We are well into the new year and it’s time to plan for growth (if you haven’t already). What can you do to increase your bottom line in 2020? Today in the personalization industry there are dozens of choices for growing a business, ranging from almost no investment to a major “ouch.”
Sure enough, 2020 is here and we have all survived the holidays once more. Now it’s time to get back to growing our businesses and ask the question, “What are we going to do to increase the bottom line in 2020?”
Some have already made their plan but if you are like me, the holidays were so busy with work, family, celebrations and such that there wasn’t much time for looking ahead. Around my shop, “survival” has been the word of the day.
That being said, what are you going to do to expand your business in 2020? I’m still considering several options and this article is something of an exercise as to what I might consider adding to better accommodate my customers.
Of course, we can always improve our customer service and delivery times, and expand the number of products we offer. But, seeing that this is EJ’s annual “Equipment Advisory,” I’m talking about making an investment in equipment or adding a new process to what we currently offer to better serve the growing personalization market.
In my shop, I offer laser engraving, rotary engraving, sublimation and UV printing plus a bunch of stuff that I farm out. Perhaps that’s a good place to start—make a list of what you currently offer and ask yourself if there is an area in which you can expand or improve. For instance, for years I operated a single CO2 laser engraver. Then I added a second one and eventually a fiber laser. Lasers don’t last forever, and new technology is constantly being introduced, so every ten years or so it’s my goal to replace the oldest system.
If you don’t have a laser, and you are involved in the personalization business, you owe it to yourself and your business to look into buying one. I continually tell people, “If you can’t make money with a good laser engraver, you just aren’t trying.” Of all the equipment I have, a CO2 laser has to be the best investment I have ever made. Of course, good quality lasers aren’t cheap. A good metal tube laser will start at about $10,000 by the time you buy a ventilation system, but a laser will open new, virtually unlimited opportunities and speed up much of what you can do with a rotary engraver.
If you don’t have a need for a full-size laser but want to do a variety of products, there are other options to consider. For example, Gravograph, Duluth, GA, has introduced a new series of compact, all-in-one lasers called “WeLase” that might be of interest. These new lasers look more like 3D printers than lasers, but they are capable of laser engraving a wide variety of materials. There are four systems in the series and each is intended for a different task.
One of these systems is a “green” laser. These are uncommon in our industry but they do have some applications that involve engraving materials that require minimal heat, such as precious metals. Another WeLase system uses a CO2 laser. The third is a fiber laser and the fourth is a hybrid of both a CO2 and a fiber laser.
The engraving field on these lasers is small, only 4.3” square, but the lasers are super-fast since they all have galvo-type motion systems. They are also the most portable of all the lasers I know of because of their size and they are just under 100 lbs. each plus whatever ventilation system you select to go with it. They will accommodate products up to 13" tall, 8" wide and 4" deep.
Gravograph offers various levels of software for use with the WeLase series. These include ABC Catalog which has all kinds of products and materials pre-programed so it is very user-friendly. Just select the product you want to engrave and the software does everything including setting the focus, power and speed. Also available are ABC software which is designed for beginners but gives the operator more control, and GravoStyle, Gravograph’s full function design program.
If you get requests for engraving a lot of metal, such as stainless steel, or would like to engrave engraver’s brass for plaques, consider adding a full-size fiber laser to your shop. These lasers are more expensive than entry level CO2 lasers, but you can do a lot of industrial type work on most metals without the use of laser-markable chemicals. So far, I haven’t found a metal, coated or uncoated, that my fiber laser won’t mark. They are also great for marking things like black cast acrylic which makes beautiful plaques. You can also mark a number of plastic materials with a fiber that you can’t mark with a CO2 laser. A fiber laser starts at about $20,000, but if you can find the right market, it will pay for itself in fairly short order.
The second process I would recommend to most people for personalization is sublimation. Although sublimation had some painful growing pains in the early days, it has matured until it’s as easy as pie to do. The clogging issues of days past are gone and the number of products you can imprint range from key tags to almost anything you can name.
