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Fabric graphics cover the outdoors

Feature, Graphics | March 1, 2013 | By:

Fabric graphics dress up everything from buildings to construction sites in outdoor applications.

When it comes to fabric graphics applications for outdoor use, the guiding principle is this: If you can envision it, you can create it. Projects have moved beyond the realm of digitally printed awnings—still a profitable venture for many print shops—to the likes of building wraps and facades, vertical pole banners, corporate kiosks, temporary shrouds to hide construction work, event signage and murals.

The appropriate substrate selection plays a vital role in developing a high-quality end product. “The key is determining which media will produce the most successful, vibrant finished project for the intended application,” says Karen Stuerenberg, marketing director for Top Value Fabrics in Carmel, Ind.

Vinyl remains a popular choice for traditional exterior banners. “Vinyl-coated and laminated banner materials are a very common choice for both economical and upscale exterior printed graphics,” Stuerenberg says. “Vinyl banner materials are known for their durability, and there are a broad range of options in this category that are well-suited for various applications, climates and budgets.”

Such characteristics have proven successful for companies such as Herculite, whose Bantex® product—a vinyl-laminated polyester—stands up to the elements. For instance, a client used the company’s Bantex® 18-oz 2-Sided for a banner job on a windy bridge in Illinois that “has lasted well beyond our stated expected life,” says John Evans, vice president of sales, graphics media, at Herculite in Emigsville, Penn. “The combination of film formulations, fabric strength and correct fabrication made this possible.”

Despite vinyl’s prominence in outdoor graphics, non-PVC materials are making their way into the market. Sometimes, though, these fabrics need a bit of a push so that end users consider them a viable alternative. “Given that we don’t sell vinyl/PVC, our instinct is that it is still fairly significant because of a reluctance to change,” notes James Gay, director of marketing for Fisher Textiles in Indian Trail, N.C.

The company produces substrates designed for a variety of printable outdoor applications. These include 1010 Element, an 8.5-oz woven polyester waterproof fabric for awnings; DD 7860 Heavy Duck or SI 4849 Heavy Knit both coated and heavyweight, and hence ideal for exterior pole banners; GF 9478 Poly Silk, a 1.8-oz polyester fabric for feather banners where the image can be seen from both sides; and GF 5351 Waterfall, which has been calendared to be waterproof making it suitable for outdoor use in pop-up event tents. In addition, Fisher has developed GF 3030 Fencing, a thin, open fabric created specifically for short-term construction barriers and temporary fencing.

Herculite has created a green option with its 3P Inkjet Textile fabrics for outdoor flags, banners, and displays. “3P fabrics are produced according to ISO 14001 and ISO 9001 standards, and are non-PVC and free of heavy metals, phthalates and fungicides,” Evans explains.

Mesh makes the grade

Mesh—a polyester fabric coated with vinyl—has emerged as a prevalent fabric for exterior graphics, especially in applications where air flow is necessary since the small holes allow the wind to dissipate.

“You don’t want to have a solid fabric, because even if banners are by a building, they are more like a sail than a banner if wind gets behind them,” says Rick Stepien, business manager for Mehler Texnologies in Martinsville, Va.. “Meshes allow wind to pass through without being separated or being torn from the building.”

For customers seeking particularly strong signage or banners, Stepien recommends a heavier, more tightly woven mesh. “Also, with a tighter weave, they are able to achieve a better DPI, a better visual image,” Stepien adds.

Pole banners, meanwhile, often will feature mesh, frontlit and blackout material. Says Stepien: “The nice thing about the blackout is if they have the ability to print double-sided, you only have to print it once. But you have to get the registration perfect. Other [printers] just take two frontlits and sew them back to back.”

In addition to its strength, mesh boasts a lightweight profile, says Pat Freer, vice president of sales for Joseph Merritt & Company in Hartford, Conn. What’s more, “mesh can be welded on the edges and seamed very well,” making it an ideal material for large-format outdoor graphics such as building and barrier wraps. Mesh also serves as an ideal choice where sound and light need to pass through.

Top Value Fabrics, for one, has produced multiple mesh options available in 6 oz, 8 oz, 9 oz and 11 oz options—several with liners—for applications such as stadium and building wraps; murals; banners; and signage for concerts, festivals and sporting events. The meshes, available in narrow and wide widths, include air-flow options from 25 percent to 70 percent, Stuerenberg notes.

For stadium and sports venue applications that it produces, Tukwila, Wash.-based Rainier Industries primarily uses PVC-based mesh, as other fabrics typically aren’t up to the task. “These installations are going to be up longer than two or three months,” says Bruce Dickinson, Rainier vice president. “[Longevity] tends to be a challenge for non-PVC materials because they break down sooner.

“So much is yet to be proven for fabrics used for exterior graphics,” he adds. “The industry is definitely going in the right direction, but would I do it tomorrow? I don’t think so. We do a lot of outdoor applications, and we need to use materials that withstand UV exposure.”

Making the project work

Many factors come into play when choosing a fabric for printed graphics outdoors. “The weather conditions that the graphic will be exposed to, the length of time that it will be exposed, the size of the graphic and applicable local codes [including engineering and flame resistance] are all considerations when selecting a fabric for exterior use,” Evans says. To guide its customers through the process of picking and using the correct substrate, Herculite offers a free banner fabrication guide on its website.

“For long-term installations, the material must allow airflow of greater than 50 percent,” notes Steve Frederickson, national sales manager at Serge Ferrari in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Another issue I have experienced is a height restriction. Anything above 60 feet in the air on a building in a permanent application has to be non-combustible.”

Furthermore, an end product manufacturer should consider installation best practices. “How would it be put up? How would it be taken down? That is where the rubber meets the road to make sure you have a long, successful exterior building graphic,” Freer notes. “We have an installation company that has installed projects, but other times we’ve partnered with a company that might be hired by the building owner. We have to be right in sync with their installation techniques.”

Ink selection is another important aspect in creating outdoor fabric graphics products. “If something is going to be outside day in and day out for years at a time—like an awning— it will usually be printed with solvent or eco-solvent, and sometimes UV and latex, inks,” says Keith Faulkner, president of Splash of Color in Richardson, Texas. “Whenever you’re dealing with these types of inks, the fabrics that you’re printing need to have a special coating to prevent the ink from wicking into the fabric. Without this coating, the resolution as well as the intensity of the color is significantly reduced.”

For shorter-term applications made of polyester—for instance, a feather flag that will be taken in and out each day—Faulkner recommends printing with dye sublimation inks. “With dye sublimation, you can produce images with intense bright colors and lots of ‘pop,’” Faulkner notes. “A desirable effect when sublimating a mesh fabric is that the dye pushes through to the other side so when you hold the fabric up, it appears to be printed on both sides. This ‘see through’ or double-sided effect using the sublimation process enables you to produce an effective flag product with a single printing pass.”

As fabric manufacturers expand and improve their offerings for exterior graphics applications, so, too, do the end uses. PVC media and vinyl-coated mesh remain the standard bearers to date, though non-PVC textiles also are finding a home in outdoor projects ranging from feather banners to corporate displays. Such projects spell opportunity for end product manufacturers as they look to grow their business.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer from Pine City, Minn.

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