Fabulous Fabrics

Recent developments in digital fabric and textile printing have changed the landscape of the wide-format industry. Fabrics are cheaper, lighter, and "greener" and more companies are seeing the light. In an attempt to examine how fabric printing continues to expand the market, Wide-Format Imaging contacted a diverse group of wide-format print providers that are creating fabric signage. We asked them to discuss the impact of fabric graphics, recent trends, specific projects, and predict where the market will go from here.

Q: How are digital fabric graphics and textile printing changing the landscape of the wide-format industry?

Walter Bernard, Bay Area Imaging LLC—Customers for interior exhibit and event graphics often now prefer fabrics over vinyl banners because they drape much better and have a more upscale look. As for other substrates, digital printing on fabrics will replace screen-printing up to a certain extent.

Nicolas Crestin and Tammy Woods, Duo Display USA—Textile printing provides an innovative solution with many advantages: unmatched quality of image with intense colors and no curving effect; minimal time and labor and lower shipping and handling fees; quick set up and transportability; easily interchangeable graphics; non-flammable display solutions (M1); fabric is an architectural element; greener displays; durability. At Duo, we've been recommending Fabric Display for trade-show and retail since 2004. Our catalog has a section on Fabric Display Solutions.

Tony Schmitt, Optima Graphics—From our standpoint, we have seen an industry-wide switch from laminated graphics to fabric graphics. Once our customers learned the advantages and savings, they jumped at the textile graphics. Now, as with laminated graphics in the past, they are pushing the envelope of technology expectations and applications for printed fabric.

Hank Heatly, Catalyst Exhibits—Digital graphics and textile printing are changing everything about the trade show marketing industry…and the change is definitely for the better. For too long concerns about fabrication realities and logistics have ruled the day and dominated the client's budgets... in many ways the trade show business has devolved into a "cabinet" business. That's a real tragedy because it is bad for clients. And what is bad for clients is bad for us, and bad for our business. After all, we believe that the trade show business is a marketing business.

Fortunately, large-format digital graphics are changing everything: they allow for flexibility and responsiveness, while providing high-impact marketing value. They are logistically beneficial and fiscally valuable. We believe that trade show investments should be concentrated upon those things that trade show attendees experience. We encourage our clients to "concentrate on impact." Fabric graphics are high-impact solutions. They represent lightweight, easily transported and highly dramatic solutions.

We subscribe to the notion that the carbon footprint is a useful way of measuring our "green-ness." If, as the Wikipedia definition suggests, the carbon footprint is a "measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of green house gasses produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide," then it must follow that it is better to ship lighter weight, large-format, fabric images from show to show than to do something heavier.

Aaron Kozar, Orbus, Inc.—I have seen a significant shift in the wide-format industry to fabric/textile and UV direct printing. All of the investments we have made in the last two years have been focused on dye-sub fabric printing and UV direct output. Additionally, new technology has allowed us to reduce finishing and production steps, which in turn allowed us to increase productivity and decrease lead times. Our Gandinnovations 3324, Aquajet allows us to print direct to fabric at 3-meter widths without having to transfer, which has been a huge time saver and has allowed us to be more productive and cost effective.

Q. What are the most recent trends in the fabric graphics market, as related to the wide-format field?

Bernard—Visiting the SGIA trade show in October I was amazed. There were fabrics everywhere. I have never seen so many inkjet printers printing on fabrics, exhibit systems for fabrics, and so many suppliers of fabrics. The range of available fabrics suitable for digital printing has expanded exponentially.

Many of the new fabrics are aimed at the interior decor or even apparel market (the range offered by Verseidag even includes silver and gold metallic fabrics). This is a very promising new market for digital wide-format printing, but will require marketing to interior designers and fashion designers.

Crestin and Woods—Exhibit houses are using fabric graphics a lot for their customers. In terms of architecture, it provides new possibilities. It also answers two main concerns from the end-users: reducing overall costs and becoming greener.

Retail professionals are using more fabric graphics. It can be used as a picture for advertising, but also as an element aimed at creating an atmosphere such as a false ceiling made with stretched fabric. Textile graphic also allows end users to play with lighting, as we see very often on staging projects.

Schmitt—From the market standpoint, our customers are increasingly taking applications that are historically based on rigid panels and infusing fabric. Many of the large aluminum structures that had rigid Sintra panels are now being produced with fabric. Aluminum suppliers are producing special profiles to incorporate fabric and this is completely changing the Trade Show industry.

From the technology side, the big trend is direct to fabric. Historically, digitally printed fabric was done is two steps and now the printers are being made to eliminate a step and print direct to the fabric.

