Future markets for digital printing on fabrics will rely on new applications and new technology.
By Barb Ernster
The market for digital printed fabric graphics continues to grow, responding to creative ideas for new applications, economic factors that demand affordable options, environmental concerns that push the industry in new directions and new technology and equipment that pulls it all together.
David Hawkes, Group Product Manager at Roland DGA Corp., says all of its fabric/textile printing products are expanding at an incredible rate, including for signage, wall coverings, upholstery, flags, clothing and even flooring materials. Though the possibilities are endless, the highest growth opportunity in the fabric graphics market is in the area of soft signage. The appeal of this application has to do with the attributes of fabric that make it a great alternative to traditional vinyl signs. It’s much more compact, lightweight and flexible than vinyl for shipping, handling and storage, and it can be draped in creative shapes to frame eye-catching retail and trade show displays. In addition, the ability to combine low cost fabric options with UV printing opens up the world of short-term soft signage.
“That’s a concept that wasn’t even considered in the past due to the complexity and cost of the digital textile work flow,” Hawkes says. “That’s no longer true today. The fact that soft signage is a lot easier to produce, install and remove makes it an ideal short-term application. Imagine how that capability would differentiate an end user from its competition?”
Deanna Kuhlmann of Kuhlmann Leavitt Design in St. Louis, Mo., tends to bring fabric into the conversation more often today with clients. “What originally drew us to fabric was the idea that the client didn’t have a huge budget but had a lot to say, so how can we do that in a way that’s dramatic, different and affordable?” Kuhlmann says. “For us, it’s a question of, ‘why isn’t everybody doing this?’”
Trade show exhibitors who want to get the most from their booth space are going beyond fabric graphic signage and using fabric to create pathways and rooms with big, bold and colorful, digitally-printed branding messages. The market will continue to expand as other exhibitors follow their lead.
“We use inkjet and dye sublimation depending on the substrate, and print on all sorts of wovens, vinyls, polyesters, cotton and finer textiles,” Kuhlmann says. “As long as it can be roll fed or fit on a flatbed, we’re willing to try it. We have tremendous luck printing on sheer polyester fabric using dye sublimation printing. It looks like it’s printed on both sides, which is a nice effect. When you light certain fabrics, it’s spectacular. Sheer polyester when lit looks like it’s glowing.”
Kuhlmann predicts that there will be greater experimentation on different types of substrates and fabrics, especially by those who want to distinguish themselves. “I would encourage printers to get a little more daring as to what they offer their customers, work with a designer to figure out what a good collection should be, or at least be willing once a designer comes up with a particular substrate to give it a whirl.”
Fabric delivers “the difference” to clients
What drives everybody is a better value, and, under many circumstances, frame and fabric offer a better value than printing on rigid substrates, notes Scott Powell, marketing director at Rainier Industries Inc. in Tukwila, Wash. “It’s inevitable that fabric will play a larger role in the graphics industry going forward. The cost of fabric that you print on has been decreasing. It’s still more expensive, but not a doubling factor like it used to be.”
Rainier Industries is seeing greater interest in fabric graphic POP displays and soft signage in retail, restaurant, museum, sports and corporate events, and it is moving toward non-traditional industries. Powell says Rainier has created wall coverings for hospitals and medical facilities that want to create a less sterile and more healing environment for patients. Businesses are looking to fabric to create different work spaces that are more appealing to younger workers who expect a more creative and stimulating work environment. One company wanted to make tents for work spaces instead of walled offices; again, “different,” says Powell. Professional sports stadiums and college arenas are another growing market for soft signage and tension fabric structures.
“I heard it said that after the coach, the facility is the next biggest factor in recruiting talent,” Powell says. “You have to have cool facilities and for that you have to have cool graphics.”
Depending on the look and cost of what a client is trying to accomplish, Rainier uses dye-sub printing with aqueous-based inks, or direct print with UV cure technology. The company is also in the process of getting a 10-foot-wide direct-to-fabric printer that uses dye inks and heat-set technology.
Those who have been using fabric for a number of years now are trying to stretch it in new directions in terms of shape and scale, notes Paul Maddrell, creative director at Designtex, in Portland, Maine. The company’s primary market is direct to their retail client base, but it is also increasingly working with architectural and design firms, which are extending their offerings into museums and corporate interiors. “One of the great benefits of fabric is you’re able to get a very dynamic image on a very large scale,” Maddrell says. “There’s nothing else that we have that can go to that scale.”
Most of the fabric projects at Designtex have focused on dye-sub printing on polyester-based fabrics. As a certified Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) printer, the company is always concerned with sustainability, and that is increasingly important to its customers, Maddrell says. That led them to the HP Designjet L65500 latex printer, a roll-to-roll inkjet printer that uses a new sustainable inkset that reduces noxious odors and VOCs, while expanding the company’s fabric capability into a wide range of natural fabrics.
“We were initially interested in it because our company mission is focused on being leaders in sustainability, but it also expanded our ability to print on new materials, such as canvas and other natural materials,” he says.
Digital printer technology offers market flexibility
New digital printing technologies are simplifying the production of fabric graphics while providing the versatility needed to expand into a number of new and profitable applications beyond soft signage, notes David Hawkes. While dye sublimation, direct-to-fabric and heat transfer continue to dominate the majority of end user applications, there is a lot of interest in UV technology.
“UV technology today is being used for almost every application imaginable in the printing world, mainly because it has the ability to print on just about anything,” Hawkes says. “This versatility makes UV really appealing to print-for-pay entrepreneurs looking to get into the fabric graphics market because their investment isn’t pigeon-holed into one application that will leave the equipment idle for days at a time. Another interesting trend that we have seen has been a very strong demand for heat transfer materials and eco-solvent ink used on coated fabrics. This all stems from the requirement for versatility.”
Faster, better, cheaper is the mantra that creative and printing equipment suppliers are hearing from customers. The call for smaller runs, shorter lead times, yet higher quality output and increased efficiency requires that printing shops continually adapt to changing business and customer demands.
“The space for digital printing in textile is poised to grow quickly, with higher production capacity machines that offer the advantages of the flexible digital workflow,” notes Chris Howard, Sr. VP of sales and marketing at Durst Image Technology U.S. Durst offers 3-meter and 5-meter capacity roll-to-roll machines, which use water-based dispersed ink and UV curable ink technology respectively. The company is also studying new applications for inkjet printing at its research center for inkjet technology in Lienz, Austria.
Small print shops are poised to more easily get into the fabric printing business without having to wait for the right projects to come along to justify the cost of equipment. Many are choosing direct-to-fabric printers because they can avoid the need for heat transfer paper, notes Fran Gardino, business development manager at Mimaki USA in Atlanta. Others are looking for speed. Mimaki introduced its JV340-260 wide format inkjet printer in direct response to market demand for something faster. It also has an optional bulk ink system for continuous ink supply.
“If a little shop wants to get into grand format, that’s the way to go,” Gardino says. “In general, the machine development will follow the print head technology. As the print heads get faster, they will produce higher quality output and more speed. It’s incremental, but it’s already happening.”
Scott Powell concurs that printer manufacturers are all working to make things more cost effective, and small franchise shops will increasingly get into the fabric business. Up until recently you not only needed the printer, but the heat and transfer equipment. Today you can make a good image on coated canvas with a 72-inch inkjet fabric printer for a fraction of what it used to cost.
“You’re either leading or following,” Powell says. “If we were a small shop, we’d probably take a shot at buying a fabric printer.”