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Fabric is king in digital printing

Feature, Graphics | August 1, 2014 | By:

Advancements in printing methods and equipment are giving end users a wider choice of options designed to meet their specific needs and requirements.

The rapid growth in printers and the variety of substrates available today have captivated the fabric graphics industry. New models of smaller, faster and more affordable printers have improved output and production; ink technology has advanced to the point where the color has more “wow power”; and fabric suppliers are adding more specialized substrates to help end users get the look and performance they want.

Users are looking for speed and quality and the ability to print on a wide variety of substrates, says Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables at Roland DGA Corp. Today’s advanced wide-format digital printers are making this more feasible than ever before, and—thanks to innovations in digital printing—you can print on just about anything.

“Dye sublimation is definitely an emerging trend that’s gaining in popularity. If fabric graphics are uncoated, dye sublimation or UV printing are the best options, but if fabrics are coated, solvent inks can be used. We’re seeing a lot of growth in our UV product because you can print on such a wide variety of materials and it’s great for prototypes. There is also steady growth in our eco-solvent printers, which are easy to use and hold up well,” says Hunter.

More fabrics, more options

The growth in the market has inspired fabric suppliers to create new and expanded lines of specialty fabrics to meet various demands. “End users are looking to fabric as the next generation. Printers are starting to really seek what we call pure performance in fabrics,” says Mike Compton, business development manager at Top Value Fabrics in Carmel, Ind. “Vinyl sales are not going to go away, but the growth in fabric is tremendous because there are so many eye-catching looks you can get with it. Our line continues to expand.”

Digital printing has created immediate demand, so printers also need immediate supply, explains Compton—and not just speed, but media that’s wound correctly, on the same-sized cores, and with dependable consistency. All printers are under tight timelines; they’re looking for print media they can produce without headaches and disruption in production, Compton adds.

Color fastness, sustainability, durability and cost vary depending on the specific build and coating characteristics of the products as well as the print output utilized, says Eric Tischer, president of Verseidag US, Randolph, N.J., which offers a versatile range of fabrics for all digital print outputs. “Depending on the customer, one or a number of these factors will be important for the job so it is vital for fabric manufacturers to stay on the cutting edge of developing and manufacturing fabrics that meet the needs of the market applications.”

Direct-to-fabric printing

More people getting into the print business, or looking to expand, are leaning toward direct-to-fabric printing, and that requires a finished or coated fabric. This has changed how fabric is supplied.

“We offer many coated fabrics for direct printing, which includes five different print methods under this umbrella,” says James Gay, director of marketing at Fisher Textiles Inc., Indian Trail, N.C. “The wide variety of substrates made for different print methods is growing every year.”

Fisher Textiles has dedicated a full range of coated and uncoated fabrics for UV printing to match the growth in roll-to-roll and flatbed processes. Now with greater definition in this segment, some longstanding fabrics have been rediscovered. Latex is another fast-growing segment because of its print substrate capabilities. Ink development in this area has greatly improved performance on fabric.

One of the fast-growing segments in digital printing according to Gay is sublimation on apparel products. To that end, Fisher Textiles has tripled its offering of apparel fabrics, most of which have a moisture-management property. The company continues to focus on new products for existing and future applications, such as backlit, silicone-edge graphics and retail.

“There’s tremendous growth potential with fabrics; we’ll see that for years to come,” says Gay. “We now have 200 products just in digital printing. As advances are made in both printers and inks, the end result is improved.”

As a long-time producer of dye sublimation transfer paper, Beaver Paper & Graphic Media Inc. in Atlanta, Ga., has introduced a new line of imaging fabrics called TexStyles® Graphic Fabrics. The specialized range of woven and knit fabrics are engineered specifically for digital printing and compatible with sublimation transfer, disperse direct, latex, UV-cure and solvent printing processes.

