The wide-format and super wide-format markets have undergone their digital transition while certain analogue printing technologies, such as screen printing, continue to complement the overall mix offered by large-format print service providers (PSPs) to their clients. In this regard, there’s clearly still so much to be explored, compared and reviewed – especially at drupa 2024. COVID-19 has changed a lot within the printing industry and many new applications, and even a new category – Social Distancing Signage – have evolved. Predicted to reach a worldwide volume of $11.2 billion (USD) by 2025 (according to Markets and Markets), the wide format-printing market is mature, but it has certainly not yet reached its heyday.
Hand-painted signage always was a rare sight and is even more so nowadays – if you can find it at all. Developments in digital technologies, starting with the first digital wide-format printer introduced in 1999 and presented at drupa 2000, have since accelerated and come a long way. Even so, for PSPs today there are more and more new feats to be accomplished as client-demand increases for more surprising, more individual means of communication, for faster turnaround times and for even more applications to be created. You could say in this sense, that inkjet has no limit.
While long print runs are still more viable overall on analogue machinery, they’re not being ordered as often as in former times. The digital transition means that more and more applications will become digital and this itself leads to highly specialized wide and superwide printers, many of which will be shown at drupa 2024. Such printers can deal with traditional applications, but more interestingly they enable innovative PSPs to showcase their ability to cater to new and unexpected ‘market-niche’ jobs. And most of all, to be able to viably produce short runs, personalized and customized projects and even one-offs. Brand owners can now do things not previously possible, and so now their branding efforts can reach their full potential.
Another big growth factor in this sector is of course the environmental agenda. As the world tries to reduce its negative climate impact, printer manufacturers, PSPs and clients ordering print (be it in a small or large corporation) are all considering how they can contribute to the environmental imperative. The global pandemic has accelerated these client-driven requirements. Inks and consumables for wide and superwide printing, as well as the printers themselves, will be judged by how well they fit into this context and into their own print shops. Many brands are willing to pay extra dollars in order to obtain a more sustainable product, a trend that will continue into the future and which is likely to be reinforced by new regulations.
Wide and superwide format printers have been mainly developed to cater to the signage, advertising, marketing and communications industries. However, they can also make an entrance or even a slight dent in other markets thanks to their versatility which enables certain (mainly short run) jobs within the commercial, packaging and label industries, as well as proofing jobs later to be carried out on analogue machinery. Some can even make forays into areas formerly covered by lithographic equipment such as solar, printed electronics, RFID and all kinds of conductive products.
For the digital printing community and those considering entering the large format market, it’s important to understand that this a market based on a myriad of unique applications requiring specialized know-how. The list is long and varied – be it vehicle wraps, posters, art, interior or exterior signage, POP and POS, décor printing, directional wayfinding, home furnishings, wallpapers, murals, any kind of displays, event and floor graphics, one-off signage from a large order that must be customized to fit the exact location where it will be installed (eg. bus stops with specific directions, info or offers), and many others. Digital printing enables cost-effective, fast turnaround of orders while at the same time offering environmentally friendly solutions with no or next-to-no waste. In addition, the technology is starting to make inroads into the industrial printing sector. And there’s no sign yet that it is slowing down.
Social distancing signage as a new category within the wide-format sector developed rapidly during the pandemic. In many cases it meant, and still means, that certain jobs had to be produced immediately with very short lead times, quite often with regional or individual customization. Those kinds of jobs will continue to be in demand for some time to come as the world battles the virus.
Even the individual home consumer is not excluded or overlooked when it comes to digital printing applications. PSPs already offer web-based order portals (online print services) not only for companies, advertising agencies etc, but also for the end consumer who can order individual one-off prints – be it as a mural, poster, wallpaper or even a floor graphic.
In this way, drupa 2024 will see a host of new applications being offered by printer manufacturers. The driving force behind such new applications might not really be the printer manufacturer. Rather it’s the marketing and communications community as well as PSPs that actually drive application innovation (it is still true, however, that manufacturers can influence PSPs in a certain direction). In the end, the result is often quite astonishing as to what can be done with a wide or superwide-format printer. And as the manufacturers are listening intently – to their clients, to advertising and to marketing experts – so in turn will come the next wave of applications.
Even within the specific area of embellishment, traditionally referred to as the finishing sector, such printers are stretching their own boundaries. Whether you want matte or gloss, haptic surface, spot colouring, digital embossing, cutting or cross-cutting, to name a few, many PSPs have embraced these abilities. Within the digital wide-format printing market and distinct from the printer’s very own abilities, inks and consumables are playing another decisive role. Should it be UV or UV LED, aqueous, latex, solvent or even pigment inks? Here the application context and the client’s usage scenario decide what will be suitable for each application.
Substrate developments have moved on significantly, opening the door to new applications as well. Not every substrate is suitable for a certain ink type or a certain type of printer. Therefore, visitors at drupa should also look for the specific ink and media spectrum which is relevant to them, as presented by the respective manufacturers and vendors. Every wide and superwide manufacturer will be eagerly looking to help PSPs and potential clients in finding the right combination for their intended application mix.
Because wide-format printing not only encompasses roll-to-roll or roll-to-sheet applications, but also rigid substrates, a wide array of additional applications will be shown at drupa 2024. Whether printing on glass, plastics, PVC, PET, cardboard, foam, forex or any other kind of board or film, there are so many stunning effects that can be produced. As always, the desired application will usually determine the kind of printer that a PSP should purchase. The biggest advantage of a wide or superwide digital printer however, lies in its application versatility – whether in terms of customization, personalization, individualization (when still viable and cost effective) and its efficiency, all together delivering a final customer impact that conventional technologies simply cannot achieve.
The boundaries of what digital wide and superwide format printing can do will continue to be pushed even further and PSPs will then be able to explore those applications even more deeply than they did before. The market is indeed ripe for innovation, new applications and new machinery with associated technology enhancements – including speed, colours, ink types as well as substrates. Enjoy the journey!