A lot has changed in the signage and graphic display markets since Spandex first launched its ImagePerfect range of digital substrates almost 20 years ago. Back then, the early product portfolios consisted mainly of digitally printable white and clear vinyls.
By Steve Jacques, Category Manager, Spandex
Now, the number of different substrates and types of creative applications being produced is staggering, and is the result of a symbiotic relationship between advances in technology and the imaginations of both printers and end-users. Both are driving exciting new developments in the signage and graphic display markets.
Customers, in particular, are playing a fundamental role in driving product innovation. As their needs and those of their clients evolve, so too does the technology to meet their requirements. Suppliers are constantly being pushed and inspired by the vision and invention of signage and visual communications professionals.
Furthermore, as the market matures – the global printed Point-of-Sale (POS)/signage market amounted to 12.8 billion square metres of material in 2014 and was worth over $49.4 billion – buyers and specifiers are choosing media more carefully for each job.
They know it is the twin engines of quality and performance that count and that buying cheaper materials is false economy. Less seasoned buyers sometimes focus erroneously on the cost of a product instead of the cost of the installation as a whole, of which the material is only a part.
But cheap material can make installation and removal difficult, leading to installation fails and reprinting that can cost print businesses time, money and reputation. In the worst case, a bad job can cost them a customer.
When it comes to signage, it’s important to choose a material with good dimensional stability, reliable adhesion, good lay-flat properties and ease of cutting and weeding. The wrong choice might result in a job that shrinks or de-laminates, for example, which could turn into a very expensive mistake.
Consequently, substrate quality is very much at the forefront of the modern wide format printer’s thinking, reflected in the strong sales of Spandex’s higher performance cast-coated banners, compared with the laminated options which are better suited to short-term or indoor applications. But it’s not just superior quality that customers want; they are also seeking out the right material for every job. ‘Making do’ just isn’t good enough.
Beyond specifying a superior level of material, there are a number of other trends driving product development in the signage and graphic display markets.
Increases in the productivity of output devices have prompted wide format printers to ask for two key things; improved handling for high throughput, and optimum ink absorption to stop ink ‘swimming’ on the surface of the substrate or delaying drying, both of which cost the printer valuable time. Meanwhile signmakers are focused on greater durability and in response suppliers are concentrating on improving dimensional stability to prevent shrinkage post-installation for better product life-span and value for money.
It’s important to note that the print industry – like most global industries – is focused on improving its green credentials. Print and sign businesses are actively trying to address their own carbon footprint and meet intensifying demand from their customers for environmentally friendly solutions. As a result, there is a burgeoning demand for PVC-free and biodegradable products that still meet their high standards for quality and durability.
Emerging markets are also influencing product design. Growth of self-adhesive applications such as vehicle wraps and window graphics is driving suppliers to innovate in areas such as bond strength, repositionability and opacity for faster installations, reduced show-through and crisper, finished end-product.
Soft signage is another growth area, particularly in the events industry but also in applications such as indoor wall graphics. In addition, decorative applications offer huge business potential for graphics professionals, with development of wallpapers, metallics, decorative and printable window films, plus materials for floor graphics.
These product developments are opening up exciting business opportunities. With the right product and service in place, print and sign businesses can find the confidence to diversify into new application areas to counteract the commodity jobs that are shrinking margins. This may include areas such as digitally printed apparel and promowear using heat transfer foils and films with their existing wide format printer and an inexpensive heat transfer press.
Moreover, end-users are increasingly purchasing more niche products in shorter runs and lengths, even to an order of just one. While digital printing technology enables print and sign businesses to cost-effectively print on demand and respond to this behaviour, media inventories of unused stock for very specific media products can still eat into the bottom line.
Fortunately, suppliers – such as Spandex – can offer products by the running metre. This is not only saves customers money, but enables experimentation with new applications without breaking the bank.
While there is no crystal ball to accurately predict the future, it’s safe to say that both the display graphic and signage markets are on upwards trajectory. Every day, customers are surprising and challenging suppliers with their ideas, forcing a rapid pace of innovation. As a result, a dazzling array of products are coming to market that is helping customers to produce outstanding work and boost their margins.
 Smithers Pira, The Future of Signage in an Electronic World to 2020, June 2015