Large format is emerging as one of the fastest-growing printing sectors in Europe at the moment. At the same time, it is also having a big influence on technical and supply-chain trends in the European printing market.
Its quick expansion in recent years has driven technical advances in sheetfed offset, screen and digital printing equipment.
For ink makers, particularly those supplying the screen and digital sectors, large format printing requires products with additional outdoor durability and both indoor and outdoor light fastness.
The biggest technical challenges are being set by the wide range of substrates now being used in large format printing. With flexible materials, these extend from paper and corrugated board to textile and fabrics to vinyl and other plastics.
Recently, new technologies have advanced processes for direct printing onto rigid substrates like laminated board, rigid plastics, glass, steel and other metals.
As a result, large format promotional and corporate graphics have spread beyond traditional billboards and point-of-sale displays to wall and floor coverings, building wraps and even hot-air balloons.
Nonetheless, the biggest change initiated by large format could stem from its effect on the structure of parts of the European printing industry. It is generating a new breed of printing operators while bringing new entrants into the printing sector, all of which will have an impact on the way certain inks are developed, produced and distributed.
Some of the most rapidly growing businesses in the sector are run by printing companies that offer services beyond those of conventional printers. Service providers from outside the printing industry have also been moving into the large format sector because it is helping them widen the scope of their activities.
Substrate manufacturers, particularly plastic film producers, have become big players in the sector, marketing a full graphics display service and, in some cases, even providing additional materials such as inks.
The attraction for these new entrants is the strong demand for display graphics services, particularly in northern Europe, among advertisers for whom large format has become a dynamic medium for promoting not only products but also corporate image.
“Large format is an ideal means of being able to continuously catch the eye of the consumer at a time when advertisers want to maintain maximum exposure at a low cost,” said a marketing manager in one graphics company.
The large-format advertising segment has been growing about 10 to 15 percent faster than the total advertising market, according to figures from the London-based Zenith Media. As a result it has been expanding at around three times faster than growth rates for gross domestic product (GDP).
The most rapid increases are in the super-wide section of large format with widths of 2.5 meters (100 inches) to 5m. But high growth levels are also being forecast for the shorter widths from 750 millimeters (30 inches) to 1.5-2 m.
The healthy state of the large format sheetfed offset market has prompted machine manufacturers to continue to develop new or improved models. These are often targeted at the book and packaging sectors. But printers are also using the machines for poster and point-of-purchase (POP) display work, particularly with large or medium run orders.
Large-format litho does not tend to pose the same technical demands for ink makers as screen and digital printing inks – possibly because the sheetfed sector is focused mainly on internal displays.
“The use of large format in sheetfed does not have a big impact on the types of ink being used,” explained Eric Frank, a technical executive in offset inks at BASF. “The technical needs are dictated not so much by size but end-use. So if the application is for outdoor posters then obviously light and weather fastness in the inks is important, as well as resistance to glues.”
With the help of the big new automated machines, large format litho operators have been making inroads in the European market for internal posters and POP displays.
Screen printing ink makers believe that litho cannot match the effectiveness of screen printing in the outdoor sector because of the difficulty of producing litho inks of sufficient durability.
“Because of its ability to provide through its ink pigments a high level of light and weather resistance, screen printing has a definite edge over litho in the large format outdoor market,” said Tony Atkinson, international marketing manager at Sericol Printing, Broadstairs, Kent, U.K.
Manufacturers of screen printing machines have also been introducing automated, multicolor line equipment with flash UV curing facilities. This is enabling the process to hold its ground in the core 1m-2.5m segment of the large format market against increased rivalry from both litho and digital processes.
“Screen printing can now compete much more strongly in the internal graphic and POP large format sector because the machines are quicker, particularly as a result of the flash curing capability,” said Mr. Atkinson.
Instead of regarding digital printing processes as an alternative to screen printing, printers are in fact regarding the two technologies as being complementary.
As a result, leading manufacturers of screen printing equipment and supplies have been setting up partnerships with operators in the digital sectors. Svecia AB of Sweden, a major supplier of screen printing presses, has entered a distribution alliance with NUR Macroprinters, a world leader in wide-format ink jet printing systems.
Sericol, which has been working on new digital inks for three years, signed a partnership agreement late last year with Xaar plc, Cambridge, U.K., an ink jet company for the development and manufacture of a range of inks for Xaar’s printheads.
Both ink makers and printing equipment manufacturers have also been working closely with suppliers of substrates in the large format market. 3M, a major producer of graphic films and adhesives, has development and distribution partnerships with digital press manufacturers such as Scitex and Vutek.
3M is a major force in the European large format sector because it promotes its films and adhesives directly to end-users. At the same time, it has a network of recommended printers to whom it supplies its own inks and toners.
One of 3M’s latest innovations is a self-adhesive vinyl film that ensures that graphics materials can be applied more quickly and at a lower cost, particularly in the commercial vehicles sector.
“It helps to open up new opportunities for us because truck owners do not have to worry about their vehicles being out of circulation for long periods for the application of graphics,” said Melanie Hinde, 3M’s marketing manager for commercial graphics in the U.K. “It also means that they are more willing to think about changing the graphics more often, at a time when the exteriors of vehicles are being used more as marketing tool than for displaying corporate names.”
Vehicle servicing companies are also starting to become active in the large format market in Europe. One of the latest newcomers has been Akzo Nobel, whose coatings operation last year took over the commercial vehicle coatings business of U.K.-based Mason Coatings to gain entry into large format graphics.
Mason, the U.K. market leader in the supply of paint, graphics and decals (transfers) in the transportation segment, became a player in the large format sector only two years ago when it purchased from Flint the vehicle graphics business of the U.K. ink producer Manders.
“We were pretty unique because there can’t be any other company which is a market leader in both commercial vehicle paint and graphics,” said Leigh Dorling, a former senior executive at Mason who is now managing director of Akzo Nobel’s newly formed vehicle image management business.
Akzo Nobel now has a large-format graphics activity with two screen and digital printing plants in the U.K., which it plans to use as a platform for rolling the business out across Europe.
Despite producing its own printing inks, Akzo Nobel has to buy screen and digital inks for its new graphics business. Akzo Nobel Inks only makes screen inks for the label market.
Hence, Mason’s acquisition has heightened speculation that Akzo Nobel may want to acquire Sericol, which has been put up for sale following BP’s takeover of its parent company Burmah Castrol.
But such a move could be opposed by the competition authorities because Sericol, the world leader in screen printing inks, also supplies inks to many of Akzo Nobel’s competitors in vehicle graphics.
Thus, in order to be backward integrated into the manufacture of large format inks, Akzo Nobel may decide to acquire a smaller screen ink supplier, which would probably be combined with its vehicle refinishing activity rather its ink business.
“We took over the Mason operation as part of our strategy of making our vehicle refinish business a services activity able to look after a range of needs of truck and other transport fleets, including their graphics requirements,” said a spokesman for Akzo Nobel’s coatings operation.
No doubt other companies in vehicle coatings and maintenance services are already considering following Akzo Nobel’s example by expanding into graphics. The large format market could increasingly become a service sector in which the supply of ink plays an important but not a vital role.