By Melissa Donovan
Digitally printed textiles continue to have their moment. Smithers’ The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2023 states that in 2018 the global value in this market reached €2.83 billion. This equates to 2.17 billion square meters of fabrics printed on inkjet machinery. It projects the market to grow to €4.90 billion in 2023. This is representative of a compound annual growth rate of 11.6 percent.
Textile printing encompasses many applications from home décor and apparel to signage. Despite the buzz, print service providers (PSPs) may be weary of apparel or décor because they don’t have the staff or time to work with design houses or different clothing or décor brands.
This doesn’t mean opting out of printing to textiles completely. One option is to offer current clients soft signage, which is popular for a number of reasons and used by many different industries from retail to events.
Both direct and transfer sublimation in addition to other printing practices with alternative ink sets are viable options for any PSP considering entering textile printing via soft signage. Before purchasing a textile printer, it is smart to plan which applications will be output on the device and from there, learn the nuances between each technology to choose the best one.
Above: VorTex Backlit Optimum D270 from Ultraflex Systems, Inc. is a woven fabric designed to produce vivid graphics.
A Great Addition
If a sign shop isn’t already offering it, soft signage is a great addition. The reasons seem to be endless, with growth rates higher than ever and industries from all backgrounds requesting it for branding and marketing campaigns. They are doing so because it provides a high-quality appearance, is cost effective to ship due to its light weight, and considered eco-friendly.
“Soft signage and digitally printed fabric products offer significant growth markets, estimated at ten to 15 percent per year. This growth area is becoming popular in point of purchase (POP), trade show/exhibit graphics, décor applications, and indoor advertising display,” shares Deborah Hutcheson, director of strategic business development and distribution, North America, Agfa.
When it comes to looking good, soft signage delivers in spades. “Soft signage has a higher value look and feel to it as compared to vinyl and paper. It can be a strong competitive differentiator—you’ll command higher prices and greater margins,” suggests Tomer Ohavi, product marketing manager, EFI Display Graphics.
There is also a general consensus that soft signage is “green” for a number of reasons. “Soft signage is reusable—you can wash and refresh stored items as needed. Fabric is a great green alternative to PVC-based products,” adds Lily Hunter, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.
Its light weight is ideal for shipping, which is part of the green theme. “It has a cost savings in shipping as you can fold the graphic and won’t have to worry about ink cracking or stretching like UV. This allows for smaller form when shipping and is cheaper than having to roll a banner and box it,” says Jeremy Pilcher, textile solution architect for the Americas, HP Inc.
“Many of the textiles available on the market are crease resistant, which makes soft signage easy to ship. In addition, dye-sub inks are wash fast, which allows for extended life and increased durability of the end product,” seconds Victoria Nelson Harris, senior textile segment specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc.
According to Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.,“in general, soft signage has replaced PVC banners in many applications. Soft signage can be filed, rolled, or packed into a shipping box, opened at an event, and steamed to look like new, reducing shipping costs and allowing repeated use of the same product.”
Looking at Trends
Current trends occurring in soft signage revolve around the application itself. More print buyers recognize the aforementioned benefits and prefer using soft signage in both indoor and outdoor applications.
Soft signage experienced one of the strongest growth trends in digital printing, according to Ohavi. “The technological leaps made in print output capabilities, such as the development of premium quality, highly productive 2,400 dpi solutions, have resulted in the trade show and exhibit graphics market substantially transforming to soft signage. At the same time, the premium quality and dpi resolutions higher than what is achievable with other types of superwide format technologies also give soft signage a strong presence in the premium POP graphics market.”
“Growth in this segment is trending upwards across both indoor and outdoor applications. Outdoor flags and banners and backlit applications are very popular, and the stronger, more consistent media help the prints last longer under harsh conditions,” notes Hutcheson.
An application trend in soft signage is silicone edge graphic (SEG) frames, which are utilized in a host of environments from exhibit halls to retail and hospitality. These can be backlit, front lit, or edge lit. “The application offers flexibility to easily change out according to seasonal trends, which in turn offers the PSP continued and consistent business and allows them to expand applications within their existing customer base,” says Nelson Harris.
