It happened with a bit of a whimper in the end. After months and months of build-up, Theresa May’s courier delivered a six-page letter to European Council chief Donald Tusk, and with that the process of exiting the EU begins.
Relief for some, despair for others, but barely an eyelash batted on the second day of one of the UK’s most thriving, long-running trade shows.
“It’s business as usual for the show,” says Sign & Digital UK portfolio director Rudi Blackett, entering his 15th year at the helm.
“New products are always a big part of the show and I don’t think Brexit can really allow the industry to slow down. It’s fast-moving, nobody can stop because stopping becomes a serious issue, so business goes on as we know it.”
HP large-format sales manager EMEA Mike Horsten agrees and thinks that maybe Brexit could offer unrivalled opportunities for the market.
“If you look at the market with Brexit coming up, there’s a lot of print going on, there’s a lot of wallpaper going on, there’s going to be a bigger internal market than ever before. I see a lot of opportunities for the graphics industry and I think it’s going to be very positive for the graphics market in general” says Horsten.
Sign & Digital started out 30 years ago with a pure focus on outdoor signage and display. When digital print hit the mainstream in the early 2000s it expanded vastly and, according to Blackett, has doubled in size since he took over in 2001.
This year’s bumper 30th edition took place between 28 and 30 March, with 5,350 unique visitors strolling the NEC, eyeing up a whole host of machinery, applications and new technology from the world of wide-format.
Exhibitors included Fujifilm, Epson, Esko, Vivid Laminating Technologies, Perfect Colours and Canon, with a range of seminars taking place across the three days in a number of theatres. On day one in the Creative Theatre, a group of experienced sign merchants discussed creative solutions with LED signage, while Antalis’ workshop on the dos and don’ts of colour management proved that where Sign & Digital is concerned, there is something for everyone.
Epson sales manager Phil McMullin spent his time at the show extolling the virtues of the most recently-launched Epson SureColor wide-format machine, the SC-P2000, which he says in the last year has led Epson to go from having less than 10% market share in the niche sector to being number one.
“This show is absolutely integral and critically important to us as we leverage some of the $2m (£1.6m) a year we spend on R&D into this arena,” says McMullin.
Epson was also promoting its local community work, showing a vehicle wrapped with artwork designed by competition winners from Longdean School, Hemel Hempstead, using a SureColor SC-S80600. McMullin promises more innovative products at next year’s show, at which Epson plans to double the size of its stand.
Even with May’s Fespa twinkling on the not-too-distant horizon, new products were to be found in every corner of the halls. Horsten points to the fact that the growth in the desire of large companies to provide wide-format options has led to a development in hybrid products. This could be seen most visibly on EFI distributor CMYUK’s stand, where a prototype of EFI’s new Pro 16h production-level wide-format printer, which will be given its full European debut in Hamburg next month was demonstrated.
EFI senior product manager G. Scott Wood thinks shows like Sign & Digital are vital for the promotion of new machines.
“Two things drive sales for us: shows like this, where we will speak to a lot of customers, and either live demos or, if a customer is a long way away, setting up a virtual conversation,” he says.
Elsewhere, at a cake-cutting ceremony hosted by Inktec’s South Korean chief executive Jung Gwang Chun, the show saw the launch of the Jetrix LX18.
Inktec head of national sales Ben Woodruff announces there have been two major sales of the 3.2m flatbed, which boasts a top print speed of 206m2/hr and can print at resolutions of up to 1,080x720dpi. He says the machine is “an upgrade to enable customers’ businesses to go up to the next Jetrix level”.
On the applications side, there are always new materials to be discovered, and this year was no exception. Paper merchant Antalis opted for a US diner-style stand, comprised fully of Antalis’ products, while Spandex demonstrated seven new textiles within its Imageperfect range, for latex, solvent and UV printers.
Antalis product manager Mark Browne says: “Customers have said it is the best stand that they have seen. People were queueing out of the stand and in terms of footfall it’s been great. We have had some great conversations.”
There is also a chance for interested parties to learn and understand technologies they would never before have considered, such as cutting machine manufacturer Blackman & White’s Versatech laser cutters.
“It’s amazing. We’re getting a bit bored of some of the stuff that we cut because we keep doing the same thing but we still keep doing the same thing because people keep saying ‘Wow that’s amazing I’ve never seen that before’,” says managing director Alex White.
Meanwhile HP’s UK regional manager for large-format Phil Oakley feels he has placed his finger on the strength of the sector.
“The people that use the technology keep coming up with new uses for it, keep reinventing large-format in a way. That’s what is beautiful about this industry,” he muses.
We can ignore any Brexit blues and look forward to next month’s Fespa with glee.
Magic mixture is secret to the show’s ongoing success
Rudi Blackett, portfolio director, Sign & Digital UK
It’s clear from this year’s show that the materials application side is becoming more and more important. The fact that we’ve created more seminars and have a Creative Theatre is quite interesting, so it seems to have gone from vinyl to textile to wall coverings and that’s quite a big focus of the show this year.
There are more flatbeds, bigger flatbeds, faster with better quality, and there’s obviously a bit of a race there with Mimaki, Inktec and others.
I am over the moon that we have reached our 30th year this year. I don’t think there are many shows that have been around that long, I asked the NEC and they said there were probably one or two others.
We’ve got a magic mixed formula here with this show, which is very unusual in that it’s a buying show, people actually come here and spend considerable amounts of money. Half of our attendants are one-to-10-employee signmaking companies and then the other half is a whole mix of big graphic output companies and commercial printers. It used to just be the sign trade but now it has got a lot bigger than that.
I would say the main thing is that in this business face-to-face meetings are all important. A lot of products get launched here and also it’s very competitive and if it’s competitive there are going to be a lot of show offers so that already gears people up to maximise sales here.
It is difficult to say what will happen next year but I think textiles will be important and the race on the flatbed side will continue. I guess there will be more of the same, nothing particularly dramatic but our next show is late April 2018, which is an indication that there are going to be lots of new products. We never know about these new products until a few months before the show but the very fact that a lot of exhibitors are talking about large stand space for a show in 2018 means I expect there will be a lot of product launches.
What did you take a way from the 2017 Sign & Digital show?
Anthony Wood, owner, Hippoprint
“Sign & Digital is a show that always seems to improve and always offers something more. I have been here for the last two years. Last time we had a look but chose not to buy but this time as a fast-turnaround printer we are looking at adding wide-format options and want to expand our offering. There are a huge range of machines and technologies to look at here, from the low end of the market right up, and I like the look of some of the new applications.”
David Philips, managing director, Signsource
“I want to make sure we are up to date with all the printing technology and what’s new and what’s hot. We’ve been here for years; we don’t come every year but just want to keep abreast of what’s about more than anything else. Quite often there are products launches and also it’s nice to put faces to sales people that we would normally speak to over the phone. I think the buzz around the halls is good, it’s not too big but quite useful.”
Michael Clarke, managing director, Sign of the Times
“This is one of the bigger and better shows at creating a buzz and I would definitely come back next year. We came here to purchase new machinery and we have achieved that goal. There was a lot more stuff on demonstration this year, a lot of the manufacturers in previous years seemed to have not demonstrated as much, which is good; having new machines actually running and being able to see them in action. There are also a lot of ancillary equipment and supplies that I have liked the look of.”