Textiles provide options that let your customer’s advertisements stand out.
By Gail Nickel-Kailing
To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” The 18-month period from mid-2008 to the end of 2009 was one of the most challenging times that many print service providers have ever faced. And yet SGIA research tells us that wide format digital and screen printers are optimistic heading into 2010.
A recent report on digital printing of textiles from IT Strategies, which advises companies in the digital print industry, forecasts an annual growth rate of 14 percent for the five-year period ending in 2012, with more than 627.6 million square feet of digitally printed textile signage retailing for about $1.17 billion.
Numbers like these may seem optimistic today, however IT Strategies’ Patti Williams says, “It’s on a roll—no pun intended. The segment has been growing and growing and growing.”
The economy—it’s a new year
Print service providers are an optimistic bunch. Kurt Wenzel, managing partner for Imaged Advertising Creations (IAC), launched his company at the beginning of 2008. “I didn’t thrive over the last year and a half, but I survived,” Wenzel says. “If you can make it in bad times, just think what you can do in good times.”
Underbidding from desperation and the resulting customer expectation that wide-format printing will be “cheap” in both price and quality has Lynn Krinsky, Stella Color, concerned. “We have grown the last couple of years,” she says. “I am as competitive as I can be in my pricing, but I’m not willing to sacrifice quality for price.”
Susan Last, COO of Fastsigns, has a broader view than most print service providers. Fastsigns has more than 550 franchisees in the United States, Canada, U.K. and Australia. “Just as with other companies and industries, we have experienced a decrease in system sales,” she says. “Print and sign buyers have cut back in relation to the economic decline. Customers have tightened their print- and sign-buying budgets. Any purchase that can be delayed is being delayed.”
Sawgrass Technologies Inc. had a good year. “Our business is up,” says Patrick McGinnis, director of marketing. “Extraordinary given the circumstances, although the overall market has generally declined for the past 12 to 15 months.” His customers have seen their customers scaling back with less advertising, fewer trade shows and lower cost promotions.
New applications, new opportunities
Marketing professionals are always looking for new and different ways to deliver their promotional messages. They are asking, “How can my advertisements or promotions stand out from the rest? How can I get my prospect’s attention?” Fabrics and textiles offer the perfect answer.
Jaime Giannantonio, marketing manager for Ultraflex Systems, says, “Anything different is hot right now. Especially substrates that have several applications, for both indoor and out.”
Carmen Rentzios, owner of Fastsigns, has turned out some exciting projects on a Zund UV printer, a Mimaki solvent printer and an HP inkjet printer. The company produced a fabric floor mat for a boxing ring, fabric banners and draperies for churches, wallpaper for restaurants and an office, tablecloths, and lamp shades by printing on Lexan.
Don’t ignore films as you explore new substrates. 3M customers apply perforated window film to anything from buses to buildings. SkinIt, a 3M customer, is utilizing a new wrap application on items as small as the latest version of the iPod Shuffle. Tiny? It measures 1.8 inches by 0.7 inches by 0.3 inches, including the clip.
Other 3M films include a “rough wall film” that is applied to brick or concrete walls with heat, giving the impression that the wall has been painted.
The company’s newest film application is a rear projection film, Vikuiti, that turns a clear glass window or door into a projection screen. Perfect for in-store advertising, a video or animated image can be projected onto the film, adding motion to an otherwise static image.
Go beyond vinyl floor graphics to carpet. Sold by the roll, carpets can be sublimated or direct printed with solvents or UV-cured inks. Because more printers have adjustable heads that can be raised for thicker substrates, carpet can be printed like vinyl but with a double strike for a bit more ink. Ultraflex Ultra Carpet Extra is currently being tested on the HP Designjet L65500 for another process option.
UV printing made it possible for a Mimaki user to print “imitation leather” for handbags, shoes and furniture. Combine direct print and dye sublimation and print an entire room, including “leather” for the chairs, fabric for the draperies, wall film for a rough wood or brick wall, lamp shades, and a table top.
As the “green” movement becomes more pervasive, new technologies will be formulated. Print buyers are looking for solvent-free, water-based inks on natural fibers, such as bamboo and cotton.
“There’s a lot of buzz around green substrates,” notes Tom Trutna, president of Big Ink Display Graphics. “We’ve found there’s only about a five percent price difference between ‘eco fabric’ made out of recycled pop bottles and traditional polyester.”
Dye sublimation transfer evolved as wide-format equipment capable of printing on paper was used to print dye-sublimation ink on paper to be heat transferred offline. Banners and other soft signage can be printed directly on vinyl and paper-backed fabric, but dye sublimation gives bolder, more permanent colors.
