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Cactus Imaging
by Peter Kohn

'Street-furniture' advertising, including fleet graphics and scrolling signs, is in a strong growth phase, as is outdoor advertising in general, growing at a double-figure rate. These are trends that make Warwick Spicer, CEO of Cactus Imaging, very confident of a bright future for the industry in which his grand-format printing company specialises.

Spicer says one-piece images, usually in 6 x 3m, 12 x 3m and larger 'spectacular' formats and printed on vinyl substrates, have been the mainstay of the billboard industry in recent years.

Vinyl began to challenge paper as a billboard stock after tobacco advertising was outlawed, changing the dynamics of outdoor advertising, which used to rely on higher volumes and competitively priced paper stock, usually screen-printed in three-figure volumes.

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 Cactus's Sydney facility  Cactus's New Zealand facility

Today's industry operates on dramatically shorter print runs, with inkjet-printed vinyl and runs of well under 100. Vinyl substrate produces brighter, more dynamic images, and is more robust, weather-resistant and portable.

Digital imaging means more freedom for creatives to work on rapid turnarounds. Says Spicer: "We don't have screens. Whatever you see on the computer, you can print."

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With vinyl, greater emphasis is placed on finishing and on display refinements such as backlighting. "Backlighting is very popular in Australia, as it's a highly competitive advertising industry. As a percentage of billboards printed, backlit is probably more popular here than in the United States," notes Spicer.

 The NUR Fresco in action  
"Cactus pride ourselves in being one of the few printers that actually prints on both sides "Cactus We pride ourselves in being one of the few printers that actually prints on both sides of the skin. We do an image on the front which during the day looks nice and vibrant but we also print a reversed image on the back, so that in the evening, when the backlighting is on, the light shining through the vinyl doesn't make it dull. It's superior to putting excessive ink on the image, as some printers do, which makes a strong image by night but looks dark and unnatural by day."Cactus Imaging has performed strongly in the vinyl-based billboard industry, sharing the market with two Melbourne-based businesses AussieSign and Omnigraphics, as well as Queensland-based MetroMedia Technologies. Metre for metre, Spicer's company has distinguished itself with the highest level of grand-format output in Australia.

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 The Foot Locker signage

Jointly-owned by New Zealanders Spicer and Keith Ferrel, Cactus Imaging specialises in grand-format billboard printing but also serves the wide-format point-of-sale industry.

The company was established in New Zealand in 1993, with a separate company established in Australia three years later, The Australian company, with more than 60 staff, has a printing facility at Silverwater in Sydney and a sales and pre-press office in Melbourne. An Auckland production facility was added in 2003.

In 2000, Cactus Imaging began a 50-50 partnership venture with a local printing group in Chennai, India, which has more than 150 staff.

Driving the workload is a fleet of grand-format rollfed UV inkjet devices located at the Silverwater facility. Supported by Adkote, the Australian distributor of  Israeli inkjet developer NUR Macroprinters, there are three NUR Expedio five-metre printers, and an eight-colour NUR Fresco 3200 high-resolution device, capable of producing 3.2m prints to 360dpi at a width of 3.2m in a single piece. The Fresco is ideal for banners, truck curtains, display and exhibition graphics, backlit posters and point-of-purchase advertising. In addition, there are two NUR Blueboard Hi Q-Plus eight-head five-metre wide printers. A NUR Fresco also operates from the Auckland plant.

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 The Lovable billboard

From HP-Scitex, Cactus Imaging took the world's first delivery of a TJ 8500 UV machine. With a printing speed of up to 400sq m per hour for medium to high-volume applications, it is used at Silverwater for banner and POS printing.

"Manufacturers of these inkjet machines have made giant strides in the decade since we came into the market," reflects Spicer. "Print speeds are faster, the machines are capable of higher resolutions and they're more versatile on the kinds of substrates they print on, and ink quality is higher."

These refinements have in part encouraged the shorter advertising cycles and turnarounds for billboards evident today.

Cactus Imaging New Zealand won a 2006 Mactac Award for transforming three trucks into shopping trolleys to promote online shopping. The images gave the illusion of being able to see the contents of the trucks, as though they were trolleys.

While the number of registered billboard sites is currently fairly static, there has been a growth in multiple-display or cluster sites that appear to be more readily acceptable to planning authorities, particularly local councils.

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 An Iveco truck wrapped by Cactus

The dynamics of outdoor advertising have shifted significantly since Cactus Imaging began in Australia in 1996, says Spicer. Rapidly changing advertising cycles mean some agencies expect 24-hour turnarounds, along with customised signage for different metropolitan or regional markets.

These developments have been made possible by the innovations of variable-data printing that have come with the growth of digital inkjet as the technology of choice in outdoor signage.