The Quest for the ‘Next Big Thing’

Exploring the wants and needs for the Next Big Thing.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for the next big thing. All you have to do is show me what appears to be the next big thing (or as I’ll refer to it here, “NBT”) and I’m all over it. It really doesn’t matter what it is: a car; a camera; a computer; a TV; a phone. I am a tech wonk and I will want one.

This is not necessarily a good business trait in this industry. During the good times, I almost always got what I wanted. As my wife and business partner reminds me, the one upside to the recession is that it has reined in my NBT-mania. Now, I have to justify everything with a solid need and its probable ROI. Plus, a little begging never hurts. And even when I can justify the purchase, that doesn’t mean I have the resources to pull off the acquisition.

In every company, someone is making capital equipment decisions. These decisions can make or break a company. Pick the right piece of equipment and you can make your company super completive. Make a really bad choice, however, and the weight of that boat anchor can sink your company. And that equipment decision does not just comprise printers anymore. Our company has almost as much money invested in our finishing equipment as we do printing. Today, a single piece of capital equipment can cost seven figures – and it’s getting hard to find really good equipment for less than six figures.

Like many of you, for the first time since the start of the recession in 2008, our shop is on the verge of planning for new equipment. At events like the ISA Expo, SGIA Expo, and Graph Expo, we’ll be on the lookout for the NBT. What will it or they be? Will there be more than one? Will it be the Swiss Army Knife of printing that UV promised to be – or will it be the sashimi knife of printing that only does one thing, but does it really, really well? What technology or technologies will make up the NBT contenders?

Keep in mind that the Next Big Thing is not only hard to predict, it’s often hard to recognize. In my 17 years in this industry I’ve often been among the first, if not the first, to own what I guessed was the NBT. This has sometimes resulted in me looking like the smartest guy in the room. It has also made me look like the stupidest.

Hits and misses
In 1996, I was chomping at the bit to get into dye-sublimation. Some of the pioneers of dye-sub helped me see the light, assisting me with the essential ingredients to create this NBT: equipment, paper, ink, and fabric. These companies and individuals not only helped us to jump ahead of the curve, but they expanded our industry by creating new products and markets. In the 16 years since, we have transitioned from electrostatic dye-sublimation to inkjet (boy do I miss that e-stat speed). We have made millions of dollars with dye-sublimation printing and it still not only drives business to our door, but remains a growth area for us.

A year later, we bought a heavy-duty router table and a wide vinyl cutter with an optical positioning sensor. This put us in the business of contour cutting rigid and roll-to-roll digital prints. Yes, this was before flatbeds, so we had to mount the prints to the boards before we cut them and we didn’t have i-cut technology. But we ended up doing great with it and having a capability before our competitors again drove quite a bit of business to our doors.

In 1999, my wife and I went to Drupa in Düsseldorf to see the very first UV flatbed printers, accompanying a group of like-minded colleges from around the world who were part of Global Imaging Group (GIGA). We were all on a quest for the NBT. As a result of this trip, by 2002 our company had ordered our first UV hybrid printer, the first in our region. That was a very good decision.

During this time, I also took a pass on a couple of print technologies that were being touted as the NBT. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. One melted colored wax pucks to squirt onto vinyl; the other ran colored thermal ribbons and was geared toward vehicle wraps. Blazing speed and no need for lamination were the hooks (probably because you couldn’t laminate the prints). These two technologies ended up not being the NBT some folks had projected, so I was glad I passed here.

I don’t want to offend the manufacturers (or embarrass myself) by telling you about the stupidest pieces of equipment I ever bought. I will tell you that I have some very expensive and very heavy pieces of equipment that now do an excellent job of gathering the desert dust and holding down the floor in our warehouse. Meanwhile, some less-expensive missteps came from my quest to have the best color reproduction in the industry. These efforts included buying the ink and configuring a printer and RIP to print in true 12 colors. Two other “color faux pas” on my part included spending time and money on a CMYKOG setup, and messing with spot colors we never used.

