Soft signage creates opportunities

There has been a huge amount of attention on the opportunities for inkjet printing in textiles, and manufacturers who have established their name in display graphics are now hoping for success in the textiles industry.

This is unsurprising. Textiles are still overwhelming printed using analogue technologies with digital used for, at best, three per cent by volume of this industry. The predictions are that textiles will follow the path set by ceramics. If so, this is a vast opportunity for the companies that supply the technology and inks, and of course for printers.

Printers, like the suppliers, have found the display market has become increasingly congested of late, driving down prices and squeezing margins. Digital textiles suffer from no such pressures.
The immediate opportunity is from creating promotional clothing, t-shirts and polos emblazoned with a corporate logo, or personalised apparel for a sports team or perhaps for a special occasion – a hen or stag weekend, for example. This may require only a small investment in additional technology and suppliers that have supplied lower cost wide format printers are able to provide similar printers that address the dye sublimation opportunity. Likewise, the skills sets required are within the scope of most with experience of inkjet printing.

The dye sublimation technology demands special inks and transfer paper which, when heated, releases the dyes in the ink to penetrate the fibres of the polyester fabric. This is, of course, the precise opposite to most inkjet printing, where the aim is to hold the ink on the surface of the substrate for the brightest result.

The dye sublimation technology is also perfect for large format displays. Polyester is a step forward on PVC materials that have been used for banners and displays that soft signage is now replacing. According to EFI, whose FabriVu printers are targeted at this opportunity, there are a number of key advantages to polyester as a material.

It can be re-used, making exhibition graphics or pop up displays more cost effective. The material can be folded or crushed for transportation, and is far lighter to move around than PVC, so is cheaper to ship. The material can be back lit, mounted on aluminium frames and loaded into position far easier than PVC or papers when used on outdoor hoardings. The surface finish is smoother and appreciably of better quality than PVC.

When combined with an easy to erect aluminium tube frame, a display unit can be assembled in minutes. The printed material pulls tight over the frame to produce an unblemished surface. A customer can retain his frame and order new graphics without having to discard the display unit as is necessary with a conventional PVC pop up banner. This style of unit offers a huge choice of sizes and designs thanks to the flexibility of the fabric.

Finally, the environmental footprint of the polyester material is better than PVC. Concerns about the lack of recycling facilities for PVC have helped drive demand for soft signage in Europe as PVC ends up in landfill. The versatility of polyester is a further point in its favour: the material is ideal for flags as well as point of sale and exhibition graphics.

Little wonder then that demand for soft signage is expected to increase by eight per cent CAGR for the coming five years, according to Infotrends. The same firm has valued the entire textile printing market at $115 million in a report commissioned by Fespa. At its most recent international event in Hamburg, digital textiles were everywhere with direct to garment printing to vie with dye sublimation and displays of soft furnishings printed on inkjet presses.

Likewise, investment in textile printing  accounted for 21 per cent of those surveyed by Fespa in 2015. Two thirds of those taking part said they had noticed growing interest in soft signage fabrics because the quality of the finish is better than the more traditional substrate choices.
However, it is no longer all about dye sublimation. UV inks and printers are beginning to offer a direct to fabric alternative and are allowing printers that have a UV roll to roll machine an easier way into the market than buying a dedicated machine for fabric printing. EFI believes this is an option with its FabriVu printers using ink technology from its display print background compared to the water based inks used by the Reggiani textile printers. which serve a market that has traditionally been served by screen printing.

It acquired the Italian technology company to accelerate its penetration of textile printing for the clothing and home decor markets rather than display print. Display printers are highly unlikely to break into this market with its well established supply chains, but there are opportunities for interior decor. At the Heimtextil show in Hamburg at the start of the year, Probo introduced an online shop for designers to upload their designs for the printer to run out on fabric to become curtains, cushions and furniture covers, using the same equipment used to print soft signage.

