Specialty Printing Sparks Opportunities for Creative Entrepreneurs

“Just because books, magazines, and newspapers are migrating to tablets and e-readers doesn’t mean print is dying.” That thought flashed through my mind as I made my way through the crowded aisles of the SGIA Expo, Oct. 17-19 in Las Vegas, NV.  According to the SGIA, the 2012 Expo attracted 500 exhibitors and more than 22,000 attendees, 38 percent of whom were first-time visitors to the show.

Supplies for creating photo merchandise included this ChromaLuxe iPhone case with high-clarity sublimatable metal photo panels..

SGIA originated as a screen-printing association but is now the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association. SGIA members use screen printing, digital printing, pad printing, embroidery, sublimation, and other processes to create point-of-purchase displays, signs, banners, ads, and promotional items and to enhance garments, containers, vehicles, compact discs, and other products.

Everywhere I looked at the SGIA Expo 2012, digital devices of all shapes and sizes were printing and finishing colorful graphics and high-resolution images on every conceivable substrate from swimsuits and iPhone cases to tabletops and wallcoverings.


The 3-meter-wide Agfa Jeti 3324 AquaJet is a dye-sublimation textile printer.

According to the Expo guide, 198 different makes and models of digital output devices were on display. These included desktop printers outputting photo merchandise to industrial-grade textile machines. Some devices were printing on rigid boards and three-dimensional objects; others were outputting rolls of vinyl or textiles.

Clearly, the possibilities for cost-effectively creating custom-printed products are expanding.  The number of printable substrates has gone up, while the cost of producing shorter runs of products is going down.

As SGIA VP Dan Marx noted in his SGIA Expo report in the WhatTheyThink printing-industry newsletter: “Yes, ‘print’ is alive, but it is different….’Cheap print’ based on massive print runs is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The new opportunity in print is based on thoughtful, targeted, creatively executed campaigns and innovative conveyance of corporate brands.”

He points out that “The thoughtful combination of ink and media/substrate can present vast opportunities for new, creative applications.”

Why should you care?

Now that so many consumers are willing to buy products online, any creative entrepreneur with an idea for a custom-printed product can put up an online storefront, then team up with a print-service provider to have products made and delivered.

For example, at the Expand Systems press conference about textile printing at the SGIA Expo, I met Stephen Fraser, the entrepreneur behind Spoonflower, which enables anyone to design and order custom fabrics and wallcoverings.  Through his online marketing and social networking skills, he has built a community of 600,000 individuals who use their own fabric to make curtains, quilts, clothes, bags, furniture, dolls, pillows, framed artwork, costumes, banners and more. At the Expand press conference, I also met a textile artist who was striving to keep pace with the latest capabilities in digital textile printing.

One section of the show floor was devoted to showing top winners in SGIA’s annual Golden Image awards program.

This upside-down birdhouse from BuildABirdhouse.com won the gold award in the Unique Applications category. It also received the Best in Digital Creativity Award. The graphics were printed on a Roland VersaCAMM printer/cutter.

One of the gold-ribbon-winning entries was a whimsical collection of custom birdhouses that are being marketed online by Build A Birdhouse of Whitby, Ontario, Canada.  Some of the birdhouses are decorated in digitally printed vinyl graphics that Jim Dileva creates on his Roland VersaCAMM inkjet printer with a built-in cutter.

Another top winner in the Golden Image Awards was the “Saladish” restaurant décor and branding campaign produced by Gamut Media of Brea, California. The campaign included floor-to-ceiling wall wraps, POP displays and other graphics produced on Roland’s VersaCAMM inkjet printer/cutter.

Gamut Media won a Gold award in the Building Graphics category for this “Saladish” restaurant wall graphics and branding campaign. The graphics were printed on a Roland VersaCAMM.

Rick Scrimger, vice president of sales and marketing for Roland DGA Corp said it was an honor to work with the award-winning companies:  “Their commitment to excellence, amazing creativity and craftsmanship are truly represented by these projects.” He said he enjoys working with all small business owners who apply the power of Roland’s technology to their own creative and entrepreneurial pursuits.  (For proof, take a virtual tour of Roland’s Creative Center, a gallery at the company’s headquarters in Irvine, California that shows dozens of products that have been created with Roland equipment.)

The “Roland at Work” exhibit in the Roland Creative Center in Irvine, Califoniia displays some of the items that can be produced with Roland’s most advanced inkjet, engraving, vinyl-cutting, and 3D technologies.

Personal Observations

The 2012 SGIA Expo was noticeably more advanced than the last SGIA Expo I attended in 2009. And, it was vastly different from the first SGIA Expo I attended in 1995, when we were launching The Big Picture magazine.

In the mid-1990s, large-format digital printing devices were promoted mostly to entrepreneurs who wanted to start new types of print-for-pay businesses making retail graphics, art reproductions, museum displays, billboards, bus wraps, truck graphics, and event signage.

Over the years, SGIA members have told manufacturers what performance improvements they needed in printers, inks, substrate, prepress and automation software, and finishing equipment. As a result of this cooperation between small-business owners and equipment manufacturers, the capabilities of large-format digital printing equipment have advanced at a remarkable speed, especially after the market for short-run digital printing grew big enough to attract companies such as HP, Epson, Canon, DuPont, Agfa, EFI, and Fujifilm.

For awhile, I attended the SGIA show every year, paying close attention to the dialogue between business owners and equipment vendors about what technical problems and market-development issues still needed to be addressed.

Now that I’ve stepped away from the industry for a few years, it was astonishing to see the field from a fresh perspective. At the first show I attended, a few, primitive first-generation color digital printing devices were scattered among aisles and aisles of screen-printing equipment. This year, digital-printing devices dominated the show floor.


The 2012 SGIA Expo provided a vivid reminder that plenty of opportunities await graphic designers who would prefer to work on tangible, printed projects instead of apps or interactive media.

To learn more about the capabilities of the latest generations of specialty printing equipment, visit the SGIA website.  Through their “Find a Print Provider” link,  you can locate SGIA members  in your area who are equipped with the specialized printing equipment you need to create whatever type of printed product you might want to design and sell.

In future posts, I will write more about what I learned at the 2012 SGIA Expo. For example, I was very impressed to see how SGIA is helping printing companies of all types operate in a more environmentally sustainable way. And, I learned about advances in digital textile printing that might help U.S. companies bring more textile manufacturing back to the U.S.

The 2013 SGIA Expo will be held October 23-25  at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. It will be co-located with a show sponsored by the Industrial Fabric Association International.


About the SGIA

Find Print Providers: Guide to Digital Imagers and Screen Printers  

SGIA Expo 2012

Roland DGA Creative Center

“The Strength of Specialty Graphics” by Dan Marx in WhatTheyThink.com

Roland VersaCAMM