Finding Success with Wide Format


Graphics and Marketing (GAM) installed a Ricoh latex printer with the white ink option, which gives them the ability to not only produce a wider range of projects, but also allowed them to bring their wide-format work in-house, where they could better control the timelines.

For most modern commercial printers, the market has been shifting for a few years now. Print buyers are often looking for more than just thousands of copies of the same brochure or poster, and new technologies have opened up ways for printers to provide far more types of print materials.

Wide-format, in particular, has opened up new possibilities for printers. And while there are plenty of shops out there that specialize in nothing but wide-format work, there are also plenty of commercial printers with long, distinguished histories in the industry who are finding great success with new technologies.

Simpson Printing is one of those shops. With two locations in Rapid City, SD and Gillette, WY, the company has been family owned and operated since 1965. When Jon Simpson’s father took over the shop in 2007, they took inventory and realized they were running a lot of old equipment from the 1970s. Which still worked, but it was time for an upgrade. Simpson, who is the current vice president, noted that they first bought a new Heidelberg six-color machine in 2008, with bindery equipment following. They made some investments in digital cut-sheet machines, and had a growing small press department as well. But three years ago, they decided it was time to get into large format work as well.

“So we talked to our Fuji sales guy and he was talking to us about LED 1600 which was an interesting machine. It was a hybrid, which was something we were interested in, and the price point was good. The biggest thing for us was really we didn’t know anything about it. We had a couple of aqueous machines, and one was a big 110-inch machine and it just didn’t work. Heads were always dropping out, there were print quality issues and the inherent disadvantages of aqueous—we could really only print on white paper. At the time we were using those machines I wasn’t involved since I was heading up the new offset department and getting that off the ground, but when we decided we did want to get into large format, I knew I would have to take that on. I needed to learn the machines, the substrates, how to handle them, how to source it, what jobs we could sell in our region; We didn’t know any of that so we had to explore and ask customers what they wanted and figure out what was going on in the market. My vision wasn’t to be a franchise sign shop. I wanted to be something more unique than a banner flag or yard sign shop. We do those sorts of things, but I wanted to print and cut acrylic, black substrates, clear and rigid boards, as well as vehicles wraps, vinyl’s and fabrics.”

Bennett Graphics is another commercial shop that has taken the plunge into wide-format work. Founded in 1967 by brothers Everett and Larry Bennett, they focused on two-color work with small offset presses. In 1993, Larry sold his share to brother Everett and his wife, and in the late 1990s, they were running several 40-inch Heidelberg presses. The company added digital printing in 2009 with the HP Indigo, and made the leap to large format in 2013.

“We got into wide-format as an attempt to diversify our offerings,” said David Bennett, president of Bennett Graphics, which has two HP Indigos—a 7800 and a 1000—as well as the HP Scitex FB700, and is in the process of adding the HP Latex 370 machine to their shop. “We wanted to offer more to customers, and get deeper into those customers. We also wanted to reduce our reliance on the offset print we do.”

For both printers, the draw was the ability to produce a much wider range of materials for their clients. They both recognized that print buyers today want to work with one integrated shop who can not only produce their long-run work, but can help them with all the other aspects of their marketing campaigns as well.

But as they both quickly learned, while offset and wide-format are both types of print, they are very different worlds.

“Short to medium run offset has been our main focus for the last 50 years, and we have a very good customer base we’ve built up trying to grow our business,” said Simpson. “We are good at the offset side and we earned people’s trust that way. But wide-format is a whole different ball game. It is not commercial printing. That’s what I learned—the materials are different, inkjet technology is not offset technology. I had to learn a whole new way of running the machine, all the nuances pressmen know about how to make offset press run like a top—I had to learn all those little things for the wide-format. What substrates need what tricks, how to feed it, how to print on it, everything. There is a big learning curve.”

“Because we do a lot of projects that touch a lot of departments, clients were buying wide-format in one place, offset in another and digital in another,” said Bennett. “The logistics of getting them all together was difficult. The feedback we’re getting is that they love being able to go to one place and not have multiple suppliers now. In addition, some clients we had difficulty penetrating with just offset; wide-format and digital gives us a different entry into new accounts as well.”

Graphics and Marketing (GAM) based in Sterling, VA, took another approach. In business for more than 37 years, the company had been offering wide-format work for a while, using solvent-based equipment. But it wasn’t as large as they really needed, and they were still forced to outsource things like vehicle wraps. And they weren’t always happy with the drying times on the work they did produce, or turn-around times on work that they had to send out to other shops.

So they decided it was time for a change.

“We decided we had to look for a way to bring at least the printing in house and even possibly the wrapping of the vehicles in house,” said Nathaniel Grant, president of Graphics and Marketing (GAM). “We also do a lot of posters, in store signage, outside signage, different backlit signage, stuff like that. We bought the Ricoh latex printer, and we’re now able to do the backlit materials with the white ink, which gives it a whole different quality coming off the machine. We can also produce stuff much faster; we can laminate within a half hour of printing because it’s dry. It used to take us 24-48 hours to turn a product around. Now we can do it in a few hours. Our customers are very happy with that.”

He went on to note that for commercial printers, just being someone else’s customer for wide-format work can lead to a lot of problems and bottlenecks in the shop. And when something goes wrong, it isn’t the third party who takes the heat, it’s the printer the customer came to in the first place.

“I would say 10 or 12 years ago we farmed 100 percent of the wide-format work out,” Grant noted. “We had a few places we sent it, but when you’re just somebodies customer you don’t have control. They don’t understand your turnaround times. So when we brought it in originally it was to increase turnaround times. We had purchased one of our vendors at the time and that didn’t work out at all. We kept one of the employees and everything else went. We started buying new equipment and ramping it up then. We found you’ve got to be able to do everything for the client, from the signage for the outside to the posters on the inside, plus postcard mailings, email blasts, the whole gamut. Wide-format is just one of those things you have to be able to produce to have that consistency along with the quality and turnaround time.”

For all three commercial printers, the investment has paid off. All three noted that the wide-format equipment they ended up purchasing—from Fuji, HP and Ricoh, respectively—has exceeded all their expectations. All three have been able to open new markets and win business they could never have competed for in the past. It hasn’t been easy; they didn’t just have to buy new equipment, they had to learn a whole new way of approaching print. But they saw the writing on the wall: printers have to diversify their offerings if they want to stay relevant in today’s marketing landscape. Print buyers are also buying billboards, vehicle wraps, email blasts, even mobile marketing campaigns, and the ability to offer wide-format as one more service they can get from a single source they trust is a key selling point.