Grand format is bigger, better, spectacular and versatile.
By Maura Keller
Architects, trade show organizers,event planners, and retail operators have one thing in common: they strive to capture the attention of their potential audience through powerful visual messages. Using wide and grand format elements can inform, delight and inspire their audience like never before.
Making an impact
Players within the fabric graphics industry are discovering that a lot has changed in the world of banners, billboards, trade show booths, and theatrical backdrops. A time-honored source of visual messaging, wide and grand format fabric products have outlived their traditional roles of storefront extensions.
Today, these awe-inspiring fabric graphic entities grace the walls of world-renowned museums, sporting venues, schools, and corporations. New fabrics and innovative technology are making wide and grand format fabric products more durable and versatile, and, instead of short-lived afterthoughts,they have become long-lasting, environmentally friendly design features.
So what qualifies an application as either wide or grand format? It depends on whom you ask. “We consider wide format to be anything in the 36-inch to 97-inch width range, and grand format to be widths of 98-inches and larger,” says John Evans, vice president of sales at Herculite Products, Inc., a provider of vinyl and polyester composite fabrics in Emigsville, Pa. Herculite manufactures products specifically for the digital printing industry.
Eric Tischer, director of textiles and specialty products at Verseidag Seemee US, Randolph, N.J, classifies wide format as widths up to 99 inches, and grand format is up to 16 feet. Coated solvent and UV curable fabrics are the most popular for wide format printing, he says.
For Scott Fisher, vice president of sales and marketing at Fisher Textiles, Indian Trail, N.C., grand format is greater than 72 inches and up to 10 feet wide. “There is more demand forfabric trade show graphics and seamless displays with the wider printers,” he says. “Today’s fabric is lighter weight, takes up less space, the cost of shipping is less, and it is easy to change out the graphics. Because of this, more and more trade show booths are switching to these fabric applications.”
Evans also sees continued growth in fabric graphics for larger outdoor applications and smaller indoor applications. “The industry continues to grow because now everyone can have personalized materials, which is very appealing,” Evans says. “Companies canchange their advertising on a monthly basis for a relativelyinexpensive investment.”
In the know
David Kerchman, owner of Flying Colors in San Francisco, Calif., says grand format technology allows his company the ability to more easily address and create a scale-appropriate solution within the context of the various architectural environments in which they work. For example, Flying Colors has produced many wide and grand format elements for large scale events held in sporting venues and multi-use facilities around the country.
“We also created a 10-foot by 90-foot wall mural for the Rancho Cucamonga Library and Performing Arts Center in California. The mural was hand painted at one-tenth scale, flat bed scanned atvery high resolution, then output onto wall-covering before it was installed as a permanent fixture in the entry of this new facility,” Kerchman says.
Vomela, a graphics printing company in St. Paul, Minn., is a leading provider of wide and grand format products for retail, institutional, and environmental applications, and was one of the first companies to provide large format printing. “We began large format printing in 1991 with electrostatic printing,” says Kevin Kuznar, vice president of technology and business development at Vomela. “The technology and printers have certainly changed. Also, the price of the equipment has come down so you have a lot of people getting into it.”
According to Greg Schopmeyer, vice president at OAI Inc., Tampa, Fla., grand format gives more flexibility by avoiding seams, and facilitating the printing of larger runs by ganging up multiple jobs. OAI uses an HP XL Jet 1500 10-foot wide dye printer as well as 64-inch and 84-inch Agyas dye sublimation printers. “The smaller machines helped to get us into sublimation five years ago and the need for a wider printer came about two years later,” Schopmeyer says. “We started in grand format for the billboard industry and actually went backward into large format to do higher quality banners, vehicle wraps, and POP.”
So what entices end use manufacturers such as Flying Colors, Vomela and OAI to engage in these types of applications? “This technology enables us to more efficiently create large projects while minimizing seams,” Kerchman says. “Although this detail may seem minor to some, the best aesthetic solution is always one for which we strive, and grand format enables us to achieve a seamless solution more often than not.”
While increased growth in wide and grand format applications has opened many avenues for end use manufacturers, the growth in the number of wide and grand format printers has been excellent for substrate suppliers as well. “This market growth allows manufacturers to continue to develop new products with more enhanced attributes,” Tischer says. To stay in the forefront of supplying substrates to the digital print market, suppliers need to have a wide breadth of products and widths to provide for the number of different print outputs.
“This varies drastically depending on the type of printer the customer has,” he says. For instance, solvent printers need a quality coating on the fabric to achieve print quality and image pop, whereas dye sublimation and UV printers do not require a coated fabric to achieve their optimum level of printability.
Although the size is grand, so, too, are the logistics and engineering required to handle and install the finished product. Depending on substrate selection, when it is big it can also be very heavy. “The largest single piece we’ve done was a 250-foot diameter vinyl banner we installed on the roof of the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas for the NBA All-Star Game,” Kerchman says. Given the size and weight of the banner, special accommodations with the facility were necessary. “The only way to get it on the roof was by helicopter or crane,” Kerchman says. “We opted for the latter, for even at that size the prop wash from the copter was a variable we eagerly left out of the equation.”
Although wide or grand format applications are not for everyone, industry experts agree that the smaller format equipment is relatively inexpensive and may be readily acquired by most businesses. “Technology is an amazing thing,” Kerchman says. “When something new such as grand format is available on the mass market it becomes far more affordable for the end user while identifying new markets for its application. Probably one of the best examples of grand format technology is in the world of outdoor media—be it billboards or building wraps. Grand format has opened a door that likely won’t be closed for a long, long time.”
Are we there yet?
The obvious next question is how large can grand format get? “Our feeling is that the tipping point for width is 16 feet,” Evans says. “Wider width equipment would be very expensive, very difficult to maintain, and the quality at this size is difficult to control.”
Tischer also says that we are at the maximum level of printing capability when it comes to width. “The equipment used to manufacture substrates and/or coat these fabrics currently tops out at 16 feet,” he says. “Any graphic needing to be larger than this width can be welded either using a hot air or RF welder, therefore allowing printers to go as wide as possibly needed. The sky’s the limit.”
As the technology for wide and grand format applications has gotten more affordable, the marketplace has become more competitive. “Within the fabric graphics industry, specifically in the fabrics themselves, it has become more global in scope,” says Kuznar. “It has forced the industry to be very cost-competitive and quality-conscious.”
Experts believe that new ink formulations and the push for “green” products are coming in the future. “Most digital printing uses solvent ink systems, and the chemicals used are very volatile,” Evans says. “We look for latex inks and recyclable fabrics to grow over the next three to five years.”
Tischer agrees. “Most every manufacturer (substrate, printer, and ink) is focused on supplying product that is as earth-safe as possible,” he says. Printer manufacturers will continue to improve print quality with higher DPI, ink head advancements, and improved speeds, while ink manufacturers will continually improve durability, he says.
Substrate manufacturers also are improving coatings to enhance printability and improve product characteristics such as hand, construction, flexibility and finish. What these advancements mean to the printer is achieving optimum print quality while printing at faster speeds using less ink and heat.
“The future is limited only by our imagination,” Kerchman says. “I am confident that the technology will be expanded to include a wider array of imaginable substrates, longer lasting and more vibrant ink systems, and hardware that will be grander and wider than we currently have. Beyond the hardware and imaging aspects, new applications will no doubt continue to be discovered, spawning new industries and justifying continued R&D for the industry.”