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Awnings & Canopies, Feature, Graphics, Tents | January 1, 2014 | By:

Digital printing on textiles expands client lists and adds new dimensions to product innovation.

For the Brooklyn Plantology garden center in New York, Capitol Awning Co. 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/Commercial Graphics 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 vividly illustrates the possibilities of fabric graphics. “We are in the digital age and people are very conscious about their identities,” Catalano says. “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 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 for a variety of products. “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® Inc., Emigsville, Pa. “Printing adds a new dimension to the type
of client that fabricators can market to.”

Leading applications

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.

A leading application for fabric graphics is soft signage. At Mimaki USA Inc. in Suwanee, Ga., signage 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 are also 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., specializing 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,” says Mel Marzan, marketing communications manager for Moss. 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 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 health care 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.

Even tents are getting in on the printing action. Large event tents requiring permanent graphics typically undergo direct printing before the tent is built or assembled on the production floor, says Alex Kouzmanoff, vice president of Aztec Tents in Torrance, Calif.

The dye-sublimation process is ideal for applications such as pop-up tents that travel around the country and
are set up a couple of times a day, says Scott Campbell, president of Rainier Industries in Tukwila, Wash.
“Generally, the fabric would be polyester, which is
more pliable and holds up better for repeated use.”

Other tent printing options focus on temporary applications such as removable printed panels that are attached to a tent using Velcro™, a clip or a buckle, as well as printed decals backed by pressure-sensitive adhesive placed on tents.

Technology and training

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, a separate calender machine performs the actual sublimation process. In this method, color infuses the material rather than printing on top of 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 dye sublimation does. Direct-to-fabric printing works on natural fibers, while some machines also are capable of printing on synthetic substrates.

Bob Campbell, owner of Mt. Lebanon Awning and Tent Co. in Presto, Pa., purchased a solvent-based direct-to-fabric printer five years ago. “We bought the printer with hopes we would be able to use it an awful lot, but that hasn’t been the case,” he says. Still, it does serve as a sales tool, allowing the shop “to provide our customers with any type of graphics they want on the awning that we are creating for them.”

In addition to the digital printer, Mt. Lebanon employs the Sunbrella® Graphics System (SGS) for print applications on Sunbrella material. The machine uses heat and vacuum to bond pressure-sensitive and thermal-activated adhesive vinyl cut graphics to Sunbrella and other fabrics. The films may be printed using most printers used for fabric. The two printing options “give us a lot more versatility,” Campbell notes.

The SGS has allowed Glen Raven Custom Fabrics LLC, maker of Sunbrella, to bring graphics into the marine industry in the aftermarket as well as the OEM market, says Mike VonWachenfeldt, the company’s technical service manager.

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.

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 in, like hotels, museums or health care,” says Oriol Gasch, director, Americas, large-format printing for HP.

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

Materials matter

Using the appropriate fabric in a print job is critical to a project’s success. For example, all dye sublimation printers require polyester fabrics, but which type of polyester depends on the application.

“There are different options available to achieve a desired look,” says Shelley Lapointe of Kira Bannerworks in Tampa, Fla., which has been using a dye-sub printer for the past 10 years to produce items such as trade show displays, university recruitment banners and museum installations. Among the factors Lapointe will ask of the client: Does it need to be opaque or translucent, or perhaps sheen or matte? Does the project need a material that has a nice, rich feel to it? Is it a trade show display that requires a stretch fabric going over a frame?

At Mt. Lebanon, Bob Campbell orders fabrics on a job-to-job basis. “A lot of fabric, especially vinyl laminate, has a shelf life,” he says. “We have found that vinyl needs to be fresh, meaning it can’t be too old. The surface you are printing on needs to be pristine.”

In one instance, Campbell received vinyl from a supplier, but upon printing, the material streaked. After performing some tests on the vinyl, Campbell discovered that the plasticizers had migrated. “It was an old product, and no good.”

Learning curves

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 Fremont, Calif.-based printer manufacturer EFI. “Dye sub is not terribly hard, but you have to invest the time to learn it.”

Lapointe agrees. “Fabric is a living thing. It moves. Fabric is lost if there is a flaw in it. The printer also could have its own issues, shutting itself off and losing the image.”

Another factor to consider is color matching, especially since what appears on a computer monitor doesn’t always translate to the fabric. “We do a lot of color testing and samples before we actually go to print,” Lapointe says. “We never go to print without closely checking files or sampling color matches from client art.”

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 re-cover,” 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.”

For the awnings that Mt. Lebanon prints, Bob Campbell says that graphics will look good for about three or four years, as long as they are properly laminated or spray-sealed after being printed. If, however, a banner will be displayed indoors for only six months, “it’s not worth going to the extra expense and the extra trouble to ensure that the graphics are going to stay vibrant, because they aren’t going to be there that long,” he adds.

Growth through versatility

The future is wide open 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.”

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 editor based in Joshua Tree, Calif.

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