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Keeping up with advances in backlit applications

Graphics | June 8, 2009 | By:

Staying on top of advances in fabrics and techniques for backlit applications offers a promising opportunity for growth.

If you want to attract attention to something, shine a light on it—or better yet—shine a light behind it. Backlit interior signage has long been a popular and effective advertising strategy, but it’s a changing game. With advances in lighting, substrates, inks and graphics capabilities, interior backlit applications are opening up a growth field for those in the printing, graphics and sign markets.

The right fabric

Hard-sign backlit applications were the forerunner to the now ubiquitous fabric version. “Now what we’re seeing as far as backlit for indoor applications is that people need fabric to print on because it’s softer and more supple,” says Stan Szpilka, director of East Coast sales for Dazian Fabrics in Secaucus, N.J. “When manufacturers build backlit projects or light boxes, whether for retail and/or exhibit trade shows, one of their concerns is about how the printed media folds up and whether or not there are any crease lines in it when they take the projects down.”

Creating a vibrant, effective backlit is a bit like putting together a three-dimensional puzzle. Each piece depends on the other for a successful final product. Determining which fabrics work best for which applications, with which inks, which printer, and what kind of lighting is the foundational challenge of creating backlit projects. “That’s been a sticking point within the industry,” Szpilka says. “Everyone’s looking for the right fabric.”

But finding the best fabric for backlit applications isn’t a simple endeavor. “There’s a myth that there’s a fabric out there that’s the one fabric for backlit,” says Joe Moriconi, project manager of Dockside Canvas in Harrison Township, Mich. “It’s like a unicorn—trying to find it is impossible.”

The truth is that not one fabric works for all applications, and often the only way to find the right fabric is through trial and error. “We experimented for a high-end retail client with a number of fabrics to find one that works well in a frame system into which you can install lights and end up with a really nice, even light,” says Paul Glynn, Portland Color’s vice president of operations. “We basically found two: Satin Blackout and Heavyweight Celtic by Dazian Fabrics.” Both provided the necessary translucence without denigrating the quality of the image but, in general, Glynn preferred the Heavyweight Celtic. “The Blackout absorbs more ink,” he says. “The greater depth of ink on the surface interferes with the quality of the brilliance when it’s backlit.”

Dazian is launching a new diffusing fabric for backlit applications, 3D Celtic, which has the same properties as the Heavyweight Celtic but has a heavier nap. “It’s an improvement on the Heavyweight Celtic as far as its density and its ability to hold the image density when backlit,” Glynn says.

A realm of color

How color comes across on the fabric when backlit is a consideration as well. “If an image has a lot of white, you have to make sure the material is very dense and tight,” Moriconi says. “You don’t want it to let too much light through but enough to cast well down the plane of the fabric. For that kind of application, you’d need a fabric with very little stretch, such as Fisher’s White/White/White and Dazian’s Blackout Satin.”

Moriconi stresses that the best way to find the right look for any given application is by experimenting with several different fabrics. Last year, Dockside produced a project for Hundai to be used at the AWI American Auto Show. The client needed a fabric that could be backlit and washed with blue light. “We used the traditional backlit fabrics that we would normally use, but neither one was doing the trick,” Moriconi says. “So we just strung up four different fabrics…anything we wouldn’t typically use for that particular application. Then we sent 10-foot swatches to the client. The client settled on Power Stretch, Fisher Textiles’ heavy-weight stretch fabric, and was thrilled with the results.”

However, the following week Moriconi tried the same fabric for another client who didn’t think the colors were intense enough on the Power Stretch. “For us, Power Stretch was great, Moriconi says. “We could profile right into it and hit the colors, but the client just didn’t like it.”

The light makes the image

Whether light is diffused behind the fabric, casting a soft glow behind the image, or whether the light seems to push the colors off the structure, lighting is critical to the way the message reaches the viewer. There are three types of light sources for backlit applications: traditional fluorescent, LED (Light Emitting Diode) and natural and/or existing store light.

For high-end retail displays, natural light and existing store lighting can serve as the light source for backlit signage. “For window installations, you want the light from inside the store to shine out and the light from outside the store to shine in,” Glynn says. And you still want to be able to see the image. There are several fabrics from which to choose for window applications. “We use meshes: micron mesh, sheer, string gauze and knit voile—they’re all translucent,” Glynn says. “The mesh looks great in the window because you can walk up to it and at a 45-degree angle see the full density of the image. Looking straight on, you see the image less and less because you’re looking through the fabric.”

Aside from natural light, fluorescent light tubes are the most affordable and have been traditionally used in backlit applications, but they’re not as environmentally friendly as LEDs. And all three light sources differ in how they affect the way colors come across. “Fisher Textiles has two great products for backlits: Power Stretch and White/White/White,” Moriconi says. “The White/White/White is similar to the Dazian Heavyweight Satin but it reacts differently to reds. What we’ve seen in some of the higher saturation colors—reds, blues and blacks—depending upon the light source, too much tension and the image ends up with a spider web-like effect.

“But for light blue skies, it’s awesome,” Moriconi says. Although, again, he points out it depends upon the light source. “Under fluorescents it really pops. With LEDs it was too blue. Part of the challenge is having a good light source person who understands it and maps it out.”

Choosing a light source doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Using a combination of fluorescent and LED lighting can be an option. “We did a piece that was 14 feet wide and there was only one part of an image in the foreground, Moriconi says. “The rest was all white. Trying to flush out the dead spots and get the right color behind every part of the image was a bit of a challenge.” After experimenting with various lighting arrangements, Moriconi and his team ended up alternating the lights throughout. “It gave us the best solution as opposed to just doing the perimeter in fluorescents and the background with LEDs,” he says.

Growth through innovation

To keep a competitive edge, manufacturers need to explore new printing techniques. “This is always a price-competitive business, so it’s a matter of what else we can develop to bring to market,” says David Siegel, director of technology and sustainability for Portland Color. “One way we might try addressing the issue of staying competitive is through our imaging techniques.”

Portland Color is currently experimenting with printing directly to textiles using HP’s new DesignJet L65500 latex printer. The company was one of six companies in the country to act as a beta test site for the printer, which initially tested the printer on a variety of media. “The printer uses a new ink technology that’s designed to compete with the durability of solvent ink printing but it’s a water-based ink that uses a latex polymer to permanently fix the pigment particles on the material you’re printing to,” Siegel says. “You can achieve the same kind of color and durability that you would have with solvent printing without the negative side effects of solvent printing.”

Since solvent inks generally create a significant amount of VOCs, organic compounds that require special handling of waste ink and special infrastructure to handle and manage the air during printing, adopting a process that uses latex printing is a move toward sustainable practice. It also tends to be very cost competitive. “We’re very excited about our ability to use this printer to produce products that would otherwise be created using solvent inks,” Siegel says. “Whether or not we’ll be able to use it on a wide variety of fabrics is the question at this point. The hope certainly would be that we could.”

Finding new ways to produce backlit applications—with more vibrant colors, nuanced lighting, in affordable environmentally friendly production practices—is one way to stay ahead of the curve in an ever competitive fabric graphics market.

Sigrid Tornquist is editor of InTents, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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