Full Throttle Print
By Jon Robinson
By Jon Robinson
Tips on entering the dynamic vehicle graphics printing market
The commercialization of wide-format-inkjet printing in the 1990s signaled the beginnings of a technological evolution into what is today one of the printing industry’s most intriguing and fastest- growing applications, vehicle graphics. Inkjet printing shifted the production of these mobile billboards away from laborious screen-printing techniques reserved for large vehicle fleets, as well as specialized one-off lettering jobs.
Leveraging the maturation of inkjet systems and inks, materials science is now the key driver of the vehicle graphics market, pushing incredible and effective new applications and business models. Printing professionals who were in Miami Beach in late-February for the Graphics of the Americas trade show surely noticed the dozens of ATV-like taxis running people around through the night. “They were all lit up on the sides with a material that was backlit and printed,” recalls Brian Phipps, Vice President and General Manager of Mutoh America.
Phipps continues to describe the growing use of OLED technology applied to thin vehicle films, a boom in paint replacement with pure coloured vinyl holding a metallic flake feel, and car dealerships running inkjet systems in-house by adding the cost of graphics into the leasing of van fleets. Ford recently bought one of Mutoh’s printing systems to apply its logo to corporate semi-trailers.
“[This sector] is more around doing commercial graphics for fleet vehicles and panel trucks, potentially cars too, but it is more about the commercial side… the bigger side of the market,” says David Hawkes, Group Product Manager, Sign Products and Textile Printers, Roland DGA. Marketers and businesses alike are realizing vehicle graphics rule the economics of out-of-home advertising, which is no longer solely pegged to static billboards, as determined by the Cost Per Thousand (CPM) metric relating large-format- advertisement location to eyeballs.
“Vehicle wraps, whether it is on the side of a truck or a car, are the lowest cost form of advertising available,” says Jeffrey Uzbalis, National Distribution Accounts, 3M Commercial Graphics. “Its CPM is around 50 cents versus 20 bucks [for prime TV advertising]. It is cheaper than Internet banner ads.” The advances in wide-format technologies have developed the out-of-home playing field for the betterment of print. Uzbalis explains this is why 3M films are used to display Smirnoff ads on the brick and concrete walls around Toronto’s BMO soccer pitch, where hard-drinking 19- to 34-year-old males congregate.
“Everybody is so focused on social media and mobile that what they often overlook is physical graphics actually get results,” says Uzbalis. “If you put a floor graphic in a supermarket that say Chips Ahoy! you can actually influence consumer behaviour at the point of decision making.” He explains 3M now commissions audited studies to generate hard data points to illustrate the cost effectiveness of printed wraps to marketers. It is part of the company’s massive R&D investment in the sector to tap deeper into one of the strongest printing opportunities.
“People shouldn’t think this is a mature market or that it is too late – it is not. It is growing and there are a million things to do,” says Phipps. “The media companies are driving this a lot with the different materials that are coming out.”
An 18-year veteran with 3M’s Commercial Graphics division, Uzbalis is a true subject-matter expert on wide-format printing and specifically vehicle graphics. He has seen the wrap-materials evolution mirror the digital revolution from his position with arguably the world’s most-powerful adhesives company, which generated revenues of $32 billion in its most recent fiscal year with some 90,000 employees.
With its Canadian headquarters based in London, Ontario, 3M’s introduction of Controltac graphic film approximately 20 years ago marked a significant step forward for vehicle graphics application. Labeled by 3M as adhesive performance, Controltac allowed users to move away from heavy permanent adhesive that was slow and expensive to use. “Controltac really revolutionized the industry because the adhesive wouldn’t stick immediately,” explains Uzbalis. “You could move it around, slide it around, position it and then apply it with a squeegee.”
3M’s second major wrap innovation came around a decade ago with the introduction of Comply air-release technology, based on micro-replication science that was developed to make better stamp paper. The technology was applied to wrap material to make a special liner with a series of ridges. When the liner is pulled away from the back of Comply film it leaves impressions in the adhesive, which provide routes for the air to escape ahead of an application squeegee – preventing the formation of bubbles. 3M’s newest film advancement, called Envision, adds material stretch and a wider operating temperature to the innovations of Comply and Controltac.
“Really, for [commercial printers] it should be about wrapping in general, whether it is the side of a building or a glass curtain wall or the windows and floors, in addition to vehicle wraps, because there is a well-established vehicle wrap business out there,” says Uzbalis.
Images of the amazing artistic work of vehicle-wrap specialists can be seen across every social media platform, which is intimidating for commercial printers thinking about entering the sector. This is compounded by the fact that print is not the most significant component of such projects.
“It is not just a printer, it is a department,” says Uzbalis. “With wide-format printing, once you have printed [the job] it is only the beginning. Now that graphic has a second life… it has to be applied to somebody else’s private or public property. It has adhesive on the back of it and this is a key difference – it often has to be removed.”
Commercial printers, however, are becoming more accustomed to value-add business models, where print is not the sole revenue source for a communications project, whether this means data management, specialty finishing or some other tangible expertise.
“There is certainly an art to both the design and the application if you are doing a full vehicle wrap,” says Hawkes. “There are plenty of third-party providers out there who would be more than happy to wrap vehicles for you; and do it under your name… there are ways to put your toe in that market to see if there is interest in your customer base.” Hawkes emphasizes vehicle wraps are often just a component of a client’s overall promotional needs, which may also include out-of-home products like signage, apparel or more standard collateral work.
