Wide-format: A Pivotal Investment for In-plants

Nearly 77 percent of in-plants now offer wide-format printing, with two-thirds reporting an increase in wide-format print volume over the last 12 months. Is your in-plant taking advantage of this golden opportunity?

Wide-format digital printing is a growth market within the in-plant printing segment of the printing industry. Recently, InfoTrends and North American Publishing Co. (IPG’s parent) surveyed 167 print service providers—95 of which were in-plants—on their expectations of growth for the wide-format printing market.

Of those surveyed, two-thirds of in-plants reported that their wide-format digital graphics print volume grew over the last 12 months, with an average increase of 11 percent. These same in-plants also expect their business to expand over the next 12 months by an average of 9 percent. To prepare, 23.3 percent of in-plants plan to purchase or lease a new wide-format printer in the next 12 months.

The majority of today’s in-plants have multiple wide-format printers: 28 percent have two of them; 13 percent have three; 9 percent have four; and 15 percent of in-plants utilize five or more printers, according to the new Info-Trends/NAPCO survey. (See chart.)

Aqueous inkjet is the top choice, with 59 percent of in-plants utilizing this technology. Solvent-based inkjet is next, with 16 percent using it; 13 percent of in-plants use dye-sublimation technology; 11 percent use eco-solvent inkjet; and 10 percent currently use latex inkjet. (See chart.)

Nevertheless, many in-plants struggle with the decision to purchase when it comes to wide-format printing. While the question often boils down to whether they have sufficient print volume to justify making an investment in a wide-format printer, InfoTrends believes there are a number of factors and considerations that go into that decision.

Limitations to Investment

In past research, InfoTrends has learned that one of the major limitations for in-plants making an investment in a print or production technology was that it frequently required additional people to operate it. InfoTrends’ new “Emerging Trends: Wide-format” survey indicates that the types of printers already owned and the types that in-plants expect to buy are the types of wide-format printers that do not require a dedicated operator. This finding points to the need for print hardware manufacturers and front-end providers to continue to develop more ways to simplify and automate wide-format printing systems to accommodate in-plant operations.

The fact that “latex” tops the list of wide-format printers in-plants say they will most likely purchase (see chart) indicates that in-plants recognize that today’s latex printers are configured with ease-of-use in mind, as well as the need to cost-effectively produce a range of applications. It should also be noted that the solutions that in-plants have and, for the most part, expect to invest in tend to be lower-end solutions to accommodate lower print volumes. This is also because in-plants typically have to work within constrained budgets.

The data from the “Emerging Trends: Wide-format” survey indicates that one reason many in-plants have opted for lower-end and lower-cost equipment is the application set they produce. In-plants reported that print quality was by far the most important characteristic they look for in a new printer, followed by running costs and reliability.

It is easy to see why posters, banners, signs, presentation materials and photographs are the leading applications among in-plant respondents. These applications are all easily produced using conventional inkjet printing solutions. This finding also points to a kind of “Catch-22” situation. Are these the primary applications because that is all they can produce, or do they have the equipment they have due to budgetary limitations, and this dictates which applications they can produce?

While cost and typical applications are always important considerations, we believe it is important for the people making that decision to have an earnest conversation within their organizations to determine how wide-format printing and related services can facilitate new ways to communicate messages internally and externally. Consider the addition of white ink printing capabilities. This allows printers to print onto a wide set of substrates, such as clear film for window graphics, fabrics for banners, wall coverings for interior décor, or corrugated packaging. If these are products that your organization presently outsources, it may be more cost effective to buy a printer and bring this type of work in-house.

Breaking Even

One of the findings from the recent “Emerging Trends” survey that stands out is that 35 percent of the in-plant printers that indicated they are interested in buying a new wide-format printer in the next 12 months did not expect to break even for three years or more. InfoTrends believes this could be because a significant number of in-plants are unable to quantify the actual value of the products they produce for internal customers.

The tendency for in-plants has been to take a more practical approach; to buy the equipment that would satisfy the demands of the corporation, and not to make the kind of strategic growth investments that many print-for-pay shops are making. InfoTrends notes that some of the best in-plants are able to make the case for these strategic investments.

There is another interesting finding in the research; three-fourths of the in-plants surveyed that do not offer wide-format print services reported that they have considered adding wide-format to their portfolios, but the main reason they decided not to was the cost of the equipment. By this, we believe that the respondents are suggesting that the overall costs of adding the service were too high, since the cost of the wide-format equipment can be very small (just a few thousand dollars).

A Changing Market

One of the important dynamics in the wide-format market is how fast it changes. Just this year, new wide-format aqueous inkjet printers have come to market that are able to produce extremely high quality at high speeds (more than 4,000 square feet per hour), and which take up no more space than a traditional wide-format printer.

The combination of those two findings brings up something that it seems we are thinking about more and more lately: how can a print service provider or in-plant grow their business or increase the value of their contribution to a business by using data? InfoTrends believes that in-plants are often uniquely positioned because many print-buying organizations are reluctant to relinquish control over certain elements of their data to outside suppliers, whereas in-plants are able to use that data to help their organizations meet multiple needs.

Remember, companies buy printed graphics as a tool to help them meet their real needs, such as increasing revenue, delivering better and more consistent brand messages, reducing costs, saving time, achieving higher levels of compliance, as well as improving logistics. Data can help achieve these goals, but use of internal data can also facilitate better messaging that will help an organization target its graphics messages and better measure the effectiveness of graphics campaigns.

At InfoTrends, we say that print service providers would be well-advised to migrate into more of a marketing service provider role by adding these additional types of services. Customers will derive more value from the relationship and reduce or eliminate the cost-centric, transaction-based type of selling that is low margin and low value.

In-plants have some of the same issues; adding on data-driven service capabilities also increases the value they bring to their organizations. The tools to achieve these objectives are all available—so in-plants have to consider investment in them as part of their own future.

Every in-plant needs to decide for itself whether it wants to make the case that wide-format digital printing is a smart investment. Nevertheless, in-plant leadership should continue to stay current on the printing and front-end technologies that can continuously deliver a great deal of value to their organizations.

Tim Greene is InfoTrends’ Wide-format Printing Group Director.

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