“Soft signage continues to replace other forms of rigid and vinyl displays given its ability to be repurposed, ease of installation and take down, and lower shipping costs. Soft signage for front lit and backlit SEG displays and soundproof fabrics remain the current future trends,” agrees John Ingraham, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America.
Another application trend is utilizing soft signage for virtual platforms. This includes “video conference, product displays, or pop-up shops to advertise and promote the company or brand. Popular applications being used are branded, printed backdrops and table throws,” suggests Nelson Harris.
With the exhibition market picking up after a slow 12 months thanks to COVID-19, Mike Syverson, textile manager – North America, Durst Image Technology US LLC, sees soft signage continuing to gain momentum. “The soft signage market is continuing to pick up steam with many retailers investing in this option due to the low costs of shipping, installation, and ease of graphic change outs. The exhibition market is starting to shift for many of the same reasons as retailers.”
What to Know
For a PSP already offering signage, but not familiar with soft signage or textile printing, there are some steps to address right away. One of the first, determining the type of print method based on what works best for the company. Options include direct dye-sublimation (dye-sub), transfer dye-sub, and direct printing with other ink sets.
“An important first step is to understand the market and the specific print applications produced. Sublimation is a two-step process that requires a printer with sublimation inks and a suitable heating system to fixate the inks to the substrate. Applications like flags and fabric banners are popular but choosing equipment that can only be used for those applications may limit a print shop in the future,” suggests Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson America.
Nelson Harris believes an awareness of the application that will be printed helps to determine the printer width and suitable ink set. If set on dye-sub, it’s then a task to understand the difference between the two.
“A print provider that produces a range of products may prefer to print transfer paper due to the wider array of fabrics. If a PSP has a narrow range of applications, a direct approach may make more sense,” says Syverson.
More specifically, “direct dye-sub requires coated fabric and is typically used for applications that require more ink saturation and penetration into the fiber such as flags, backlit, and SEG. Dye-sub transfer does not require coated fabric and this offers more fiber versatility, however there is the additional cost of the transfer paper. It also allows for sharper fine line details versus direct, making it ideal for applications viewed up close,” adds Nelson Harris.
If considering transfer dye-sub, a big factor to be aware of is making physical room as well as capital for a heat press to sublimate the printed design onto the fabric. “Adding a heat press, is of course, an additional cost, and it is an another piece of hardware that may have to be scheduled for maximum productivity if, for example, a business is to operate multiple dye-sub printers with only a single heat press on the shop floor,” explains Ohavi.
Check suggests that for a new user, starting with dye-sub transfer printing offers the most straightforward path to success. The equipment is easier to use, lower cost, and there is an extremely wide range of applications possible.
“If you really want to take advantage of what dye-sub offers, then transfer allows printing on backlit and flag, and other options, and hard substrates as well,” recommends Anderson.
Similarly, Ingraham believes transfer is the best starting point for a PSP because the printing operation on paper requires less operator experience to handle paper compared to textiles. “Given that the cost of transfer paper is a fraction of fabric, the cost waste resulting from printing errors are lower with transfer printing.”
For a shop short on space, a printer equipped with inline sublimation—direct dye-sub, is a great option. “One printer can move a signage and graphics shop into dye-sub soft signage without an additional piece of hardware,” suggests Ohavi.
Furthermore, there are printers that offer both direct and transfer dye-sub capabilities in one piece of hardware, which provides maximum flexibility when it comes to the different types of fabrics—coated or uncoated—that plan to be printed on.
“The soft signage dye-sub industry is moving more into direct printing, but there is still a need for paper transfer. So having a printer that can do both without changing ink sets is key,” notes Pilcher.
Referring to this type of printer as “hybrid,” Ingraham says they offer the PSP the ability “to begin with transfer printing and later expand their product offerings in the future with direct fabric printing. This provides maximum flexibility to customers looking to offer single-sided viewing banners as well as double-sided viewing flags.”
Size, speed, and reliability of the printer is also a consideration. Users should question whether they require the productivity afforded by a ten-foot or three-meter device, adds Hutcheson.
