In January we received news that the purchase of two Mimaki flatbeds from CMYUK had set SCG on a new path - that the new technical digital print capability had prompted the company to team up with photographic artist Richard Osbourne to provide bespoke glass installations for interiors. Can you remind us of the key points in that diversification?
The company has been producing glass products for the kitchen industry for around 15 years. These are generally glass products that are spray painted a solid colour but we started getting asked to do more elaborate patterns that involved lots of masking etc. and was very time consuming. So we decided we wanted to be able to more easily put all sorts of visuals on splashbacks and that’s when we started to track down printing kit that would allow us to do that – which must be four years ago now.
At that time no-one here had any idea about printing. I started talking to printer manufacturers, none of which seemed to have any real experience of printing onto glass. Some of them said yes, they had printers that could print onto glass, or any material, but no-one was proving it to me with a physical finished product. I just wasn’t seeing the quality of finish, and really importantly – the durability, I required. Some of the machines could certainly print onto glass, but the print was peeling straight off!
So I started talking to lots of different glass pre-treatment people as well as the printer manufacturers themselves because we’d established we couldn’t just use UV cured ink direct to untreated glass. Printer manufacturers did try and help but always seemed to pass the buck. What I wanted was to find a company from whom I could buy the printer and they’d also supply all the ancillaries I’d need. No-one could come up with that, until I spoke with CMYUK, and then via them Mimaki eventually came up with the right printer and also supplied not just the ink but the correct pre-treatment for the glass. That just made things so much simpler.
The first Mimaki came in at the start of 2015 and the second one is just waiting for us to finish an extension to the print room we had to create. We produce splashbacks that can be 4.5m in one piece, and the images we are now using lend themselves to being printed on the biggest panels possible, because you want to see as few joins as possible. The printer we have now (Mimaki JFX200 ) can handle is 2.5m x 1.3mm. The other one (JFX500) is 2.1m x 3.1m.
How much research/time/effort went into finding Richard Osbourne? And once you found the right guy, was it easy to convince him to licence you to use 4,000 of his works so that you can offer complete interiors glass panel solutions?
Basically, once we got the digital printer we started telling our customers that we could print any image onto glass. But what we found was they were confused. We’d tell them where they could start searching for images etc. but in the end we felt we had to give them a kind of image range they could just choose from. So we looked at what genres of imagery we thought would best lend themselves to the kind of installations we would be working on, and I knew of Richard Osbourne anyway and the type of work he did, so we arranged to have a conversation.
With any photographer it tends to work on a pay-per-use or licence fee basis - but we wanted to keep things very simple. I had to do examples for customers, do marketing collateral showing the images etc., so I offered him a one-off annual figure that was not refused! Not only did he get a very fair amount of money up-front, but he got commitment. He knew we were going to do a good job and that his images would not be abused. Plus he knew we would do a lot of work to showcase his images properly - we’ve not just produced really high-class brochures, put them on the website etc., but built this ‘showroom’ of large-scale printed images here on-site to show customers what they look like. It cost us £35,000 but even Richard was blown away when he saw it.
Apart from Osbourne’s images, what others can you offer clients?
His are the only ones in our catalogue as such, but we can print any image - providing it’s within copyright. Legally, this is such a grey area. We take a view, which is that if a client chooses, say a Shutterstock image (with which we have an account) and the job is worth a decent amount of money, we’ll just take care of making sure we get the right license etc. But sometimes even the photo libraries don’t know what licence you should be buying, because they’re just not set up for applications like this. I’ve tried to have conversations about it but they don’t want to know - they’re just not interested in changing their rules.
I expect that you make great margin on the digitally printed glass installations you provide. How do they compare to the margin you make in other parts of your business?
Margins are higher than spray painting. The actual cost of the physical spraying or printing to glass is about the same. But we charge 20-25% more for the digital print in the kitchen space, because of the investment it’s taken - in kit, site expansion, getting a new dedicated person in to work on the digital print side. Also, it’s about providing the client with something that is stand-out.
In other markets, what we do is more bespoke so the margin can be even higher there.
I understand SCG works with some of the biggest kitchen industry suppliers in the country. How important was that to getting the digital print venture off the ground?
The really large kitchen companies we work for tend to be very commercial so that really has little bearing. But we also work for 300+ retail kitchen studios in the UK and they work for the end client, so it’s those that are having the most impact.
We also work for other types of companies like interior fit-out companies (for funky office tea points etc.), architects (we’ve done things like home cinema and swimming pool backgrounds), all sorts. We’ve just done work on the old Rolls Royce building in Derby where a massive stained glass window that was divided into about 22 panes, has been taken into the Rolls Royce museum and we’ve replicated it for via digital printing onto glass for the original site. Once people start seeing what you can achieve the enquiries start coming in.
Do you think other mainstream large-format print specialists could also do what you are doing?
There is certainly potential, but it’s obviously not just about technical ability. It’s taken us ten years to build up the client database we have, and building up those kind of contacts and understanding the kitchen industry is key - as well as being able to fulfil all their demands. For instance, it you’re working for a kitchen company it’s not just about supplying a piece of printed glass, you need the technology, staff and know-how to go out and survey and template a job, cut and process the glass required, handle the pre-print design (which requires very detailed attention, because if you’re out by a mm on a job the glass is wasted and you can’t be doing that), print the product (and again large-format glass handling is not like it is with board for instance), transport and install it - not to mention have the specialist racking etc. to store glass and manoeuvre it around.
If a printing company wanted to replicate what we do and start manufacturing the glass and get the infrastructure in place they’d be looking at £1m+ investment.
Is much of the digital printing you do onto glass is trade work for other print companies?
It’s not something we’re trying for, but it seems that Goggle is doing a magic thing and we are now getting other print companies - and some of them very large ones - coming to us with glass print jobs when it’s part of a bigger package they’re handling for a client. I think what’s happening is that specifiers are realising it’s possible to print images onto glass and the print companies are getting random enquiries about it. At the moment it’s all word of mouth and via traction from us having content about it on the internet, but trade print is something we’ll be ramping up without question.
We are very respectful of other print companies - they no doubt have more print experience and technical knowledge than us. We are honest with those we work with and accept that there’s a two-way street in learning about how to make it work - how to best handle the relevant file formats etc. We would rather work with 100 well-established and trusted printers that might only give us one job a year, than with one or two that promises lots of work but doesn’t want to operate to our standards. I definitely think we’ll end up having partnerships with printers further down the line.
The interiors market offers myriad possibilities for digital inkjet print. Are you tempted to look at digitally printing onto other substrates and becoming more or a printer than a glass company?
We’ll print on anything bar paper! We are not looking at becoming a mass print producer, it’ll always be about the one-off. There are other companies clued up to what we’re doing, and there are certainly other glass companies looking to get in on the act. So we have to keep moving forward. In splashbacks alone, the trend has been towards glass but the attention may well switch to say, stainless steel - so we’re already printing on other materials like metal and ceramics and working away in the background looking at where we need to invest.