When asked what level of interest do you have for investing in a production inkjet press within the next two years, cutsheet or roll-fed, 27.5 percent of respondents indicated it was “high, very likely”, which received the second highest response behind “low, waiting but watching”.
Fifteen percent of respondents indicated their interest was “medium, investigating”, while 20 percent indicated they were “not interested” in investing in a production inkjet press within the next two years. One respondent commented they were waiting for an affordable 19 x 25-inch duplex machine, which echoes sentiment about the current high cost and high monthly production requirements of production inkjet systems.
What type of press
When asked if the needed funds were available, assuming relative pricing parity between machines, what type of printing press would you first invest in, the vast majority of respondents indicating “cutsheet production inkjet” at 47.5 percent. The remaining respondents included: Roll-fed production inkjet at 27.5 percent, followed by production-strength colour toner at 20 percent and five percent for a 40-inch sheetfed offset.
When asked what application or sector would you most want to target, assuming that you have purchased the appropriate inkjet press, 45 percent of respondents indicated “commercial print”, which clearly stands to gain the most installation attraction in the years to come.
The remaining respondents included: Direct mail at 17.5 percent, Transactional or statement at 12.5 percent, Labels at 10 percent, packaging (other than labels) at 2.5 percent, and publishing at 2.5 percent. Four percent of respondents indicated other print sectors, including B2C applications “which I would not really class as any of the above.”
When asked what do you see as the greatest challenge to making an inkjet investment, given the current state of the technology or market, the largest challenge was the “price of the presses". This again points to the fact that inkjet systems have not yet settled into a commercial printing friendly position under $1 million.
In fact, 35 percent of respondents indicated “press prices” was the biggest challenge, followed by the “price of inks” at 22.5 percent, “quality of work” at 20 percent, adding “necessary workflow/IT” at 10 percent, “available substrate range” at 5 percent, and the “speed of cutsheet presses” at five percent. One respondent shared a comment that is likely on the minds of most printers: “We have so much capacity with our current equipment, I couldn't justify spending money on a different press.”
Four of Canada’s technology leaders discuss the current state of production inkjet technology and what impact it is having in the domestic printing market.
After decades of intense research and development, supported by unprecedented technology partnerships, production-strength inkjet on the cusp of disrupting commercial printing. In mid-June, four of Canada’s technology leaders travelled to Burnaby, BC, to participate in a panel discussion focused on the business strategy of production inkjet at PrintAction’s one-day PrintForum West conference. The panelists included: Alec Couckuyt, Senior Director, Canon Canada, Professional Printing Solutions Group; Brad King, VP, Graphics Communications, Xerox Canada; Ray Fagan, Sheetfed Product Manager, Heidelberg Canada; and Edward Robeznieks, VP of Sales, Ricoh Canada. Below are key excerpts from their hour-long discussion.
Why should printers invest in inkjet today, are we past the bleeding-edge?
Alec Couckuyt: Yes – we are past the bleeding edge. There has been tremendous evolution in the technology with inkjet… The commercial printer right now is really looking at how can I better serve my customer and inkjet technology together with offset, wide format and digital are all services that are being offered. It really has gone from just putting ink on paper to how can I better serve my customer in a total cycle.
Brad King: Cutsheet inkjet is new from a strategic point of view. In Canada, we have one [Xerox Brenva] install that we can talk about and two others we cannot talk about, so it is still fairly new. There is a lot of interest from commercial printers about these products – how it fits, what are the applications, where does it play. More products and applications are coming and the inkjet space is very close to exploding.
Ray Fagan: If you think about cutting-edge or bleeding-edge technology it is still, in my opinion, in its infancy in terms of long-term development. We took the advantage of some existing platforms of the XL 106 sheet transport, feeder, delivery that have been around a long time.. and we partnered with Fuji for the inkjet heads using Samba technology and their expertise to combine both technologies into one machine. We got to market fairly quickly and launched it at drupa.
There are still a lot of learning curves, a lot of consistency challenges… But our first [Primefire 106] press has been installed in Europe with a beta site at a packaging customer and we will do another machine this year. The roll out will continue to be slow... By 2018 we will finish our beta testing and move into serial production.
Ed Robeznieks: Because we migrated to our [Ricoh] 60000 platform we are able to now go to commercial printers and say you can move offset work over. We can run coated stocks, thicker stocks… we are not running 300, 350 gsm, but we are running 250, 260 and that has opened up the door.
