All Wrapped Up

By Noel Ward, Editor @Large

Back in the “long strange trip it’s been” days of the Seventies I was riding right seat in a west-bound 18-wheeler, talking with the driver about roads, distances and his life as a trucker. He pointed to a truck streaming east, running well above the speed limit.

“There. Monfort of Colorado. Fastest trucks on the road.”

And they were. You could tell the always-immaculate Monfort fleet by the orange and white paint jobs with the name emblazoned on the side of the trailers. Orange paint on a white trailer definitely stood out in the days of the 55 mph speed limit, a time when truckers called the left lane of Interstate 80 the “Monfort Lane.”

Monfort of Colorado is long gone, as are nearly all types of painted signage on commercial vehicles. Today, everything from long-haul rigs to plumbers’ Transit vans to Smart Cars can be dressed in colorful high-impact graphics, every one of them inkjet printed on plastic films that are tightly wrapped around every corner and curve. Four factors drive the appeal of these eye-grabbing prints.

Four factors
First, printing on a film allows for far greater design flexibility and complexity than is possible with any other technique, including processes like airbrush painting. Next, the printed films, applied in sections, simplify repairs. Third, the printing and design can be consistent over any number of vehicles—essential for branding. And related to that, compelling graphics turn a vehicle into a rolling billboard that conveys a brand message everywhere it is seen. According to 3M, one of the leading providers of the materials used for vehicle wrapping, the impact of a $3,500 vehicle wrap equates to a low six figure spend for other display advertising. Looked at another way, about nine people in ten notice vehicle signage, says the American Trucking Association. Think about that from your own driver’s seat: which is more memorable, the cell phone company billboard you see for five seconds at 60 miles an hour, or the Mini Cooper with a similar message that’s sitting next to you in traffic for 20 minutes?

Image building
I talked with Matt Richart, owner of Digital EFX Graphics in Louisevill, Kentucky to get a sense of how his customers are using vehicle wraps.

“People’s lives are busy,” he says. “In many places people practically live in their cars, so there’s a need for mobile signage that can help build a business’s brand.”

Richart still has some customers who opt for the basic die-cut vinyl lettering that has replaced hand-painted signs, but finds that even small companies—local tradespeople and service establishments—come looking for the appeal of a full or partial wrap.

“A wrap says the business owners care about the image they project—that they do quality work and want to let people know.

The “look at me!” effect gets a lot of mileage. Virtually every professional auto racing team uses a mix of wraps and self-adhesive logos, and many police departments and first responder teams are using full or partial wraps to make their vehicles more visible. These organizations often opt for reflective inks that “pop” when illuminated by other lights in the dark.

Beyond “look at me!”
But not all vehicle wraps are for promotional purposes. The owner of one vehicle wrap company said a portion of its work is simply putting a clear wrap on a car to protect the paint. “Plenty of people who lease expensive cars have them wrapped in a clear film as insurance against sunlight, weather and stone chip damage,” says one vehicle wrapper. Other customers ask for wraps in unique colors or with graphics that would be cost-prohibitive or impossible to achieve using paint.

“A wrap is basically a custom-made suit for cars and trucks,” notes Richart. “It can be very intimidating! Don't start with a complex design on a vehicle that requires a complicated installation. Just because a vehicle is small doesn’t mean it will be easy. A van has a lot of flat surfaces, but a VW Beetle is all curves and can be very demanding.”

Most inkjet printers used for vehicle wrapping are roll-to-roll machines from HP, Mimaki, Mutoh, and Roland, typically using eco-solvent or latex inks and ranging from 36 to 64-inches wide. HP is the leading maker of latex ink printers used for vehicle wraps, although Mimaki and Ricoh both offer smaller latex printers for other applications.

Some machines feature integrated trimming with programmable cutoff lengths that are defined by the images being printed. Cutting and trimming is also done near-line on flatbed cutting systems. Dedicated devices that create a flexible and durable film handle lamination.

Printer costs run from about $15,000 to $50,000 while cutters and lamination units add $6,000 to $15,000 to the total price tag. Consumables are substrates, lamination materials and inks. Costs are based on the amount used, usually measured in square feet.

With respect to inks, the clear message from the business owners I talked with was that OEM inks matter. Even though they can be significantly more expensive, owners all said OEM inks provide more consistent and predictable image quality and can be laminated reliably. Given that most wraps require several hundred feet of material, any errors can quickly turn into costly problems, so OEM inks make sense.

Retail pricing for wraps combines the amount of printing and consumables required (usually measured in square feet), plus labor time in hours. Printing cost usually doesn’t vary much, so installation is the key variable. It can actually cost less to wrap a flat-sided box truck than it does smaller car because of the curves and shapes that require extra attention to detail—and more time.

Eco solvent ink, available in both pigment or dye-based flavors, has little or no odor and doesn't contain any harmful ingredients. These inks actually etch the substrate to ensure a permanent bond. However, despite the eco moniker, some ventilation is appropriate when using these devices so be sure to check state and local regulations to make sure your operation is in compliance.

One caveat is with eco solvent is the release of ink-borne gasses after printing, a process called “outgassing,” that can take up to 48 hours. Users of eco-solvent machines usually allow time in their production schedule to accommodate this process to ensure inks are properly cured before lamination. Inadequately cured inks can cause the lamination to fail, usually resulting in unsightly bubbles in the wrap and the laminate lifting off at the edges of each section.

Latex inks eliminate this step, but latex printers usually run at slower speeds and need higher temperatures for drying. Still, latex prints can usually be laminated immediately after printing, and offer greater ink and substrate flexibility, making it a good choice for vehicles with complex shapes or many curves.

Magic, Art, and Science
It is not unusual for print providers with large format machines (such as sign companies) to consider adding vehicle wraps to their repertoire. But this is not a step to be taken lightly because it’s harder than it looks. Printing, laminating and applying a two-dimensional image to a three-dimensional object is a blend of magic, art, and science. While vectorized software templates are available for many vehicles, most shops still want to see the car or truck that will be the subject of their efforts. “A customer will say they have a Ford Transit van,” says Richart. “But there are several versions of that truck, different sizes, with and without windows, different doors, and so on. So we have to see it and do our own measuring,” And that’s before the design and imaging even start.”

“Every aspect of a vehicle’s shape is a factor,” says one installer. “Where the seams will be, how an image will flow over a vehicle’s body, whether windows are involved, how bumpers can be wrapped. You also have to know when to apply heat —and how much—to help the film conform to the shape of a bumper or a mirror. It all must be part of the planning.”

Vehicle wraps can represent an attractive business opportunity, either as a standalone operation or in addition to an existing large-format or signage business. But recognize that wraps are a distinct market segment with unique characteristics, a substantial learning curve, and require a different way of thinking. A complete business plan and thorough training are necessary. But if you think wraps might be a good fit for your company, the equipment is readily available, moderately priced, and the profit margins are attractive. “The market,” says Richart, “is still booming.”


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