Wave the Flag

According to the owners of the 2012 WFI Top 40 Shops, fabric graphics are destined to be one of the major industry growth stories of the year.

But for print service providers looking to enter this lucrative market, all kinds of issues must be addressed before leaping in. What printer options are available? What must be learned before investing in this technology? What pitfalls do you want to avoid? What markets can be conquered? How do you find customers? And how do you best go about marketing your capabilities?

In this comprehensive examination of the equipment options and other issues involved in fabric printing, we attempt to answer many of those questions.


Fabric's Potential

Talk with experts about the potential of fabric and textile printing, and their enthusiasm for the topic is quickly evident. Will fabric, as suggested, be a growth area this year? “Absolutely,” says Randy Anderson, product manager for textile with Phoenix-based Mutoh America. “It’s a new revenue stream, and there are some higher profit margin products available. Part of it is it’s an application that’s kind of maturing. Textile printing has been very big in Europe and South America for a number of years, and it’s now doing the same here.”

According to Kevin Currier, manager of application solutions for Durst Image Technology, US, LLC, soft signage printing continues to gain in popularity, as printer capabilities increase, and fabric choices expand.

“The popularity of soft signage is easy to understand,” Currier says. “Many print systems offer VOC-free, water-based inks, allowing for an environmentally-friendly approach that can be complemented by using recylcable polyester materials. When combined with the higher resolutions and precision dot placement available on many systems, a truly attention grabbing fabric can be manufactured. Additionally, shipping and installation become less costly when using wrinkle-free, lightweight fabrics. All of this combines to make soft signage a good choice to expand into high-margin applications.”

Harlan Roberts, national sales manager for Philadelphia-based Big Mountain Imaging, is another proponent. “Clients are always looking for a way to differentiate themselves from others in the marketplace,” he says.

“And while textile has been around for a while, it hasn’t been mainstream. Whether it’s used in place of traditional vinyl banners and interior advertising, or in the exhibition and theatrical markets, there are no limits. And you can go up to 10-foot seamless prints, so there are not a lot of barriers on size, either.”

Scott Powell, marketing director for Seattle-based Rainier Industries, Ltd., says the future of textile is especially promising in the display and exhibit areas. “What once was built with heavy wood, with images plastered upon it, is now done with lightweight aluminum framework and stretch fabric,” he says.

“The benefits of fabric are light weight, and quicker setup and teardown. Also, you can do dimensional shaping with fabric that you can’t do with wood.”

The trade show and exhibit industry is only the start of the potential market for printed textiles. These materials aren’t just sought by trade show exhibitors, but by interior designers, retail stores, and sportswear manufacturers.

There’s even a market in the sports world for the backdrops featuring logos of pro and college teams, which appear behind a player or coach being interviewed on telecasts. “The big trend is personalization, in sportswear, home furnishings, mugs, awards, everything you can imagine,” Anderson says.

“If you want to design a pattern for your living room, you could do fabric for a sofa, drapes, chairs, the dining room tablecloth, as well as clothes.”


Equipment Options

Equipment options for PSPs entering this market niche include Mutoh America’s 1628TD and 2628TD.

Both of these machines are designed to handle transfer printing with polyester or direct printing on natural fabrics. This dual-ink, dual-head system will hold both ink systems in the same printer, allowing PSPs to literally print transfer-to-polyester on one job, then go straight to printing directly on natural fabric on the next, without undertaking an ink change.

While the benefits of printing on natural fabrics are well known, printing on polyester can be an equally good strategy, Anderson said. “It’s a fairly temporary but effective marketing tool, used typically in wind sails, banners, and trade show graphics,” he says. “It doesn’t wrinkle or bunch up as vinyl does. It’s stretchable over a frame, and can be easily transported for trade show applications. The thing that’s driven this is the wind sails; the signs on the edges of sidewalks.”

Another Mutoh America printer, the ValueJet 1638W, is a dual-head high-speed transfer printer with a top speed of more than 1,000 square feet an hour, and production speeds of 330 square foot per hour and better, Anderson says.

“It’s a very simple to use, but powerful command structure,” he adds.

Yet another equipment option from Mutoh America is the 1604W, a single-head version of the above machine. However, it is soon to be replaced by the ValueJet 1624W, another single-head version of the ValueJet 1638W.