As well as EFI, the opportunities have attracted most of the major printer suppliers. At Fespa, Agfa introduced the Avinci, its second specialist fabric printer having developed the Ardeco four years earlier. It cites growing demand from traditional display printers for the development of a machine for printing polyester soft signage.

SPG, which moved into inkjet printing for labels, before adding inkjet printing for textiles and home fabrics, has opened a training and experience centre in Holland. Its Javellin printer is a roll to roll machine intended as a first use machine for those moving into fabric printing while its Pike range is for those converting from screen printing and need to run millions of metres of fabrics a year.

One of the stated aims for the Mouvent business, an inkjet-focused subsidiary of Bobst is fabric printing, using the same modular printhead technology that it will use for labels, for corrugated and for carton printing. It is a question of scaling the technology and adapting the inks to suit the substrate the Swiss company says.

Cross the Alps, Durst offers a UV ink for display printers alongside its dedicated RhoTex and Alpha textile printers. Well known UK company ImageData Group has installed a Durst Rho 512 roll to roll printer alongside Inca flatbed and other Durst machines. The appeal was a familiarity with the machine and supplier, but also a VOC free Rho Roll ink which does not flake or crack when the textiles it is applied to are folded or rolled. By switching inks the company can handle other materials while growing the market for soft signage. The versatility of the equipment reduces the financial risk.

Others have tested more conventional UV inks to print sports clothing on flatbed printers with some degree of success, albeit not officially sanctioned by the supplier of the machinery.
Another change that will be welcome to display printers is the opportunity to latex printers to decorate soft signage. While there is no heating to effect a dye sublimation transfer of the colour, the latex print will not be as vibrant as the dye sublimation. Again it is a way to test the market for soft signage before making the financial commitment.

The growth in demand for soft signage in Europe is encouraging the leading online printers to offer soft signage alongside stationery and marketing collateral where intense competition has eroded prices and margins. The same marketing agencies that buy marketing collateral are responsible for signage at events, creation of portable promotional flags and an increasing selection of branded items including clothing.

According to Fespa’s print census, 27 per cent of respondents are already involved in garment printing with 81 per cent of those enjoying growth as a result. For direct to garment printing, inkjet is rapidly catching up with screen printing. Suppliers like Kornit have been quick to adapt their machines for a less specialist market, attracting interest by participating in Fespa alongside companies that are familiar to graphic arts companies and that are offering textile printers, including Epson, Mimaki, Mutoh and Roland DG. Australian developer Impression Technologies is one of the leaders in this field.

The same forces that have driven adoption of digital across the market are at work again. Digital means shorter production runs, faster turnaround and more customised products. This results in brighter more intricate designs to be printed, ideal for sportswear where clubs are wont to change designs each season to milk their supporters, or for clothing that is inspired by rapidly changing fashion trends.

As an example, canoe clothing designer Peak UK has been using a Roland DG Text RT-640 dye sub printer to develop both new designs and new products. It can test ideas fast faster than waiting for samples to be returned from China, Turkey or Pakistan. It has found success with a new lighter vest for competitive canoeists with a splash deck built in and which is lighter than any rival product. Its use at the Rio Olympics led to inquiries about the ST Racer garment from canoeists worldwide says the company. The inkjet machine enabled sample designs to be sent out with little delay and to produce the follow up orders.

Not everyone needs this sophistication. The Ricoh Anajet printer has been described as a money making machine. It is a small flatbed direct to garment printer with five colours. The image is positioned on the set up station, edited if required and printed to the item of clothing held in the jig.

Caps and other items as well as t-shirts are printed in seconds. A heat press seals the ink to the fibres of the t-shirt.

As an entry to the world of garment printing these machines, now the Ricoh Ri3000 and Ri6000, can scarcely be bettered. As an adjunct to an existing print on demand operation, this technology opens the door to an expanding revenue stream.

Printing on textiles, whether for garments, signage, home décor or anything else is ripe for the digital transition.

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