Finishing Options for Soft Signage and Banners
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Finishing Options for Soft Signage and Banners

This article will take a look at some of the finishing options that are currently happening in this arena. More specifically, we will address cutting, sewing or welding as it relates to soft signage and banners (digital graphics printed on a textile or fabric-based material), and to some extent, garments.

By Ray Weiss, Digital Imaging Specialist, SGIA

My previous articles Are You Finished Yet? Part 1 (November/December 2015) and Are You Finished Yet? Part 2 (January/February 2016) focused on vinyl banners and rigid substrates, and overlooked the textile side of things - much to my chagrin! It certainly wasn't an intentional oversight.

RENOLIT Calendered Vinyl - Top performance for various applications

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  • According to our most recent Industry Benchmarking Report on SGIA.org, 37.4 percent of the companies surveyed offer sewing or seaming as a service, 69.5 percent of the companies surveyed have cutting/trimming/routing/die-cutting equipment, and 31.6 percent have sewing/seaming equipment.

    The definition of "sewing" that is offered by the Textile Exchange is a good one - where sewing involves fastening of fabrics, leather, furs or similar other flexible materials with the help of needle and threads. The examples in this article will touch on traditional sewing and will also introduce the idea of welding certain fabric seams as an alternative to consider when the appropriate fabric (polyesters) are used.

    It is interesting to note that two of my personal experiences with fabric/textile finishing have been to observe the process still being done without the use of automated cutting equipment. A large manufacturer of dye-sublimation garments said, "We do a lot of blank apparel that is not printed. So the cost structure of stacking layers and layers of material on a cutting table just costs less money to do. And it is not an inaccurate process. You print a marker and cut a stack of fabric...it costs a lot less money this way - for us. For the dye-sublimated pieces, we use a different process, but it still manual. I think the laser cutters are super cool, but they still require an experienced operator."

    A large manufacturer of custom flags had the same basic process. Textile flags were placed on a large table, and then an employee would cut out the graphic using a rotary blade. Both of these operations have looked at the newer laser or rotary knife (drivel wheel) cutters that will be covered here. They think that they will one day be in place in their facilities, but for now their process remains unchanged.

    However, rotary knife flat-bed cutters have been around for a while and are the way to go if you are cutting anything besides polyesters. The lasers are newer and will catch on, if for no other reason than they will end up being more efficient.

    Sewing and Welding
    For a different perspective about sewing and welding, Jordi Carbonell, CEO, Matic S A*, had an excellent point about how it comes into play at the end of the process. At this stage, you have already invested significant time, materials and ink, and a misstep at this juncture costs not only the rework of the job, but the risk of missing a deadline, which can lead to the loss of a client. His takeaways were to concentrate on the workflow (how the material is handled and how efficiently can the operator manage each job) more so than machine speed, and that there is no unique machine for all of your needs. Knowing your application, including material types, will go a long way to prioritizing which piece of equipment will best serve your needs.

    Before looking at some of the options to consider when looking at sewing and welding, it's important to cover the different technologies that come into play.

    I'll start with hot air welding, which is probably exactly what you think it is. It a specially designed heat gun (or hot air welder) that produces a jet of hot air that softens the parts that you want to join. Some advantages are that it is a low-cost option. In theory, the length of the weld is endless, you can start and stop through the process, and it certainly takes up little space. Some of the disadvantages is that it can create waves because it has no cooling bars, you need a very experienced operator, and the quality of the weld is not as good.

    Next up is hot wedge welding, which uses a heated steel wedge positioned at the seam point providing heat for melting the fabric. The advantages and disadvantages are the same as the hot air welding with one additional disadvantage - the steel wedge will allow the heat to build up when not in use, and when you initially reapply to the fabric it can sometimes burn the fabric at the initiating point.

    High-frequency welding is the joining of materials by supplying high-frequency energy in the form of an electromagnetic field (27.12 MHz) and pressure to the material you want to join. The electrical energy causes the molecules within the material to start moving, which generates heat and causes the material to soften and then fuse together. This is more typically used for PVC; however, it can also be used for polyurethane, and it can weld more than two layers at the same time. Some advantages are a very homogeneous heating and it is easy (and fast) to changeover to different welding widths. Disadvantages are that it is a very expensive technology and not always successful for fabrics, but it is used on awning materials, canvas, tents and automobile mats.

    Lastly is impulse welding, which is a process where layers are heated and fused to form a welded seam by pressing them together in close contact with a shielded electric heating element. The heating element (or electrode) is heated up by controlled pulsed current. Advantages are that it is one of the easiest to handle, welding of different textiles, PVC or polyurethanes without welding tape is possible, reasonably priced, low energy consumption, and automatic guides and folding systems are available. Disadvantages are that it is not as strong a weld as high frequency, and the machine is stationary with a max electrode width of 30 millimeters (mm).

    For sewing, Matic offers the Cronos in three varieties from basic to the ultimate. The Cronos has auto-feeding and cutting along with guides to help produce banners quickly and efficiently. The automatic conveyor belt helps the operator manage larger banners or silicone edge graphics (SEG). Another feature is the conveyor lock for producing curved seams for teardrop flags. Matic also has the Hercules, a unit designed to join and hem canvas with a mobile sewing head that is synchronized with the sewing speed. The Zeus is designed for automatic finishing for curtains, as it will do the lateral seams and sewing the tape with rings all in one machine. Lastly is the Orion, which is good for PVC-coated fabrics.

