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The ins & outs of outdoor fabrics

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

Advances in fabric engineering and improvements in digital imaging technologies are catalysts for growth.

The use and application of outdoor fabrics for graphics applications has expanded at what some have called a mind-boggling rate over the last several years. There are a number of reasons for this market growth, including recent advances in fabric engineering and improvements in digital imaging technologies. However, challenges remain for manufacturers of outdoor fabrics, owners of print shops, architectural fabricators, and graphic designers. There also are misperceptions regarding outdoor fabric graphics that the industry has been attempting to rectify through better information and education.

Fabric Graphics magazine spoke with several of the most respected and innovative leaders in the outdoor fabrics graphics arena to get their professional input. (See page 34 for a list of their names and companies.)

FG: What are some of the most significant changes that you have seen in the uses and applications of outdoor fabrics for graphics applications in recent years?

Rowinski: The use of flexible fabrics versus the rigid substrates that were used for many years has opened doors for greater possibilities in installations. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when our decorating options were limited to pressure-sensitive cut vinyl or sewn appliqué methods. It has now become possible to apply full-color prints to almost any substrate due to advances in digital printing technology. Color matching is no longer an obstacle at Rainier Industries because we can now use solid-white substrates to print structural canopies, building wraps, commercial awnings, event and rental tents, construction fences, signs and billboards … the possibilities are limitless.

Belli: In addition to awnings and many other projects that our company has traditionally undertaken, Eide Industries is now starting to manufacture projects that are highly artistic in nature. Recently, we completed a 12,000-square-foot project in Beverly Hills and a 7,000-square-foot project in Los Angeles that may not have been possible just a few years ago before advances in acrylic ink and vinyl fabric technologies.

Etzel: SEC’s use of graphics on vinyl fabrics has increased our penetration of our event marketing clients. In many cases, completely printed tops for our tent system have been the key to getting us a particular job, such as NASCAR events, professional beach volleyball tournaments, and even promotional tents for tours of new shows for the Discovery Channel.

Furlough: As a large-format digital printer, technology advances have allowed Tara Graphics to digitally print mesh fabrics and vinyl laminated fabrics for a wide variety of outdoor billboard and sign applications. Marketing firms have many options for outdoor advertising these days, and printed fabric technology has become increasingly attractive due to its cost-effectiveness.

Carson: We at Herculite Products have definitely seen a trend toward large-format applications that require increasingly larger graphics for building wraps, event marketing, and retail promotions. Fabrics are no longer used simply for avenue/pole banners and other relatively traditional projects. As digital printing, screen-printing, and even litho printing become available in larger-format equipment, our Printer’s Choice and Bantex fabrics are increasingly being used in diverse outdoor promotions. The constantly increasing speed of digital printing technology has also advanced the speed to market of these outdoor applications.

FG: What innovationsin fabrics and equipment are driving these innovations in applications?

Rowinski: Advances in architectural mesh materials have allowed us to be very innovative in our exterior designs. We were recently involved in a renovation project for 47-year-old Cheney Stadium, which is the home ballpark of the Tacoma Rainiers, the AAA affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Using digitally printed architectural mesh, we were able to transform what was once a plain gray concrete structure (think Kingdome) into a more up-to-date-looking ballpark with catchy graphics of baseball players in action around the entire building. It was an innovative, cost-effective way to add “curb appeal” to the stadium, and the team’s management and the city of Tacoma are very happy with the results.

Belli: Digital printing and large stencil-cutting capability of computer-driven flatbed cutters have definitely helped advance large-scale printing on fabrics.

Etzel: More fabrics have become available that are receptive to printed graphics, making it easier to fit a product into a given budget line for event promotion marketing.

Furlough: Marketing firms have many choices now, including electronic digital advertising on billboards. Because these costs can be too high for many to consider for their campaigns, digitally printed mesh and vinyl laminates are increasingly attractive.

Carson: Wider media and larger, faster printing equipment are two innovations that come immediately to mind. The finishing equipment used for sewing, heat-sealing, and grommeting also is improving.

FG: What challenges are outdoor fabric and fabric graphics manufacturers facing?

Rowinski: In my opinion, two of the biggest challenges that our industry faces are engineering and building code restrictions. There are seven major cities in the Seattle area, and all of them have different codes and design requirements. In general, city officials require more education and advisement regarding the capabilities of outdoor fabric graphics. Usually they refer to the code books that are published by the local fire departments, but these codes were typically written prior to the advent of the new fabrics that are available. So, often the manufacturers must meet with these city officials to plead their cases (sometimes “jumping through hoops”) in order to prove the viability of the performance of these fabrics.

