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Learning the basics of printing on fabric

Feature, Graphics | September 1, 2013 | By:

Learn all about the basics of printing on fabric: the technologies, the benefits and the opportunities.

For the Brooklyn Plantology garden center in New York, Capitol Awning of Jamaica, N.Y., created a custom awning that showcased a logo, text and a leafy design that captured the essence of the space. The shop printed the imagery directly onto white Weathertyte™ awning material from Cooley using a Roland eco-solvent printer.

“Years ago, we would have painted that job, and it would have taken close to three weeks to complete it,” says Mike Catalano, president of Capitol Awning. “Instead, we printed 200 feet of awning in two days using all custom colors.”

The project illustrates the possibilities of fabric graphics. “We are in the digital age and people are very conscious about their identities,” Catalano explains. “Years ago, if you owned a store, you bought a green awning and put white graphics on it, and you were done. Now, it is a different world with computers and desktop publishing. Anyone can design. Fabric printing has allowed a lot of flexibility and capacity to do things out of the ordinary.”

Whether they’re fabricating a tent or producing signage, end product manufacturers (EPMs) are expanding their business offerings with textile printing, and the market seems ripe for development. “A recent marketing survey predicted 8-percent growth year over year in the wide format print market,” says Mike Richardson, director of sales and marketing, print media, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc. in Aurora, Ill. “This is an average for all substrates, but for textiles in particular, the growth is even higher.”

Fabric printing offers a multitude of advantages to EPMs. “Adding graphics capabilities allows fabricators and end product manufacturers to bid on more jobs and increase margins on their current work,” says John Evans, vice president of sales, graphics media, for Herculite Products Inc., Emigsville, Pa. “Printing adds a new dimension to the type of client that fabricators can market to.”

From a customer’s standpoint, “utilizing fabric for a project allows clients to choose from a broad range of pricing and aesthetics,” notes Elaine Allen-Milne, marketing and communications manager for Eventscape in Toronto, Canada. “Also, textiles are an economical way to cover large areas, such as ceilings, are lightweight, and have the ability to create complex organic forms.”

Endless opportunities

When it comes to printing on fabric, applications are seemingly endless. End uses can range from an awning with a company logo to corporate branded tents to custom wall treatments. One of the leading applications for fabric graphics is soft signage. At Mimaki USA in Suwanee, Ga., the segment is one of the fastest growing businesses for the print manufacturer, says Paul McGovern, marketing and promotions manager.

Many trade show organizers and exhibitors, he notes, prefer printed fabric banners over traditional signage because they are cheaper to ship, easier to handle and can be reused often. Public institutions also are gravitating toward fabric graphics. “Rather than having a giant vinyl dinosaur outside, museums now have billowing fabric,” McGovern says. “Not only is the fabric more elegant, it won’t act like a sail that’s going to blow down in the wind and take people down the steps with it.”

Moss Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., which specializes in tensioned fabric structures, produces exhibit displays, event shapes and signage, sports venue and event branding pieces, and retail design graphics. “These can entail everything from fabric walls and banners to lightboxes and extreme-scale customized designs,” notes Mel Marzan, marketing communications manager for Moss Inc.

From a graphics standpoint, Marzan says customers “want everything from supersized logos on color fields to extremely larger-than-life photo walls, or text that can come in a really wide range of sizes.”

Not only do fabric graphics help end users communicate a message, they also have the ability to create a memorable encounter. “So much messaging can be drawn from the visual experience, from brand identity association to specific of-the-moment emotions that can be created,” Marzan says. “You also get more of the sense of a permanent piece of art compared to something that might have a sheen or simply doesn’t pop with nearly the same effect.”

As counterintuitive as it may sound, sometimes fabric printing doesn’t have to involve graphics at all. Case in point: Capitol Awning recently completed a project for a large healthcare provider that could not find a shade structure available in its corporate colors, so Catalano and his team printed the company’s exact hues onto the awning material.

Intro to print technology

With so many opportunities available for producing fabric graphics, it’s imperative to pick the appropriate printer, ink and substrate. Several types of print technology exist for fabrics. Dye sublimation, a process that uses heat to transfer dye onto a material, can be achieved in two different ways: printing an image to paper and then transferring it to any polyester-based fabric, or printing directly to the fabric. (Some machines can do both.)