Copywell in Toronto put in a VC60000… They took an original application which was sold as an [offset] sheet run and have now billed 2.5 to 3 million feet a month, which are true offset transfer applications.
How does inkjet present new opportunities for printers?
Couckuyt: An example of a new application for one our clients is magazines… They are actually personalizing or regionalizing the advertising in the magazine. Part of the magazine is printed offset and then the variable part is printed on the inkjet web and then they assemble it. That is an advantage they can sell to their client – the ability of having regionalized information for a specific advertiser.
So it is a new way of approaching the market and creating new opportunities. The critical part is that we can now combine variability with static… The question of whether inkjet can replace offset is the wrong question. Offset and inkjet together open more opportunities for clients.
King: When inkjet came out it was roll-to-roll, big machines, two million plus investment in capital. You needed big volumes to justify the roll-to-roll devices and there were not a lot of printers who could participate in the economics of inkjet.
Now the technology is coming down for lower volumes, as an investment with cutsheet devices, so that mid-sized commercial printers can start playing in this game... You can do a short-run campaign with similar economics that the big players are using today. That is where inkjet is really going to open up big opportunities.
These devices are not $100,000 yet – still a pretty good number that you have to spend – but they are not $2.5 million roll-to-roll devices that need to be running 3, 4, 10 million impressions a month to have the economics make sense.
Fagan: Because [Heidelberg’s] Primefire is basically focusing on the packaging market, as we roll out the product, there are a lot of things happening in packaging that are forcing those printers to look at economics a little bit differently. As run lengths decrease in packaging, it is harder to make money because you do not have the pure volumes. The customer demand for individualization is growing and it is really in its infancy.
We have seen jobs where a 100,000 sheet run is broken into batches of 500 cartons... and this is where the digitization of the industry and the industries around us in advertising are driving manufacturers to do something quite a bit different. Major brands are really forcing that upon packaging printers.
We also see a lot of legislation for packaging with batching and traceability of the package through UPC codes. It could be in the European market in the near future where every single box has an individual identification marker on it so that we can trace it back to its origins. And this is due to the amount of piracy.
Robeznieks: As the price goes down for devices inkjet will become more attractive. It is good for us in a way as manufacturers. Because there is so much downward pressure on operating costs right now, it is becoming difficult for us to make a profit because of servicing the equipment and toner-based technology requires a lot more service than inkjet-based technology.
So it is better for us in the long run, from our perspective, to move toward inkjet. Your gain [as a printer] is operating costs and flexibility where you can do variable, but you are going to be able to take advantage of significant cost savings with inkjet versus toner.
How do you describe total cost of ownership for inkjet to printers?
Couckuyt: Inkjet uptime is a really critical issue. If you are used to a digital press, uptime is in the 60, 70 percent range. If you look at [Canon’s] i300, for example, it has a minimum uptime of 95 percent. When we start talking about total cost of ownership, for a commercial printer and a specific job, that could mean dedicating three shifts [on a toner device] or doing it with inkjet in two shifts… when you look at the evolution of inkjet devices a lot of R&D effort went into building those machines so that they really look after themselves.
King: Inkjet is new technology, that over the next 15 to 20 years, I feel is going to change the printing industry. It allows variable print onto all substrates... It is going to allow us to offer our customers, and printers’ customers, some pretty impressive product solutions to help keep print alive... having strong economics to keep print relevant for people who use marketing communications.
This is really where inkjet TCO will help keep print alive, because it is variable and it will have something valuable to sell to the people who want to use print as a marketing vehicle versus just going digital.
Fagan: We do not see inkjet supplanting offset in a large way for quite some time. We think they are going to run in harmony based on what is being produced. And if you follow that philosophy, the total cost of ownership for the offset printing press can also be improved... because you have another alternative which improves the total cost of ownership on your other equipment.
You are also reducing costs in prepress and you are reducing costs in other areas of building. You do not have to warehouse products. There are a lot of other costs that inkjet lends itself to... that lends itself to a facility’s overall production cost.
Robeznieks: There are still heavy users of offset technology that are going to be difficult for us to strip away... it really comes down to a manufacturer partner who understands a certain vertical really well and who can help you understand your client base and then figure out where the footprint fits.
