Graphics of the Americas, March 2012

March 19, 2012 by  

I paid a visit to the Graphics of the Americas tradeshow in Miami Beach this weekend. It’s the second biggest print tradeshow in the US, only dwarfed by the Graph Expo show held in Chicago.

I hadn’t been to a GOTA show in two or three years (last year the venue was changed to Orlando–I don’t know if this was to be a one-time thing, or whether the show will be moving around in future years), and was somewhat surprised at how much smaller it had become. Going back 15 years or more, the show took up nearly the entire four quarters of the Miami Beach Convention Center, an enormous megalith that plays host to hundreds of different shows each year. One of my favorite events at the Miami Beach Convention Center, other than the GOTA, is the Auto Show, which usually takes all four quarters and is loaded to the gills with automotive goodness. But I digress.

This show only took two of the four sections, when even five years ago, it took three. This show is geared toward Latin American customers, mostly looking for bargains in used print equipment, as well as making business relationships with various suppliers: paper, ink, parts, and specialty pieces.

This show also was missing the sound and fury of five or six 4- to 6-color presses running in the hall, spewing out posters by the tens of thousands. This time…not so much. I saw maybe two 4-color presses on the floor, but they weren’t running when I was there.

One of the big specialties that draw big crowds to their booths are the large format printer makers. Think of these as ink jet printers on some bizarre growth factor medication. These monsters can print posters on a number of different media (paper, plastic, even carpet!) up to maybe ten feet wide. No replacement ink cartridges for these babies. Think paint cans and even larger storage. They use many different technologies; the most common is the typical long bar. Inkjet nozzles travel along a bar running the width of the printer just like the consumer-grade inkjet printer you have at home. At the end of each pass, the media advances a predetermined amount while the inkjet nozzles wind back to the starting point. Others keep the nozzles more or less in one place while the base moves around. That’s really interesting to watch. It moves so fast, you might think a ten foot square hunk of metal might fly off the machine at any time.

Other smaller format (3 foot wide) printers/plotters often include a scanning element, so that large-format media can be scanned for editing or re-use when the original files might not exist.

Among others, Hewlett-Packard, Epson, Mutoh, and Xante showed their large-format wares.

The specialty device-makers, which can be a high-profit side business for the smaller mom and pop print shops, were there in full force with some really interesting devices. AnaJet showed a really neat inkjet device that prints directly on garments. This could be a dream addition for a t-shirt shop that has enough volume to justify its likely high purchase price. With a device like this, designers can advance light years beyond silkscreening technologies. Pricing starts at around $20,000.

Ricoma showed a number of embroidery machines that range from a single station up to eight stations. Basically, feed it a file, and the device embroiders t-shirts, banners, and even hats (with a special adapter bracket). Its Digital Image Stitch Creator software (sad to say, Windows only…) accepts graphic files from almost any vector (preferred) or raster (bitmap) graphics program and with minimal operator intervention, can create the files needed to custom-embroider a customer’s design on most any kind of substrate that a sewing needle can pass through. Entry-level systems start at about $10,000.

I also saw a device that automatically attaches a substrate (piece of art, etc.) to a frame. It was fascinating to watch.

I saw a number of smaller vendors I had not seen at previous shows. Among them were at least two companies that had their own take on direct-to-plate publishing. As the print business is currently in transition, the big boys are having sales trouble. MAN Roland has just declared bankruptcy, for one.

Heidelberg is in a serious sales slump. Prepress suppliers are in the same boat. This has provided an opening for that second and third tier of suppliers.  One vendor offered its own budget-priced digital imposition software packaged with an older film-based imagesetter.

The big software vendors weren’t there. Adobe and Quark used to have a fairly large presence, but tradeshow space is expensive, and besides, Adobe isn’t participating in tradeshows at all anymore.

HP had a big booth, showing off their digital presses including the Indigo line, which has come a long way since the first ones I saw in the mid 1990s. As a part of this maturity, they also showed a full line of finishing pieces (folders, cutters, and other binding equipment). They also showed their wide format printers and plotters, including their new DesignJet L26500, a 61-inch, 246 foot/hour device. It can print up to six colors with a resolution of 1200 x 1200 dpi.

Xerox showed their latest digital color press with all the finishing trimmings, and promoted their partnership with Adobe with a new company called XMPie. This company and its products add intelligence to Adobe’s XMP file format to make it easier to take advantage of variable data printing, which means in effect press runs of one, with each printed product being unique and geared to a specific customer. This goes way beyond the ability to print individual addresses on direct mail products. It means that a financial services company can use this technology to print a unique report to a customer with charts, graphs, and so on that are specific to that customer.

Ricoh Production Printing also had a big booth, where they showed off their latest line of monochrome and color digital presses.

Digital presses seem to be the future of print in many instances, where customers need to print a large volume of customized content without having to print an insert that gets stuffed into a pre-printed piece afterward. Now, the whole thing can be printed in one shot, collated, stapled, folded, sealed (“biscuits”), and mailed all in one continuous and cost-effective flow.

Customers are finding that more and more, slick and fancy 6-color print jobs aren’t any more effective in selling product than an intelligently-designed 4- or 5-color job, and that a job like that is “good enough.” “Good Enough” is rapidly becoming the watchword for cost-conscious print buyers. Digital presses can fill this gap, and if there is sufficient volume, work like this can be brought back in-house. If not, there are plenty of service bureaus and commercial print houses that are now offering additional services such as variable data printing. More services seem to be the way of survival these days.

These are my impressions of a print tradeshow that, while struggling a bit due to the economy as well as the rapid changes going on in the print industry, remains a great venue for customers looking to either buy new or used gear, parts, supplies, and everything else a working commercial printer needs, as well as being a showcase of new technology for experts, novices, and even for folks like me, who have been out of the print industry for a few years.