Unit sales of wide-format printers grew more than 50 percent in 2000, according to I.T. Strategies, a research and consultancy firm dedicated to serving companies in emerging digital printing markets. Sales of wide-format printers in the corporate market (in-house graphics users, ad agencies, etc.) more than doubled last year, showing a growing market opportunity for 24-inch units from companies like Epson and Hewlett-Packard. The firm defines the wide-format market as greater than 24 inches and includes the following technologies: ink-jet (including thermal, piezo, continuous and solid ink), super-wide ink-jet printers, photo imagers and electrostatic devices.
According to I.T. Strategies' "Wide-Format Graphics Forecast 2001," the total wide-format graphics market for printed output will reach more than $22.5 billion in 2005. Ink-jet will dominate the market with almost $22 billion of the projected revenue. Growth is largely attributed to the increase in print quality and the reduction in acquisition costs of these wide-format systems.
But most vendors of wide-format printers are barely visible in comparison with market sales leaders, including Hewlett-Packard and Epson, who accounted for more than 72 percent of worldwide sales in 2000. The other companies are nevertheless pioneers. "There seems to be a split among the wide-format players," says Michael Flippin, consultant at I.T. Strategies. "As Hewlett-Packard and Epson focus on selling larger volumes of units, other hardware supplies continue the trend toward application-specific solutions like outdoor signage and flatbed printing to further differentiate their products."
Flatbed printers are also gaining market popularity, serving applications traditionally handled by screen printing. Flatbed vendors claim, for example, the devices print directly on rigid materials, eliminating the need for a later mounting step. These devices can be used for a wide range of applications, such as traditional screen-printed signage to speciality applications like circuit boards. In a recent I.T Strategies survey of print providers, point-of-purchase (POP) retail applications (rigid and flexible) and short-run screen printer work topped respondents' list of applications for digital flatbed printers. Banner and fleet graphics were mentioned, as were applications for specific work using acrylic, outdoor wood signage and fabric. The desire to print on everything and anything sums up the respondents' statements. However, I.T. Strategies warns that substrate flexibility, or lack thereof, will play a major role in the ultimate acceptance or failure of flatbed printers. Also, the commercial use and availability of UV-curable ink-jets is still in question, although today, wide-format output is primarily created by businesses for marketing and advertising. With a large percentage of output used in trade show and POP applications, I.T. Strategies predicts the business-to-consumer market is yet untapped to its fullest potential, although Epson Stylus 7000 printers (with a list price in the U.S. for less than $5,000) opened up business-to-consumer opportunities. Price points are becoming so low that digital photographers and home users can now purchase wide-format printers, as well.