Digital Printing in 2020

Sign companies, print shops and manufacturers talk trends, products, lessons learned and more in a year defined by COVID-19.
Digital Printing in 2020: Sign companies, print shops and manufacturers talk trends, products, lessons learned and more in a year defined by COVID-19.

No tradeshows. No major in-person events to speak of. But just because manufacturers weren’t introducing their latest digital printers on sprawling convention center floors bustling with potential customers doesn’t mean new machines weren’t released in 2020. Furthermore, trends in the digital printing sector can still be gathered in a year in which COVID-19 upended business across the globe. Many sign companies, print shops and other PSPs discovered new means to persevere through the pandemic. So, manufacturers still announced a slew of new digital printers this year, but how did their 2020 plans change once the pandemic hit home? And how have sign and print shops managed to connect with customers in order to keep their machines running and their employees paid? We’re glad you asked.

TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGING

For manufacturers of digital printers, there was a universal 2020 adjustment: virtual, virtual and virtual. Travel was eliminated and work-from-home policies were instituted. Manufacturers also pivoted in-person, face-to-face events to online gatherings and reorganized marketing and promotional endeavors around virtual events, usually webinars. By late April/early May, one manufacturer had small printers in employees’ homes for virtual events. The cancellation of travel impacted reseller and customer training for another manufacturer, which hired a marketing and business development manager to help educate resellers and end-users. This same manufacturer also stocked their resellers with inks and other supplies for customers who were still operational. A separate manufacturer embraced virtual training courses and demonstrations, and is offering its dealers user-friendly training sessions focused on cloud security solutions, leveraging technology, and diversifying and expanding business offerings.

As for sign and print companies, FASTSIGNS of Maple Shade, NJ entered 2020 focused on its vehicle wrap service and making good use of its pair of 64-in. roll printers. Unsurprisingly, requests for COVID-related signage took precedence, so the company churned out social- distancing floor decals and entry signage including mask requirements. “Being deemed an essential business earlier this year as COVID-19 spread was a critical component to our survival,” said owner and operator Jeffrey Chudoff. “We’re extremely grateful to have never closed our doors, but our business model naturally changed.” 

FASTSIGNS of Maple Shade, NJ planned to focus on its wrap service in 2020, but eventually requests for COVID-19 signage like floor decals and entry signs became the priority.
FASTSIGNS of Maple Shade, NJ planned to focus on its wrap service in 2020, but eventually requests for COVID-19 signage like floor decals and entry signs became the priority.

In late 2019, Bannerville (Burr Ridge, IL) opted for a rebrand after 47 years in business, and pushed forward with that decision in spite of the pandemic into 2020. According to Vice President Tom Sitkowski, business was down in the second quarter of this year, but customers have responded positively to the rebrand. Bannerville did adjust its sales approach to customers, but Sitkowski added that the “pandemic brought the need for new products for these customers,” with those items including social-distancing signs and floor graphics.

According to A Better Sign (Lawrenceville, GA) co-owner Luke Sellers, his company changed its approach once shelter-in-place hit his state, though A Better Sign was considered essential business because they sell “goods and services to the government,” such as COVID-oriented directional signage for county and city buildings. “We shifted heavily to online selling, as tradeshows had essentially died, as well as major events such as churches and sports,” Sellers said. “These three things have still not come back the way they were before COVID.” The shift to online selling spawned lawnwords.com, a new division of A Better Sign that sells customizable yard-sign displays.

PRODUCTS + EQUIPMENT

Did manufacturers hold back on new product releases this year? An economics degree from an Ivy League university isn’t required to surmise that consumer buying power in 2020 likely hasn’t been as robust as in past years. It’s possible some companies may have preferred to save their new product releases for 2021 tradeshows, banking on the return of in-person events. And yet, one manufacturer was so confident in its newest digital printers that it moved product releases forward from their original introduction dates. A different manufacturer did not slot up release dates, but noted – along with another manufacturer – that in-person tradeshows are not essential to announce new technology, with virtual tradeshows, email blasts, social media and other marketing measures marking a shift in promotional tactics. One manufacturer admitted to holding back releases, not because of low consumer-buying power, but rather due to the types of applications and opportunities PSPs are focused on – read: COVID signage – since the onset of the pandemic.

The pandemic failed to halt Bannerville (Burr Ridge, IL) from completing a rebrand, though producing COVID-related products became more commonplace than massive wall prints.
The pandemic failed to halt Bannerville (Burr Ridge, IL) from completing a rebrand, though producing COVID-related products became more commonplace than massive wall prints.

Of the sign and print companies contacted, only A Better Sign has bought a new machine in 2020, a flatbed Mimaki printer to address workload and speed needs. Neither A Better Sign nor Bannerville has attempted to offload any older printers, with the latter not needing to, after making “major capital expenditures in 2019,” per Sitkowski. Bannerville is looking to purchase a flatbed printer in the future, however. Fastsigns of Maple Shade had planned on offloading a printer and buying a new flatbed, but space concerns scuttled that plan.