With dye sublimation, color infuses the material, rather than prints atop it, making it ideal for applications that require a vibrant image viewable from both sides.

Another common fabric printing method is direct to material, a process that applies an ink directly to the surface. It does not require heat to transfer dye onto a medium as with dye sublimation. Direct-to-fabric printing works on natural fibers, while some machines also are capable of printing on synthetic substrates.

In June 2013, Hewlett-Packard released the third generation of its direct-to-substrate HP Latex printing technology, which dries and cures the water-based inks within the printer, rather than requiring a separate steaming or drying process. The HP Latex printers produce odorless prints, which allows for fabric graphics applications “in many more indoor spaces that you couldn’t otherwise be, like hotels, museums or healthcare,” says Oriol Gasch, director, Americas, large format printing for HP.

In the case of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, the fabric manufacturer created the Sunbrella Graphics System (SGS), which uses heat and vacuum to bond pressure-sensitive and thermal-activated adhesive vinyl cut graphics to Sunbrella and other fabrics. The SGS Thermal Digital Print Film can be used in applications such as pop-up tents, umbrellas, car covers and other applications where a more flexible film is required. (The films may be printed using most printers used for fabric.)

“Perhaps the greatest opportunity has been bringing graphics into the marine market in the aftermarket as well as the OEM market,” says Mike VonWachenfeldt, technical service manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics in Glen Raven, N.C.

What’s more, Mimaki is partnering with Glen Raven to print on substrates—even those with fire-resistant or waterproof coatings—via dye sublimation paper transfer. “That is a real breakthrough for us,” McGovern says.

When it comes to ink selection, many choices exist from both the original printer manufacturers and third-party suppliers.

To determine which type of printer is right for your shop, consider not only the applications you are most likely to produce, but also markets into which you want to expand. To that end, Evans encourages fabricators to join the Fabric Graphics Association, which holds workshops throughout the year that help members learn about new markets.

Understand the challenges

As with any new technology or process, fabric printing requires a learning curve. With dye sublimation, for example, “the challenge is to create an environment that is consistent and under control to produce repeatable, high-quality color, time after time,” says Mike Wozny, strategic project manager for Forest City, Calif.-based printer manufacturer EFI. “Dye sub is not terribly hard, but you have to invest the time to learn it.”

Some outdoor fabrics have been weather tested to determine the longevity of printed graphics, and may even come with a warranty, but Catalano notes that inks will fade. “I am comfortable making an awning for someone that in five years my people can recover,” he says, “but even then I don’t like to do south-facing light. It is going to be in the blazing sun almost all day, and you’re just asking for trouble.”

When dealing with critical specifications such as flame resistance and spread, smoke development, stretch and UV resistance, “printed graphic projects have the added dimension of color and art fidelity, resolution and how the artwork will distort,” says Allen-Milne.

As Marzan of Moss Inc. notes, “Fit and finish is everything, which is why quality throughout the production process is held very high here.”

Opportunities for growth

The future is bright for the fabric graphics market, says Evans, noting that “the industry has just begun to scratch the surface on the number of new markets that it can enter.”

“Fabrics will continue to become more dominant in the graphics market due to their physical advantages and features over traditional flexface,” says Eric Tischer, president of Verseidag Seemee US, Randolph, N.J. “A product’s look, makeup and stretch characteristics allow for fabricators to be more creative and develop more custom, eye-catching displays. Fabrics have become the norm for interior retail, exhibition and display applications and will continue to expand as new, innovative fabrics and ink-receptive top coatings are developed.”

For some fabricators, fabric printing may open the door to expanding opportunities. Eventscape, for one, has broadened its offerings from fabric to materials such as polycarbonate, steel, aluminum, Corian, wood and acrylics. “The more choices in material, technology and process options the fabricator is able to offer, the better it is for the client, providing more choices and ultimately making better informed decisions,” Allen-Milne notes.

Industry insiders believe that fabric graphics will continue to give fabricators an advantage in the marketplace and provide an opportunity to improve the bottom line. “It’s all about innovation,” Gasch says. “Can I do something that my competitor is not doing, and do it at a lower cost?”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Fabric Graphics. She splits time between home bases in Pine City, Minn., and Joshua Tree, Calif.

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