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Printed awnings get customers in the door

Features, Graphics | November 1, 2007 | By:

Printed awnings can portray an image, communicate a message, or create a mood.

Although awnings have welcomed consumers through the doors of America’s small businesses since the Civil War, recent advancements in inks, fabrics, installation techniques, and graphics have created a new boom in awning sales.

The modern day awning buyer is beginning to understand how powerful graphics can be in communicating a store’s image. Gary Buermann, owner of G&J Awning in Sauk Rapids, Minn. says, “With customers you get some who are very in tune to graphics. The next guy says, ‘put Joe’s Place on it and make it easy to read.’ They don’t care what we do with it. We get business from both ends of the spectrum. If you have a hamburger joint with the word hamburger up there it does nothing for the taste buds.”

David Ausema, vice president of Chesterfield Awning Co., South Holland, Ill. reports, “Some of our customers come with pretty high expectations. When they have taken the time to do a custom logo they expect to see that on their awning. Since we have these tools, we can do it.”

Today, screen printing, pressure sensitive vinyls, and digital printing processes are used to apply graphics to awning fabrics. Ausema says, “Some [buyers] have sophisticated ideas and graphic artists who have worked out identities for them. The graphics are so intricate that the only way we can do it is use the Sunbrella Graphics System, or a digital print on vinyl. We love having the option to offer a digitally printed fabric. It’s good for our industry to be able to offer all these options. It keeps awnings on the cutting edge of marketing and branding storefronts.”

Glen Raven’s Sunbrella Graphics System was developed more than 10 years ago and became an official warranted matched component program with 3M five years ago. The SGS is the only branded system on the market.

The SGS 100 Graphics Machine uses a vacuum system and heat source to create a secure bond between Sunbrella fabric and the 3M Scotchcal ElectroCut Graphic film. Once the elements are in place, the vacuum system pulls the fabric and film together while heat lamps bond them together. Doug Dubay, awning product manager for Glen Raven, describes the process’s ability to produce graphics. “The computer plotting allows you to get much better definition of your image. Just about any image you can create in the computer you can cut that shape out and bond it on to the fabric with the SGS system.”

At G&J Awning, half of the company’s commercial projects include graphics. Buermann reports he uses the Sunbrella system for 90 percent of the projects and screen printing for the remainder.

Dubay notes the Sunbrella Graphic System is evolving to include digital printing applications. “We’re moving to a next generation of SGS where you can digitally print on a white 3M film and bond that on Sunbrella. You get the diversity of color and the graduation of shading color that is provided with inkjet printing but with the economies and ability to put that print on Sunbrella.”

According to Kevin Kelly, Globe Canvas Products, Yeadon, Pa., a decision to use the SGS or digital printing isn’t an either/or proposition. “There are hybrids. For example, you can digitally print on pressure sensitive vinyl from 3M that is compatible with the SGS and apply that with a technique that you know on fabric that otherwise couldn’t be digitally printed.”

Business rediscovers awnings

New installation techniques, concerns about rising energy costs, and recent increases in the understanding of the benefits of awnings are fueling a renaissance in interest and sales.

Dubay reports educational efforts are having an impact. “Fabricators are in touch with retail and restaurant chains, and architects are trying to educate them on the graphic processes available. Big retail and restaurant chains and commercial accounts are working to build an identity and image. That’s something that quality fabrics and films can provide when it’s done in a repeatable, reliable method. We’re making progress but not everybody out there is fully educated.”

Awnings are beginning to play a much larger role in recent architectural design. No longer a post construction add-on, architects are incorporating awnings into original designs. Buermann reports, “In recent years, architects have been putting awnings on businesses for eye appeal. In the past, when they built a strip mall they made all the awnings identical. Now they are trying to do just the opposite. We’ve worked on a number of projects where they are all different, where they are trying to make the strip mall look more like the old main street of a downtown. We’re using different sizes, shapes, colors, and installation options.”

John Wilkinson, vice president of Sunmaster of Naples, Inc., Naples, Fla., sees similar interest from the construction trades. “They have done their standard condominiums over and over again with the same architectural style. Now you are starting to see more fabrics being used in creating art pieces in the front of the building. Other local architects are picking up on that theme and doing a little more in that regard.”

