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The right time for a bold move into the fabric graphics market

January 1st, 2007 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Better fabrics, inks, and equipment, as well as exciting new markets, have converged to create an explosion of graphics on fabric.

Patrick Hayes still remembers a comment from one of his company’s earliest customers, the proprietor of a screen print shop. “I recall the owner saying, ‘The money is in the graphics,’” says Hayes, who founded Elgin, Ill.-based Fabric Images, a tension fabric architecture firm, in 1992. “This comment stuck with me. Instead of going after exhibit design, we were more about graphic design, along with production. Our clients were the designers. They needed to be introduced to a new exhibit medium, that of textile.”

The money may have been in graphics, but there was no end to the challenges faced by Hayes’ company and others as they put those graphics on textiles.

“Color shifts, fabric flaws, inconsistency in transfer paper, and numerous other considerations kept many from wanting to enter the field,” says Hayes, an IFAI board member. “The exhibit industry was set on 8-foot standards, the size of a plywood sheet. With the existing machine width limit at 52 inches, we were at a loss to fulfill our clients’ ultimate need, that of super-wide output.”

While Hayes still considers this industry to be in its infancy, there is no question that technological developments in fabrics, inks, printers, and software have revolutionized the way graphics are applied to tex-tiles and created possibilities limited only by the imaginations of this industry’s innovators.

“Fabric graphics is a versatile medium, adaptable to almost any application, any scale, and most conditions,” says David Kerchman, president of Flying Colors Inc. of Berkeley, Calif. “The opportunities can range from as simple as a POS display to a piece of transient or quasi-permanent architecture. Fabric graphics can help to create a single sale or an overall mood—and depending on their application, can engage viewers in a variety of ways.”

Tony Schmitt, product development manager for Optima Graphics of Fenton, Mo., says that from a technological standpoint, there are far more equipment and ink manufacturers with capabilities to produce fabric graphics than ever before, which vastly opens the field of choices. “This also enables printers to print onto a wider variety of types of fabric,” Schmitt says.

Optima Graphics’ customers request fabric, so the company doesn’t really need to “sell” it, he says, although it does need to educate customers on the different applications and the strengths and weaknesses of individual fabrics. Schmitt goes on to explain that fabric appeals to basic human senses, offers different looks with different textures and has economical advantages as well.

“Because fabric is lighter weight and packs down smaller than traditional types of graphics, it costs less to ship and store, which is an attractive cost savings for our customers,” Schmitt says.

Jumping on the digital technology bandwagon

According to I.T. Strategies, an international digital consulting firm with bases in Hanover, Mass., and Tokyo, Japan, the retail value of wide format graphics prints reached $19 billion in 2002, and is forecast to grow to almost $30 billion by 2007, a compound annual growth rate of 9%, with the largest segments of that market being POP signage and trade show graphics. And the percentage of Fabric Graphics Association members adding digital printing to their equipment increased in each of the past seven years.

Technological advancements that have contributed to the explosion of fabric graphics include, but certainly are not limited to:

  • new technologies that make large-format printing on fabrics possible.
  • increased printer resolution and output speed.
  • multiple inkjet printing technologies.
  • new inks that are more stable and last longer.
  • improvement in textile coating technologies.
  • greater choices in banner stands, hanging, and framing systems.

Gary Turner, marketing manager for DuPont Artistri of Wilmington, Del., says that inkjet printing of textiles opens up applications such as printing photorealistic images that cannot be done with conventional rotary or flatbed screening technologies.

“The potential color gamut, or number of colors that can be printed with inkjet, greatly exceeds those of screen printing,” he says. “So as equipment becomes larger and faster, I believe the role of digital printing in the textiles market will grow near and long term.”

Turner says that customers are finding new opportunities to print textiles digitally on a regular basis.

“This is good news for all of us as we try to grow this application of technology,” he says. “A focus on a rapid adoption of use from the print specifiers and buyers is critical, as is quality, speed, ease of use, and other attributes of the final printed result versus existing production methods.”

But for all that digital technology offers the fabric graphics industry, it has created challenges as well, says Kerchman of Flying Colors.

“On the one hand, fabric provides an extraordinary opportunity to create beautiful and engaging graphics that can be both flexible and relatively easy in their application, especially considering the effort required to create something less comparable not too many years ago,” he says. “One of the greatest challenges I see in the industry is the ‘commodity mentality’ that has flooded the market. With the cost of technology having dropped, the market is now flooded with producers (of varying capability and experience) who see the potential of this medium. Simple laws of supply and demand, therefore, have effectively dropped the ‘market value’ cost of this technology to the consumer. That market situation makes it more difficult to operate with a reasonable degree of profitability.”

Other challenges facing this industry include improving print speeds and fabric quality while reducing costs, says Schmitt of Optima Graphics.

“There is an influx of overseas fabrics that are driving costs down, yet do not maintain quality expectations,” he says.

Finishing is yet another challenge, adds Greg Schopmeyer, vice president of OAI Inc. of Tampa, Fla.

“Matching the right kind of stitch for the material selected,” he explains. “Also finding and training new sewing machine operators has been a big challenge for most companies.”

And in addition to the challenges of emerging technologies and changing market forces is the perennial need for a talented labor force to meet and create demand.

“Schools need to be supported in an effort to introduce and promote designing with fabrics more,” says Mark Schmit, associate professor of technological studies at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.

Growth opportunities

While retail and tradeshow markets are among the larger markets for fabric graphics, new niche markets emerge every day, says OAI’s Schopmeyer.

“Architectural and interior design firms are relatively new to the idea of custom printed textiles,” he says. “Look forward to this becoming a larger part of the graphics market.”

Kerchman seconds the potential for architectural growth.

“As we live primarily in a built architectural environment that is increasingly visually engaging, this cross pollination of disciplines can often result in a more dramatic and enticing ambient environment.”

Schmit of Bemidji State names government art and sculpture as well as office environments as areas that will use fabric graphics more as designers begin to understand fabric better.

Schmitt of Optima Graphics says that nearly any market can use digitally printed fabric.

“From the market perspective, end users are becoming more cost conscious, but also want to be unique,” he says. “At this point fabric is still different and stands out.”

In the end it will be the people using the technology who will meet these challenges and determine just how far this industry will go.

“With the onrush of digital technology and fabric graphics, it is important to realize—and most certainly not minimize—the importance of excellent design,” says Kerchman. “We now have machines that can output some amazing products. In the end, however, what comes out of any imaging system is only going to be as good as the design that goes in the front end.”

Jill C. Lafferty is a freelance editor and writer based in Burnsville, Minn.

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