Talk about permanent. “On a recent trip, I mistakenly drove to the wrong Minneapolis airport,” says Nora Norby, Banner Creations. “I discovered banners hanging there that we had done for the airport 15 years ago.” On landing in Dayton, Ohio, Norby discovered even more 15-year-old banners still in use.
As grand-format equipment is used to print transfer paper, service providers will need to rethink the sublimation process. Transfer paper coming off a 3.2-meter printer requires a heat unit of the same width. It can be difficult to maintain even heat across such a wide expanse, resulting in uneven sublimation. And handling such wide paper and fabric can wrinkle or crease one or both of them in processing.
For this reason, direct dye sublimation is drawing more attention because only a single layer has to go through the heat unit. Since it is difficult to synchronize the speeds of the printer and heat, the process is still likely to be offline.
McGinnis of Sawgrass believes that pigments are the future print process. As technology moves from solvents to water-based pigment inks, printing on natural fabrics will become easier. Direct printing with UV-curable pigment inks or with latex inks offers the means to print on natural fibers without the post-processing required of dyes.
At the same time, dye sublimation is ideal for indoor use. The fabric is light, easy to handle, and can be rolled, folded and installed without folds or wrinkles.
Unfortunately the only fiber suitable for dye sublimation is polyester. While polyester comes in a variety of weights and weaves including linen, poplin, muslin, silk, velvet, gauze, canvas, as well as mesh, knit, and metallics, users may prefer natural fibers.
Equipment is constantly evolving, and new machines are introduced regularly. Mutoh representatives are optimistic that this industry is growing. The company introduced a 64-inch hybrid—the ValueJet 1608HA—in 2009, and the ValueJet 1628-TD and 2628-TD, designed for soft signage, will be shipping this spring.
Mimaki also rolled out new equipment in anticipation of a better year in 2010. Now available are the JV5-320DS direct sublimation printer, JFX-1631 UV LED printer and UJV-160 hybrid UV LED printer.
Marketing and markets
Looking at new ways to market your services as we come out of the economic doldrums means uncovering new market segments and finding new opportunities to work with your customers and prospects.
In September 2009, an SGIA Market Strategies survey identified the five top markets that “graphic imagers” are targeting: retail stores, corporate branding, ad agencies, nonprofit organizations and food service. More than half the respondents expect government and government contractors and health care to have a growing demand for specialty imaging.
From a different perspective, Vince Mallardi, executive director of the Printing Brokerage/Buyers Association, has been analyzing the print buying market for more than 30 years. In his annual “Hot Markets” report, he looks at the top 25 print buying market segments. For 2009, there were several market segments that Mallardi anticipated would be buying signage, POP, outdoor advertising and other wide format printed products: small community banks, commercial real estate, telecommunications, automotive, lawn and garden, leisure activity, retail and health care.
Mallardi cautioned that print purchasers in the retail, non-profit and food service segments would be flat, and home improvement could drop precipitously. He pointed to medical products and gaming as markets that would likely see an increase in print buying.
Working with advertising agencies has its own special challenges. “We tend to work best with internal design staff rather than an agency,” says Scott Campbell, president of Rainier Industries. “All our biggest customers have in-house designers. It’s harder to build a strong bond with a customer through an agency.”
IAC’s Wenzel notes that advertising agencies can be difficult to get into. “If you don’t speak to the right person at the right moment, you don’t connect.” At the same time, Wenzel appreciates that because agencies understand file setup and images, it simplifies the delivery of quality graphics.
Find a partner
The wide range of products coming off wide-format digital printers reaches from display graphics, such as POP signage, trade show graphics, banners and billboards, to an assortment of niche applications primarily involving printing direct to substrate.
“Because the wide-format printers are so flexible and you can run so many things through them, the print service provider has a diverse range of options,” notes Jaime Giannantonio of Ultraflex Systems.
Now is the time to help your customers promote their products and services better as the economy begins to turn around. As Wenzel says, “Understand the opportunity and don’t let it go. Get to the right person and build relationships.”
And consider new working relationships with your customers. “In the past, we had a single-minded approach to what we could do,” says Jonathan Colley, president of PacBlue Printing. “Today it’s changed to, ‘What do you want to do?’ Anything’s possible. You tell us what you want and we’ll find a way to make it happen. We’re no longer a supplier, but we’ve become a partner.”
Heading into a new year—and a new decade—wide-format digital printers are optimistic and have a wide range of new substrates, inks and equipment to choose from. New technologies are being developed that make it easier to put a sharp, dynamic image on natural and manmade fibers. “Textiles” suddenly includes fabric, film, carpet and even imitation leather.
Partner with your customers, your equipment manufacturer and your ink and substrate providers. You’ll find more choices and more opportunities to grow your company. Taking advantage of the opportunities could soon make the best of times for your business.