Why will variable be more impactful for inkjet than it was for toner?
Robeznieks: I’m going to give the non-politically correct answer but it is not. If you have a good working relationship with your client and can help them with variable campaigns, it doesn’t matter what you use – inkjet, toner, there are lots of ways to interact with the client.
What is very interesting is the next phase of inkjet which will be direct to shape... That is a whole different ball game, because now you are going to have things done on the manufacturing line. All of a sudden our devices are no longer creating labels, they are going directly to their object. And all of us are looking at how to get into that space.
Fagan: Big Data has been slow in being understood by a lot of people... in terms of managing the data and properly executing it into a portfolio of products. I really think Big Data in general, Industry 4.0, all of that growth we are seeing right now is accelerating at a very high pace and it is going to become much more manageable to do large variable data programs, computing that information, managing it and getting it where it needs to go. I see growth in that area with inkjet.
King: There is a [Xerox] customer in Toronto who has figured a bit of this out. When you go onto a Webpage and click on a couple of items you thought of buying – and then forget about it or leave to go somewhere else – they are actually grabbing that data. That night, they run a batch file with those three items you looked at, print it the next day on a direct-mail piece and it gets mailed out to that customer within 24 hours. That is where I see some of this very interesting data management… You can do a great direct-mail campaign on a very cost effective platform like inkjet.
Couckuyt: As a printer, you have to be involved in a lot more than just putting ink on paper... you have to be able to handle data, make sure it is being utilized and sent out to the client in record time to have relevance. This is where we as an industry have to be able to take in that data, configure the data properly, and get it out as fast as possible.
We are under pressure to really understand what it is that our clients are communicating, what they need. Inkjet technology and the combination of different technologies, where you go inline or near-line, whichever way you set it up, is an answer to producing relevant communications tools for your client.
The Speedmaster CS 92 was first launched at China Print 2015 as a press for printers looking to consolidate multiple, older machines or wanting to upgrade from a half-size press to widen their market offering. The new press is available in standard four- and five-colour configurations with and without coater or as a six-colour plus coater model. The CS 92 is also available with UV curing.
Heidelberg states based on its productivity versus price performance, the new press offers the lowest cost per sheet against any other competitive press in its class. With a format size of 25 x 37 inches (8-up letter size sheets), Heidelberg explains customers benefit from a 20 percent plate savings over traditional 40-inch presses.
Built upon the platform of the Speedmaster CD 102, the CS 92 prints up to 15,000 sheets per hour and comes standard with Preset Plus Feeder and Delivery. It can also be equipped with Intellistart technology to shorten makeready times.
Self described as the third largest printer in Canada, Solisco was founded in 1991 and now has a team of more than 400 employees working at its Scott headquarters in the Beauce, as well as at Maison 1608 and its Solisco-Numérix division in Quebec City. Solisco recently announced a partnership with Toronto printer Trade Secret Web Printing.
Solisco prints 1.2 billion pages per month, binds three million copies and 600,000 books per week, and prints around 400 magazines, books, circulars, and catalogues every month with print runs of 5,000 to two million.
Solisco explains the new brand image highlights its founding principles, mission, and values: first, positioning Solisco as an expert, stressing the excellence and quality of its products; second, focusing on environmental sustainability and its longevity as a business; and third, bringing out the company’s customized service.
The logo Maison 1608 created is influenced by both the infinity symbol ∞ and press rollers. Solisco explains it can also be read as the letters CO, a reference to co-operation and collaboration among employees, clients, and partners.
Solisco’s new slogan, Creativity in Print, is meant to reference both printing on a surface and making a lasting impression, explains the company, emphasizing the role that paper plays in the world. The company’s new position is extended across various brand descriptions, based on the place that print occupies in everyday life: Inspiration in Print, Strategy in Print, History in Print, Discovery in Print, Beauty in Print, Approachability in Print.
Kouwenhoven was Hemlock’s Chairman and CEO for the past four years after stepping down from running the company’s day-to-day operations for the previous 47 years. Less than a year after immigrating to Canada from The Netherlands in 1961, Kouwenhoven began to form what is now recognized around the world as a trailblazing printing company not just in terms of its high-end sheetfed perfecting capabilities, digital printing prowess and adoption of cutting-edge imaging technologies, but also in its environmentally progressive position.
