By Cassandra Balentine
Interest in soft signage is attributed to both its practical and aesthetic benefits. Dye-sublimation (dye-sub) is attractive due to its versatility, portability, and vibrancy. Targeting sign shops, dye-sub presses are ideal for producing soft signage.
Above: Roland’s Texart RT-640M multifunction dye-sub printer offers both direct-to-fabric and transfer printing capabilities. The same ink set—its Texart SBL3 dye-sub inks—can be used for either of these processes.
Several trends lead to continuous interest in dye-sub technologies for producing soft signage.
Tim Check, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc., sees a strong demand for soft signage, especially as companies look to use renewable and environmentally responsible materials. “Dye-sub offers a water-free printing process, which utilizes fabric that can be comprised of recycled polyester content as well as be recycled after use,” he shares.
Cost is also a factor. “While there is an upfront equipment expense for the printers and heat transfer equipment, the operating costs are one of the lowest in the industry, making it more profitable for sign shops,” comments Check.
Mike Syverson, textile manager, Durst Image Technology US, LLC, also sees finances as a big driver towards textiles. “Soft signage prints are significantly less expensive to ship compared to rolled vinyl or pallets of rigid boards. Fabric can be folded up and placed in a relatively small package with no special care involved.”
The benefits don’t stop there. “The wow factor comes with the print quality. Dye-sub prints have much greater vibrancy and bright color range, including fluorescent inks that capture attention. At the end of the day, effectively catching a potential customer’s attention is the entire purpose of the sign,” adds Check.
Another driver is ease of install. “In a retail setting, staff can often install a graphic versus additional charges for installation teams. This also facilitates more rapid change outs for a retailer when promotions transition, thereby increasing overall business to the printer. In a trade show environment, fabric graphics can dramatically reduce cost of installation as it is usually faster to install in addition to cost savings with drayage on the show floor versus pallets of rigid panels,” offers Syverson.
“The whole idea is that with fabric you can fold, ship, and steam, and it looks like new. This allows for easier, less expensive shipping and reuse of soft signage,” adds Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Soft signage and dye-sub opportunities are expected to grow. Continual advancements in synthetic textile media lead the way for new soft signage applications. “Fabric advancements such as crease resistance also facilitate ease of transport and the ability for long-term storage and reuse. Technological advancements in installation systems allow for quicker changeovers that make them appealing,” shares Gabriel Crumpler, application specialist II, Mimaki USA, Inc.
One area where soft signage is popular is the event space, which took a hit over the past two years amidst COVID-19.
“As the pandemic becomes more under control and things begin to open up fully again, we are starting to see in-person trade shows occurring, and that will translate into greater demand for sublimated soft signage for use in general areas and exhibitor booths. Likewise, the return of in-person spectators at major sporting events and concerts will create additional opportunities for print providers,” explains Lily Hunter, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.
Prospects extend beyond events. “There is a growth opportunity for dye-sub soft signage happening across multiple segments. The return of trade shows has stimulated a large demand for soft signage and many companies have returned to pre-COVID-19 numbers in terms of print volume and soft signage demand. In addition, the retail space has significantly increased demand for soft signage as they start to convert traditional signage—vinyl, self-adhesive vinyl, rigid—to textile applications,” says Syverson.
Pandemic circumstances gave rise to succession events at several levels, implying profound and strategic changes worldwide. “In Europe, the global market’s closing has exposed the high dependence on foreign—and physically distant—markets. Many companies have closed. On the other hand, the surviving companies now have much more work to do. They concentrated their productions until recently since they were stopped due to the lack of raw materials or other components. Now they must also must find a way to supply the production left by the companies that didn’t survive,” shares Marco Sousa, VP, manager, MTEX NS, S.A.
During the pandemic, the demand for dye-sub printed home goods, personalized products, and apparel grew with healthy margins. “By adding dye-sub print capabilities, shops can achieve greater profits from signage and non-signage products,” advises John Ingraham, senior marketing specialist, digital textiles and dye-sub, Canon Solutions America.
Time to Invest
For print service providers (PSPs) seeking vinyl alternatives, a dye-sub system might be the solution.
Hunter feels that advanced, yet easy-to-use dye-sub printers offer sign shops an effective way to expand product offerings, target new customers, and create additional revenue streams. “The market for dye-sub soft signage continues to grow, as this type of signage is not only vibrant and eye catching, it’s also wrinkle resistant, lightweight, and cost effective to ship.”
