

Another trend is the use of QR codes. Increasingly, buyers of large format signage are using QR codes as a means of attracting potential customers to participate or interact with them. It offers a quantifiable and accurate means of evaluating the efficacy of a particular poster or banner. The fact that this is becoming more important for buyers of signage means that it is an opportunity for large format printers to offer this service as a means of generating added value for customers and also creating additional revenue streams for printers.

An important element in differentiating one supplier from another will be the use of various finishing techniques. Far more than the standard application of strings and eyelets, signage is making use of finishing techniques such as laminating to give the final product a more appealing look. One supplier which has addressed this with a complete solution is Roland with a print and cut solution which assists in speeding up the production process.

Finding new avenues and products will feature strongly for many companies as a way of separating them from the run-of-the-mill. Printing onto adhesive vinyls for wrapping irregular shapes such as vehicles or even everyday household items will be one method. Another is printing directly onto thicker more rigid substrates such as doors or screens, thereby eliminating the need for adhesives or the work associated with sticking vinyl onto a substrate. Many of the leading suppliers already manufacture large format printers capable of doing just this.

Trends are an ethereal aspect of business, so often as a trend appears to be developing it is swallowed by something more comprehensive or it simply vanishes as fast as it appeared. A good way of judging the development of a trend is to attend major trade exhibitions. This is where both the manufacturers and users of technology get together and new trends are born. It is through discussion and collaboration that ideas come to fruition. Possibly the most important forum for this discussion in the signage industry is the SGIA expo which took place towards the end of October in Las Vegas. While it is too soon to see the development of any new trends arising out of this expo, you can rest-assured that many of the new trends will definitely have taken root in Las Vegas.

From the manufacturers’ perspective there are two major aspects at play. There is one side where there is the push to continue increasing the production speed of the machines with the aim of turning them into high-productivity printers. On the other hand there is the demand for increased quality which generally results in a slower production speed. Quality is now virtually a given with all large format printer models, especially in current market segments. However, there is a growing demand for even better quality in order for the machines to be used in a wider range of applications. A select few customers are even prepared to deal with slower production speeds for the benefit of increased quality.

From the customers’ perspective there is a demand to be able to print onto a wider range of substrates including material for garment printing, porcelain, ceramics, plastics, films and many other materials, far too numerous to mention. The developments in technology and inks mean that the range of substrates and applications are only limited by the imagination.

There is only one potential threat to large format printing and that is digital signage. This sector of the market is currently small but major advances in LED technology, as well as other electronic developments, are seeing the proliferation of electronic signage devices. There was clear evidence of this at the recent sign show which took place in Johannesburg. The smart players will at least take notice of this. At least one major supplier of large format printing technology was seen showing an electronic offering. While the cost of investment in electronic signage may be a deterrent for the time being, it definitely has a market and must be taken into account.

Large format printing is one of the few sectors of the printing industry where growth is assured. Watching and assessing the latest trends will give innovative and forward-thinking companies the competitive edge.

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