Kouwenhoven was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a little more than a month ago. Describing his father as “a gentle person who quietly went about his business,” Richard Kouwenhoven explains his father remained active in life and business until the family understood how aggressive the cancer was.
“He set an example for so many people in our industry. Within Hemlock, he set a tone, an ethic that is held throughout our business today. It is part of our identity and it came through all of his dealings in the industry. The example he set is going to impact our industry for a long time,” says Richard, President and Chief Operating Officer of Hemlock.
In a letter sent to industry colleagues last night, Richard shared that he, along with his mother Clara and sister Vanessa, were by Dick’s side when he passed; that his brothers Frits, Bill and Frank were able to spend precious time with him while he was in hospital. “Myself, Frits and members of our Leadership Team met with the Hemlock staff today,” he wrote, “We shared our deep sadness and appreciation for his amazing vision, energy and leadership that created the special community we experience every day at Hemlock. We also thanked him for the legacy that he leaves behind and the wonderful example that he has set for us.”
Plans for a family funeral service as well as a celebration of life are underway. The celebration of life event, which will be open for staff, industry colleagues and friends, will likely occur at the latter part of May, explains Richard, but the venue and exact date have not yet been determined.
The following excerpts are taken from Dick Kouwenhoven’s speech in December 2015, when he received PrintAction’s Lifetime Achievement Award, answering questions he was commonly asked about his life in print:
How did you get into the printing trade?
As most of you know, I was born in the Netherlands, in a beautiful old city named Delft. My hometown became a city in 1246, about 250 years before Columbus ran into North America, on his way to Asia.
In the 17th century, Delft was famous for brewing the best beer, in numerous small breweries, but also for printing beautiful bibles. It is said that the number of breweries were equal to the number of churches in the city. That was reasonable balance to secure continuity for both industries.
I was born during the Second World War, as the ninth child of what would become a family of 12 children. Big families were very common in the Netherlands at that time. The Netherlands was occupied by Germany at that time. My older siblings (some in their teens) were in hiding to stay out of view. They were understandably very difficult times for all people in Holland. One of my first memories was the joyful crowds in the streets, with Dutch flags flying, when the country was liberated in early May of 1945. I was three years old, but I have a clear image of that scene of hundreds of happy people in the streets after spending most of my early years inside the house.
My father was a contractor/builder; second generation, continuing in his dad’s footsteps after he passed away. We had an impressive carpentry workshop behind the house, and as small kids we managed to get into the shop frequently. They made beautiful wooden windows and doors, heavy, structural stuff. We knew the craftsmen by name, and we were shown how they shaped the wooden components, and joined them with wooden dowels.
I knew at an early age that I wanted to work with my hands, creating beautiful stuff. My Dad did carpentry work for a local printer occasionally, and he was always fascinated by what he saw there. When I started to miss my marks in High School, he encouraged me to take a look at the printing trade, and arranged an interview. I learned about the practical combination of 4 days at work and 1 day at school, with a diploma after 5 years. So I became an apprentice compositor, signing my life away with a 6 year iron clad employment contract.
My Dad deserves much credit for his skills as a career councillor. I loved the work, the rapid learning curve, and the comradery of the workplace, much more than being a full time student.
When and why did you immigrate to Canada?
After eight years of learning and working in the trade in the Netherlands, including courses in estimating and accounting, I took the step (together with my brother John) to immigrate to Canada. That was not a big deal, because we already had three brothers who were established in Vancouver.
Much to my surprise, I found employment the day after I arrived in Vancouver, and started work on the following Monday. Too fast, I found, but they needed a typesetter desperately.
When did you start Hemlock Printers?
About six months after my arrival, I was approached by a gentleman who had just purchased a small storefront printery by the name of Hemlock Printers. He had no previous experience in printing, but he had great contacts in the business community, and could fill that little place with orders, no problem. All he needed was an all-round typesetter/printer who could make things happen in the shop.
So I accepted, and worked hard to keep him and his clients happy. He learned about selling print, and I learned about managing expectations, and deliver nicely printed letterheads, envelopes, business cards and wedding invitations etc. on time.
In fairly rapid succession, I invested some money, and became a 50% partner. I learned that a partnership is a poor ship to sail on, and I bought my partner out in 1968, incorporated the little company, borrowed some money, installed some new, better presses, and hired some staff, and moved to larger premises.
