Wide-format hit by high street woes, but help is at hand

Barney Cox
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

With the latest high street cull claiming four household names, POS printers have discovered the latest software could ensure that they don't follow

High street retailers have been high-profile in the past couple of months for all the wrong reasons, with the demise of Blockbuster, Comet, HMV and Jessops. The print industry’s sector most exposed to the woes of the high street is point-of-sale (POS), one of the mainstays of the wide-format sector. So it’s not the best start to a year in which – with Fespa coming to London in June – wide-format is itself in the spotlight.

Domino effect
Some printers are already worried that there may be a domino effect as more shops close on the back of deserted high streets. Even the survivors are no promise of rich pickings.

"I place retailers into two camps, those trading badly and those trading well," says Graham Clark, managing director of south London retail and event marketing printer McKenzie Clark. "Even the firms trading well are doing so at the expense of margin by discounting. So although they want what we are doing, they want it for less."

While the market is tough, that doesn’t mean to say it is possible to stop investing in new technology.

"We need to find a replacement for our Durst Lambdas," says Clark.

The firm has yet to decide on the technology but it is considering latex and the latest higher resolution UV technologies.

"Our focus is on helping printers to get into the value-added market," says Fujifilm UK digital solutions sales manager Mark Stephenson. "That comes through print that is tactile or causes people to turn their heads – literally in the case of the use of things like spot varnish. It’s the market that we term the ‘step up from solvent’ – in our case with the UV-cured Acuity LED 1600, which has white and varnish."

Widely available
Other vendors, following HP’s lead with the Scitex LX range, will be majoring on latex in this part of the market; the machines Mimaki and Ricoh announced last year will become more widely available this year, and it is possible other manufacturers will enter this market.

While new sectors and applications can preserve margins, another approach is to improve efficiency. That can come from improved hardware, software, systems and processes. The key improvements in hardware to come in the next year will be automation and materials handling. The top end of the market served by high throughput flatbeds will be the first to gain.

"The print engines themselves are fast – the slow part is getting the sheets on and off the machine," says Fujifilm’s Stephenson. "When you look at the throughput of the flatbed machines versus the roll-fed it is clear there is a way to go. There is a lot that can be done to increase productivity."

Expect enhanced materials handling that reduces the time between actually printing a bed, plus the ability to handle a wider range of substrates – including tricky ones that have to date eluded automation. Another hardware trend will be enhanced firmware to cut dead time.

Mid-market advances
In the mid-market advances focus on higher speeds while maintaining image quality as the sector becomes more competitive. Machines announced last year such as the Mimaki JFX 2131 500, the Océ Arizona 400 series and the Fujifilm Acuity Advance Select are examples of the increase in productivity in this sector.

Vendors may be pushing hardware to improve efficiency, but for printers software and systems are attracting the most attention.

"The biggest challenge is the front end and not so much the output," says Mark Simpson, chairman of Tyne and Wear-based POS specialist Simpson Group. "It’s all about the workflow and the management of data. Our ultimate goal is to go straight from customer file to press. We want to take out manual tasks so that everything our staff do adds value."

Software is also at the front of Clark’s mind. Having invested heavily in workflow, colour management and asset management tools to enable McKenzie Clark to handle the Olympics contract it and sister firm Icon managed last year, he is very keen to ensure he capitalises on those capabilities.

"We have a sophisticated workflow platform that can manage multiple suppliers, substrates and print processes," says Clark. "Now that we have the experience, the technology is of great interest to a number of major retailers."

The year started by highlighting problems facing wide-format, but printers have identified solutions and vendors are developing hardware and software to tackle them.

  • The demise of high-street stalwarts Blockbuster, Comet, HMV and Jessops is a blow to point of sale, one of the mainstays of the wide-format sector
  • Even firms trading well do so at the expense of margin, and are passing that price pressure onto their suppliers, including printers
  • One response is to get into the value-added market through print that is tactile or causes people to turn their heads through techniques like white and varnish
  • Other vendors, following HP’s lead, will be majoring on latex; Mimaki and Ricoh have announced machines, and it is possible other manufacturers will follow suitWhile applications can preserve margins, another approach is to improve efficiency from hardware, software, systems and processes
  • The key improvements in hardware will be automation and materials handling
  • Software developments include workflow, colour management and web-to-print to automate manual tasks



How will you address difficulties posed by the high street?

Mark Simpson
Chairman, Simpson Group
"The situation on the high street at the moment is horrendous. As 99% of our work is point-of-sale we have to look seriously at protecting our business. We’re focusing on internal efficiency and at targeting different customers and markets such as the blue-chip brands – who are looking to do more in-store themselves - and smaller indie retailers. Most of our efforts in those directions are based on front-end software systems like web-to-print, workflow and stock management. All of those must be integrated with our MIS."

Graham Clark
Managing director, McKenzie Clark
"Our big technical challenge is finding a suitable replacement for our Durst Lambda photographic printers. All our focus is on finding a high-quality replacement that also offers improved sustainability and economics. Over the past couple of years, we have invested heavily in our front-end workflow, especially in asset management, workflow and colour management systems. We can use these to ensure consistency and quality of our brand customer’s work both in the UK and - now we are part of Chime Sports Marketing - on a global basis."

Stuart Cole
General manager, Graphic Printing Technologies
"We’ll see the products that were launched last year become available for companies to buy this year. The first Mimaki latex machines are coming through – and we expect in the next couple of months to see its solvent UV technology become commercially available. There are also interesting developments in the smaller UV flatbeds – machines such as Mimaki’s UJF-6042, which offers a bigger A2-sized bed and the ability to print on objects up to six inches deep. This opens many applications for a low investment."


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