09 June 2020 Digital Printing Technologies

The future of print is looking down

The print product of the pandemic is the floor graphic and it is set to be a permanent feature of many shops, offices, transport hubs and places where the Great British Public may gather. The country is going to need millions of pieces for all premises and more.

The printed floor graphic is the symbolic item of print to emerge from the lockdown and pandemic. Vinyls have been previously used as floor stickers for seasonal promotions or for high impact branding, not least at exhibitions dedicated to inkjet and display printing.

During the pandemic, however, the rules on social distancing have meant a sudden spike in demand for the material and a huge relief for display printers who have seen markets in events, exhibition graphics and some retail simply vanish overnight.

This has meant that demand for floor graphics has rocketed and has stripped the UK of the raw material used to print on. Incoming supplies are committed and on assignment before they arrive, leaving little chance of finding ad hoc stocks.

And this was happening even before the further lockdown relaxation, allowing more shops to open, which is expected to cause a further surge in demand as these businesses need to keep customers further apart to comply with the regulations on social distancing.

One of the key material suppliers CMYUK sold more than it has previously sold in a year, in one week. A further 1 million linear metres of anti slip material is on order while the company tries to keep up with demand. Across the supply sector the story is similar. Demand for floor graphics is off the scale.

The floor graphic is now widely used in hospitals and supermarkets, and will be necessary on transport, in offices and buildings which the public might have access to, and shortly, in a greater range of shops and hopefully pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues. All will require print to ensure people remain at a safe distance. The requirement may slow down as the first peak in demand passes through, but the use of floor graphics will remain.

While this will not completely replace volumes lost to the pandemic, it is more than welcome for all sizes of printer. FD Signs, for example, worked 18-hour days to complete an order for Transport For London which required 100,000 social distancing floor graphics for use across the capital’s transport network. These are used on station platforms to remind passengers of the rules.

Founder Fintan Delaney says: “We do jobs for TFL fairly regularly. But we’ve never done anything for them on this scale. We were all working 18-hour days for ten days straight. And we had a guy coming in at three o’clock in the morning to change the rolls on the printers every night – so they could keep printing right through.”

The company’s Fujifilm Acuity 1600 kept working throughout despite putting pressure on ink supply, resulting in 6,000 graphics a day supplied to 30 installation teams to apply during nighttime closures. It supplied similar graphics to the Croydon Tramlink and parts of Network Rail.

The material used was Drytac’s Polar Grip, one of a number of materials that the company supplies, all meeting standards for anti slip and adhesion properties. It has recently introduced two PVC free substrates as greener alternatives to PVC. Polar Floor is a PET with widths to 1,524mm and suited to short term indoor applications and SpotOn SynTac Floor as a two-part system for smooth indoor surfaces. However, the demand is such that PVC is riding high despite questions about environmental performance. As supply increases and as the urgency of the need for an immediate solution passes, demand for the PVC based product will ease. However, demand for floor graphics is worldwide and production capacity is stretched.

Soyang produces its substrates in China with a supply chain that quickly recovered from disruption at the start of the crisis. It tries to hold two to three weeks of product in stock in the UK as a buffer and deeper stocks of some products. However, the demand spike has been so steep that it has shipped everything it has in the Accrington warehouse. “There are massive deliveries coming in, but these will go out to fulfil customer orders immediately,” says a spokesman.

This is the case with other suppliers and merchants that handle display materials, including Premier Paper, Antalis, Papergraphics, Amari and Pyramid Display. “Orders for floor graphics have gone through the roof,” says one.

Premier Paper’s Brad Goldsmith adds: “We have seen a marked increase in demand for floor graphic materials we supply. We have been able to work with suppliers to make sure we able to get the stock to meet people’s needs.”

This has been accompanied by demand for clear plastics to be used in visors, in screens and for window graphics. “It is part of a welfare range, from tape to mark social distancing in yellow and black though to the screens and floor graphics. It has been a steep learning curve and we have been adapting to the change in requirements as they appear and to ensure that we continue to meet customer needs, to help them get back in business. It has been a very interesting process.”

There has been demand from printers for the brochures of materials that Premier can supply and which can be customised to the specifications of the ultimate customers. “We sold as much in two weeks as we would expect to sell in a year,” says Chris Green, head of marketing for Antalis’ visual communications division.

Demand has put pressure on manufacturing, from extruding the films, to coating and applying the adhesive layer. In addition, there are reports of difficulty in obtaining the cardboard cores to wind the substrates on to. After that comes the disruption to shipping, perhaps from across the globe. And demand is also high from other countries that have adopted social distancing as a control measure against Covid-19.

The requirement will remain high for at least the remainder of this year as social distancing measures persist and as the floor graphic evolves into a promotional as well as informational device.

Immediately on lockdown, businesses relied on chalked or painted marks to keep people apart, then tapes and now simple graphics. The life time of a vinyl floor graphic is limited and the first generation will be replaced by more sophisticated versions, perhaps with advertising messages along with the reminder to maintain the safe distance.

Samples of what advertising messages might look like have appeared on social media and will appeal to retailers who might be able to mitigate the cost of products, potentially even using them to attract revenue and ensuring that the product does not disappear as the pandemic eases.

“We are predicting that demand will go on,” says Green. “This is very much a new area for Antalis.” It has been negotiating to ensure its sources of supply remain open. Even so, stocks have been sold on assignment before it can be delivered to warehouses. The merchant has also been assembling stocks of clear plastic for PPE visors and face shields and rigid plastic for workplace screens.

Some of these clear plastics, Perspex in particular, have also sold out due to demand for safety screens to protect staff in retail and public facing jobs where they might be at risk of contracting the virus. Other screens made from boards and other materials will be used in the workplace where working in close proximity is unavoidable.

And this will apply to print factories as well as retail and public facing spaces. The Health & Safety Executive has issued several notices explaining what is needed in terms of protecting employees and visitors, whether engineers to lock after equipment or customers. These too are likely to become embedded in good practice habits, regardless of the rate of infection of Covid-19.

Positive thinking

Positive Print Group has set up a website, socialdistancingsoltions.uk, to offer a range of social distancing printed information and signage to companies preparing to emerge from the lockdown period.

The site presents options for navigation, for posters, for sanitising solutions, for PPE and protection, amounting to more than 100 products that can be branded to suit a customer.

The range of options calls on the skills and experience of both Positive Images in Mitcham and large format specialist Colouration with whom it joined forces last year. The two operate from adjacent units in Mitcham.

“We were manufacturing a lot of this stuff anyway,” says marketing director Kim Sullivan. “It made sense to put it all together for both new and existing clients. It went live and within a week was is already starting to attract interest and visits.

“We have been using all our social media channels to raise awareness.”

Positive Images is the commercial print arm of the group with litho and digital printing built around new Ricoh engines; Colouration is the display printing and retail business with large format inkjet expertise as well as a customer base in brands and retailers that have a requirement for these products.

It has divided the options into choice for retail, for food and beverage and offices, covering hygiene products, signage and screens.

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FD Signs has produced thousands of floor graphics for Transport for London.

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Soyang began the lockdown with a well stocked warehouse and a secure supply chain. It has emptied as demand has shot up.

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