Commercial printers thinking about entering the wrap sector, therefore, must consider their most viable investment route. “The good news for commercial printers is that they are used to spending a million or half a million dollars and they see our printer for $15,000 or down as low as $6,800,” says Phipps. Mutoh’s proclaimed “Wrapper’s Choice” printing system costs US$18,995 list. “So, at least it is not a shock from the cost standpoint. It may be from the learning curve.”
Uzbalis recalls, when he started out in the wrap sector 18 years ago, it cost around half a million dollars to get into the business. Today, a printer in theory can get into vehicle wraps without spending a dime based on outsourcing, instead focusing on sales. Commercial printers, however, do have specialized colour and production management skills they can leverage with relatively inexpensive equipment, while outsourcing installation.
“A large percentage of the installers do not do any printing at all,” explains Phipps. “They either come to your place if you have a bay, or you can have it done at their place.”
Roland, which builds its expertise in the wrap sector through print-and-cut technology, also focuses on producing decals, smaller format vehicle graphics instead of full wraps. “There is also something called partial wraps,” says Hawkes. “Some companies getting into it will just do tailgates on trucks or maybe back windows with perforated – things that are easy, decals for the door of a plumbing truck. That is a whole business on its own.”
Producing partial graphics can also lower equipment investment needs, in terms of printing system width. However, Hawkes, Phipps and Uzbalis all suggest focusing on investing in 60- to 64-inch printers, again relating to the relatively low cost and available network of installers. “It doesn’t have to be a $70,000 printer that you bring in in order to do this stuff. We have our 640 RF printer and that can handle it,” says Hawkes. “It is print only, but you can do a full vinyl wrap job with it and people do that all the time and that printer is less than $20,000.”
“Sixty-four inch is the magic size,” says Phipps. “Most of the media you are going to use in the wrap business is 60 inches.” This size, explains Phipps, can produce work for a lot of different parts of a vehicle, such as one-piece hoods and tailgates. “You want to shy away from having a seam down the middle if you can. It is becoming less and less acceptable especially when you are getting into higher-end wraps.”
Phipps also explains 60-inch media is the ideal size for a single operator to handle during installation, avoiding the costly need for a second installer. “From an application standpoint one person can handle 60 inches,” he explains, “and secondly it will cover most vehicles in one piece.”
If a commercial printer does decide to enter the sector by purchasing a wide-format system engine, they will also require a laminator, which might cost as little as $5,000. Phipps explains a laminator will typically outlast all of the other wrap equipment by at least two or three times. He warns, however, that it is vital to purchase a good-quality laminator, because an inexpensive machine is likely to lose its pinching ability over time, for applying an even, crinkle-free laminate. “There is nothing worse than spending the time designing the file, then printing it on expensive vinyl… and having it crinkle up and then having to start all over.”
After the initial capital outlay for the printing engine and laminator, the ongoing investment concern revolves around media costs, particularly given the current advances in the technology. Printers have the natural tendency to look at these expensive films as a means to control margins on their jobs, but, unlike specifying papers for commercial work, the wrong substrates can turn into very costly mistakes.
This often relates to specialized adhesives and to the use of calendared or cast vinyl, the latter being more expensive. “Calendared vinyl is basically when you take a big lump of heated vinyl [and] roll it flat and then cut it off to get the piece that you want. Well, the problem is that it has memory and over time those corners peel up,” explains Hawkes. “A cast vinyl is just what it sounds like: You are pouring into a mould and so it doesn’t have memory. You always want to print with a cast vinyl, but at the same time there are so many inexpensive places to buy vinyl these days.” Calendared vinyl is also a thicker film, usually 3 1/2 to 4 mils, relative to cast materials.
Uzbalis warns it may be tempting to save $500 on the front end to purchase a vinyl that is cheaper because of its adhesive, which may not be engineered for a specific application. “Profit can quickly turn into a loss when a $2,000 invoice shows up for broken storefront windows,” he says. “Worse, what is my reputation now with that client?”
One of the more important aspects of working with wrap materials is to ensure the production team has the ability to properly estimate the job, which is certainly a strength of commercial printers. “Measuring and estimating the job is one of the more important parts,” says Hawkes, “because if you have to print another 10 feet of vinyl and apply another 10 feet of vinyl, because you forgot the back of a truck or something, that is a big expense in product and time.”
At the same time, Phipps explains the amount of work involved in producing wraps, from design and printing to laminating and installation, provides substantial revenue avenues for printers. “There is a lot of opportunity to show value to the customer. You are not just selling a piece of paper. There is a lot more involved,” he says.
Uzbalis emphasizes revenue potential goes hand in hand with a dynamic market that is constantly presenting new applications. “It is a market that has relatively better margins than ink on paper so it is very attractive to commercial printers,” he says. While it is easy enough to throw calendared vinyl on a piece of Coroplast, which does happen often for short term installations, commercial printers can also leverage their craft-based abilities to add value to what is becoming a powerful and cost-effective form of advertising.
“It is the same with all types of printing. You can find people who are willing to do this for a song and make next-to-no margin,” says Hawkes. “I never really understood the thought process behind that. Or you can find the people who turn around and say, ‘I have the ability to do quality graphics. I use quality materials and I stand behind what I wrap.’ Those are the people who make the margins. It doesn’t happen overnight necessarily, but those are the people who do the best long term.”