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Graphics on the Go

(January 2000) posted on Wed Jan 05, 2000

New films for transit ads


By Carl Sittard

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Transportation graphics are not just for trucksides anymore. New pressure-sensitive films are helping printers and converters take advantage of a growing list of mobile and static graphics opportunities in a booming global transportation-advertising market.

Graphic film billboards are moving twenty-four hours a day in cities across the world. You see them all around: signs on taxi tops and the sides of buses and vans, fleet graphics on commercial vehicles, full bus wraps, and even complete train wraps. What's more, transportation centers themselves have become prime locations for large- and ultra-large-format graphic signage, including bus-shelter advertising, walkway wall signage, floor graphics, wallscapes, see-through window signs, and even building wraps.

Transportation advertising is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing promotional "vehicles" in the world. In the US, the business is growing so quickly that professional graphics installers are in short demand nationwide. And in Europe, competition is fierce to win multi-city contracts to manage the placement of transportation advertising for major metropolitan transit authorities.

What makes transportation advertising attractive to public and private transportation services is its potential to enhance revenues. Advertisers recognize that transportation creates movement of both vehicles and people, which, in turn, multiplies exposure to advertising messages. As a result, both transit groups and advertisers are eager to convert surfaces in and around transportation centers and on moving vehicles to advertising property. Now, a growing portfolio of films for transportation advertising can help screen printers take full advantage of these opportunities.

Transit advertising applications

For screen printers who wish to pick up additional business by producing transportation-advertising graphics, the market offers seven general product categories:

External bus and train posters The market for bus posters--front, side, and rear panels applied directly to the vehicle (Figure 1)--continues to grow at the rate of 5-10% annually. About half of these panels are screen printed, but it's likely that some of this work will move toward digital printing as the speed, resolution, and durability of that technology continue to improve. Pressure-sensitive vinyl bus posters are gaining in popularity over paper/glue-applied placard boards because of ease of installation and flexibility in mounting graphics and advertising messages to various locations on a bus. Since there are approximately 118,000 buses in the US and only 25% currently use directly-applied graphics, the market potential for screen printers is substantial.

Bus and train wraps Screen printers who have large-format digital-imaging capabilities are best positioned to take advantage of this value-added opportunity, which involves printing large, registered, multipanel images on a variety of opaque films (for vehicle bodies) and see-through films for windows. Only five to seven years ago, all fully decorated buses, subways, and light-rail trains were hand-painted. Today, an increasing amount of full bus/train decoration is performed by wrapping the vehicle (Figure 2) with pressure-sensitive vinyl film that was printed using electrostatic or solvent-based inkjet/airbrush printing technology.

Digital imaging has obvious advantages over hand painting, and it's faster than screen printing on low-volume, process-color jobs that demand quick turnaround. Application of pressure-sensitive film is also much faster than hand painting, and the film is far easier to remove once the advertising program is complete.

The advantages of graphic films are even more pronounced when the advertising surface is a complete subway train (Figure 3). Instead of taking an entire train out of service for weeks to be painted, pressure-sensitive films can be installed locally, one car at a time, while the remaining cars are still in service. Once the advertising contract is over, it takes less than one week to remove the material from an entire train.

Presently, two or three large advertising firms and their contract graphics providers control full and partial bus-wrap advertising in most major US markets. But in numerous smaller cities, this advertising is handled directly by local transit authorities, and the markets are wide open for any printers with the right production capabilities.

Some advertising groups feel that too many full wraps in circulation at a given time could dilute the impact of the ads. So it's likely that in the future major transit markets will establish limits on the number of full wraps in service simultaneously. Even so, opportunities in full-wrap graphics are expected to continue growing for some time to come.

Graphics on the go

Fleet markings Decorating tractor trailers and smaller corporate fleet vehicles is a growing business. Cast vinyl is primarily used for trailer markings because it is ultra-conformable to cover rivets and corrugation. When it is not necessary to cover deep surface features, then calendered vinyl is the product of choice. In the fleet market, vans fully wrapped with highly conformable cast pressure-sensitive film are a growth area.