For both newcomers and those who are already into sublimation, it might be time to consider upgrading your sublimation process to a larger printer, especially if you are still using an 8" x 14" printer like the Sawgrass SG400. There are two major choices for this. One is to step up to the 13 x 19" SG800 or the newest thing on the market, the Epson F570, which is the first really affordable 24" printer that can actually pay for itself in ink savings. Not only does it print roll paper up to 24" wide, it uses Epson sublimation inks that sell for about $18 per bottle—that’s right, I said “bottle.” These printers don’t use cartridges and the ink comes in 142ml bottles. At about $2,500 for the printer, the savings in ink alone will pay for the printer—provided you do a lot of sublimating. Of course, if you do sublimation, you will have to have a heat press and if you have a 24" wide printer, you may want to invest in a larger than normal heat press.
Regardless of the size, a heat press brings a lot of new opportunities to a growing business. Obviously, sublimation with about 1,000 products available to sublimate is one but there are others, especially in the garment side of the business. The new decorating methods applied with a heat press have greatly improved over a few years ago. One, a special transfer paper called Reveal-S, allows you to use your sublimation printer and inks to decorate cotton. For years, we were taught you could not sublimate cotton but now, you can (there are some limitations). Then there are the new transfer papers you can run through a color laser printer or even an inkjet printer to create full-color heat transfers in-house. These are self-weeding (only the printed image is transferred) so there is no unsightly background around the image and you no longer have to cut out the image before applying it to a garment. Unlike days of old, specific printers are not necessarily required although printers like the OKI printers with white ink are available that allow the transfers to imprint dark fabrics. Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL, offers a full line of these papers and printers along with the technical support you will need to get started.
Before we leave the advantages of a heat press, let’s not forget about the world of rhinestones. Although this process can be done with a laser or rotary engraver, it can also be done with a vinyl cutter and a heat press. Special software, such as StoneCut 3 by Digital Art Solutions (www.digitalartsolutions.com), makes it easy to create both single and multiple color decorations. Whichever method you choose, rhinestone apparel remains a very lucrative side of the garment business.
The equipment options I’ve mentioned so far require a fairly significant investment, time in learning to use it and floor space but here is one that isn’t expensive, doesn’t take much space and you can learn it in just a few minutes.
I’m talking about the Punch’nPress which is available from Johnson Plastics Plus, Burnsville, MN. This desktop device can make a variety of name badges and two-sided key chains. These are very nice metal products that use a paper insert that can be printed on any printer and then pressed into the product along with a dome-shaped cover to make the product highly durable and professional looking. The entire device along with a supply of round key chains sells for $299. The key chains will easily pay for the device and then you can add other cutting tools to make name badges and key chains in other shapes. The additional cutting tools run about $100 per shape. I am especially fond of the key chain that shaped like a house. This is a great item for Realtors. They can put a message in the key fob and present them to anyone they sell a house to. The cost of the blanks is just 99 cents plus paper. These products should easily sell for $10 or more. This is a business in a box and should be a great hit at flea markets, sporting events and Christmas/craft events—anywhere there is a lot of traffic, not to mention your own shop.
Here’s one that is different than the equipment options I’ve talked about so far. P. Graham Dunn, Dalton, OH, is a company that designs and manufactures gifts and home décor. You have probably seen their products in gift stores, engraving shops and religious bookstores. The company has a dealer program that allows you to sell their products, of which they have hundreds, to your customers. To get started, you register as a dealer and purchase $250 worth of merchandise which you can sell for two to three times what you pay for it. They also have a full line of engravable products along with templates for each. Every year, they also hold an open house at their plant for dealers where they offer educational seminars and hundreds of products for up to 90% off (cash and carry). You can also see their factory which houses multiple lasers, CNC machines, painting machines and more. You will notice a line of Amish buggies parked outside as many of their workers are Amish. To learn more, register on their website by going to www.pgrahamdunn.com and clicking on “log in.”