Looking back, what were the major events that put Hemlock on a path of growth?
With a move to larger premises just about every 5 years, we again faced a move from about 15,000 overused square feet in 1986. This time there were installations of some new and bigger presses involved and a big pre-press department to feed a total of 17 Heidelberg Speedmaster units. We were fortunate to find just the right place just a block away.
It was big. Too big at first glance. At 54,000 square feet, it looked like an airplane hangar. “We’ll never grow out of this one” was the conclusion of our staff. And they were right. We are still there after nearly 30 years.
Coinciding with an economic boom in Vancouver just before and after Expo’86, Hemlock experienced more than 20 percent growth per year in succession – with this growth in business, our team, our capacity and our capabilities expanded with the demands of the local market we served.
What are some things that make you proud of Hemlock’s success?
During the 47 years since 1968, we were fortunate to make so many friends in the industry and to build lasting relationships with customers, suppliers, employees and the larger community. The quality of our work and service standards make us proud, every day. In my daily walk through the plant, I am in awe of the dedication of our staff to serving our clients to the best of their ability. Our clients know it. There is a passion to excel that you can see and feel.
We have adopted and refined our environmental and social sustainability commitments, and shared our programs and practices freely, to help us all towards a better tomorrow. While it takes time, effort and investments, we feel that we must continuously improve.
I am also proud of the contributions of my family who have played such an important role in Hemlock’s success. Clara, my sweet wife of 48 years, my dear brother and business partner John, who passed away in 1997, dynamic brother Frits, selling up a storm in the USA, Richard responsible for day-to-day from the corner office, and all others who support our efforts.
What does the future hold for Hemlock?
Under Richard’s leadership, we will be expanding our on-line presence and facilities. Our well-oiled fulfillment centre will be expanded in response to increasing demands. And always stay the course with our employees and all our stakeholders to maintain Hemlock’s values and principles, which are pivotal to its continued success.
The Girls Who Print Panel features some of the most influential leaders in Canada’s graphics communications industry, including: Deanne Sinclair, President, Cambridge Label Inc.; Marg Macleod, Association Manager, Digital Imaging Association; Audrey Jamieson, President, Marketing Kitchen Inc.; April Burke, VP Operations & Technology, LM Group; Romy Hahn, Director, Sales & Marketing, Annan & Sons; and Joanne Hisey, Account Manager, Kwik Signs.
To be moderated by Deborah Corn from Print Media Centr, the Girls Who Print Panel will take place on Thursday, April 6, at 4:00 pm in Hall 5, Innovations Theatre, show floor. It is free for attendees.
The Future of Print Panel 2, A Designer's Perspective, features some of Canada’s top creative directors and design agencies principals, including: Dominic Ayre, Creative Director, Hambly & Woolley; Yen Chu, Creative Director of Design, J. Walter Thompson Toronto; Fidel Peña, Co-Founder, Creative Director, Underline Studio; Tony Ponzo, Creative Director, Haft2 Inc.; and Stussy Tschudin, Principal, Forge Media.
To be moderated by Xerox’ Beth Ann Kilberg-Walsh, VP, Marketing Commercial Excellence, the Future of Print Panel 2, takes place on Thursday, April 6, at 2:00 pm on the show floor. It is free for attendees.
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The Océ Arizona 2200 Series includes flatbed-based UV-curable printing systems designed for producing both rigid and flexible work. Building from an existing Arizona platform, the newest Océ Arizona series, according to Canon, are designed as versatile and high-quality imaging systems for mid-volume print producers.
The imagePRESS C10000VP Series is designed for high-volume digital printing, running a range of media types, with what Canon rates as a monthly duty cycle of up to 1.5 million letter-size images. The imagePRESS C10000VP Series reaches print speeds of up to 100 letter images per minute with the C10000VP model and 80 letter images per minute with the C8000VP model, with both systems supporting media weights of up to 350 gsm. The imagePRESS C10000VP Series produces a resolution of up to 2,400 x 2,400 dpi with automatic colour control and adjustment.
The Canon imagePROGRAF 60-inch PRO-6000S and 44-inch PRO-4000S large-format printers using an 8-colour LUCIA PRO ink system designed for applications like production signage, commercial photography and proofing. The LUCIA PRO ink set adopts newly formulated, micro-encapsulated pigment inks for what the company describes as strong colour reproduction, image clarity and fine lines. Canon explains these reproduction characteristics are well suited for creating posters and advertising displays.
