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Opportunities in fabric graphics

The economic slowdown affected demand, but hopes are strong for recovery.

Graphics, Markets | Mar. 1, 2021 | By: Jonathan Sweet

PWG created this artwork using dye-sublimation and silicone edge graphics, with LED perimeter backlighting. Photo: PWG.

The market for fabric graphics continues to evolve, with new challenges presented by everything from COVID-19 to the changing workplace. Innovative companies, though, can find opportunities as they work to position themselves for the post-pandemic rebound.

There’s no question the economic downturn caused by the pandemic affected almost everyone working in the industry, says Geoff Kilmer, president of Charlottesville, Va.-based PWG (PhotoWorksGroup Inc.). The 35-year-old company specializes in environmental graphics and dye-sublimation fabric graphics.

“The airport industry, which is a strong market for fabric graphics, is virtually shut down since the pandemic erupted,” he says. “I don’t expect it to be back until the flying public returns to higher levels.”

However, longer-term projects, such as those in the museum market, have thus far stayed strong, he adds.

From its base in the Netherlands, Printable Industrial Canvas is seeing similar trends, according to product sales manager Steven Huisman. 

“In the transport sector, projects are short term. We immediately noticed the dip in this sector caused by the pandemic,” he says. “On the other hand, we also produce for markets with longer-term projects, which fortunately have continued. And [we] notice that clients are also creative themselves and look for new opportunities to survive during the pandemic. We have had the chance to contribute to this at some occasions.”

The company prints truck tarpaulins, mostly for the European transport industry, but its printed textiles are also used worldwide in textile architecture and in the leisure and events sector. Printable Industrial Canvas also partners with many U.S.-based companies to create special projects when their customers require a long-term warranty.

The pandemic has created additional opportunities as companies look to adapt their spaces. Fabric graphics signage and space partitions are a useful tool in encouraging social distancing, Kilmer says.

“This approach offers clear advantages over rigid substrates,” he says. “They can be rolled or folded for shipping with a lightweight aluminum extruded frame included. While many PSPs [print service providers] turn to direct printing on Coroplast® or acrylic, the fabric graphics offer a softer, classier look and feel.”

This project for the International Mission Board uses reflective dye-sublimation fabric prints on a low-profile frame. Photo: PWG.

Growth markets

As the world hopes to move past many of the pandemic challenges in 2021, Huisman notes several parts of the market that offer opportunity for growth. Most notable is the textile architecture segment, such as fabric facades, canopies and other tensile structures. 

Printable Industrial Canvas’ proprietary production process allows it to offer an unlimited 10-year warranty on color retention, adhesion of ink and lacquer, dirt-repellent properties and craquelé. This makes the product more attractive to architects concerned about the potential short life of the printing.

“Architects are sometimes still reluctant to use printed textile for permanent applications,” he says. “Now that it is becoming more and more known that we can give a 10-year guarantee, we also see that the demand is increasing enormously. It is and remains a niche, but with considerable growth prospects.”

Other opportunities include the fields of printed wall coverings and furniture upholstery.

“At first glance, these markets are reasonably saturated, but our coating can realize a new range of ‘heavy duty’ print products that lend themselves well to, for example, project furnishing,” Huisman says.

The Ecole Elémentaire Cour de Lorraine school in Mulhouse, France, has been fitted with Printable Industrial Canvas’ mesh fabric with a custom design. The textile facade blocks the sunlight and controls the climate inside without obstructing the view. Photo: Printable Industrial Canvas.

Products such as printed imitation leather or wall coverings with Printable Industrial Canvas’ unique coating become extra wear-resistant and easy to clean. This makes them ideal for high-traffic applications like hotels, hospitals and schools, he adds.

PWG also expects to see growth in fabrics for commercial spaces after the pandemic ends, Kilmer says, as more clients realize the benefits.

“With indoor use, dye-sublimation fabric graphics last virtually forever unless installed in direct sunlight,” he says. “Typically, the graphics outlast the marketing message. One big advantage of fabric graphics over other options such as wallpaper substrates is that they are user friendly and can be user installed. They can also be swapped out of the frame and rotated or replaced. They stand up to a lot of traffic and can even be laundered in
a washing machine.”

Sustainable innovations

Like many companies that operate in specialty fabrics markets, Printable Industrial Canvas has identified sustainability as a goal for both the company and the industry. That posed a challenge, as the use of solvent inks was the only way it could offer its 10-year warranty, Huisman says.

“Unfortunately, there are no other inks on the market with which a comparable result can be achieved,” he says. “In order to be able to make this battle of sustainability, we decided to develop our own ink—an intensive and complicated process, which took more than three years. But we managed to create a sustainable alternative for solvent inks, which we can use in our production process together with a newly developed water-based lacquer.”

For the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, United Kingdom, Base Structures and Printable Industrial Canvas delivered a 3D fabric facade and printed overcladding. The new design has 37 pyramid translucent structures with specially sandwiched panels between the pyramids. Photo: Printable Industrial Canvas.

Along with the new inks, the company has developed its own print heads and printer. It is also building a new high-speed printer for this production process, with hopes of putting it into use in the second half of 2021.

Kilmer cites the increased refinement of production equipment as important to the growth in fabric graphics production, such as digital cutters with fabric cutting options. 

“The Zünd G3 3XL is one that offers a rotating circular blade cutter attachment that is good for most fabric graphics,” he says. “We have efficiently trimmed graphics up to 10 by 50 feet. Another critical component that has been out for several years is the automated sewing systems. They are easy to operate and facilitate sewing the perimeter edge band known as keder or SEG [silicone edge graphics].” 

Jonathan Sweet is a freelance writer based in Chaska, Minn. 

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