Taxi tops Backlit taxi-top graphics are found extensively in large cities. For this application, it's critical that the graphic film is easy to remove because messages change frequently. It's also important that the film is uniformly translucent to take advantage of the fluorescent backlighting. The market for transportation advertising is far from saturated, and with the large number of taxis running in major metropolitan areas, the growth in taxi-top advertising is expected to continue.

Electroluminescent signs An exciting new transportation graphics material is electroluminescent (EL) signage, also known as electronic paper. This application involves a phosphorous-coated aluminum sheet that serves as the backing for a printed sign. When an electric current is applied, the sheet glows uniformly, providing brilliant backlit graphics without bulbs.

Printable translucent vinyls with removable/respositionable adhesives are now appearing for use over EL materials. The resulting EL signs are more visible that unlit signs and solve the problem of burned-out bulbs, which significantly reduce the income generated by conventional backlit signs. Electroluminescent signs are opening up new opportunities for bus and taxi-top advertising in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom and Germany. And transit-advertising companies in the US are currently evaluating the market potential for this new application.

In-terminal graphics The interiors of bus, railway, and air terminals are quite similar to the retail environments found in malls. It's not surprising, then, that the same unique advertising media designed to take advantage of undecorated spaces in busy stores are very well suited for transportation terminal interiors. Prime advertising applications include countertop advertising, floor graphics, wall murals, and window graphics.

The base film for floor graphics systems are usually durable white or clear vinyl, with a vinyl or polyester overlaminate to protect the graphics and provide slip resistance. Window graphics are typically printed on transparent cling vinyl, perforated see-through films, or opaque vinyls with low-tack, removable adhesives. Wall murals are usually printed on opaque white vinyl with a permanent adhesive. And countertop graphics typically are printed on white vinyl with low-tack, removable adhesive.

At present, the potential for this sort of graphics business is wide open, but the effectiveness of in-terminal ads is already apparent. For example, Chicago's O'Hare Airport makes extensive use of floor graphics to direct passengers to their destinations in the airport. And recently, a fast-food restaurant at a metropolitan train station increased sales nearly a third by using pressure-sensitive floor graphics to create a pathway leading passengers into its store.

Stationary external graphics Because of the high volume of traffic in and out of transportation terminals, stationary graphics outside the building can substantially increase exposure to advertising graphics. These include bus shelters, posters, murals on the sides of buildings and construction barricades, and even full building wraps. These applications represent high profit margins and are particularly attractive for screen printers with large-format digital-imaging capabilities.

Substrate solutions

As the range of transit-advertising applications continues to expand, customer requirements are growing and changing as well. Manufacturers of pressure-sensitive substrates have responded by introducing brand new substrates and media comprising various films, topcoatings, adhesives, and release liners that are all optimized for transportation-advertising applications. The following sections detail some of the application-specific materials now available:

Bus panels Although not new, vinyl film for bus panels has gone through significant evolution during the past five years. Today's bus-panel film must have excellent resistance to harsh environmental conditions--wind, rain, snow, slush, smog, smoke, soot, sunlight, heat, road tar, gasoline, oil, grease, abrasion, soap, and water jets. The vinyl is generally opaque, allowing it to be placed over existing graphics (a boon during cold winter months when panels can take as long as 40 min to remove).

Today's pressure-sensitive vinyls are optimized with a stiffer liner and new repositionable adhesives to make installation easier. Their superior layflat characteristics allow for efficient printing in automatic stack-fed equipment. And a one-year warranty against damage to factory-painted vehicle surfaces when the graphic films are removed is now fairly standard among film providers. These films are also well suited for stationary surfaces around terminals and bus shelters.

Bus and vehicle wrap films

Bus and vehicle wrap films New vinyl films developed for partial and full bus wraps provide exceptional environmental resistance and easy, repositionable installation. They are also warranted to be removable for up to one-year without damaging factory-painted surfaces.