Versatility is often essential when investing in new equipment. “The primary appeal of dye-sub is its range of applications and versatility. The difference between soft signage and shower curtains is only the fabric choice, the same printer that allows for signage, shower curtains, sportswear, and bulk fabric can also dye-sub metal substrates for portraits and art, while doing coffee mugs, jewelry, and other personalized gifts and awards,” says Anderson. “Dye-sub works on polyester fabrics and virtually anything you can coat with polyester. Your imagination is the greatest limitation.”
“As the market grows further, print buyers will be more focused on companies that can provide a complete solution, from rigid and flexible graphics to soft signage and other fabric applications. This also allows PSPs to supply a range of more diversified applications to a customer, which can help capture more business from buyers,” comments Syverson.
Prior to effective digital printing alternatives, companies would often buy in bulk for price breaks. This mindset is shifting. Sousa says given the high costs of transport and the extended waiting times to produce the end product, closer production is more beneficial. He admits that Europe still does not have enough equipment to face this new dynamic/demand. “Therefore, textile business people have an open invoicing opportunity and whoever manages to position themselves strategically more quickly will undoubtedly take advantage of this circumstance.”
Dye-sub systems expand the versatility of any business and opens business opportunities beyond soft signage and textiles, offers Crumpler.
Several features equip dye-sub printers with the ability to better handle certain applications, including backlit modes, dual print capabilities, superwide widths, and advanced media handling.
Backlit graphics are a large part of the soft signage market, typically involving silicone edge graphic (SEG) frames and LED backlighting. Some dye-sub devices offer high-quality/backlit print modes. Certain features and considerations are helpful for this application.
“Some high-quality systems have a method to print directly to the fabric, which helps increase color saturation and depth of color,” shares Syverson.
For example, Durst printers feature special backlit modes to further increase saturation without slowing the printer’s output speed.
Choosing the right print mode in the RIP software is also vital. It is especially important with backlit signage to ensure the graphics have a nice contrast and are not washed out. “To print high-quality backlit signage, more ink will simply be required, but that amount will vary with media quality and profiling. This is simply the nature of backlit because you’re going from a front lit reflective system to a light pass-through system. Backlit images have to accommodate for the difference in lighting,” explains Crumpler.
Hunter adds that choosing too much ink can make an image look “muddy,” and certain backlit images don’t require an extra layer of ink laydown. “For backlit applications, the extra ink saturation allows the colors to remain vibrant when backlit. It should look equally vibrant front lit or backlit,” she offers.
Roland provides customers with a variety of print profiles to choose from in ErgoSoft Roland DG Edition, where users can tweak or alter a chosen profile for two layer or more ink saturation. “This function can be used for backlit signage or anything that needs extra ink saturation. However, always test to assure that your transfer paper or media can handle the extra amount of ink. Also, before making any changes, test to see if the original print environment works well in a backlit application,” recommends Hunter.
Ingraham feels that backlit printing is more dependent on the fabric than the printer. “The majority of SEG is designed for backlit for greater visual impact. Usually, you need to laydown more ink to achieve higher density results when the sign is backlit. This can be done by adjusting ink limits or using higher density sublimation ink.”
Mutoh offers high-quality print modes, which in combination with variable dot printing allow for dots smaller than four picoliters to provide high-quality output, according to Anderson. “While most soft signs won’t need this kind of quality due to the coarse weave of soft sign fabrics, the newer SEG-specific fabrics have a smoother surface designed for point of purchase displays that benefit from higher resolution and variable dots by better reproducing skin tones, gradients, and crisper text and edges. The drawback of higher resolution/high-quality settings is longer print times.”
Dual Print Capabilities
The ability to print to transfer paper or fabric with the same ink set is also possible with certain dye-sub printers.
According to Crumpler, the advantages of dual print capabilities include a smaller footprint, investment in one machine, as well as versatility.
Canon offers three printers, the DGI FT-3204X, the DGI FH-3024, and the MS Impres, with hybrid printing capabilities. “Hybrid printers make it possible to print flags, which are viewed on both sides as well as traditional soft signage graphics. These printers make it easy to switch from transfer to direct-to-fabric printing,” notes Ingraham.
“As dye-sub and soft signage continue to evolve and change, having a versatile system is key to not limiting the business segments you can compete in,” adds Syverson.
The Durst P5 Tex iSub can print either on transfer paper or directly to fabric depending on a customer’s particular business need. This can all be done on the same system with the same ink set with minimal changeover time.
Mimaki offers a dual ink set hybrid machine—Tx300P-1800 MkII—that can switch between transfer paper and direct-to-fabric printing by attaching and detaching a vacuum platen. This hybrid model uses different inks for each option, but they are simultaneously onboard with minimal changeover time when switching from direct to transfer, explains Crumpler.