In the April 2016 issue of EJ, I reviewed the Brother Stampcreator PRO, a stamp-making system that is distributed by Jackson Marking Products Co., Inc., Mt. Vernon, IL. In the process of testing the device, I made dozens of rubber stamps and gave many of them to friends (after all, I can only use so many of them myself). After some time had passed, I went back and asked people how they liked them and what they preferred, the stamps I made with a laser or those made using the Stampcreator and the answer was overwhelmingly the Stampcreator. In fact, no one said they preferred the laser stamps. If you don’t know what a Stampcreator is, it is a device that uses a special piece of rubber-like material and software to make a pre-inked rubber stamp. It can make a variety of sizes (currently 11) in four colors (black, red, blue and green). These stamps are not self-inkers, they are pre-inked which are preferred by most people and yes, they can be re-inked. Using this system, you can create stamps with signatures, clip art and even photographs. As for the machine, it sits on a tabletop and takes up a space about 12" x 24". It uses a Zenon lamp to make the stamp and creates no odor; it doesn’t require multiple steps or the use of liquids of any kind. Just load the blank, send over the design from your computer and press the button. It even prints the label for the top of the stamp. The machine is supposed to retail for $2,995 but at the time this article went to press, Jackson Marking Products was offering it for just $799. This is something that would work great in a flea market, kiosk in a mall or anywhere there are people who might want a custom stamp. Processing time for making a stamp is about one minute. This is truly a business in a box.
If you have a laser engraver, you can offer rubber stamps made with your laser. These can be either regular “knob stamps” or mechanical self-inkers. Most lasers come with stamp software built in so all you need is some laserable rubber and the rubber stamp frames. These are surprisingly inexpensive to make so they carry an excellent profit margin. Jackson Marking offers wholesale laser rubber and the stamp parts including the Ideal and Trodat brands.
Another income stream you can add if you own a laser engraver is commemorative bricks (brick pavers). In this case, the necessary item isn’t equipment but the bricks themselves. Although most engraved bricks are actually sandblasted, there is, in my opinion, a much better way to make them and that is with a specially made brick and a laser engraver. The bricks have a special formulation that makes them react to a laser’s heat by turning black when heated. They are available from LaserSketch Ltd., Romeoville, IL, and come in a variety of sizes, some for walkways and some for wall mounting or even exterior perpetual plaques. These can be sold as fundraisers for organizations, churches and museums in addition to many other applications as well. The bricks, depending on size, sell for only a few dollars and can wholesale for as much as $35 or more and retail for as much as $250 or more with the organization making the bulk of the profit for their cause.
Speaking of sandblasting (often called sandcarving), this is a process that can be added for a surprisingly small investment. This process was examined extensively in previous EJ articles, including “Getting Started in Sandcarving: The Equipment” (Dec. 2018) and “Sandcarving Basics: Photoresists” (March 2019). There are two companies that offer everything you need to get started, including education. They are Rayzist Photomask, Vista, CA, and IKONICS Imaging, Duluth, MN. This process is a “dirty technology” meaning it requires a space where using abrasive and water won’t be a problem. Obviously, this means it should be far away from laser engravers, printers and other delicate equipment.
UV-LED printers can add a lot of capability to your shop, but they are expensive. They are called UV printers because the ink is cured using UV light. It doesn’t mean the ink is UV stable. The LED part of the name indicates the UV light is generated by an LED light source that travels along beside the print head to quickly cure the ink once it is applied to the item you’re printing.
Many UV-LED printers are basically designed for printing on flat materials or objects with just a slight variation of the surface, although some also have optional rotary attachments for printing on round/cylindrical objects (without handles). UV-LED printers will print directly on most substrates provided you use an “adhesion enhancer.” Perhaps the most complex thing required is determining what ink will work best. Some companies offer several inks including one that is UV stable, one that is flexible for fabric, etc. Things you can print include acrylic, most metal, most plastics, including engraving plastics, wood, golf balls, promotional products such as tape measures, ceramic tile, glass (some restrictions exist with glass), pet tags, key fobs and a host of similar products.