Xennia has three textile printing systems in its product portfolio aimed at different market requirements: Xennia Jade, Xennia Osiris, and Xennia Emerald.

According to Tim Phillips, textile business manager for Xennia, based in Hertfordshire, UK, Jade is a high-quality digital inkjet printer, designed for printing a wide range of fabrics with excellent quality and productivity. It provides a compelling solution for high-end digital textile printing.

Osiris is an ultra-high-throughput digital textile printer, designed for rapid printing of fashion and furnishing fabrics. Using up to eight colors, the Osiris has similar speed and print quality to that of rotary screen printing, while providing all the benefits of digital printing, such as rapid design turnaround and economic shorter-run printing. The third textile printing system, Emerald, is a high-throughput digital inkjet printer designed for digital textile decoration and finishing, using a wide range of UV and solvent-based inks and functional fluids.

For those looking for printers specifically devoted to fabric printing, Durst recommends its Durst Rhotex 320, which builds on the Rho platform to offer industry leading material handling capabilities at impressive speeds.

The Rhotex 320 is an industrial strength 3.2 meter-wide system equipped with the Quadro Array 30D AQ Heads, and is configured to print seven colors (CMYK plus Light Cyan, Light Magenta, and Gray), for delivery of photographic quality at up to 775 square feet. In recent years, more emphasis has begun to be placed on the use of water-based, VOC-free inks for sublimation printing, Currier says. “Until recently, it was not easy to find printing equipment that met the industrial needs and production speeds required, combined with water-based inks and high image quality,” he adds. “The Rhotex 320 changes that.”

On November 1 of last year, Palo Alto-based Hewlett-Packard Company introduced the HP Designjet L26500 and the HP Designjet L28500, both entry-level sign and display printers than can be used for fabric printing.

The printers provide versatility, ease of use and an environmental benefit as well, explains Jordi Casas, worldwide strategic product manager, Large Format Production Division with the Graphics Solution Business of HP.

“Versatility refers to the things you can do, such as traditional applications, using the same media families, and in addition you can use paper-based materials and coated and uncoated textiles,” Casas says. “With solvent, by contrast, you can only print on coated textiles. This solution provides a wide range of applications you can offer your customer. With paper-based materials, you have the option of wallpapers. It‘s an opportunity that can be incremental and diversify your business, with the same investment in the same printer you’re using for other applications. We’re helping increase your return on investment.”

In textiles, with one investment, PSPs can handle applications they can’t with solvent or ecosolvent inks. “The big difference here is that with textiles, you have the option to invest in dedicated technologies,” he says. “The benefit we see in latex, with one investment you can do your traditional signage with PVC materials, vinyls and films, and wallpaper applications. And in addition, you can use textiles to diversify your business. The textiles are mainly polyesters and some natural fibers. Polyesters are a very good alternative to PVC materials. They’re easier to install and transport, and the look and feel is more high end.

“You can differentiate with textiles, doing the traditional signage applications. And in addition, you have other options: wall coverings that are textiles as well. In retail, for instance, you can use it with curtains.”

The two machines offer a number of enhancements designed to provide a better performance with textiles, Casas adds. New inks improve the water resistance of the textiles. There is a media-loading accessory to make loading media easier. Front tension in both printers helps ensure the right tension in the printing area, to achieve optimal image quality. And edge holders help make sure the edges of the material do not create a problem with the carriages.

Another enhancement is a refined double-side printing process. “You tell the printer you are printing double-side,” Casas says.

“The printer asks you to load the material, you print Side A with a registration mark, then you load the material on the other side, the printer reads the registration marks, automatically aligns the material, and you print Side B. And this way you have aligned, double-side printing.”


Keep These Considerations in Mind

The many issues PSPs need to stay on top of in fabric printing include the learning curve required to master the capability, the necessity of trouble shooting daily issues that arise, proper maintenance, changing and advancing technology, and the need for a facility that can accommodate efficient production flow.

So says Matthew Lederman, whose shop, Dye Into Print, has been producing 10-foot-wide, seamless, very high-end quality dye-sublimated textile products for 13 years. Dye Into Print operates in a state-of-the-art 60,000-square-foot facility, where it manufactures products start to finish that include backdrops, banners, curtains, tablecloths, pillows, bags, scarves, and pennants.

