Tying Together Random Thoughts in the Digital Space

Equipment shifts, dye sub, and media among the important trends.

Infotrends is updating our global forecasts as I am writing this column. Several things are jumping out at us at the lower-end of the market:

  • Although wide-format aqueous inkjet printers are easily the most flexible systems in their class right now in terms of the range of applications they can effectively produce, the market for printers below 24 in. continues to shrink, as does the market for 60-in.-wide aqueous printers.
  • Single-pass wide-format solutions are taking root, with companies like Xerox, Xante, RTI, and Canon/Oce bringing product to market. These printers are already really fast, and HP has just shaken things up with its announcement that it will enter the single-pass segment with a faster model in 2015.
  • The latest generation of latex printers is really going after the large (90,000+ unit) installed base of wide-format eco-solvent inkjet printers.
     

Judging by the reaction of some of HP’s customers and resellers, we believe that the new HP Latex 300-series is going to get strong attention in the second half of 2014 and beyond. The Latex 360 is interesting because it has some of the image-quality production tools from the HP DesignJet Z-series such as OMAS (optical media advance sensoring), integrated spectrophotometer, and profiling tools. The Latex 360 also has some of the functionality of the HP Latex 3000 production system including the same ink set, all at a very aggressive price point. I think that over the next few years, we are going to hear a lot of discussion about which wide-format printing technology is most effective and cost-efficient—eco-solvent, latex, or LED-curing inkjet. We’re already hearing a lot of chatter about it.
 

Dye sub on the rebound

Interest in sublimation is also picking up again. The latest samples showing what is possible using dye-sub printers are very compelling, especially in the imprinted-sportswear market, where there is tremendous growth of Under Armour-style sports jerseys. The fact that these jerseys contain a percentage of polyester makes them particularly suited to the awesome capabilities of dye sublimation because the process is compatible with polyester. My favorite design is the shirt shown in Figure 1, which was at Epson’s booth at the ISA show in April and was printed using Sawgrass inks. I love this shirt because of its color transitions, starting with the yellow at the bottom through the green in the middle and the blue at the top. This is a great example of a product that is possible with digital printing and would simply be way too expensive to do with traditional screen printing.
 

Substrates and finishing

Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of work in the wide-format media and substrate market, where a lot of things are happening that will affect how many print shops maintain their supply chain and supplier relationships to how they deliver value to their customers. One segment doing very well is magnetic media. One supplier reported that their digital wide-format business grew by 50% in each of the last two years. Magnetic materials aren’t new, so the question is why these companies would be seeing such nice growth now. The answer is efficiency and convenience. Some retailers are asking for magnetic materials because they are much less expensive to use than rigid print media. The materials themselves are fairly expensive, but because they can be rolled up and shipped in tubes instead of crates, they are much less expensive to transport. Also, because magnetic materials can be easily repositioned by store personnel, the retailer doesn’t have to hire a sign-management company to come in and maintain the signage.
 

Rigid-media suppliers are not sitting still, however. We’ve been looking at this market too and have seen some interesting developments. This sector can be broken into a few different segments—metal, wood, plastic, and paper, with composite materials in each of those categories. Each product has its strengths and weaknesses depending on the application and the expected lifespan of the graphic. One trend that we’re seeing is the growth of rigid media from overseas that is much less expensive than products manufactured in the US. Leading American manufacturers of rigid substrates are recognizing the need to offer competitively priced, offshore-sourced products to respond. Part of the issue is that a lot of the printing done on wide-format digital machines is promotional, so it is only used for a relatively short period of time. Top-of-the-line media products are over-engineered for these applications. 
 

Digital flatbed cutting

There also seems to be a lot going on in the wide-format flatbed cutting market lately. The expanding installed base of wide-format UV-curable printers is a big reason the demand for digital-cutting systems is growing, but shops don’t even have to have a flatbed printer to benefit from having a cutter. A lot of shops still use their roll-fed inkjet devices to print onto adhesive-backed media and then mount the graphic onto rigid board, which is then cut to shape. Today, some cutting machines can also perform routing, while some routers also offer cutting functionality. This means that leading vendors of cutters such as Zund and Esko will be on a collision course with leading vendors of routers such as Multicam and AXYZ.
 

At the same time, we’re seeing the lower-end of the flatbed cutting market begin to bud. Suppliers like Colex and Aristo are developing value-priced solutions to accompany some of the lower-priced flatbed inkjet printers now available. This is a segment that doesn’t necessarily move very fast because cutting/routing machines are often in place for more than ten years, which is easily two or three times longer than many wide-format printers.
I see commonalities in all of these developments. The industry always needs new technology and substrates that inspire new designs, applications, and capabilities. These products help print-service providers grow their businesses, increase profitability, and become more competitive.
 

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