Amazing Print Tech provided PrintAction with a preview of the following Graphics Canada 2017 booth highlights.
Return to list of Graphics Canada featured exhibitors
Web-to-Print provider Amazing Print Tech is showcasing a range of online storefront technologies for areas the company describes as business-to-consumer, retail, business-to-business, corporate, websites, estimators and content management system plug-in technologies.
In addition to create new Websites, Amazing Print Tech states it offers the largest library of premade templates, which can be embedded into existing Websites.
On the top floor of ICON Digital Productions’ 90,000- square-foot manufacturing facility, tucked into a dimmed backroom, three technicians sit in front of a dozen screens grouped together on the wall like the Network Operations Centre of a cable news network. They are monitoring some of the highest profile static print and dynamic digital signs controlled by ICON’s newly minted Media division, including all the visuals hanging in Toronto’s Dundas Square and way-finding screens directing passengers at Pearson Airport.
Responsible for thousands of digital signs across Canada for Blue Chip clients like Shoppers Drug Mart, ICON Media illustrates the reach behind one of the country’s most unique visual communications companies. Designed to deploy national signage networks by procuring all of the necessary hardware, developing business plans and ultimately managing ever-changing content for clients, ICON Media is well-positioned to take advantage of an evolving wireless world. It provides the company with an irresistible vehicle for C-suite strategy discussions with clients. The bedrock of the parent company, however, is formed by ICON Visual with one of Canada’s most powerful technological infrastructures for large-format imaging.
ICON Visual dominates the company’s Markham, Ontario, facility, which any grizzled graphics pro would recognize by its curved-glass façade as the former home of Apple Canada. This division generates more than half of the parent company’s annual revenue, which in its most recent fiscal year amounted to just under $40 million, by pumping out static display graphics with print qualities demanded by the likes of Fortune 500 cosmetic and fragrance clients, Hudson’s Bay Company and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
ICON Print is the third pillar of the company’s All Things Visual strategy, developed through a divisional rebrand in December 2016. After years of outsourcing the production of offset-print jobs for its Blue Chip clients, ICON in January acquired Toronto Trade Printing, bringing decades of 40-inch-offset expertise in-house. The move creates a multifaceted communications manufacturing company powered by ICON Media, ICON Visual and ICON Print.
Last year alone, ICON oversaw the printing of more than 20-million direct-mail pieces in addition to a range of offset-produced marketing collateral. The company’s executive team has spent the past several months looking at both commercial and trade printing operations to purchase in the Greater Toronto Area. “We look at print not so much as old technology. We look at it as just another communications medium. In fact, our numbers tell us there is a lot of growth in print still,” says Juan Lau, President of ICON Digital, who co-founded the company in 1995 with Peter Evans and Peter Yeung. “The last three or four years we kept looking at our financial statements and, ironically, the fastest growing service sector was commercial printing – and we were not even trying.”
Without a direct need to acquire book of business from a commercial shop, which is the primary M&A driver in today’s printing market, ICON’s executive team was focused on finding the best lithographic-manufacturing fit for its existing AAA client base. Lau explains his priority was to purchase a well-established printer to immediately provide the offset knowledge ICON lacks after two decades of building a roll-fed digital printing operation.
Approximately 80 percent of what ICON Visual now prints is produced with Durst roll-fed machines. Lau describes this as a key differentiator for ICON because its production has been built around a square-metre pricing model, driven as much by finishing and fabrication as by print production. “From a pricing model we are able to get more yield [using] rolls – just a pricing thing. We can get that buttoned down pretty quick. Printers getting into our space still go off the rate-card mentality,” says Lau, describing what he sees as traditional offset pricing based on number of sheets produced.
“We know a lot of commercial printers are trying to get into our space now,” says Lau. “To get into our line of work, they are going to blow their minds out on the finishing end… anyone can print, but it is the finishing that really makes or breaks a project.” Most commercial printers getting into large-format imaging also turn to flatbed machines, continuing to focus on cost-per-sheet pricing models.