    RENOLIT Calendered Vinyl - Top performance for various applications

    For welding, Matic has the Ares, a manual machine for welding fabrics for roller blinds, sun blinds and banners (you'll recall that welding is useful for polyester materials). The Ares (like the Cronos) comes in a number of different configurations from the Ares Plus that automates the operations such as overlaps, hems, welds, reinforcements and zippers. Ares Plus uses electric impulse welding technology. The Ares Flat Hem also uses electric impulse welding for automatic creation of flat hems and hems with pocket and bottomrails. The Ares Flat Hem can flat hem up to 5 meters in a single stroke.

    Miller Weldmaster* offers a number of different products, including the Digitran for sewing. The Digitran also has a transport system that is synced with the sewing machine to ensure accurate and precise material handling. "As the popularity of silicone edge graphics (SEG) continues, what is most critical to this operation is the ratio to which we apply the SEG to the digital textile. We recognize it is important for our customers to have a nice tight fit, when fitting the printed graphic into their framing system - and the Digitran system accommodates this accordingly," says Jeff Sponseller, CEO, Miller Weldmaster. The Digitran system can also integrate a T3 or T300 Extreme welding machine into the line.

    Cutting with Textiles
    I talked with Steve Aranoff with MCT Digital Finishing about their new flatbed cutter which can be outfitted as a traditional driven wheel cutter and/or can be set up as a laser cutter. The MCT VersaTech2, a 2016 Product of the Year winner in the category of Finishing - Equipment - Routers/Cutters, has the ability to change the belt that is used to convey the material which is being cut. For traditional cutting or routing they use the standard gray belt. The exchangeable laser belt has a lightweight aluminum surface that is thick enough not to be burned by the laser. The belt is laced and comes in 43-inch sections to allow for easy on-off operation (the sections make it possible to replace segments of the belt instead of the entire belt in the event that it becomes damaged).

    According to Aranoff, he sees two kinds of users for their equipment - power users doing 100-percent fabric/textile who were previously using hot knives, which gave the finishing piece a sealed edge. This user has the opportunity to save around 8 people per shift by laser cutting versus hot knives, with a significant reduction in waste. The cutting (with the laser) gets done in a more organized manner, reducing the time sewers are sitting around waiting for the next job. Ganging jobs with automated cutting reduces the cost of cutting and sewing, and their typical ROI is less than a year. The second group of users doesn't have a consistent fabric work flow - or the fabric they are working with isn't primarily polyester. For this group they use a combination of rotary or driven wheel cutter (it's actually an octagonal blade set up) and laser. One of the downsides in using a driven wheel cutter is the limit on the types of cutting, such as cutting into corners and the need to be watchful that the fabric isn't moved by the cutting process.

    The driven wheel cutter is not limited by the type of material, though it is limited by the weight of the fabric. A vacuum can only do so much, and the wheel can cause the fabric to move, creating errors in the cut path. With the laser, you are limited to cutting polyesters only, and just like the hot knife method you end up with a sealed edge. Because the process doesn't involve contact with the fabric, the chance of it moving is remote. Since most flag and banner material is 100-percent polyester, the laser option is a good way to go if that is the type of work you are doing. The MCT also has a dual-roll capability which allows for cutting two types of fabrics at the same time.

    I asked Carbonell for his pros and cons when comparing a laser cutting system to a knife system when cutting polyesters. His first thought was that the laser technology cuts and seals all in one pass and that the laser allows for more precise and fine cutting. And with a knife system, the operator must be aware of the wear and tear on the knife tool so that it is not allowed to dull and catch and pull the fabric while cutting. The Matic Helios laser uses a low power laser for contactless cutting of textiles.

    Finally, I reached out to Beatrice Drury, Director of Marketing & Communications, Zund America, Inc.* Zund uses a driven rotary tool (DRT) for cutting textiles and industrial fabrics. Woven and non-woven fabrics are made from natural or synthetic fiber. This tool uses a decagonal blade to cut allowing the user to choose between a "low" and "high" RPM setting (low is for materials with lower melting points). The DRT produces considerably less drag force on the textile, resulting in a clean cut of each individual fiber. This tool is recommended for garments, home textiles and some industrial fabrics (awnings, and banners). For tougher textiles and composites with carbon, glass or Aramid fiber content, Zund recommends their more heavy-duty Power Rotary Tool (PRT).

    There you have it - at least for now. The challenge in covering a topic as broad as finishing is there are so many different materials and so many different applications that there will always be information left on the table to be covered the next round.

    Ray Weiss, Digital Imaging Specialist for SGIA, joined the Association in 2014. He provides solutions and technical information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees several workshops at SGIA along with the association's digital equipment evaluation program. His 25+ year career in the graphics industry began with a typesetting and prepress business in Washington, DC, which grew into an offset print operation in Maryland. He then moved into wide format sales, training, support and service.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November / December 2016 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2016 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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