The next NBTs
Sometimes all it takes for an existing technology to become the NBT is to make a technological leap. For instance, consider solvent inkjet, which many consider passé. Then someone comes out with a solvent printer you can run in your bedroom without ventilation and has print quality good enough to print a postage stamp. If you are a giclee printer, this is the NBT for you. Here’s my take on four possible NBT categories:

* Soft signage: Fabric printing will continue to be a growth area in our industry, not only in terms of sales, but also in expanding product offerings and opening new markets. Direct-print sublimation seems to be the Holy Grail. Will the variables of a soft hand, wrinkle resistance, and tight dot gain catch up to paper/calendar printing? What about printing to fabric other than polyester? Will there be technologies that will eliminate some of the finishing issues associated with natural fabric printing?

A print media can also drive the NBT. Dye-sublimating assembled garments has shown tremendous potential. It’s currently hip to have this particular look (where the base fabric color shows up where the wrinkles are), and a company can get into garment printing without cut-and-sew capabilities. So a simple flatbed heat press with technology as old as the hills could become the NBT for someone.

Five-meter printers and calendar units have also made a big impact on fabric printing, particularly in the tradeshow arena. I know – I lost a big account to a competitor who could print 15-feet wide without a seam. Speaking of seams, when will we get sonic tools to both cut and weld seams in polyester fabrics without sewing?

* 3-D: A bit off the fabric thread, but dye-sublimation to three-dimensional solid objects has been on my radar screen since the 1990s. I was recently informed that 3-D dye-sub is picking up steam around the marketplace. Speaking of three-dimensional printing, two technologies come to mind: The first is water-transfer printing – in which you float a printed film on the surface of a tank of water and lift an object like a rifle or a helmet through it to cover it with a permanent print. This film is made with traditional printing methods. If someone could figure out how to print water-transfer film digitally, it would make quite a few people millionaires, especially if they could also register the print to the 3D object. That would definitely be the NBT.

* Ink: We are closing in on the end of the decade of UV ink’s rise to the top. Will it continue to reign supreme with incremental improvements? It would be nice to have elastic inks that stick like glue to everything, and are cured with cool LED lights. That’s not asking too much, is it? Will 2011 begin the decade of super inks for ordinary printheads? People are getting excited again about bio-solvent inks after a false start a few years ago. What about water-based eco-resin inks that allow ordinary print technology to image almost any surface without UV curing? That would be a “game changer” and qualify as the NBT. Of course, latex ink has caught on. Will it soon be jetting through every printhead? White ink took a while to be ready for prime time – now it’s hard to get certain work without it. What about metallic inks – will they become as big as white?

* Speed: As far as general performance characteristics, it’s hard to imagine image quality getting much better than what we can generate today. We can now print directly to almost anything. The big deal now and forever shall be speed. I think it’s a given that printers will continue to get faster, but how fast can they get? It’s likely that printers will get so fast that the challenge will be the logistics to feed media into them. So automated media queuing might be the NBT. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more development in finishing automation in the past decade.

Joining the early-adopter club
There is a lot riding on your ability to predict the NBT. Will you do your research and be an early adopter of the technology or equipment you decide is indeed the NBT? You have market share and profit to gain – but the potential to lost money and reputation if your choice is wrong. Or will you sit back and watch what other people do and then get on the bandwagon once you know that a technology and the market for it are solid? By doing so, you risk losing market share and buying equipment that is closer to obsolescence.

There is no easy answer. One piece of advice I can give you, however, is to travel – especially, if you’re going to invest a lot of money on a new technology. Get on a plane and go visit your potential machine. A tradeshow is fine for an introduction, but if you spend less than a full day or two with this piece of equipment, you simply aren’t doing your job. The investment of a few hundred or even thousand dollars in travel expenses and a couple of days of your time is warranted.

Bring your image files (customer-print files) with you and make sure the media you plan to use on the machine will be available. Then run the thing like it’s in your shop. My rule of thumb: If it can’t do what you need done right there, right now, it’s probably either too soon and you need to let the technology mature. Or it’s the wrong machine for you. Make sure any company you’re dealing with provides you with this opportunity.

If you’re really brave, you can ask to become a beta test site. This is both the best and worst possible situation. It’s the best if the machine is ready, but it can be a nightmare if it isn’t. Getting an “alpha” machine – one not truly ready for beta – for testing can be exhausting for you and your staff. I don’t think I would sign up for beta testing if I didn’t have a clear way out of the purchase if the machine doesn’t work as represented.

So for those of you who choose to join the early-adopters club in the quest of the NBT, I wish you well. If you combine good research with your daring, you can tip the risk/reward odds in your favor.

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