Understanding the technologies is key to incorporating the right digital printer into your business.
By Rick Scrimger
According to Boston-based IT Strategies, the market for wide- and grand-format digitally printed fabric graphics is expected to grow from 2,300 printers producing 9 million square feet in 2005 to 5,000 printers producing 2.1 billion square feet in 2010. Already, super-large format digital fabric graphics have made their way into sports arenas, museum exhibits, trade shows, retail locations, and other public venues.
The addition of a wide- or grand-format digital fabric printer can add thousands to your business’s bottom line each year and provide an unparalleled foundation for growth for the most savvy graphics shops. While the market is ripe for growth, entering it requires proper equipment and a sound understanding of the technologies involved. Purchase the right digital fabric printer for your business and the rewards can be tremendous.
Historically, wide- and grand-format fabric graphics have been printed through screen and gravure printing processes that require costly, cumbersome equipment, highly skilled operators, high volume production runs, and complex workflows. Today’s eco-solvent, solvent, and sublimation digital printers have greatly simplified the process. Many provide one-step workflows that allow you to load media rolls onto the printer and print directly onto the fabric for immediate results. And digital printers excel at short production runs as well—1 to 10 banners, for example—which can add up to a significant revenue stream.
Eco-solvent and solvent inkjet printers
Eco-solvent and solvent inkjet printers can be set up to print directly onto fabrics coated specifically for these inks. These printers range in price from around $15,000 to $100,000 or more depending on their size, image quality, print speed, and the array of features offered. When compared to sublimation fabric printers, eco-solvent and solvent printers offer one main advantage: they print on many substrates, allowing your business to grow in several directions at once. With this type of printer, you can get into the wide- or grand-format graphics market to produce signs, banners, vehicle and fleet wraps, posters, labels, decals, billboards, and even fine art reproductions, selecting the right substrate for each application.
Eco-solvent and solvent inkjetprinters provide rugged outdoordurability as well. Many eco-solvent printers produce graphics for display in the harshestoutdoor environments for up to three years or longer with lasting image quality and scratch resistance. Solvent inkjet prints last even longer.
When selecting between the two, remember that solvent inkjets provide greater outdoor durability but emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that come with more stringent ventilation and handling requirements. Make sure your shop is prepared to meet health and safety standards before investing in one of these printers. If your shop is not set up to handle this type of printer, an eco-solvent option is a better choice.
The main limitation of eco-solvent and solvent inkjet printers is that they require customized fabrics that are specially coated for bonding with these ink formulations and often include backings as well to ensure correct media feeding through the printer. The special coating will facilitate fabric printing and help you control dot gain and image quality. However, the coating and inks together add layers to your graphic that impact its flexibility and overall appearance when displayed. A coated fabric just doesn’t drape like a lighter weight, uncoated fabric when printed.
So while eco-solvent and solvent inkjet printers can provide an entry into the fabric graphics market, they are a better choice if your goal is to print on a variety of substrates. Eco-solvent and solvent inkjet printers are ideal for the business looking to branch out into the broader wide- and grand-format printing market.
Sublimation is the digital printing technology of choice if your shop is focused specifically on the production of wide- and grand-format fabric graphics. When compared to eco-solvent and solvent technologies, the sublimation process produces richer colors more reliably and with greater color contrast.
Digital sublimation printing works as follows: sublimation inks are printed either directly on the fabric media, which is then “heated” to sublimate the graphics—or the inks are printed on a special transfer media and then transferred to the fabric using a heat press.
Heat is key to the sublimation process. When sublimation inks are heated, they quickly form a gas that permeates the fabric and permanently dyes it. This is in contrast to eco-solvent inks, which bond to the surface of the media and theoretically can be scratched or rubbed off over time.
For both direct-to-fabric and transfer-based sublimation, the inks come in water-based and solvent-based formulations. Water-based sublimation inks are more environmentally friendly and easier to manage in a shop environment. However, they can build up in the printer’s ink delivery system, which can compromise image quality over time and impact printer performance as well. Solvent sublimation inks are harderon the environment, but are more chemically stable, which ensures better, more reliable image quality. Both types of sublimation inks transfer to polyester fabrics—or to substrates that feature a polymer coating.
It is important to note that they are developed to perform specifically with the chemical properties of polymer and not with cotton, PVC, paper, or other types of substrates. While this will limit the range of substrates available to you, there are hundreds of polymer-based media options available to shops and the range of available substrates continues to grow—especially if you are using a sublimation transfer process. In this case, once your image is printed onto the transfer paper it can be transferred to a wide range of both flexible and rigid polymer coated substrates for products ranging from frames and plaques to banners, textiles, and signs. Keep in mind, however, that the transfer process requires both additional equipment (a heat press) and an additional step in your workflow (the transfer process). You need to have a heat press large enough to accommodate the applications you are targeting and you also need to master the workflow involved.
Flatbed and roll-to-roll heat presses are both available for wide- and grand-format transfer sublimation. In the market today, the majority of wide and grand-format digital fabric printing is completed through a transfer process because this technology is currently more stable and mature than most direct-to-fabric sublimation printers.
However, the landscape is quickly changing. There is a new generation of direct-to fabric digital printers on the market that provide the large-scale capabilities many shops need and feature on-board sublimation units that streamline the workflow into one step. These products are already delivering great results for applications ranging from flags, banners, textiles, signage, building and wall wraps, and more. Customized media handling systems precisely move the fabric through the printer, and on-board heating systems adjust to the right temperature ranges to instantly sublimate the graphics. The newest models come equipped with bulk ink systems and special take-up systems as well, allowing for reliable unattended printing. For the first time, thousands of feet of fabric graphics—and custom short-run graphics as well—can all be digitally printed and stored with minimal intervention fromthe operator.
On the horizon
This is an exciting time to expand your business with a digital fabric printer. With proper research and the right strategy a shop can experience significant growth and success in this emerging market. New digital technologies will continue to evolve, providing even greater opportunities in the future. In the near term, we can expect to see a wave of new digital printers delivering faster print speeds, better media handling systems, and other advanced features to expedite and simplify the production process. New advancements in inks and media will continue to drive growth as well, and will help give way to a new generation of applications.