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Easing the squeeze

November 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature, Graphics, Markets

Fabric graphics manufacturers and suppliers look forward to market improvements in 2010.

Sales and profit margins for U.S. and Canadian fabric graphics suppliers and end product manufacturers have been severely squeezed in 2009. The anemic economy has been the driving force behind tight credit conditions and a significant lack of customer demand. Sales through July 2009 were down about 15-20 percent for many fabric graphics end product manufacturers. This trend is expected to continue into the fourth quarter of 2009 but begin to improve marginally in the first half of 2010.

Inkjet emerges

Digitally printing on fabric has been a part of the market since the mid-1990s with electrostatic (e-stat) and inkjet printers, either by dye sublimation direct printing (using inkjet printers) or via dye sublimation transfer (inkjet and e-stat).

The development of pigment-based inkjet chemistries for textiles is an emerging trend. Advances in print head technology and ink formulation have supported the development of this chemistry type. The development of the pigment chemistry type is of great interest to technology vendors and users in the fabric graphics market because the processing requirements for pigments are highly simplified compared to the commonly-used water-based inks used in most wide-format textile printers today. Pigment printing on textiles normally requires heat for color curing; however, it does not require specialized fabric coating. Continued development of pigment-based chemistry should enable further adoption of the digital method for textile printing.

Other new digital printing technologies are opening things up for a wide variety of incremental applications, such as wide format point-of-purchase displays, banners, vehicle wraps, and environmental graphics. The opportunities for high-value digital printer applications are so large that many hardware and chemistry vendors are investing heavily in textile and textile-related products and systems. Tremendous progress has been made, but there are still many challenges.

The future of digital printing

Developments in digital printing of paper are being adapted more and more for the textile market. Time is money, and more time is required for traditional textile printing methods (screen printing) than digital methods. Screen printing can take 9-11 weeks to execute; digital inkjet printing takes about a week. Digital processes are also more environmentally friendly and offer a cleaner, safer and quieter work environment.

As inkjet textile printing grows, analog textile printing remains stagnant. The worldwide retail value of wide-format graphics has grown 10 percent per year over the last few years, so the slowdown in 2009 has been a difficult climate for fabric graphics manufacturers. The largest applications are point-of-purchase (POP) signage, banners, and trade show graphics. These were among the first wide-format graphics applications and are now becoming commodities, forcing print providers to look at new areas such as awnings and canopies; eco-friendly products; indoor graphics for museums and retail; stadium wraps and sporting events graphics; table covers; trade show kits (a reusable marketing resource) and vehicle wraps.

Although digital methods still account for less than 1 percent of the global market for printed textiles, digital’s share of the market is expected to grow to as much as 10 percent in the next 5-10 years due to improvements in digital printing equipment (printheads and ink dispersion methods), advances in pigment-based inks, an increase in textile manufacturers who are able to provide prepared for print (PFP) fabrics to digital printers and growth in some market segments, such as soft signage for banners and trade show exhibitions. As digital print technologies improve, offering faster production and larger cost-effective print runs, digital printing should grow to provide the majority of the world’s printed textiles.

2009 markets

For the first six months of 2009, fabric graphics manufacturers and their suppliers have experienced significant sales declines. For 2008, total fabric consumed by U.S. and Canadian fabric graphics end product manufacturers reached approximately 46 million square yards, down approximately 5 percent from about 48.6 million square yards in 2007. For 2009, IFAI’s market research services department is projecting a 15-20 percent average annual decrease in fabric consumption (in terms of volume) by U.S. and Canadian fabric graphics manufacturers, with total fabric consumption for 2009 forecast to reach about 37 million square yards.

In the IFAI July 2009 Fabric Graphics Market Climate Survey, suppliers noted an increase in lower-cost products on the market, especially from Asia, and a gradual shift from PVC to more polyester products. Less business overall has increased competition for existing business, and increased price competition, which is lowering profit margins. Suppliers are planning, however, for opportunities that they hope will emerge in 2010.

With more competition for less work, end product manufacturers cited an overall drop in sales and tighter competition in pricing and product offerings and delivery. Customers are also using signage products longer, storing signage for future use and, therefore, not buying as much new signage. Large companies are downsizing and smaller companies are merging or even going out of business. Manufacturers reported an increase in the sale of eco-friendly products, however.

Outlook

In the survey, 55 percent of fabric graphics manufacturers and 78 percent of fabric graphics suppliers reported an unfavorable outlook for sales growth in 2009 compared to 2008; 18 percent of fabric graphics manufacturers and only 15 percent of fabric graphics suppliers reported a favorable outlook for sales growth in 2009 compared to 2008.

Going forward, the biggest growth area for fabric graphic applications will likely be in dye sublimation products. Soft signage as a whole will continue double-digit growth because it is an eco-friendly medium; colors are vivid; and soft banners are lightweight and easy to handle, transport and store. As a result, fabric banners, flags, roll-up displays, theatrical and museum sets, and custom-printed fabric wall coverings will become more popular.

In the next few years, hardware and ink vendors will be providing new printing solutions that deliver new inks and ink technologies and eco-friendly solutions, as well as enhanced quality, more automation, and automatic servicing.

Succeeding tomorrow

Fabric graphics companies tend to be small; most of the 1750 companies in the U.S. and Canada that manufacture fabric graphics have ten or fewer employees. To survive, many of these smaller companies should consider niche applications or some type of service differentiators to compete with larger, more well-equipped fabric graphics shops, in particular the growing number of digital textile print shops. Web sales and web applications will continue to enable small shops to compete nationally for business and service smaller, more remote markets.

Many larger digital textile print shops employing dye sublimation direct-to-fabric printing on fabrics for banners and soft signage are looking at offering their customers end-to-end solutions comprising full production floor control and productivity packages.

Looking ahead, fabric graphics manufacturers may have to review their business plans and consider expanding into new markets with equipment they already own, or invest in new equipment that provides enough of an ROI if they are going to prosper. They will need to review the type of customers they serve, determine if they have the right print technology for their applications and implement a solid strategy moving forward.

Jeff Rasmussen is IFAI market research manager.

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