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Digital printing offers diverse opportunities for awning makers

September 1st, 2008 / By: / Awnings & Shades, Feature, Graphics, Technical

Awning makers use digital printers to adapt to changing industry

In the natural world, the strength of a species lies in its diversity. In the business world, the strength of a company lies in its ability to serve customers. Like living organisms, diverse companies adapt to a changing environment in order to survive—and one of the recent adaptations awning companies are making is to offer digital printing.

Rainier Industries Ltd., Seattle, Wash., has moved from providing tents for prospectors heading north for the Alaskan gold rush in 1896 to providing tents for the U.S. military during World War II to entering the awning industry shortly thereafter. In 1993, the company shifted gears again when it bought its first digital printer.

“Our main focus is opening doors into other areas where digital graphics are a really good fit,” says vice president of sales Bruce Dickinson. “We do a tremendous amount of interior work.”

Interior work sounds like an odd fit for an awning and tent company, but as Rainier’s history exemplifies, in diversity lies not just survival, but success. Rainier’s business, which still revolves largely around awnings, has grown so much that the company now owns 12 digital printers.

“We have machines running just about every day and every night,” Dickinson says. “For us, it’s the opportunity to do more and more.”

Capitol Awning Co. Inc. of Jamaica, N.Y., whose business is 99 percent commercial awnings, purchased a digital printer in 2002 and a second printer the following year.

“Our business picked up quite a bit, and it went in a different direction,” says owner and CEO Michael Catalano. “The first machine we bought was just a print machine, and we did a lot of banner work and custom colors on awnings. Then we realized we were running into a lot of applications where we needed to print and cut, so we bought the second machine.

“Once you have it, you find more work for it,” Catalano continues. “We changed our advertising to mention in-house digital printing. We started to do a bit of vehicle graphics. … A lot of jobs [before getting a printer] we would have said, ‘You really can’t do that.’ Now we say, ‘Click, with a digital printer we can make that hot pink color you are looking for.’”

In-house digital printing

Awning companies that have invested in digital printers let their experience determine whether and when they made the leap.

Nashville Tent & Awning Co. Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., wasn’t doing much outsourcing when it began in-house digital printing, but the company was concerned about delays in serving its customers.

“We wanted to control it and not have to depend on somebody else’s schedule,” says partner Phil Husband Sr. “Our turnaround time for awnings is four weeks. If we had to depend on outsourcing, if the graphics shop had a problem, I feel like we would lose customers. … We want our product in our hands, because [then] we control time and quality.”

Capitol also sought control. “I made the decision when waiting for digital printing to come in and I was delayed getting my work to my customers,” Catalano says. “That was part of the choice. The other part was how much [digital printing] I was purchasing. When you buy $6,000 to $7,000 of digital printing in a year, it’s not really hard to say, ‘Well, in five years, I could pay for this machine.’” With additional applications, Capitol instead recouped its costs in three years.

“[Doing graphics in-house] has saved us money,” Catalano says. “You don’t want to buy a 100-foot roll of vinyl when you need five feet. We can create custom colors as opposed to inventorying 500 to 600 rolls of vinyl.”

Awning manufacturers reach a point when adding digital printing capabilities is the next logical step, says Mike Von Wachenfeldt, technical service manager for Glen Raven Inc.

“In my experience in the industry, I’m not aware of anybody who has made that step and has regretted it,” he says. The fabric company based in Glen Raven, N.C., has developed a digital printing system specifically for its Sunbrella® fabric. Von Wachenfeldt rattles off opportunities for awning companies when they expand into digital printing: street pole and grand opening banners; murals; market umbrellas for the increasing number of restaurants offering outdoor dining; and, in northern climes, windbreaks that lace onto an awning.

“Where they might have an awning that would last seven to 10 years without seeing [a customer] again, now … they have an opportunity to put a digitally printed menu up that could be changed out a couple times a year,” Von Wachenfeldt says. “[Digital printing] opens up more sales opportunities for the awning shop, where traditionally they might sub it out or just not offer it.”

Ed Grundy Jr., owner of Fabritech Inc. in New Orleans, La., however, sounds a more cautious note. “Anyone thinking of investing in digital printing needs to expand into the sign business, unless they have a national [awning] account,” he says. “You won’t pay for the machine with just awnings.” Grundy thinks companies need to actively market digital printing services and have someone literate with graphics programs run the printer. “If they aren’t committed to do that, I wouldn’t advise getting a machine,” he says.

Incorporating in-house digital printing

While there is a wide range in the price of printers (typically $25,000 to $75,000), Grundy says, additional considerations include having a controlled environment, computers to run the machine, space to house it and trained employees.

Dickinson of Rainier admits it’s not for everyone. While manufacturers provide training, he notes that, in his experience, the training isn’t free. “Flying people out from where the machine is built, sometimes Germany, or sending people there is time consuming and very expensive,” he says. “If you have a customer base or believe you will have a customer base that will help pay for making that kind of investment, then it is worth it. But it’s a very competitive business. If you are going to buy a printer just to print, there’s probably a guy three miles away doing it cheaper. We look at it as a complement to our other skills.”

The best way to complement existing skills is to select the right digital printer and then find the right materials and methods to run it. There are numerous choices in fabrics and inks (typically solvent and UV), and technical assistance is readily available from suppliers and trade organizations that represent the awning and sign industries.

“Our distributor gave us a lot of help in the beginning,” says Byron Yonce, president of TCT&A Industries of Urbana, Ill. “Some of it is just talking to different suppliers to see what’s out there.”

“I call people who have done it, friends in the industry and suppliers, manufacturers’ techs and [research] the Internet,” Husband says. “But I trust friends who are in the business the most.”

While digital printing can contribute to an awning shop’s bottom line, it also benefits customers—giving them a state-of-the-art product.

“I can get much more creative with a graphic than I could in the past because now I can print 16-feet-wide seamless,” Dickinson says.

Yonce notes, “It gives my customer a lot more flexibility in promoting their business.”

Husband isn’t sure his company has recouped its investment yet, but quotes a friend to make a point: “You can’t prove that computers make you money. But if you don’t have one, you will be left behind.”

“I know we are keeping customers,” Husband affirms, “and we are doing a lot of work.”

One of the big challenges is that ink manufacturers are not providing warranties, so awning companies must step up and provide one. “We provide a one-year warranty on anything we print,” Dickinson says. “[But] I have product six or seven years old that looks great.

“This is still a business in its infancy as to how it is being applied to awnings, and it will take a while for those manufacturers to believe or get on the bus that this is something that will stand the test of time.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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