Digital Fabric Printing Offers Something No Sign Shop Can Afford To Ignore: Profitability

Have you explored the world of digital fabric printing? If not, then you could be missing out on one of the hottest trends in the sign industry today.

No longer limited to the world of fashion, large format digital fabric printing is producing everything from casino gaming table tops to elegant banners to corporate flags to ­ well, the possibilities are virtually endless. Savvy shops are adding digital fabric printing to the product mix and most would agree that the risk is worth the reward.

“Competition has caused price drops in the sign industry,” says Neal Stone, president of Jacquard Inkjet Systems in Healdsburg, Calif. “When the price drops the profits drop. Digital fabric printing is putting the profitability back into the sign industry.”

Luxurious linen 
There’s little question that sign makers can generate significant revenue through digital fabric printing. Experts say upscale department stores, exhibit companies, sports stadiums and schools are among those beginning to realize the unique benefits of fabric versus vinyl, paper or canvas signage.

“Clients spend so much money on their point-of-purchase and trade show graphics,” says Nora Norby, president of Banner Creations in Minneapolis. “Vinyl banners don’t hold up over the long-haul. Fabric printing produces banners that you can wash repeatedly over several years and they still look good.”

Sign makers also tout the soft look and feel of lightweight fabric banners with their flowing movement that catches the eyes of people passing by. That attention-getting motion is a key selling point in retail settings where consumers are inundated with buying options. Then there’s the sheer beauty of a soft fabric signage.

“Digital fabric printing produces the most elegant large format graphics you can own,” says David King, director of operations for Castle Graphics, a digital graphics shop in New England. “Fabric is durable ­ it doesn’t crack or fade ­ and it’s beautiful.”

One digital fabric printing method, however, does not fit all. Dye sublimation technologies are the traditional means of digital printing onto fabric. Dye sublimation is a two-step process: printing onto paper and then transferring it onto fabric through a heat press, which embeds the ink into the yarn. But some shops are experimenting with direct printing approaches.

What’s the best route for your shop?

Dying dynamics 
Direct digital printing is not an option for Pictographics, a large-format digital graphics and printing shop in Las Vegas. Pictographics uses the dye sublimation process to print digital images on glass, wood, carpet, plastic, T-shirts – just about anything. Company president and chief executive Craig Miller says printing digital wall coverings is a big growth industry for his shop.

“We are doing miles of custom fabric wall coverings,” says Miller, who recently switched from an electrostatic printer to a Mimaki MJ-4 with proprietary modifications. “We also do thousands of roulette tables and Black Jack tables.”

Matthew Lederman, president of Clifton, N.J.-based Dye Into Print could use either method to print fabric banners, which are the staple of his shop. Lederman chose dye sublimation because it offers longevity. The biggest drawback, he says, is being limited to polyester-based substrates. Since the clarity and sharpness of the image depends on the thickness of the fabric, polyesters do not offer the same level of crispness as pure silk or cotton fabrics that direct printers use. Lederman calls dye sublimation a “weird science.”

“What you see is not what you get,” he insists. “What we receive as a file on the screen looks completely different than what comes out on the paper and what comes out on the paper looks completely different than what transfers onto the fabric. It’s a magical, mystical process.”

Other dye sublimation shortcomings include difficulties in color matching and bleeding images, says Silvia Wood, sales manager at Macapflags, a Seattle-based custom flag manufacturer. “With dye sublimation, the image bleeds through to the other side,” she says. “That is good in some applications, but undesirable if the image has text because it reads backward on one side.”

Not so direct printing 
Meanwhile, Pixus Digital Printing in Lafayette, La. is taking hold of the future of digital fabric printing. Company president Max Hoyt says his shop prints point-of-purchase advertising materials, trade show graphics, ties and scarves direct to fabric through his Mutoh 63-inch inkjet printer.

“With direct printing you get much more brilliant and sharper images than you do through dye sublimation,” says Hoyt, who prints on 100 percent silk and cotton. “Dye sub images usually tend to be a little bit on the soft, muted side. The brilliant resolution of direct printing is why we chose it.”

The downside, he says, is the cost. Instead of using a heat press that is common with dye sub, direct printing requires a steaming process to embed the ink into the fabric, which then must be washed and dried. This translates into more labor on the back end. The required paper-coated fabric also adds an additional expense, but direct printing onto fabric is still a profitable business for Hoyt.

“People want fabric. Vinyl is good for the exterior, but fabric is more suitable for the interior,” he says. “When you visit a lady’s cosmetic counter at a major department store, you don’t expect to see vinyl banners hanging from the ceiling. Fabric banners are more appropriate for that type of scenario.”

The future is near
The productivity factor is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the success of direct digital fabric printing. But as the technology evolves, experts say this method could eventually take over the market.

The Mimaki TX2-1600 allows sign shops roll to roll direct printing on fabrics at thicknesses up to 1/4 inch without a backing sheet or liner. This would cut a step out of the process and make direct digital fabric printing a more attractive option. But at 720 dpi, many are waiting for the next generation.

“The trend of the future is wider capabilities and printing the digital process direct to the fabric to cut out the heat press,” says Lederman. “It’s being done now on a limited basis, but it has not been perfected.”

While printer manufacturers work out all the kinks, experts say digital fabric printing is gaining momentum with customers and many in the sign industry are optimistic about the long-term possibilities.

“Digital fabric printing is a relatively new industry,” says Stone. “My expectation is that the margins are going to remain in this field for the next five to eight years.”

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