Printers can choose films that have been optimized for screen printing, wide-format solvent-based inkjets, or wide-format electrostatic transfer printers. Since the panels will wrap around the vehicle, they must be able to conform well to contoured surfaces. Families of compatible pressure-sensitive films, including body wrap film, one-way window graphic film, and flexible overlaminating films, all provide easy installation and removability, as well as consistent image quality for a seamless graphic look. These materials may be used for partial or complete wraps on buses, trains, and smaller fleet vehicles. Ease of installation is important with these products because damage to just one panel during a full-wrap bus installation means that none of the panels can be used.

Conformable overlaminates For transportation advertising on vinyl film, some imaging processes, such as inkjet and electrostatic transfer, require that the image be varnished or overlaminated for extra protection. New flexible overlaminating films have been developed specifically for transportation advertising and conform well to curved vehicle surfaces without cracking or splitting.

One-way window graphics Perforated, one-way, exterior-mounted graphic films applied to windows give passengers an unobstructed view, but onlookers see a graphic image. These unique material systems accommodate many printing methods, and are easy-to-apply and durable. At the end of an advertising campaign, they peel away easily from windows without leaving a residue. One-way window graphics can be used on buses, trains, transportation vans, and even taxicab windows. They are also well suited for transparent windows on bus shelters. Other versions of one-way signage are ideal for window graphics at transportation terminals.

Floor and counter graphics New aggressive adhesives and durable vinyls have made it possible to use graphic floor markings even in heavily trafficked areas with lots of dirt and moisture, such as transit terminals. The films preserve the graphics' bright appearance while the adhesive keeps the floor graphic from lifting or peeling. New film substrates for countertop graphics have similar properties. The overlaminate is also important, since it serves to protect the graphic images from wear and abrasion, add aesthetic qualities, and, in the case of floor graphics, even provide slip resistance for safety.

Building wraps For large-format advertising on buildings and barricades, two-year vinyl films with aggressive adhesives are available. These materials guarantee long-lasting graphic appeal in the face of diverse and often brutal weather and environmental conditions like those found in New York City.

Define your own Transportation advertising frequently presents unique requirements that may not yet be served by a formally defined product. There are literally thousands of possible topcoat, substrate, adhesive, and release liner combinations. Ask your film supplier to use the range of options at his disposal to create a substrate that is just right for your new transportation-advertising opportunity.

For example, the electroluminescent signs now gaining popularity in Europe will require films more similar to the durability, easy installation, and removability of today's vinyl bus-panel films. They will also need to be uniformly translucent to take advantage of the panel's brilliant backlighting. The adhesive must release completely from the sign upon removal to avoid the need for scrubbing the panel with solvents. A special overlaminate is also being developed to protect the lamp and reduce the customer's total cost for using this form of display. Close cooperation between the film manufacturer, lighting-panel manufacturer, printer, and advertising customer will assure that these substrates meet the application requirements.

Preparation meets opportunity

To meet existing opportunities in the transportation-advertising business, you need access to films that are highly compatible with your own inks and printing systems (including high-volume screen printing and short-run digital imaging). The films must work well with the transportation companies' application and removal methods, and they must also be warranted to stay in place for the life of the contract (no matter what the environmental conditions) and not damage factory-painted surfaces when removed.

For continued growth in this rapidly changing market, it's essential to evaluate your film supplier's service and responsiveness. Ideally, you should have direct access to the film supplier for problem solving and new application development. Your supplier must offer fast delivery to help you keep up with aggressive ad-campaign rollouts and must be able to provide a steady, consistent stream of film products. Your supplier's products must also meet the standardized requirements of national and international transit-media placement firms. Finally, your supplier should maintain ongoing research and development on products that specifically address the needs of the transportation-advertising industry.

Having access to a broad portfolio of standard and customizable film solutions will allow you to meet your customers' needs. Knowing where to turn to for technical assistance will get you quickly over the learning curves and into the thick of new, value-added transportation-advertising business opportunities as they arise.

About the author

Carl Sittard is the market development leader for FLEXcon's graphic films business team. He has extensive experience working with customers to tailor products for their specific application requirements, and in developing new products to meet the needs of emerging market opportunities. Mr. Sittard led the development of FLEXcon's floor-graphics system, and has been involved in numerous product line extensions in support of transit advertising, P-O-P, and sticker and decal labeling applications.


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