CONSEQUENCES FOR EMPLOYEES

Lost jobs were a heartbreaking reality of the uncertain and often dire economic conditions prompted by the pandemic. Two manufacturers did not lay off or furlough any employees. Another furloughed or laid off a “small percentage” of employees. One manufacturer dodged the query, stating that they continually evaluate and reorganize their resources to meet their customers’ needs. Bannerville kept all of their people employed. Fastsigns of Maple Shade hired another employee to meet demand. A Better Sign had to send employees home on unemployment after shelter-in-place was instituted, but those employees eventually returned. A Better Sign also hired four new employees recently to accommodate lawnwords.com’s growth.

TRADESHOW TALK

No major in-person tradeshows took place during the pandemic stage of 2020 in North America or Europe. Whether that repeats itself in 2021 is anyone’s guess. Are manufacturers preparing for tradeshows to return in 2021? Depends on who you ask. One said yes, but doubted the viability of those scheduled earlier than July, citing the priority of employee safety. Another manufacturer believes some tradeshows will return, but harbored attendance worries, leading to doubt on ROI. The same company would likely participate in in-person tradeshows, but also continue its own virtual shows. An additional manufacturer held a similar viewpoint, preparing for in-person events while maintaining its preparedness if tradeshows don’t happen or if attendance is significantly reduced.

Sitkowski had planned on traveling to both the International Sign Association’s Sign Expo in Orlando, FL and to PRINTING United in Atlanta. “I always enjoy attending these shows to learn the new and exciting trends in the industry,” he said. “If we are not growing with the industry, then we are doing a disservice to our customers.” Chudoff tries not to miss annual Fastsigns conventions, and had planned to attend this year. “Our tradeshows normally consist of a variety of vendors and other printing companies that provide a hands-on learning experience, and also serve as a way to connect with Fastsigns owners across the globe to exchange business best practices and more,” he said. Sellers did not plan on traveling to tradeshows in 2020, but he nonetheless said he would have liked to have seen “some of the new UV flatbed printers from several brands.”

2021 THOUGHTS + 2020 LESSONS LEARNED

Manufacturers were asked whether they were awaiting an economic rebound that, presumably, coincided with a COVID-19 vaccine. One would welcome a return to a more “normal” market, but will continue to develop remote selling and marketing to the industry. Speaking of normal, another manufacturer is choosing to determine what the “new normal” looks like and how best to operate within it, rather than waiting for an economic bounce-back. An additional respondent gave a “qualified yes,” but insisted that the company will cut its own path forward regardless of the economic or public health situation.

Even though it was declared an essential business, A Better Sign (Lawrenceville, GA) still had to alter its strategy once shelter-in-place hit Georgia. The company has shifted heavily to online sales, and even created a new division that sells customizable yard-sign displays.
Even though it was declared an essential business, A Better Sign (Lawrenceville, GA) still had to alter its strategy once shelter-in-place hit Georgia. The company has shifted heavily to online sales, and even created a new division that sells customizable yard-sign displays.

The sign and print companies were questioned a bit differently, gauging their strategies for the rest of the year and into 2021, as well as whether they gleaned positives from 2020. A Better Sign is on track to outdo its 2019 numbers, though Sellers knows his business won’t be returning to its pre-COVID state anytime soon. “It’s looking really positive and we hope to have much more growth in the next several months,” he said. “We still do a lot of local work for pickup or install, but we’re mainly realizing that our focus will be online for the foreseeable future.” A top priority for Fastsigns of Maple Shade is servicing and maintaining their equipment. “Normally, we use the printers for a total of 20 hours, but now we are noticing a total 35 to 40 hours a week of usage,” Chudoff said. “Our equipment was typically being used this much over the course of two weeks. We want to continue to be able to keep up with demand.” Sitkowski highlighted that the adversity brought on by the pandemic has united his team. “There are always positives that come out of negative situations,” he said. Bannerville is also striving to monitor its production and finishing processes more closely in an effort to eliminate waste.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

Economic conditions shift quickly in a pandemic, and accurately predicting 2021 is a fool’s errand, whether that’s forecasting the viability of in-person tradeshows or the staying power of COVID signage. However, manufacturers and PSPs alike seem to have adjusted well, moving quickly to new processes to ensure that digital printing customers of all shapes and sizes remain educated about the new technology available, and that manufacturers’ machines can meet the evolving needs of sign and print companies, as well as their customers.

New 2020 Digital Printers

The pandemic failed to stop manufacturers from releasing new digital printing machines. Here is a 
sampling of digital printers that hit the market in 2020. For more digital printers launched this year, visit signsofthetimes.com/channel/products.

Recent Articles

VIEW MORE
The Sign Invitational

2021 Sign Invitational Accepting Entries

Signs of the Times Editor
Last Look: Gary Anderson blasted, gilded, carved and painted a sign for an Ohio woodworker.

For the Birds