Roland’s Texart RT-640M multifunction dye-sub printer offers both direct-to-fabric and transfer printing capabilities. The same ink set—its Texart SBL3 dye-sub inks—can be used for either of these processes.
The challenge of dual print capability is speed. “In the dual ink system, each ink has a dedicated printhead, which divides the available ink channels as compared to its single ink system counterpart,” admits Crumpler.
Some dye-sub devices are available in grand format print widths.
Canon offers printers up to ten feet wide, which Ingraham says is the sweet spot for most soft signage applications. “Larger printers fill niche applications requiring large, seamless graphics.”
Syverson sees a small, but growing market for wider width soft signage printing, although most applications can be accomplished by seaming panels together.
The Durst Rhotex 500 five-meter dye-sub printer allows companies that require this format to be able to produce larger, single-panel applications.
Crumpler points out that SEG, indoor and outdoor banners, backlit displays, and photographic backdrops can be printed seamlessly on superwide format devices. “Applications that require grand format widths are soft signage, home furnishing, and hospitality.”
Mimaki’s TS500P-3200 grand format, aqueous-based dye-sub printer is dedicated to producing high-quality large scale applications. It meets the expectation of industry needs at the maximum 126-inch width and four- or six-color ink configuration.
MTEX provides 3.2 meters—approximately 126 inches—maximum width. Sousa points out that there is still very little supply in the market for textile materials for sublimation to five meters or 200 inches.
Mutoh offers its ValueJet 2638WX at 104 inches wide. “Larger applications like airport SEGs, SEG walls, and billboards benefit from a wider capability, without having seams,” says Anderson.
Advanced Media Handling
Advanced media handling, like vacuum systems, is also available.
“Accurate media handling is critical for all production-grade soft signage printing systems to ensure dimensional accuracy and to reduce potential banding artifacts in large sold graphics and gradients,” notes Ingraham.
He says all Canon printers offer advanced media handling as it is essential for industrial production shops. “The combination of vacuum with other features such as spreader bars, dancer bars, and printheads firing to media movement sensors ensure the best print and color quality results.”
Dye-sub printers at the industrial level require features such as vacuum platens, accurate media step controls, and precise drop placement to be competitive in the market. Soft signage applications involve printing many aspects of corporate branding. “If the output device doesn’t have high-end, precise media and ink handling, print providers can have a challenging time producing graphics that meet their clients’ expectations,” explains Syverson.
The Durst P5 Tex iSub features the ability to print transfer paper and fabric in addition to inline sublimation, eliminating the need for a standalone heat press in many applications. For transfer application, the system features an integrated vacuum platen for accurate media handling. It also has multi- and dual-roll functionality for rapid changeovers and narrow width applications. The P5 Tex printer is designed for maximum uptime, 24/7 operation, unattended printing, and the highest quality output.
The Epson SureColor F9470 and F10070 dye-sub printers feature an advanced media feed control to minimize media feed banding at high-speed print modes.
“The paper feed and tension adjust on the go to maintain print quality from start to finish of a roll operating at high speed,” says Check.
“Media handling features ensure stable and reliable printing, resulting in the output of high-quality images,” comments Crumpler.
Mimaki offers a feeding and take-up tension bar system for continuous feeding to achieve high-quality images. It also provides a vacuum system to make printing on transfer paper easy and prevent cockling.
Mutoh has focused on improving media handling for dye-sub by installing variable pressure holddown rollers that allow for normal pressure, light pressure, and no contact to reduce the chance of cockling.
“While the holddown roller itself has two levels of pressure—normal and light, the vacuum system has two levels of control, and on top of that the carriage now has four levels of adjustment. All of these have been implemented to improve performance on the widest range of papers available. In the soft sign market this means the ability to use thinner, less expensive paper, reducing overall costs,” shares Anderson.
The Roland Texart series dye-sub printers feature an automatic feed adjuster and media take-up system that ensures even tensioning and prevents skewing of transfer paper.
“Working in conjunction with these features is a powerful vacuum system that keeps paper flat for printing. Together these systems help maximize printing stability and accuracy while ensuring a precisely wound roll at the take-up reel that’s ready for heat transfer,” says Hunter.
The MTEX EAGLE has a built-in vacuum as well as a transport system that is strategically developed and harmonized to answer these types of issues with very high-quality performance.
Sousa points out that advanced media handling features add stability to the printing process, thus enhancing the printed piece’s quality.
Dye-sub printers offer vibrant, versatile soft signage graphics. While the reduced demand for event signage hit this segment hard during the pandemic, the devices also serve retailers and open up additional possibilities outside of signage. With a return to in-person events, dye-sub is a solid investment consideration for PSPs.
Feb2022, Digital Output