Game-changing shifts in the flexible substrate printing market prove the rules are changing in the growing graphics industry.
It’s not news that fabric graphics are booming. Thanks to continuing advances in technology, printing on flexible substrates has experienced reliable growth for years. More than any other single factor, the existence of fabric graphics has shaped the aesthetic of retail marketing, corporate spaces, exhibit halls and outdoor promotions.
Climbing the ranks
According to Dan Dix, business manager for digital media at Herculite Products Inc., Emigsville, Pa., the fabric graphics market overall has grown 15 percent in the past year. Dye sublimation is the most popular method; solvent printing is strong at number two, while latex has climbed into third. UV and direct-to-substrate technologies round out the field, while Glen Raven’s Sunbrella® Graphics System (SGS), used with solvent- and UV-printable films, lets fabricators create punchy graphics and thermally bond them to awnings.
As the market grows, what customers want from fabric graphics is evolving. Equipment manufacturers, ink and fabric suppliers and fabricators are also switching up their game. Here’s how.
SEGs are hot
In the specialty fabrics business, the acronym “SEG” stands for only one thing: silicone edge graphics. Remember the old hard-panel graphics you used to see in display spaces? These are the replacements, and it’s not an exaggeration to say they’ve revolutionized the exhibit and retail markets.
In a SEG, printed fabric (most commonly dye-sub-printed) is finished with sewn-on silicone strips at the edges. These strips are inserted into a frame with a recessed groove. It is sewn to precise specifications so that it is taut once installed. “The retail market is seeing growth in SEG graphics, both non-backlit and backlit,” says Elissa Decker, fabric product manager at Moss Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill. “The great thing with SEG-mounted graphics is how easily you can change them out for the buying season. We’ve also had a lot of interest in wrapped-frame fabric graphics—where the graphic completely wraps an aluminum frame for a sophisticated artistic look. Wrapped frames are also easy to change out, and there’s versatility to revert back to the single-surface graphic and show the frame sides if desired.”
Trade show economics
In exhibits, SEGs are popular for the same reason fabric displays in general are popular: they save money. “In the exhibit business, the cost to move your booth from where they drop it off on the loading dock to your spot on the floor is normally more than the cost to ship it across the country,” explains Scott Powell, marketing director at Rainier Industries, Tukwila, Wash. “It’s called drayage, and it’s how all these exhibit halls make a lot of money. It becomes very expensive. So now the trend is what we call frame and fabric. You can have thousands of square feet of fabric that goes up over a frame and it weighs a tenth of what it would have if you’d had to build it out of traditional wood materials.”
It’s just easier to decorate with fabric, he says, and SEGs are the speediest way to get the job done. Some booth designers, even if they’re constructing structurally sound walls, will still use SEGs rather than skin the structures with vinyl. SEGs make it easier to strip down and re-skin for the next show.
“In general, fabric is much more prevalent in my industry,” says Brian Hite, president of Image Options, a visual communications firm in Foothill Ranch, Calif. “The exhibit side and the retail side have really gravitated more toward fabric [than toward hard materials] for a number of reasons: weight, appearance and the availability of the extrusions for silicone edged graphic applications. It still enables the client to get a very large presence without the expense that has to do with rigid panels.”
Concerns about sustainability and environmental impact are influencing the entire fabric graphics industry, starting with the inks.
“Inks are improving at a drastic rate,” says Eric Tischer, president of Verseidag seemee US Inc., Randolph, N.J. “There has definitely been a big push in recent years toward more eco-friendly options. Today many print providers are offering print solutions using aqueous-based dye-sublimation and latex inks in order to offer more green solutions. Solvent, which was the mainstay in the market five to 10 years ago, is still used for specific applications, but is utilized much less.”
Indeed, there are plenty of low-VOC inks cropping up in dye sub and other areas of the industry. Powell says the inks for the direct-to-fabric printers in his own shop are SWAN-certified—a European certification for being VOC-free and environmentally friendly. “So we feel like we’re being green, yet we’re getting the performance characteristics of the ink that we’re looking for,” he says.
But Powell says greenness is one of the reasons many other printers have been gravitating toward latex.“They want to say that they’re eco-sensitive, because latex is water-based, and that’s accurate,” he says.
Fabrics are getting greener, too. “Most of the fabrics that we use are polyester, and we tend to use fabrics that have some post-consumer content in them,” says Hite. “Whether it’s recycled yarn like the Trevira® or Aurora materials, that’s important from a sustainability standpoint.”
But he prefers to look at sustainability from the point of view of the entire waste stream. Waste paper is generated in dye sublimation, for example; but that paper can be recycled. And he says it’s easier to recycle dye-sub material than fabric that has a coating on it, as is used for UV printing. “I think you look at the bigger picture with respect to sustainability, and the fact that with fabric you can roll it up and fold it up into a small package, so shipping costs are a lot lower,” he says. “With large exhibits where you’re building walls that are hundreds of feet long, if you were to do that in a traditional fashion, you may have five or six semi trucks carrying something that now you can fit in the back of a van. So you’ve got to look at the total picture for sustainability, not just the ink and the fabric.”
Some customers are pushing hard for improvements in sustainability. Image Options does all the signage and tags for IKEA in the United States, and Hite says that company creates a demand for greener printed materials. “They continually push us, and we offer up solutions for making things more sustainable and reducing the environmental footprint for their marketing messages within the stores.”
The rules are changing
Printers and inks for flexible substrates have become so versatile that the old rules just don’t hold anymore. Think of latex printing, which was designed for plasticky films; the best results are still obtained by using high-quality laminated banner materials with very high dimensional stability, but some shops are now starting to use it on traditional textiles, too. HP has even specified a few woven fabrics for this use, and the company offers protocols for printing on porous media in its online printer manuals.
If anything, breaking the rules is the new rule. “[Apparel company] Eddie Bauer wanted us to print on cotton tent twill canvas,” says Powell. “It’s not made to be printed on, but we were able to print it with UV direct-to-substrate. When you do that, instead of the ink becoming part of the fabric, the ink sits on top of it. So if it’s in a high-traffic area and people are brushing against it, you’re eventually going to scuff it up, because the fabric is giving way and the ink is releasing. But it gave them the roughed-up, softer look they wanted, so that worked.”
The advent of digital technologies has meant that some traditional fabric printing methods, such as screenprinting, have started to lose ground. That translates into a whole new relationship with the customer. “We can do shorter runs and we can make every graphic unique, as opposed to [screenprinters’ large runs],” says Hite. “Most companies that buy a lot of marketing materials, they don’t buy 1,000 tablecloths, they don’t buy 500 tablecloths. They buy 10. Now we’re able to almost print on demand for them, and they tend to buy on demand rather than buy a bunch and stick them on a shelf somewhere.”
Tischer says PVC-coated and laminated vinyls are still the mainstay for exterior marketing and promotion applications. But even that is starting to shift a little.
“Historically, in the large-format graphics market it has been vinyl for a banner substrate, but the fabrics—polyester, etc.—have become more popular,” says Dix. “It all depends on the application. For a higher-end aesthetic, you’re going to see more fabric- and cloth-type banners because of the softer hand, the drapeability of the cloth. But if you get into applications where you need blackout, you’re going to end up back to a vinyl substrate. The industrial fabric market really is starting to merge more with the large-format plastics market, and it has become more of a gray area.”
Jamie Swedberg is a writer and editor based in Woodville, Ga.