Pilcher recommends a 3.2-meter or 10.5-foot device for the soft signage and display market. “If you are a beginner, buying a 3.2-meter printer can seem like a huge task, but finding a machine that is easy to use and versatile is what you want to do.”
It is possible to print soft signage using other ink sets like eco-solvent or UV. However, Hunter says if the primary tool is an eco-solvent or UV printer, the PSP might be limited if they begin doing a lot of trade shows and producing soft signage and flags. If interest ramps up, a dye-sub printer becomes a great alternative.
Specific feature sets found on the newest printers available to PSPs make them particularly ideal for soft signage printing. This includes components such as media handling and compatibility, as well as ink set, dual rolls, and productivity.
Syverson cites versatility, reliability, and the capacity for growth as key components when looking at a dedicated textile printer for soft signage. “Systems with high uptime, minimal user interaction, solid media handling, and high quality help PSPs be in a position to provide the best possible products.”
Agfa’s new Avinci CX3200 operates at a maximum speed of 2,906 square feet per hour (sf/h). Equipped with both direct and transfer dye-sub printing capabilities, it features extremely low ink consumption thanks to the high dye load of Agfa dye-sub inks. A unique soft signage dedicated media transport system is designed to handle a range of materials, with support from built-in vacuums and an on-board heater.
Canon Solutions America distributes DGI dye-sub printers, including the Poseidon transfer device available in 64 and 74 inches with optional fluorescent ink. Additionally, the FT-3204X is a hybrid dye-sub—transfer or direct—printing up to 130 inches in width at a maximum print speed of 2,690 sf/h. The company labels it as a productive entry point into ten-foot dye-sub printing. Rounding out the lineup, the FH-3204 is a mid-volume, 126-inch hybrid dye-sub with a maximum speed of 3,230 sf/h and the option of fluorescent ink.
Durst released the 3.3-meter P5 TEX iSUB in April 2021. At the heart of the Durst P5 TEX iSUB is integrated inline fusing for direct printing on polyester fabrics. Sublifix dye-sub ink delivers vivid colors, even on difficult media such as blackback or backlit for light boxes or flags. A unique feature of the P5 Text iSUB is its contactless fusing, which ensures excellent color consistency as well as extreme sharpness of detail in images and text, also blurring or bleeding of color is virtually eliminated.
Two of the newest printers in the EFI soft signage line include the EFI POWER 340 and EFI COLORS 340. They offer significant volume production with maximum speeds close to 17,000 and 9,000 sf/h, respectively. EFI COLORS 340 allows users to print in four color times two, four color times four, or six color times four configurations, as well as an eight-color configuration featuring standard CMYK and light CMK color inks, in addition to a penetrating agent.
The Epson SureColor F9470 and F9470H transfer dye-sub printers leverage a dual PrecisionCore TFP printhead and UltraChrome DS ink technology with high-density black ink to produce exceptional color saturation and high contrast. The SureColor F9470H features an enhanced printhead design with fluorescent ink support using fluorescent yellow and pink ink to expand color gamut and applications. Dual printheads deliver industrial-level, roll-to-roll performance at speeds of up to 1,169 sf/h.
HP STITCH S1000 features user replaceable printheads, a simple loading process, and an onboard spectrophotometer for color repeatability and onboard profiles—ideal for beginner textile PSPs. Users can rely on the same ink set for both paper transfer and direct-to-fabric printing. During transfer printing, it allows the user to take advantage of a dual-roll system, which means doubling narrow width output.
Mimaki’s entry-level model, the TS100-1600, is 64-inch dye-sub transfer printer ideal for banners and smaller signage released in March 2021. It prints at up to 753 sf/h. The company’s TS300P-1800 and TS55-1800 are 76-inch dye-sub transfer models that offer more versatility with extra width for SEG applications. They are designed for medium- to high-productivity. The TX300P-1800 MkII is also a 76-inch printer, however it is available with six different single ink configurations, and a hybrid function runs a dual ink set like direct-to-fabric sublimation ink and transfer dye-sub.
