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Big graphics just got bigger

November 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Here’s one thing we know: technology within the wide and grand format fabric graphics industry is here to stay. This reality, coupled with the ever-changing nature of this industry segment, results in a need for fabric graphics professionals to stay one step ahead of the competition. Understanding the “latest and greatest” in wide and grand format printing processes and technology can help owners and operators streamline their business systems and improve their bottom line.

Full Steam Ahead

There have been some surprising developments in fabric graphics over the past year.  As David Hawkes, group product manager, Roland DGA Corp. explains, it has long been predicted that there would be an explosion in the popularity of soft signage.

“Many people had expected that to come from traditional textile printing technologies such as dye sublimation,” Hawkes says. “However, we have seen a huge uptick in the number of fabric substrates introduced for vinyl sign equipment, such as eco-solvent digital printers. The production workflow is far simpler and allows owners of eco-solvent printers to offer fabric signage without investing in specialized equipment.”

Hawkes adds that the fastest growing fabric applications over the past two years have been in the wall covering and wall graphics market. “In particular, repositionable cut graphics have helped the home décor wall covering market have its first growth increase in over 10 years,” Hawkes says. “Eco-solvent-compatible fabric that can be cut into custom designs has made designers stop thinking of digital wall graphic fabrics as ‘wallpaper.’”

According to Jordi Casas, worldwide strategic product manager, Large Format Production Division, at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Graphics Solutions, there are a few application trends driving technology innovation and use in the wide-format graphics market, including:

  • A higher frequency of campaigns, demanding shorter turnaround times and more personalization of each printed piece,
  • Demand for printed output that delivers a higher impact,
  • Requests for more sustainable solutions.

“The technology that allows print service providers to address these trends is clearly digital,” Casas says. “Taking that one step further, HP offers a full portfolio of digital latex ink solutions that provide unrivaled application versatility while reducing environmental impact with a water-based ink that contains no hazardous air pollutants and produces odorless prints.” One example of the versatility of HP Latex technology is its ability to print directly on textiles, delivering a high-end look and feel, graphics that are light and easy to install and completely odorless prints for indoor use.

Chris Howard with Durst agrees that the market for fabric graphics continues to be one that is growing at a good pace—to that end they developed the Rhotex 320 direct dye printer.

“This printer is a production-level-based machine that is 3.2 meters wide and utilizes a direct dye technology that allows the customers to print directly onto the substrate and eliminate the ‘transfer’ step that exists with dye transfer print systems,” Howard says. “The production level of the Rhotex is also very high, with much of the production able to be printed at a speed greater than 600 square feet per hour, our customers can take on higher print volume jobs that may be impractical utilizing other print platforms in a profitable manner.”

The width of the Rhotex at 3.2 meters offers the ability to do larger width print jobs without any need for seaming—of course the machine can also print smaller sizes but the additional width opens up additional market opportunities.

Speaking for Mimaki, Paul McGovern, national sales manager of textile products, is seeing a great increase in sales of their 3.2-meter-wide unit for the commercial soft sign display market and trade show graphic requirements.

“These wider printers can print on larger width medias for creating awnings, banners and booth displays, which require a larger footprint for a more visual display or hanging from trade show aisle ceilings,” McGovern says. “Also you can run two rolls of 1.6 meter wide rolls in one 3.2 meter size inkjet printer for increased production capacity side by side, versus using a smaller 1.6 or 1.8 meter wide device. The apparel and flag/banner markets industry is still using widths of around 1.8 meters because of the media converting size limit widths of some textiles and do not come wider widths at this time.”

Dan Barefoot, president of Graphics One, is finding the combination of printers with inline fixation devices becoming more common. “There are two main applications for this type of combination,” Barefoot says. “One is with dispersed dye ink where there is direct-to-fabric printing for soft signage and flags. The second is using pigmented ink with cotton fabrics. In the case of soft signage the market requirements can go up to 100 inches, whereas with cotton printing the standard is 60 inches.”

The majority of the offerings of Graphics One are application and size driven. “We find that 90 percent of all fabric printing is imaged on printers under 64 inches,” Barefoot says. “Additionally, many flags are at 50 inches and below and this is why we offer a 64 inch and a 54 inch direct-to-fabric system.”

Mutoh also has an entire line of textile printers to fit just about every application or budget. “We have printers from 42 inches to 104 inches that print directly to fabric or to transfer paper,” says Ralph Terramagra, Eastern regional sales manager at Mutoh.

“We believe that this market is still just getting going. As people look for greener and better ways to make signs, more and more will turn to fabric.”

Making Your Mark

The types of inks being used within the wide and grand format arena also play a key role within this industry segment. According to McGovern, the broad ink offerings in digital inkjet devices, such as the four types of water-based inks—including dispersed dyes, acid dyes, reactive and water-based pigmented inks—are used by many fabric and textile companies for many types of soft signage displays, industrial fabrics such as awnings, umbrellas, and some pre-coated printable nylon materials make this possible.

“Also the new LED UV cure printers have white inks and can print process colors on many different flexible industrial fabrics because the ink will not crack to chip off as with some conventional UV hard/rigid cure inks used in sign and graphics markets,” McGovern says.

HP also offers a complete portfolio of large-format printing solutions using HP Latex Inks that can print a wide range of materials, including fabrics and textiles.

“These solutions help our print provider customers meet the increasing demand for temporary textile and fabric applications due to the attractive appearance of printed fabric and its light weight and easy handling,” Casas says. “With HP Latex Inks, customers can print on uncoated fabrics with excellent image sharpness and save up to 30 percent on substrate costs versus traditional solvent printers.”

Preferred Fabrics

Fabrics used with wide and grand format applications typically include polyester and cotton options. “We focus on either polyester or cotton,” Barefoot says. “Polyester is mainly used for soft signage and flags whereas cotton is used for interior design applications.”

Polyester also is the most common textile used in HP Latex devices, although some customers also print on cotton. As Casas explains, there are specific polyesters available to maximize the print quality with HP Latex printers, although printing on polyesters designed for dye sublimation or solvent printers is also possible.

According to Terramagra of Mutoh, by far the most common type of fabric printing for wide and grand formats is dye-sublimation. “This can be printed directly to polyester fabric on some of our printers and transfer paper on others, then heat pressed to polyester,” Terramagra says. “Polyester is the most versatile fabric being used for all types of signage and apparel.”

Mimaki has invested mostly in the dye sublimation marketplace for soft signage display and sports apparel markets where they have a lot of success. “We also offer a variety of inks and material handling devices—special rollers, belt feed mechanisms, heaters—to make sure the image quality of the particular substrate being printed is not being jeopardized,” McGovern says.

As McGovern explains, a lot of thought and planning has to go into the type of fabric or textile you need to actually print a wide or grand format image.

“Pre-treatments, fixation or heat transfer equipment, steamers, and post–processing washing of inkjet printed fabrics is necessary in most printing applications and performed by many mills and production houses in house at their facilities. Only after all these process are taken into consideration will you have a successful operation and business for digital inkjet textile printing.”

Roland offers both dye sublimation and eco-solvent wide-format printers. “The trend for wide-format dye sublimation tends to be toward customers with high-volume production and a streamlined portfolio,” Hawkes says. “Again, we are also seeing a big increase in the number of traditional vinyl sign printers that are now taking on eco-solvent-compatible fabrics for a variety of applications, from soft signage and trade show graphics to apparel decoration. The biggest change in the fabric graphics market is not so much with the printers as it is with the media. The deluge of fabrics recently introduced in the market has opened up a huge range of applications and markets for print providers.”

Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor and has been writing about the Fabric Graphics industry for more than 10 years.

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