Mark Mitchell, Sunmaster’s president, has positioned his company as a consulting resource for local architects. He describes the approach: “We’ve really pushed to get to know our local architects and builders. We have good relationships and they know they can come to us to discuss their designs. Architects are looking for ideas as well. They tell us ‘we don’t really know what can be done but here’s the building we want to do, can you help us.’ That’s a great avenue for us because it puts us in at the beginning.”

Craig R. Zola, business manager for awning and marine fabrics at Herculite Products Inc., Emigsville, Pa., believes awning applications are still being discovered. “Awning fabrics will continue to grow as architects, designers, and fabricators continue to enhance outdoor living through the creative use of awning shading systems. Today there is increasing awareness about sun control and new technologies in textile manufacturing are driving demand for new and better products.”

In addition to new construction and remodeling, G&J Awning has found significant architectural business opportunities supporting municipal historical societies that are restoring older government and commercial buildings. Federal programs promoting downtown revitalization projects have made funds available. Buermann has used fabric sample cards from the 1920s and ’30s to help officials make the renovations authentic. Buermann says, “They have an idea of what they want it to look like but we have to tell them back in that period this is what would have been available.”

Questions to answer

What digital printing can deliver in terms of sophisticated graphics intrigues awning firms. At the same time, questions about the durability and life spans of inks have prevented the process from becoming more widely incorporated.

Scott Sutherland, Tacoma Tent & Awning Co. Inc. in Tacoma, Wash., describes his reluctance. “Digital printing on awnings is something I don’t do. I don’t have the confidence in a printed awning as I do a pressure sensitive screen printing or other traditional methods.”

Ausema adds, “Our first choice is screen printing. That’s what we were doing 30 years ago and it’s our first choice for people who don’t want to take any chances.”

Screen printing has proven its longevity. Buermann says, “Screen printing may last 10 years. Digital printing may only last three to five years [because of the ink], but it is getting better. At some point in time that won’t be an issue and we will start selling a lot of it.”

Sutherland acknowledges the durability issues are being addressed. “I realize that the inks are getting better and better and many of the fabric manufacturers are focusing on improving the compatibility between those inks and their fabrics. I don’t yet have the confidence that we will be able to guarantee beyond three years, which to me is an awfully short life span for an awning. I’m happy to do it if the customer is willing to accept such a short life span. I’m not reluctant at all but only in cases where life span isn’t a significant factor for the customer.”

Zola adds, “I think it [digital printing] would have happened a lot sooner if ink technology had performed better. Now it is and that’s opening doors. The digital inks actually last.”

Inks aren’t the only factor in creating acceptable digitally printed awnings. Zola continues, “You can’t just throw any fabric on a digital printer and get a good resolution print on it. To get a good dpi resolution you have to have a topcoat on the fabric that will absorb the ink and dry over quickly. When you put a drop of ink down you want it to maintain a certain size. You don’t want it to grow. The more it grows the worse the resolution is going to be. The topcoat on the fabric controls that. Once you get to the point where you have the process down, it may be cost competitive to getting a digital print as opposed to pressure sensitive vinyl graphics.”

Boom times ahead

Zola sees opportunities for digital graphics on awnings as people become more aware of what can be accomplished. “People are looking in that direction. It’s obvious that it [growth] will come but it’s not the path of least resistance right now. People are still putting graphics on awnings using traditional methods—pressure sensitive vinyl and paints. The talk and the vision is definitely digital with solvent inks. It’s awareness and availability of machines in the awning marketplace—the majority of awning manufacturers would have to go to a subcontractor to get the graphics.”

Sutherland agrees, “I’m excited about the potential for growth in that market because of the capability and sophistication of the designs that you can put on an awning that you can’t do with the other media.” Sutherland suggests the growth of vehicle wraps offers a good analogy for the future of graphics on awnings. ”Before people just put their name on [vehicle wraps]. Now you are seeing all kinds of pictorials and complicated sophisticated graphics that tell a story. In certain markets I can see the same sort of thing happening with awnings.”

Zola also sees digital printing growing quickly in the near future. “As awning manufacturers read about the possibilities and venture out to try some of these projects, it’s going to grow tremendously.”

Lou Dzierzak is the editor of Fabric Graphics.

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