Lau explains he never set out to build ICON as a traditional printing operation when the partners founded the company. In 1995, the Internet had not yet penetrated the minds of most people, fax machines and phones were the dominate business tools of the day, and modems were limited to speeds of under 20k. Still, Lau wanted the company name to hold the word digital, as well as production, because he initially wanted to start a video-production company. The key word ICON came to him one day when a radio host referred to Madonna or Michael Jackson, he cannot recall which, as the Icon of Pop.
Prior to opening ICON, Lau was running a photo-enlargement company producing monochrome engineering drawings and architectural blueprints, generating slim margins, pennies per sheet. Lau describes his large-format eureka moment arriving in the early 1990s after seeing new colour imaging technologies at a tradeshow: “The idea of taking a file and outputting larger-than-life graphics on just about any surface, whether it is vinyl or textiles, or what have you, nobody was really doing it.”
ICON’s first large-format machine was a Xerox electrostatic printer and, Lau explains, he and Evans decided to put a stake in the ground as a new type of printing operation. “We printed on sheets alright, but we printed it to transfer media and that allowed us to, with lamination, transfer it directly onto any substrate.”
The technology was slow, outputting two or three posters per hour, and not a realistic investment choice for offset-based commercial printers. Lau explains he was driven to own the market that ICON would serve, akin to McDonalds being synonymous with burgers, Coke with soda, and Rolex with watches. Advertising agencies were immediately drawn to the new output possibilities ICON could provide with one-off large-format printing, even if they would often turn to offset or screen technologies for longer runs. “We started to establish a name in the business to do mockups, ideas, innovative stuff,” says Lau, noting ICON initially produced a lot of tradeshow graphics ideal for one-offs.
“What we were bringing on was really, by today’s standards, considered disruptive technology,” Lau says. “We didn’t know it at the time, but I think we were disruptors.” He explains it took about a decade after ICON’s founding for large-format imaging technologies, shifting from heavy solvents to UV, to evolve into a viable printing process for new entrants. “We went through a metamorphosis ourselves around 2005,” Lau says. “A key turning point in our company because it allowed me to do what I do best and that is go downstairs and take care of the operations, because our sales had never declined since 2005.”
Lau was trained as a programmer and holds great affinity for taking a process-minded approach to business. He felt ICON’s challenge was not about topline sales and he began to search for more efficiencies in the facility. “Once I got my hands on the operations side, the process and all of that – [we previously had the] same level of sales, $10 million, for a while – our bottom line increased tremendously.”
ICON brought on a new customized ERP system, internally branded as Cyrious, and a much-needed scheduling system for what had become a very busy large-format shop. ICON also brought in a new Chief Financial Officer, Alex Christopoulos, who Lau credits with greatly improving cash flow and the company’s overall financial health.
Lau describes the years from 2005 to 2008 as a “pivotal time” for ICON as he and Evans also decided to stop producing trade work for other printers and instead sell direct into the commercial market. “Part of the improvement on our bottom line was we made a conscious decision to shift and go after end-user markets,” explains Lau. “If we look back right now, we could have a few chuckles over that. It was one of the best decisions we could have made.”
Around the same time, ICON’s future would be influenced by the arrival of significant developments in large-format digital imaging technologies with a new wave of UV-based inkjet systems. ICON threw out all of its older-generation, heavy-solvent inefficiencies and made significant investments in UV technology, which Lau also credits with improving the company’s bottom line. ICON’s attention to the bottom line through the latter half of the decade would soon prove critical as The Great Recession of 2008 fast approached, all but strangling print sales for months.
A year before the printing industry plunged into the throes of frozen marketing budgets, Lau points to the significance of another technological marvel on ICON’s future. “2007 was a pivotal year from a technology standpoint, because when the iPhone came out [it] launched wireless technology in my opinion,” he says. “With all of the apps, [Apple] launched a whole slew of development in wireless technology.”
The economic ecosystem that quickly developed around wireless technologies would serve as a catalyst for the growth in screen-based digital signage. Lau explains wireless technologies broke down barriers that had been fortified for years by the need to run so much cable and obtrusive hardware. Less than two years after the arrival of Apple’s iPhone, ICON purchased a two-person AV company called Gridcast in 2009, when digital signage was still very much in its infancy. ICON had previously worked with Gridcast on a project for the Bank of Montreal, which wanted to integrate a digital projection within a large banner with a cutout. “It went really well and that was another eureka moment with Gridcast,” recalls Lau, describing ICON’s first project to integrate both print and digital mediums.