Most UV printers offer white ink which is mandatory in my mind. This is often used as an undercoat for other colors, so they stand out on dark substrates. White always offers the most problems in any printer and needs to be agitated and/or circulated at all times to keep it from settling and clogging the print heads. The key to owning a UV LED printer is using it on a regular basis. They don’t like sitting idle.
Perhaps the most innovative thing these printers can do is texture printing (sometimes called 3D printing but this must not be confused with actual 3D printers). This adds a slight texture to the surface of the substrate and can be controlled with software to determine where the texture is applied. This is the technique used to print ADA signage where multiple layers of ink can create Braille dots and tactile lettering.
In your search for what can add to your bottom line in 2020, don’t forget about all the products and services you can farm out. These include things like:
Lapel Pins: There are all kinds of lapel pins, medallions and coins people use to represent their company, organization or sport and they love it when they are customized with their own artwork. You can offer hundreds of types and thousands of designs (including your own) in full-color, precious metal or cloisonné.
Bronze Signage: Bronze and aluminum plaques make a great profit center and there are lots of companies offering the wholesale service. These include Gemini (www.geminisignproducts.com), Healy Plaques (www.healyplaques.com), Matthews International (www.matthewsid.com) and Pella Engraving & Sign Company (www.pellaengraving.com).
Banners: Offering banners, flags and table coverings can be lucrative even if you don’t have your own equipment to make them. Companies like Showdown Displays (www.showdowndisplays.com) will sell wholesale but they aren’t alone. Depending on what you need, Gill Studios (www.gill-line.com) and others can also provide products for you.
Labels, Decals & Stickers: One of the major wholesalers for all kinds of labels, decals, bumper stickers and many other products is Gill Studios.
Drinkware: Lots of companies offer screen printed drinkware including Allen ColorCraft (www.allenmugs.com). Another is American Accents (www.americanaccents.com).
Ribbons: Custom and stock award ribbons, sashes, and spools of ribbon are available from several companies including Tower Advertising Products (www.toweradv.com) and Gemini (includes the F&H line) (www.geminiindustries.com).
Lamination: Laminated plaques are as popular as ever and Fox Laminating (www.foxlaminating.com) offers wholesale services for laminated wood plaques and full-color digital printing as well. This means you can offer menu printing services to restaurants as well as laminated plaques.
Pens: Lots of companies supply ink pens in quantity for advertising purposes. The most active in our industry are probably Hub Pen (www.hubpen.com), I-Mark (www.imark-online.com) and BIC Graphic (www.bicgraphics.com). They offer everything from a simple BIC stick pen to expensive writing instruments.
Ceremonial Shovels & Scissors: Engraving, Awards & Gifts (www.eagawards.com) is a major supplier of ceremonial products, including groundbreaking shovels, ribbon-cutting scissors, ceremonial keys, whistles and hammers, awards and more.
Badges: If you tend to service a lot of police and firemen, you may want to offer them “official” badges. The primary source for these is Blackinton. Go to www.blackinton.com to become a registered dealer. Another source for badges is AT Designs (www.atdesigns.com).
Promotional Products: Also called ad specialty products, these include everything from ink pens to stadium cups to key fobs. EJ published an extensive article about promotional products and the organizations you can contact to help you get started. Read “Promotional Products Associations: A Valuable Resource” in the Jan. 2019 issue.
By no means is this list exhaustive. Whatever your customer might ask for, there is probably a company that will be happy to supply it to you on a wholesale basis.
2020 is going to be a year of opportunity if we are proactive in our business plans. Our bottom lines are not going to balloon unless we do something to cause it to happen. What is that going to mean for your business? New equipment, better service, a new process? Only you can answer that question but answer it you must. Take a look at your present business and ask yourself what is missing or what you might add that will get your customers excited. Many of today’s customers want one-stop shopping. Where do your customers go after they leave your shop? Our task is to determine what it is that will bring people into our shops rather than going somewhere else. That is the secret to growing your business in 2020.