Belli: I agree that pulling permits from various cities can be a challenge. Another challenge is the cost of large projects. The fabric is affordable in most cases, but the printing and graphics applications can be almost five times the fabric cost.

Etzel: One of the biggest challenges is that the laminated and coated fabric market is bringing us 98-inch-wide and 106-inch-wide fabrics with greater longevity in fabric life; however, many of the manufacturers are still set up to work with 60-inch goods. Finding a production shop that efficiently handles the wider materials can be difficult. These obstacles can be overcome. The equipment is readily available. Manufacturers who assembletent structures will need to upgrade their equipment in order to handle these challenges as we move forward.

Carson: The digital market is a driving force for new materials, so we at Herculite are constantly searching for “the best next thing in high-performance textiles.” Through continued research and development, our plans are to introduce even stronger and more durable outdoor fabrics, as well as “green” products that will reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by being either recyclable or biodegradable.

FG: Do print shop owners and graphic designers have misconceptions about outdoor fabric performance?

Rowinski: Actually, exhibit designers are fairly savvy when it comes to knowing what outdoor fabrics can do because fabric suppliers have done a fine job promoting the benefits of these fabrics to them. With help from organizations such as the Professional Awning Manufacturers’ Association, the Lightweight Structures Association, and the Tent Rental Division*, we are providing educational information that is helping this process, but there is still more work to do in order to educate city officials regarding misconceptions that they may have about fabric and ink longevity and performance.

Belli: It is assumed that an outdoor fabric can withstand wind, rain, cold, heat, and so forth but the fabric membrane must be manufactured and installed properly in order to meet these outdoor conditions.

Etzel: In some cases, there is a belief that printed fabrics do not have a long life. However, in the event promotion and advertising market this is really not a huge concern. Most advertising campaigns are short-lived—one or two years at the most. It is our experience that the fabric has always done well for that lengthof time.

Carson: Heavyweight fabrics are often perceived as being more durable, when in fact it is the strength of the reinforcing fabric that dictates the strength of the end product. Our job as manufacturers is to educate our customers about both the benefits and limitations of outdoor fabrics. Because end users can be price sensitive, there is the temptation to go against the recommendations of a manufacturer or printer, when the wisest return on investment for a job may actually be a stronger, more expensive base fabric.

FG: What other projects have you been involved with that show outdoor fabrics at their best?

Rowinski: Rainier recently completed a retractable canopy project at Arizona State University that we feel was quite innovative. Using a mesh that we printed with a variety of colors and images, we took an architect’s concept and brought it to life. It was an interesting, customized project and even included mists of cool water that gently spray beneath the canopy. The university was very pleased with the outcome.

Belli: A few years ago, Eide Industries and Herculite were honored to be partners on the Tower of Hope project. More than 4,000 seriously ill children and 35,000 school children throughout California painted colorful floral panels that converted a former oil derrick in Beverly Hills into a cheerful monument symbolizing hope and inspiring those who view it. At 165 feet in height, it became the tallest man-made monument in the western United States at the time.

Etzel: SEC manufactured promotional tents for Crown Royal at 32 NASCAR races this year. Additionally, we supplied tents for the introduction of the Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild series. We have also been involved in outdoor promotions for US Cellular, Old Navy stores, Corona beer, Jose Cuervo tequila, and many others.

Furlough: Tara Graphics recently printed several graphics wraps using Herculite’s Printer’s Choice Xtreme for a water tower in Gadsden, Ala. One wrap resembled a can of Coke while the other advertised a local dinosaur exhibit.

Carson: Sonic restaurants display new banners each month, and many are quite innovative. Additionally, at the 2006 National FFA Organization (formerly the Future Farmers of America) national convention in Indianapolis, Ind., more than 400 street pole banners were printed using 18-ounce Bantex vinyl from Herculite and decoratively placed throughout the city.

FG: Are there any other comments or observations that you would like our readers to know?

Etzel: The ad agencies and graphic production people do not always know how to prepare their graphics in the appropriate detail required for printing on such a large surface. Our industry must continue to educate our customers and their customers as our technologies advance.

Carson: There are many great relationships that exist between large printers and smaller sign shops. Because the smaller shops cannot always afford the equipment needed for large outdoor jobs, these relationships give them the opportunity to say “yes” to opportunities that come their way and give their customers the confidence that they are dealing with a company that can handle almost any request. I would also like to remind everyone that vinyl-laminated fabrics will certainly last longer and have a better outdoor appearance than substrates such as polyethylene.

* PAMA, LSA, and the TRD are part of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

John Evans is Vice President of Sales, Herculite Products, Inc., Emigsville, Pa. Evans is a member of the Technical Advisory Committee for Fabric Graphics magazine.

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