Dealing with several printing supply vendors may seem complex, but it has its benefits.
Compiled by Jamie Swedberg
Telecommunications companies are always talking about bundled services: If you buy your cable, phone, and Internet from one vendor, they’ll cut you a deal. Even better, you’ll only have to pay one bill every month. It’s a very appealing setup because it’s clean and simple.
So it may be with some dismay that fabricators confront their shaggy stacks of printing-supply vendor invoices. Shouldn’t it be possible to get all of a shop’s printing equipment, RIP and design software, inks and dyes, prepared-for-print fabrics, and other sundry consumables in one place?
The answer, perhaps predictably, is no.
“Even just for digital printing, I’ve never been able to find a vendor who could satisfy all our needs,” says Sam Hill, manager, CAD Design Department at Springs Global, Fort Mill, S.C. “We go to Stork for ink, we do our own fabric, and we get the ink for our paper printers from OfficeMax and from ITNH. The software comes mostly from ITNH or directly from Adobe.”
The situation becomes even more complex when you consider that many shops do multiple types of printing on multiple types of media. Philadelphia, Pa.-based Humphrys Flag Company deals with a slew of different suppliers to accommodate its many processes and fabrics.
“We go to one supplier if we’re printing with inks, using the old silkscreen process,” says manager Brian O’Connor. “In digital printing, we buy our acid dyes from a single source. If we’re doing screenprinting with acid dye, though, we buy the acid dye from a different source. It seems that most of our suppliers are very specialized in what they provide to us. One particular ink is going to work much better on a canvas material, and another ink is going to look better on a poly-cotton twill, and another ink is going to look better on nylon, and they’re all different suppliers.”
Even when vendors offer supplies for several processes, their strength usually lies with one process or one printer manufacturer. The most satisfactory way to deal with this unevenness is to test various products and cherry-pick the best from each dealer.
“We make a lot of phone calls and get a lot of recommendations from companies that have used [the supplies] before,” O’Connor says. “Then we buy small amounts and use it. It’s hit or miss. Often it’s the second or third most recommended [product] that we end up going with, just because it’s a better fit for us.”
From the source?
Many shops prefer to buy supplies directly from manufacturers. O’Connor draws a parallel to the automobile industry.
“Say if you were a car manufacturer,” he suggests. “Maybe Michelin tires are best for your small cars, but Goodyear is better for your midsized cars, and you’re finding that Firestone’s better for your SUVs. You’re probably buying all of your tires from the manufacturers. Similarly, we primarily buy our inks and our dyes from manufacturers. And we’re not going to say to Firestone, ‘Can you get me those Dunlop tires?’”
O’Connor actually prefers to purchase consumables from distributors, he says, because they often have more practical knowledge of how the products are used in the field, plus the added experience of dealing with more than one brand. On the other hand, there can be a cost advantage to going directly to the manufacturer.
Direct from the manufacturer
Some brands of printers are only available direct from the manufacturer. Even in cases where distributors hawk these products, they are usually only acting as liaisons for the manufacturers, who complete the actual sale.
These hands-on OEMs tend to like to sell the consumables for their printers, too.
“How it works in our business is that DuPont sells the equipment, provides the training, and also sells the ink directly to the customer,” says Gary Turner, business development manager for DuPont Artistri, Wilmington, Del. “We do have a few partners in North America who have specialized skills or access to customers that we may not, but generally we sell direct because we have the expertise in what is a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment.”
None of the supplies for Artistri are the same for any other system, he explains, so they’re not something you’d find on a big distributor’s shelf. “It uses special inks that wouldn’t be common with a rotary or flatbed screen process that a customer may already have in-house,” he says.
It’s fair to note that printer manufacturers tend to make most of their money on ink. It’s in their best interest to create proprietary inks. Tony Schmitt, product development manager at Optima Graphics, Fenton, Mo., says most manufacturers have gotten to the point where they insist that you use their ink, or you void the printer warranty.
That seems disadvantageous to fabricators. But you could choose to look at it this way: When inks are brand-specific, it is in the manufacturer’s best interest to make sure its systems are running smoothly and successfully, because that will mean that the users’ businesses will thrive and they will buy the maximum amount of ink. Proprietary consumables may increase profits for the manufacturer, but they also increase accountability and foster a closer vendor-client relationship.
So it’s a foregone conclusion that shops with more than one type of printer will be dealing with more than one vendor—maybe several vendors, if the supplies are available unbranded. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kurt Lisk, president of Get in the Wind LLC, Pensacola, Fla., recalls that when he bought his company’s ITNH printing equipment at a trade show, the manufacturer’s salespeople helped him connect with all the other vendors he’d need.
“They took us around the trade show floor and introduced us to the Ciba rep [for inks], then they introduced us to [some fabric manufacturers],” he says. “They’ve basically chosen the best from all possible worlds and they’re putting it all in one package to give to you.”
Fabrics can be very process-specific, so many printing equipment vendors have tested fabrics for use in their system. They’ll then offer an “approved” list. You can deviate from it, but the results aren’t guaranteed.
“Finding digital fabrics, at least in the early years, was pretty difficult,” Turner says. “In our case, we actually have to put a pretreatment on some fabrics to make them ready for digital printing. But now we’ve got several suppliers of beautiful fabrics that our customers can print. Customers typically call our salespeople or our applications folks, and we help line them up with a mill that can provide them fabrics that can print on their system. We have what we call an Artistri marketing partner program, where we actually qualify people who supply the fabric and/or auxiliary equipment that our customers need to put in their shops to have a complete production workflow.”
That’s not the only type of service large vendors can offer when you deal with them directly. Because it benefits them when you invest in their equipment, they may be interested in helping you line up funding.
“We can typically recommend places that they can go and find money,” Turner says. “In many of our customers’ instances, it’s a startup business. They have either put a second or third mortgage on their home, or maybe they have some investors who have cobbled together enough money for them to make the acquisition. We try to really help support them as they go through the process.”
It is necessary, then, to work with several printing equipment and supply vendors. But is it desirable to keep the number to an absolute minimum? Schmitt of Optima Graphics says not necessarily. For one thing, he finds that no one brand of ink or dye excels in every color and on every fabric. Cherry-picking gives the best overall results.
“For a four-color or six-color process, we may not use the same brand of ink for all the colors,” he explains. “We might use three or four from one brand, then a couple of them from somewhere else. Say that their black was too weak—we’d mix and match to get a better one.”
And it’s not a static situation. New printer technologies come out every six to 12 months, and consumables even more often than that. Better products are always becoming available, and customers’ needs change over time, too.
“Our customers may become more sophisticated or more knowledgeable of a particular product, and have greater expectations or different expectations,” Schmitt says. “So I keep reevaluating all the equipment that might fit those needs. Just because I eliminated a vendor once doesn’t mean I won’t evaluate them again, because they may come out with something that’s better. By definition, if I limit myself to one particular vendor, I’m really limiting my capabilities.”
He suggests you create an “ongoing flow” of vendors that changes according to your needs. Don’t become scattered, but don’t limit yourself.
“You gain some economy of scale if you have large amounts of purchases and you can tailor them toward one or two particular vendors,” he admits. “But again, if they don’t have what you need, it doesn’t matter what price they give you. So it’s good to keep those relationships in mind and maybe start there, but you’ve got to keep everybody available.