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When Size Matters: Leader in Large-Format Printing Proves it's More Than a Lab



When Size Matters: Leader in Large-Format Printing Proves it's More Than a Lab

by Phyllis Cohen Stevens

Commercial lab or screen printer? When it comes to Graphic Systems, Inc., one of the leaders in large-format digital and photographic printing, the answer is not an obvious one. And yet, they might well represent a trend. With today's technological advancements, the lines separating these two industries are becoming even more blurred.

"The printing and lab businesses are converging, and with the new equipment that's on the market, which permits fast, efficient printing that until now could only be achieved with expensive silk screen or photographic processes, it's becoming more difficult to tell the two industries apart," says Herm Kauls, president of Graphic Systems in Minneapolis, MN.

Graphic Systems is a 35-year-old company that has earned a reputation and numerous awards for its line of large-format graphic services, including digital imaging and retouching, high-res scanning, design and compositing, custom printing, mounting and finishing. Their specialties include big, eye-catching retail Point-of-Purchase displays, banners, billboards, trade show exhibits and wall murals for such well-known national companies as The Sharper Image, The North Face, Birkenstock, Williams-Sonoma, Ace Hardware, Sunglass Hut, Ecolab and Target stores.

According to Kauls, the lab has enjoyed double-digit growth over the last five years. Much of this expansion is credited to their increasing digital volume and keeping up with the latest technological developments, which have contributed toward improving and expanding their product line.

"Close to 98% of the work we do today is digital, which is fairly significant when you consider that only four or five years ago, it was probably more like 80% or 90% conventional photographic and 10% to 15% digital," observes Kauls. "We had to make this transition into digital to survive."

Full Service Facility
Today, Graphic Systems and its staff of 50 full-time employees serve a roster of about 350 clients in a modern 35,000-square-foot building in downtown Minneapolis. The lab runs two-and-a-half shifts seven days a week, notes Kauls, with some of the equipment, such as their cadre of Durst Lambda photographic printers and their new Rho 160 flatbed printer, running at full capacity for 22 hours a day.

To support their move to get heavily involved in digital five years ago, the lab invested approximately $5 million in high-tech state-of-the-art equipment. Included in their digital arsenal are two 130 Lambda printers, a 76 Plus and 131 Plus Lambda printers from Durst Dice America, the Durst Rho printer mentioned above, two Durst XY cutters and prep station, a Fuji C-550 Lanovia film scanner, an LVT film recorder, several Apple G4 Power Mac computers and Cheetah RIP stations.

"This capital investment has given us the capability to offer more varied and precise services and products to our customer base," Kauls points out. "Our customers are our lifebloodThey stay with us, they're loyal, we take care of them, and we don't lose very many because we deliver what we promise and give them the reliable service they want and need. We listen to them to assess what they're looking for, and we try to come up with new graphic ideas that will help move their products in the storeswe understand the importance of creating an attractive visual display that excites, influences and informs.

"We have a particular market niche, and our strategy is to target our accounts and do a lot of research and homework beforehand," says Kauls. "We'll either fly them in to see our operation or go there in person to make a presentation. Once on board, there's a project coordinator assigned to each account, and they work closely with them from the beginning to the end of a job.

"It used to be that clients could pick any two from quality, service and price and be satisfied," says Kauls. "But with today's competitive business climate, you have to provide all three to retain clients."

Challenging Competition
To stay competitive, Graphic Systems has had to constantly upgrade their digital equipment arsenal because "technological changes have sped up the rate of obsolescence.

"The machines are getting better and faster," Kauls observes.

This mindset lay behind the lab's decision last July to purchase the Durst Rho 160 UV flatbed production inkjet printer, which at $1/2 million was a hefty investment. The Rho is a high performance four-color 360dpi large-format printer capable of outputting directly onto rigid and flexible (roll-to-roll) materials without the use of a screen or plate. For Graphic Systems, it has allowed them to enhance their workflow, expand their line of products and services, and cultivate business opportunities.

"We weren't able to provide these products in the turnaround and quantities our customers required before we installed the Rho printer," says Kauls. "Right out of the gate, the Rho began producing for us. Now we can run jobs faster and more economically. We can print on just about any uncoated substrate, including styrene, gatorboard, plexiglass, vinyl or fabric. In fact, since last July, our vinyl banners business has increased by 10%.

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