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Reinventing Your Digital Print Shop

Prospect new markets to stay ahead of the game in this advancing industry.

In our constantly changing world, what worked last year, last month, or even last week may not work today. In our 22 years in business, we have seen customers, markets, print technologies, and products come and go – many of these changes being difficult to anticipate or control. (Yes, some of you have been very successful doing essentially the same thing for over a decade, and my hat is off to you.)

In 1995, I visited a friend who was the president of one of the largest and most profitable billboard printing companies in the country. They ran 24/7 in a huge facility with multiple solvent airbrush grand-format printers. They were averaging $5 a square foot and couldn’t keep up with the demand. They printed at 18 and 36 dpi, which looked far from good, but good from afar. At the time, my friend looked like he had the market and the technology figured out. We all know what happened to the digital billboard printing market and what the price per square foot is today. It only took about five years for his lucrative market to disappear.

Another friend had multiple Durst Lambdas and an Océ LightJet. Silver halide printing was the only option then if you wanted the best backlit print. The Kodak process and media, known as Duratrans, became the market term for photographic backlit prints. As an inkjet shop, we had to sell our opaque blacks to scratch out a tiny piece of that market.

How many of you made your living with airbrush, electrostatic, thermal transfer, wax-ink, or full-on solvent printers? Do the names LaserMaster, ColorSpan, Signtech, Gandi Innovations, Leggett & Platt, GBC, Axiom, Kundo, LightJet, Lambda, or Raster Graphics bring back fond memories of your past capital investments? Did any of you invest heavily in film scanning, mounting, and laminating equipment? For us, the answer is yes – we spent practically a hundred grand on a scanner.

Embrace the Change
In our past, casino signage, vehicle graphics, gaming table felts, race team uniforms, tabletops, and countertops were dominant products that now don’t even register on our radar. What happened? Markets changed. Customers took production in house. Competitors flooded the market and took away the profit margins. Production went offshore. Someone agreed to do the work for a buck a square foot less. Technology changed.

What do you do when a market (or markets) goes away or is no longer profitable? What do you do when the competition now does it better, faster, or cheaper than you can? You find new markets, struggle along as a marginal company, or fail.

In a perfect world, you aren’t blindsided. If you’ve kept your ear to the ground and followed developments in technology, market forces, customer satisfaction, and product demand, you may anticipate these changes and put in place a business plan to address them.

We are a small company located in Las Vegas, and the exhibit industry is an important market for us. A major disadvantage is there are almost no corporate headquarters here. If a print company is in Chicago, for example, their salespeople are calling on corporations in that area. They have the best shot at getting the exhibit print orders. However, over time, these customers have found that having a print provider in Vegas is an advantage to them. Even some Fortune 50 companies have switched from their local print provider to us.

This geographic reality worked for us for many years and our exhibit business grew. Today, not so much. Why? Because those big New York, Chicago, and Detroit print shops are opening up branches in Las Vegas. They have figured out that they can’t provide competitive service for their exhibit customers here without local production facilities. For us, the end result will be a continued loss of business to these larger, expanding companies.

The good news is we saw the writing on the wall and we have spent the past year and a half investigating and developing new markets to replace the exhibit business we’ve lost.

Turn to Textile
We are fortunate that our industry has wonderfully evolved print and finishing technologies. It’s shocking that the speed, size, quality, media cost, reliability, ease of operation, and environmental friendliness have made such giant leaps in the past decade. We can do things with digital we never dreamed of a decade or two ago.

UV-curing technology has allowed us to print on almost anything. There are roll-to-roll machines, 196-inch wide-format printers, hybrids, and flatbeds. The image quality is stunning on the latest generation of printers, opening markets in manufacturing, furniture, art, interior décor, and architecture.

We started doing dye sublimation on textiles almost 20 years ago. We used to apologize that we could only print on polyesters: There were only a handful of textiles for us to choose from, and memories of the polyester leisure suits of the ’70s lingered. We apologize no more. Thanks to microfiber and nanotechnology, polyester is now the hot fabric and we can print to it all. Dye sub can be done as wide as 196 inches, and printers are churning out graphics at thousands of square feet an hour. Ink and paper prices have come down to where we can compete with rotogravure and screen. How many new markets has this opened up to us? Products we could never have considered a few years ago like bedding, curtains, and consumer garments are now becoming possibilities. Finishing options allow us to use these digitally printed fabrics even for commercial upholstery and wallcoverings.

Understand the Differences
Just because you can now print it beautifully, efficiently, and economically doesn’t mean “If you build it, they will come.” The problem with changing markets is you don’t know the new market’s culture, language, or math very well in the beginning. It’s easy to look like an amateur.

In the industries that buy fabric, you can’t ever talk about square feet – everything is by the yard. Printing for general contractors, interior designers, or architects requires the ability to speak their language and read their blueprints. We have found that it’s easier to handle a major market shift by hiring customer service and project management staff from that industry.

In the commercial textile world, pricing and quantities can be vastly different than our traditional markets, and having someone who understands that is important. We think of fabric that’s 60 inches wide or less as narrow goods, but these are the standard widths in the commercial textile markets. An advantage digital has over traditional printing is the easy access to 120-inch printing. Mills are warming up to providing fabrics in 118 to 120-plus inches. Many of the industries that have bought fabrics in the past have struggled with getting wide goods – what we think of as grand format. This is particularly true with bedding fabric.

There are 120-inch-wide rotogravure and screen presses, but they are very expensive and few and far between. The cost of plates or screens for multicolor runs means their sweet spot is thousands or tens of thousands of yards. This opens up a wealth of print runs from a few hundred to a few thousand yards. Another advantage we bring to these markets is the length of an image we can print. The biggest rotogravure drum we have contracted with is 37 inches in diameter, which means that the print must have a 37-inch repeat. If you have an image longer than that, it must be printed with a large screen press or digital printer. Even the largest screen press has a length limitation, but not so with digital. Plus, because we are digital, we can begin delivering product in days, not weeks.

These are the kinds of competitive variables you must consider when researching a new market. Is there a niche where you can take advantage of your digital technology? Can your prices be competitive in that market and still yield a decent profit? Can you use your existing capital equipment or will you have to make investments? Does your staff have a good enough understanding of the industry to speak intelligently, manage the clients, sell and negotiate adroitly, and meet the customers’ expectations?

Exploring other markets can be beneficial if you must replace an existing one that may be marginalized in the future. It can also be used to expand your business if your current markets remain strong. It may be worth making this an ongoing management process.

Explore the rest of our June/July 2016 "Fall Ideas" issue or get more "Inside Output" from Craig Miller.

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