New Advancements in Fabric Printing Technology Drive Growth
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New Advancements in Fabric Printing Technology Drive Growth

The rapid evolution of digitally printed fabrics over the past few years has caused explosive growth as more output providers continue to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, digital textile printing was one of the fastest growing market sectors, reaching 10 percent growth in 2013 compared with 2012, according to Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI).

By Bill Schiffner, Industry Author

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  • Supporting this trend are applications including soft signage for trade shows and retail, short runs for events, fabric samples for apparel, and custom fabrics for commercial interior design.

    Today's digital textile market utilizes inkjet printing-UV, solvent, latex or dye sublimation-to digitally print graphics onto fabric. The biggest growth area for digital textile applications continues to be in dye sublimation. More direct-to-fabric dye sub and inkjet equipment are entering the marketplace with new technology and productivity enhancements, including new wide-format capability, increased printer resolution and output speed, inkjet technologies, improved textile coating technologies, and decreased equipment costs.

    Catalina Frank, Product Manager at Epson Professional Imaging reports that fabric printing continues to gain momentum given the expansion of digital technology. "The improvements in image quality allow true photographic reproduction, therefore widening the space for high-quality signage, such as backlit signage predominantly found in trade show and event graphics."

    "In addition, improvements to inkjet technology that result in faster print speeds and wider formats continue to drive down costs. This enables printers and shop owners to upgrade from older adapted machines to true inkjet solutions, designed with fabric imaging in mind for both direct-to-fabric and transfer processes. Combined with new digital synthetic fabrics and coating developments from textile manufacturers, 2015 is very promising," she adds.

    A Positive Outlook for 2015
    Frank feels that the 2015 economic outlook is better than they have seen in the past five years, especially with trade show and event spending for corporate brands. "By using the capabilities of dye sublimation technology such as vibrant colors and true photographic quality, shops can offer commercial brands a complete array of soft sign elements for indoor exhibits. Ranging from traditional step-and-repeat backdrops to table runners, rugs, pop-up banners and flags, and even branded garments and accessories, soft signage will enliven the brand experience and have a great impact with the target audience."

    Frank adds that with true photographic image reproduction capabilities, soft signage for retail and exhibits accurately translates lifestyle imagery to connect brands and people. "More and more photographic advertisements are displayed in stores and at trade shows to attract an audience and deliver the desired marketing message."

    More Stable Products
    Some suppliers and analysts feel that more stable inks and faster equipment will play a role in the sector this year. Randy Anderson, Product Marketing Manager at Mutoh America Inc. thinks that perhaps the biggest trend for digital textiles this year is a sense of stability. "Inks are more stable, and printers are producing higher quality output at higher speeds with lower initial printer costs. This kind of stability allows more output providers to enter the market, creating innovations and growing the market even more. Dye sublimation is still the go-to process for most applications and is the most stable, but direct-to-textile still provides opportunities for expansion and for that same sense of stability enjoyed by the dye sublimation market," he points out.

    Anderson says the best applications for this market are anywhere short-term signage is needed. "While soft signage continues to make inroads as a replacement for banner material in trade show applications, and wind sail signage and flags have become ubiquitous on streets and roads, this market is still growing and is still one of the reasons people invest in new print technology. The market for things like tablecloths for trade shows and displays still amazes me."

    He reports that fabric is now being used for art installations, wall coverings, and kiosks-all places where banner, rigid and even cut vinyl have been historically used.

    "The power of digital is the ability to mass produce short runs and one offs. One of the factors driving this market is the opportunity to create and produce soft signage that is easy to pack, travels well, and with a little steam looks new every time."

    Simplified Process
    Hary Gandy at Gandy Digital Ltd feels architectural applications will be the future growth trend for wide-format textile printing. "Fabric is easier to install in larger areas and its much more flexible than vinyl type materials, making it easy to transport and install. Plus it gives some protection from the environment."

    "I think one of the biggest trends that will soon consume and change the whole soft signage printing market is direct fabric printing and heat curing the ink. You get a fully finished product with one piece of equipment without having to do any extra process on the material, apart from installing the fabric at the end site," predicts Gandy. "One concern is the quality of the print. With the new printhead technology and improved ink, we are getting very sharp quality with direct print and heat curing without the drop spreading and losing quality. The fabric can be washed, but for most soft signage applications it isn't necessary to do so," he adds.

    More Advanced Solutions
    Lily Hunter, Product Manager, Textiles and Consumables at Roland DGA says that end users are looking for more bang for their buck when it comes to fabric printing. They want dye sublimation printers that are technologically advanced, easy to use and affordable.

    She reports there is also considerable demand for total supported solutions from manufacturers that include OEM ink, transfer paper and media profiles. "These solutions can provide longer uninterrupted production runs, optimum convenience and user-friendly software designed specifically for dye sublimation applications."

    Soft Signage Opportunities
    Hunter says she sees the growing demand for soft signage is especially evident in retail settings, within POP displays, in trade show environments and even in the entertainment industry for set backdrops and props. "Soft signage is attractive to just about anyone seeking a high-end, greener solution that not only provides vibrant, eye-catching color and aesthetics, but also added value and convenience. Walk the floor at any trade show and you'll see fabric media and soft signage just about everywhere-flags, banners, booth backdrops/displays and more."

