As margins are squeezed for these printers’ day-to-day work, the allure of wide-format is hard to ignore: it promises, at least for now, high margins, abundant work and a plethora of high-profile clientele.
“With a vast array of applications for wide-format output, there is an ocean of opportunity for commercial printers to take their business in new directions, and the leap is not difficult from a technical perspective. The commercial printer already has the workflow, colour management skills and so on to make the transition without much ado,” says Neil Felton, chief executive of wide-format association and expo organiser Fespa.
And yet, according to Felton, only 16% of visitors to Fespa’s 2013 London show were commercial printers that had made, or were going to make, the jump to wide-format. This seems to contradict the perception that commercial printers are embracing wide-format, so has all the talk been hot air?
The answer to that is complex. Raising funds for investment is still difficult for many, especially for those wanting to borrow to enter a new market. But more of a sticking point is the fact that some of the commercial printers that have made the move have found it tougher than expected – the challenges have proved too great, the technology too different and the promised land of abundant work a mirage.
So how do you successfully add the wide-format string to your bow? PrintWeek caught up with one commercial printer that has just made the jump and another that has been enjoying the fruits of wide-format for some time, to find an answer to that question.
THE NEW CONVERT
Alan Bunter, owner of Remous Print, Dorset
We have primarily been a litho business historically, but around five years ago we bought our first digital machine. We saw where the market was going for commercial print and it made sense to invest at that time. I would say the move we made two months ago, when we installed a wide-format machine, was a natural progression from that.
It wasn’t that customers were demanding we go into wide-format, it was rather that we had a few members of staff with experience in wide-format and we had researched areas of print where margins were high and wide-format was one of those. We looked into it more and found it was a much healthier market than litho at the moment and the investment to get into the market is very low.
Right from the off, we didn’t want to put £100,000 down on a flatbed and claim we knew it all. I have seen people do that and they failed miserably. We wanted a high-quality machine at the best price that suited our fledgling position in the wide-format market. That was how we ended up with a Roland DG Soljet Pro4 XR-640 print and cut machine. It has been everything we hoped for and more.”
Top tips and potential pitfalls
- “A big consideration is the width of machine you decide to buy. If you are going to take the step and spend the money, then the difference in price between, say, a 60in machine and a narrower one is not that big; you will only save about £5,000 and for that you massively limit yourself. I know someone who has opted for a narrower machine and they are having issues with delivering what customers are asking for. You need to look down the line, to when you are more established, and you need to be ready when a customer wants that 1.6m banner. It might not seem like you will get that at the moment, but you will if you are successful.”
- “The difference in the technology can be a big leap – and a pitfall if you do not prepare properly. We had extensive training from our supplier, Service Offset Supplies (SOS), and from Roland DG. Ensure you opt for a manufacturer or vendor who is prepared to provide the support you need. And don’t pretend you know everything, ask for help if you need it.”
- “Another tip is to use the machine in a way that complements your existing business. Think about what you offer and what your customers want and find a solution that fits with that profile. For example, we have done a lot of label work recently. It complements our offering and is also great to print on the wide-format machine.”
- “We are rebranding to showcase our new capability. We will be a service provider now for people that want to image things. The customer does not care how we do it, they care about the quality. Hence, we need to be agnostic in terms of technology and use the machine that is best fits. We don’t shout about wide-format, but neither do we shout about any other technology. Our success is derived from focusing on the products.”
- “It’s not for everyone. If you are a trade B1 printer, I don’t think it will add much to your business. We were doing a range of products anyway, so we already had the client base for people wanting a range of different things, including design, stationery, web editing – everything.”
- “My main advice is to think very carefully about the products. Don’t just think you will print a load of banners. Everyone is printing banners. Think about what you can bring to wide-format and if there is potential. If you have a product that not many people - or even better no one - is currently offering, then only at that point make the investment.”
Alan Burton, owner, Twentyfourseven Design & Print, Cheshire
We do a lot of work in the posters market, particularly for the music industry in the form of concert promotion posters. We started off as a screen printing company, but we moved into litho print and soon we were doing 70% litho and only 30% screen. This move came about because our philosophy is that when we get a job, we look at it and work out the most cost-effective way of that job being printed.
Back in 1997 when we moved into litho, it was litho not screen that kept being the answer. In the 2000s, the answer came to be digital, and we bought some A3 machines from Xerox. In 2007/8, the answer to that question started to become wide-format.
The first machines we bought were Mimaki roll-to-roll machines. This was the right level to enter the market. It enabled us to offer bespoke products in a way we could not with screen. This was particularly useful for our music promotion clients as it enabled them to get a better product, for a better price, with less waste. So for a tour of, say, Coldplay, we could produce a bespoke load of posters for Liverpool, a bespoke load for Manchester and a bespoke load for London. Each would be different and each to the exact requirement of the customer in terms of number.
After a while, the demand was such that the solvent-based machines could not keep up with the turnaround requirements, as the drying time was too long. This drove us to make a further investment in an Canon Océ Arizona and a ColorWave 650 PP. It was either that or have a bank of eight or nine Mimakis.”
Top tips and potential pitfalls
- “Don’t think you can buy a machine and try and sell its capability to customers. We had success because we had a product that the technology would improve. Wide-format was not a ticket into new markets and customers originally, but a way of better serving our existing market and customers and that is the safest and most sensible way to go about it.”
- “Don’t hesitate. If you identify a new technology that will improve your offering to your core customers, then move quickly, as other printers will be realising the same thing. You need to be first there.”
- “You are only as good as your employees. You need everyone to buy into what you are doing and why you are doing it. If we had had staff members who saw wide-format as a threat or who did not want to get involved, we would have really struggled.”
- “Know when to make a further investment. If we had continued running the Mimakis we would have been left behind. We needed to recognise why they had got us so far, and why we needed to make a further investment to take us to the next level. You can’t sit back and rest on your initial success.”
- “In the same way as you need to invest, you also need to diversify when the time is right. Starting with your key customers is the right move, but once you are up to speed, diversifying is crucial. We now print onto glass. We have also done a lot of R&D and are printing on to electrostatic substrates. These products will stick onto most surfaces without damage. We can now go to our existing clients and new clients with a product that can really assist their businesses.”
- “My main tip though is to apply the same rules as you would for any investment: financial prudence and long-term vision. There are no quick wins, regardless of what you may hear about wide-format.”