Among its offerings, Mutoh’s XpertJet 1682WR is a 64-inch dye-sub printer. The media feed flange design allows operators to easily and quickly load media and exchange multiple rolls when the flanges are mounted in advance. A pressure roller system allows operators to manually select and engage individual pressure rollers to minimize cockling.
Roland offers the Texart RT-640M, which features combined direct-to-fabric and transfer printing capabilities at a 64-inch width. The printer is equipped with automatic media feed and take-up systems, vacuum systems, bulk ink pouches, and an ink switching system. The bulk ink system enables continuous printing and the heavy-duty take-up system holds up to 100 pounds of media.
Persuade to Invest
For some PSPs, the cost of adding a dedicated textile printer might be intimidating. It’s not hard to persuade them, as the purchase will end up in reward. Return on investment (ROI) is all but expected.
“While the costs of adding new technology can be daunting, in many cases the benefits outweigh the risk of not providing this extra service. PSP’s customers are likely buying soft signage from another company, even if they are purchasing goods from the PSP,” notes Syverson.
Ohavi points out, if current customers are purchasing soft signage elsewhere, then adding the service will bring that business back in house.
“This is a natural progression for many PSPs to expand into soft signage. Recognize that there is also a shift of business occurring as well. In certain markets, hard copy rigid prints are shifting to soft prints due to the handling benefits and reduced costs in shipping and installation,” explains Hutcheson.
Soft signage leads to other textile-type endeavors. “There is growth beyond signage into areas such as the décor market, which is on fire right now,” suggests Pilcher.
The cost of printing with dye-sub is lower compared to other print technologies, including the ink, transfer paper, and fabric. The printing equipment itself is not very expensive, but if a heat fixation unit is needed, a PSP may see extra dollar signs and be weary. “Very often those beginning in dye-sub allocate most of their investment dollars into the printing equipment only to find out that the required heat press costs twice as much as the printer,” warns Ingraham.
“It’s important to consider that the investment in a heat fixation system will last for many years, possibly decades, and does not need to be upgraded frequently like printing technology. It’s possible to start with an investment of only a few thousand dollars in dye-sub to test if your shop has the business opportunity to support a larger investment,” recommends Check.
For ambivalent PSPs, outsourcing might be an option until a certain tipping point is reached and a dedicated textile printer makes financial sense.
Partnering with an experienced soft signage printer prior to bringing your own device on board, it will allow you to learn the industry jargon and requirements, suggests Hutcheson. This helps a PSP build their business to a level they feel comfortable at to then invest in their own printer.
“It’s okay to outsource until you have enough business where it’s feasible to produce this kind of output in house,” agrees Hunter.
If a PSP regularly outsources 2,000 square feet or more soft signage products per month, Ingraham believes this is when they can start to justify an investment in dye-sub printing—in addition to a heat press solution.
“Ultimately, many will invest in their own equipment once the annual purchases justify bringing equipment in house. There are many metrics, such as print cost, media cost, overall volume, and turnaround, for example,” adds Syverson.
Ohavi warns against outsourcing. “There may be some high-stake risks when outsourcing textile work—you can’t control the technology used, quality, turnaround times, or pricing, and you may be at risk losing some of your customer’s wallet share.”
“Digitally printing soft signage in house allows for full control of the process, increased profit, and speed to market,” adds Nelson Harris.
It’s all about settling on the correct printer. “Finding that sweet spot is what I would be looking for—the printer that has ease of use, versatility, high productivity, and the right price tag,” recommends Pilcher.
Once the right match is made, “transitioning soft signage and textile work in house can be quite lucrative, with profit margins of 50 percent or more and an ROI within six months to a year depending on the equipment purchased,” advises Ingraham.
Unfolding into the Future
Digitally printed soft signage—whether performed via transfer or direct dye-sub, or another print method/ink set—is a great stepping stone into fabric printing that can lead to other applications. For PSPs not looking to expand into new markets like décor and apparel, soft signage is a great segue into a popular industry unfolding right in front of us.
To learn more about soft signage and the digital printing phenomenon watch an archived webinar on the topic by clicking here.
Jul2021, Digital Output