“Gridcast was very AV-oriented – hang-and-bang hardware. We saw very quickly in the first year that the model wasn’t really going to be a sustainable model,” says Lau. “Not only did we develop it by feeding it through ICON’s customer base, we actually changed [it] into a consulting model.”
The Gridcast division, rebranded in December 2016 as ICON Media, has been a significant driver for the company. “Our business in Media is an annuity. We will charge you a three-year management deal,” says Christopoulos, as an example of how the company can work with a client to finance a network of in-store screens, while ICON is truly interested in ongoing content management services.
Christopoulos explains the company, to a much lesser extent, hopes to take the same approach with some of ICON Visual’s work, where they might provide a client with a free banner stand with a commitment to print work to cover it – ideally, changing out the print regularly – over the next several months. With The Bay, ICON Visual is also starting to print on magnetic sheets that can be applied to painted walls, speaking to the division’s growing attention on developing repeatable visual systems with clients. The continuing innovation in both ICON Visual and Media have developed a strong reputation south of the border, where the company now produces around seven percent of its work.
“[It isn’t] so much because we are a better printer. They have local guys down there. It was actually our Media division because they are a lot more proactive when it comes to new innovations,” says Lau. “Because they want to do new things with digital, they are very open-minded to talk about the other print things we offer. So that is how we have been using digital media, more as a way to penetrate organizations from the top down, as opposed to starting with procurement and working our way up.” ICON Media has been using Virtual Reality for almost two years to show clients, like Sport Chek’s CMO for example, what their stores will look like with large-format print.
As ICON Print is developed, the company plans to leverage strong C-Suite relationships to drive work onto litho presses. In fact, Lau envisions an emerging media procurement approach that will benefit the rebranded position of ICON’s three divisions: “I am hoping as more Millennials get into positions of power and decision-making, they are going to say, ‘Why do we need a separate print budget. This is a media budget. We need to line up all of our marketing together.’ I think those budgets are going to change. We are kind of placing a little bit of a bet that way.”
Under ICON’s new multifaceted media vision, Lau explains it is important to hold a true offset-printing presence beyond outsourcing. “We have only touched the surface of the excitement the Media division is going bring,” says Lau. “It is huge. The ICON rebranding of All Things Visual is going to take us to the next level.”
The ICON Visual division generates more than half of the parent company’s annual revenue, which in its most recent fiscal year amounted to just under $40 million, based on one of Canada’s most powerful large-format imaging infrastructures. ICON Visual, generating around 80 percent of its revenue through roll-fed Durst machines, traces its roots back to the company’s founding in 1995 as a pioneer in the display graphics sector.
ICON Media is responsible for managing national digital-signage networks for Blue Chip clients like Shoppers Drug Mart, as well as high-profile regional clients like Pearson Airport – way-finding screens – and Toronto’s Dundas Square. The division was established in 2009 after ICON purchased Gridcast and today works with clients to deploy signage networks with the ability to procure all of the necessary hardware, develop business plans and manage ever-changing content.
ICON Print is the third pillar of the company’s rebranding strategy, now focused on producing offset work in-house after it has been outsourcing such jobs for its client base. Last year alone, ICON oversaw the printing of more than 20-million direct-mail pieces in addition to a range of offset-produced marketing collateral. The company’s executive team spent the past several months looking at printing operations to purchase in the Greater Toronto Area.
With the acquisition of 25-year-old Toronto Trade, led by the printing expertise of President Kieron Pope and Vice President Steven Niles, ICON projects it will reach approximately $50 million in revenue by the end of its current fiscal year.
“We look at print not so much as old technology. We look at it as just another communications medium. In fact, our numbers tell us there is a lot of growth in print still,” says Juan Lau, President and CEO of ICON Digital, who co-founded the company in 1995 with business partners Peter Evans and Peter Yeung. “The last three or four years we kept looking at our financial statements and, ironically, the fastest growing service sector was commercial printing – and we were not even trying.”
Kieron Pope and Steven Niles are to remain in their leadership roles with the offset-printing operation. “This secures a bright future and legacy for our staff and customers and we couldn't be more excited to be part of a progressive organization like ICON,” said Pope, in a press release about the acquisition.