“In addition to the growth of dye sublimation transfer processes, we see our customers seeking more fabrics prepared for direct-to-fabric sublimation and latex compatible fabric choices.” says Bill Shuford, product manager. The company is focusing on marketing collateral, targeting applications for soft signage, digital printing, frame systems, exhibition graphs, banners, flags and backlit displays.

End users choose

PhotosWorksGroup, Charlottesville, Va., a traditional custom photo lab, got into dye sub printing more than five years ago to better serve customers in the trade show industry. Fabric graphics are now the predominant medium on any trade show floor today, thanks to their look, durability and low-cost shipping and handling. Dye sublimation printing on polyester is still “king” in terms of offering the most robust results in large format printing. It accounts for 20 percent of the company’s sales and is growing, says president Geoffrey Kilmer.

UV flatbed printing is also part of the company’s business mix, allowing it to print on a wide variety of substrates, including acrylic plastic (Plexiglas®), polycarbonate plastic, brushed aluminum and even wood. The end appearance, aesthetics and how well the ink sticks to the substrate is what drives the type of substrate used, says Kilmer.

“UV flatbed is changing the market because there are so many new printers,” he says. “They can print up to eight feet and wider, but are commonly available in four-by-eight feet. True flatbed printers have a vacuum table that draws down the substrate perfectly flat, and the print head moves over the substrate, which stays stationary. That type of output is very high quality because the registration is very accurate.”

PhotoWorksGroup is creating eye-popping fabric graphics for retail point-of-purchase, airports and museum clients. In these venues Kilmer says fabric panels are replacing vinyl because of their ease of installation and replacement, as well as their nonreflective, seamless, rich and colorful look.

Backlit in the spotlight

Backlit graphics, which combine lightweight stretch fabrics with LED lights in a frame system, are one of the fasting growing segments in fabric graphics, especially high-end marketing. From an end-user standpoint, the fabric choice is important to avoid getting wrinkles in the corner or pinholes with light showing through. It can be challenging to do, says Kilmer, but when you get the right fabric the results are stunning.

“It took me two years to find the right combination of printer, ink and fabric for backlit applications,” he says. “There are a number of suppliers offering [backlit fabric], but they’re not all created equal. You don’t get the same level of contrast and color punch.”

Compton says customers are willing to spend more to get the right look for upscale projects, with retail as an example because it’s recurring business. The company introduced Impact Prime, a high-end, 100 percent polyester that’s finished and FR treated, for this market.

“We have a lot of customers for our Impact Prime that are doing work for well-known retail companies in markets from apparel to sporting goods that are putting backlit soft signage in stores. They want it to look fantastic; they need color consistency from batch to batch for PANTONE® and company logos. The quality is why Impact Prime is growing,” he says.

End users are printing Impact Prime and other fabrics with UV and latex printers in addition to dye sub. In the past, the brilliance and depth of UV and latex colors have not been comparable with dye sub, says Compton. However, the ink technology has advanced. Now, UV and latex inks are excellent and, with the right printer and media, the color is on par with dye sub inks.

The right printer

“The rate of technology is constantly changing the complexion of the graphics industry; end users need to recognize what industry they plan to serve and how they’re going to reach them before investing in new printing technology,” Kilmer says. “It pays to keep up with that industry’s trade organizations.”

Printer manufacturers like Roland, Mimaki and Hewlett Packard display their latest digital printing devices and materials at trade shows, such as IFAI’s Specialty Fabrics Expo, where you can get face-to-face interaction. They also provide valuable information, specs and comparisons on their websites to help users select a printer and media that will satisfy all their requirements. Fabric suppliers are also available to help end users find the right media available for specific applications.

The Roland Academy offers many online webinars, workshops and “tips and tricks,” says Hunter. Additionally, Roland offers a wide selection of branded, profiled media that make it easy for users to find ideal solutions for their requirements and also expand into other applications.

“No one wants anyone to make a bad choice,” says Hunter. “The last thing we want is for printers to be tied down to an expensive piece of equipment that they’re not going to use as much. We want to be able to walk them through and give them a good experience.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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