Richard Beck, Catalyst Exhibits—As wide-format is big, bold and sends a message, we also prefer to look at the details, the small workings of fabric and print. Try to understand how fabric and graphics will work with the different lighting in the environment it will be displayed—do we go with a trendy metallic fabric, will it be opaque or should it be shear? Mounting or hanging of fabric creates a detail. Fabric can wrap around an interior structure as easily as it can be tensioned from an external mount.

Kozar—The tradeshow industry is constantly pushing the limits of fabric. Large fabric tension structures with pillowcase graphics are very popular and continuing to grow. Backlit fabrics are becoming more popular and can be used in very unique ways to accentuate the fabric. Larger graphic sizes are now possible with fabric due to its light weight and ability to fold up and ship with smaller dimensions.

Q. Can you talk about a specific project that you are working on where using fabric was the key reason to go ahead with the project?

Bernard—We are working on an exhibit system project utilizing fabrics, but I can't release specifics as yet. I can, however, say that as a dealer for Duo display systems, we have started promoting their Duo.mercure exhibit systems that uses fabrics for all the graphics.

Beck—We just completed RSNA in first week of December 2008. Our client wanted to showcase new products and requested an impact area for their "Launch of New Products." They determined that it would mainly be a corporate color with minimal images and very large. The Design Team researched different materials to give the structure a shimmery glow. The size was also an opportunity, as the production team researched construction methods that would allow a realistic installation time and engineered to meet all safety requirements. The project solution was fabric.

Kozar—We have gained a significant amount of business by offering fabric graphics. Dye-sublimated fabrics represent the fastest growing portion of our business and we use textiles with virtually all of our displays such as backdrops, banner stands, truss graphics and aluminum structures.

Q. What has been the most unique application for fabric graphics that you have done?

Bernard—The most unique application was for a set of four fabric banners for the Italian Space Agency to be taken along on the shuttle mission STS 120.
Crestin and Woods—One recent application was a big billboard made for Castrol in Mexico. The final size was 25.25 feet by 11 feet. The frame was made with aluminum lengths of 40 inches, so it can be shipped easily from place to place for their road show. The textile graphic is a big part of the project because it can be shipped easily, washed and it is very resistant.

Beck—We are very fortunate to have a design team that is creative. This challenges everyone to continue to look at innovative ways to fabricate our products. We had a project at CES that had many unique applications. One of our challenges was to hang large concrete-looking billboard panels with the clients name glowing inside. The solution was to use different fabrics and blackout materials that sandwiched internal lightboxes. Another challenge was a 20-foot centerpiece white panel with white printed flowers viewable from 25 feet away; again we turned to a sheer printed fabric.

Kozar—We recently produced 10x10-foot fabric graphics that were custom cut into the shape of a Z for a popular shoe company. The job was printed direct to fabric on an 8 ounce Oxford with our Aquajet.

Q. What do you see next in fabric graphics in the wide-format market?

Bernard—Soon after UV flatbed printers came on the market, the print shops came to realize that they need a digital router as well to produce the finished products the market demanded. I anticipate the same for fabrics. In addition to printing, fabrics need to be cut and sewn utilizing appropriate finishing equipment (which is not the same as for vinyl banner materials) in order to deliver a finished product ready for installation or use. My personal opinion, admittedly biased, is that direct solvent printing on fabrics will outpace dye sublimation. The quality and vibrancy is getting better and better and its just more cost effective and simpler.

Crestin and Woods—We really believe in a new market, which is Interior Architecture. It will, of course, include the architects in charge of designing retail environment, workspaces (we are using our products for wall partitions), lobbies, and also homes. It is now possible to personalize walls or frames hung on walls with pictures or signage, which can be changed according to the homeowner's moods. It is even possible to print bed sheets. It's really huge market!

Schmitt—I see the number of applications continuing to explode beyond the obvious markets and more into everyday life. This will create new markets and opportunities for printers, which will draw in competition and grow the market even more. I also see the applications driving the need for fabric prints to have a longer UV life and broader fabric selection.

Mark Lynch, Catalyst Exhibits—We need to use our fabric graphic capabilities to create dimensional solutions. After all, fabric is flexible in many ways. Fabric graphics can conform to complex shapes in exciting, organic and beautiful ways. It can be—and should be—sculptural. We see a great deal of two dimensions. I want to push farther into the third dimension.

Kozar—The evolution of direct to fabric dye sub technology will allow for faster, more productive printers to be available to the industry. Fabric choices continue to expand and give customers more choices and options when creating a display or exhibition. Ultimately, I see fabric continuing to grow in popularity with its versatility to be used in many applications and the availability of biodegradable and recyclable options to offer a green solution for textile options.