    "This kind of dye-sublimated output is becoming more and more popular for trade show applications for a number of reasons. It's lighter and thus less expensive to ship, it's more affordable than other high-end substrates, and it's easy to install, take down and store," she adds.

    More Applications and Printing Technologies
    Ken VanHorn, Director, Marketing and Business Development at Mimaki USA points out that "fabric" encompasses a multitude of applications, materials and processes. "It could be wearables, soft signage, interior décor, environmental or other applications using dye sublimation, direct-to-fabric or a transfer process. More media choices mean more opportunities for business. Rather than outsourcing, many deliverables requiring soft/fabric media can now be produced in-house with familiar printing equipment and RIP software."

    VanHorn feels technology trends are looking beyond the traditional dye sublimation or direct-to-fabric processes to see what opportunities are now available using solvent/eco-solvent, solvent UV or latex inks.

    "Interior décor is another area that offers great opportunities. Environmental or living space graphics for hotel rooms, lobbies and medical offices are desirable because of their softer feel that imparts a feeling of hominess. Wall coverings, wallpaper, flooring and mats, curtains, upholstery, wall art and bed coverings are all items that can be produced digitally. Canvas-based applications such as awnings, flags, windsails and dancers can be produced using existing solvent/eco-solvent printers," he explains.

    VanHorn adds that stretch-frame fabric lightboxes are also gaining popularity because they can be made to look like design elements in a retail or office environment, or as part of an exhibit. "The vibrant colors produced by direct-to-fabric printing ensure that the colors pop, even when backlit."

    Shops Want More Output Options
    Oriol Gasch, Scitex Category Manager, Americas at HP says there are several reasons output providers want the ability to print on a variety of substrates. "The most prominent one is the desire to become a one-stop shop, where businesses are able to offer customers a broad spectrum of products and services to retain key accounts and potentially expand into new business models. Printing on fabrics is a cost-saving opportunity, especially on post-processing because of lower shipping costs, easier installation and easier storage and reusability."

    Short Term Apps
    He explains that some applications, such as an outdoor banner for a sporting event, would likely be short-run in nature with very few copies, and would have short-term durability requirements and costs comparative to alternative materials like PVC. "Other applications such as printing upholstery might require a one-off design or multiple designs with stringent durability."

    Within soft signage, Gasch also says teardrop banners are among the fastest growing printed advertising and display items for teams and small businesses. "They are lightweight and easy to move and store. In retail environments, bigger is better. Larger signage catches people's attention. The ability to print very large, high-quality backdrops up to 126 inches in a cost effective manner is a service that many end users demand. Digital printing also enables retailers to change store layouts and seasonal looks based on promotional needs."

    "In trade show and event planning," he continued, "there has been a very fast shift to fabric materials. Often, fabric materials provide a softer look, conveying higher quality and a more personal touch. Easier and more convenient printing, folding and storing offers companies cost savings because of the option to effortlessly reuse signage. In sporting events, fabric signage has become a popular trend. The ability to print large 10-foot-wide images of players' memorable moments has become a very big brand reinforcement tool."

    Equipment Trends
    Gasch says that digital equipment with consistent and repeatable high image quality is now more affordable. "For example, the HP Latex 360 printer is built with an integrated spectrophotometer that allows users to get consistent colors from piece to piece. Digital equipment is becoming versatile and is compatible with a wider range of media. Some printers, such as our HP Latex 360 or HP Latex 3000 printers, have an optional ink collector that allows users to print on porous materials without damaging the reverse side of the fabric," he explained. "Digital inks are also becoming more durable and provide the ability to print directly to fabric, consolidating workflow to one step and saving users the expense of having to buy, operate and maintain a separate heat transfer device."

    Focusing on Technology Trends
    Like most other aspects of the commercial imaging business, the technology trends for fabric printing are focused primarily on quality, flexibility and productivity. "We've given a lot of attention to all of these areas in our Rhotex 322 and Rhotex HS printers, which are designed for very high-volume production of soft signage in a direct-to-fabric workflow," reports Brent Moncrief, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Durst Image Technology US. "Among other things, high production depends on consistent, repeatable material handling."

    Moncrief says they see a large opportunity for print service providers who work with retail clients. "The North American market is poised for a significant shift in both its promotional and environmental large-format signage, based on the relatively recent shift from traditional signage to fabric that we've seen in the European market."

    He says a key point regarding the production and utilization of soft signage is that it requires the print service provider to deliver a comprehensive solution-new permanent display fixtures, light merchandising to assist with activating new displays, etc.-rather than a stand-alone 'product.' This results in a multitude of value-added opportunities, not to mention high customer satisfaction. "For me, I think a customer summed it up best at the 2014 SGIA Expo (Las Vegas) when he came into the Durst booth and said, 'It looks like soft signage is the next big thing!' He was right-it is, and we've positioned ourselves to help our customers take advantage of this expanding opportunity," Moncrief concludes.

    Bill Schiffner has covered the imaging industry for more than 20 years. He has reported on the many new digital technologies that have reshaped the imaging marketplace.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, March / April 2015 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2015 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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