Phillips says PSPs need to understand the cost and quality requirements of their customers, and also the range of fabric types required. “Different fabric types often require different inks to be used, as well as having different post processing requirements,” he reports. “This can complicate the production process, unless it is accounted for early in the investment cycle.”

Digital textile printers essentially fall into three categories, he adds. They are those with speeds below around 100m2/hr, those in the 250-600m2/hr range, and a very few at even higher productivity of more than 2000m2/hr.

These obviously come with very different capital requirements. As a result, Phillips reports, a solid business plan is required to ensure the right capacity is built into the facility at the right time.

When seeking a printer specifically devoted to fabric printing, a number of key items should be considered, Currier says.

“The range of fabrics available today for soft signage sublimation printing is wider than ever,” he reports. “There are a multitude of choices in weave style, weight, and appearance. This variety can put high demands on a printing system’s media transport capabilities. Today’s industrial-level printing equipment must be designed to manage these materials while achieving high production throughput. Look for printing equipment that will perform at an industrial level.

“The ability to load entire full-width rolls that result in finished product allows for the most effective workflow. Robust, high production-level equipment minimizes waste and keeps the flow of graphics to the sublimation and finishing departments predictable and profitable.”

Another important area is the RIP and color management capabilities offered with the system, Currier adds.

Fabric printing comes with its own intricacies in this area. Solid profiling is the key to high-impact but consistent graphics over a range of materials. A RIP that works well enough for UV or solvent printing may not be sophisticated enough for use on a six- or seven-color dye sublimation printer.

Finishing is another concern for anyone entering the fabric printing arena. Getting the right equipment is one thing, “but then you have to figure out how you’re going to cut it and how you’re going to finish it,” says Powell, whose company started as a tent supplier to Alaska Gold Rush prospectors in 1896.

“I like to joke that printing is the easy part. Finishing it is a bit harder than simply hemming vinyl banners, especially if you are using a stretch product that’s less stable and requires greater craft sewing. We have a fairly highly skilled workforce that does the fabric-based products, tents, and industrial fabrics, but then can also do the finishing on banners and bigger trade show stuff. The labor can be as important as the equipment in this particular area. If you start shipping out crooked seams, it denigrates the end product. And no one wants that.”

Neal A. Zucker, president of Atlanta’s Southern Tailors Flag & Banner, another company with 19th century origins, which upon its founding in 1875 was a producer of ceremonial regalia, also stresses the importance of finishing.

When the company got into textile printing, he says, “We had an established, competent, and professional sewing staff. So we were able to look at fabric pieces and know how to finish them.

“A lot of people are looking to get into dye sublimation today who have come out of the vinyl world, and they’re hoping to farm out their finishing . . . If you’re getting into this, you have to hire the finishing expertise, because you don’t have the time to farm it out. In this industry, it’s often needed yesterday. And management has to be up to date and hands-on with finishing as well.”

Officials of shops expert in fabric printing report color management is also crucial. “You have to have a good understanding of color,” Zucker says. “The machine prints by CMYK, but the hardest part of the job is color adjustments, and it’s not plug and play. We’re always changing color. And the only way we can do that is understand what the customer’s intentions were, and translate that into the finished piece.”

Powell agrees shops must ensure they’re color managed or color balanced. “You either heat set it or physically transfer the image to the fabric,” he says. “So the colors off the printer don’t match either the screen or the finished product. Your calibration has to be through that second step, and it’s one more variable you have to be aware of.”


How to Get Started

Roberts advises PSPs starting out in the fabric market to meet with their existing suppliers and distributors, who are likely to offer different fabrics, and can be good consultative sources as to what’s selling.

“Start with those, and also reach out to some of your top clients,” he says. “Every shop has clients that they’ve been with forever. Ask them if there’s any interest in fabrics and offer to bring samples over to them.”

Powell suggests buying your equipment according to what fabric products you can sell to your current customer base. If you have clients needing pop-up trade show exhibits, for instance, you’ll need a wider printer than if you are expecting to produce smaller banners. “And then think through the rest of the process: cutting, sewing, and finishing,” he adds. “Make sure you have the equipment and the space to accomplish these functions.”

As for marketing, Lederman says, try “traditional advertising, electronic advertising, trade shows, sampling, networking, telemarketing, direct mail to any and all industries related to promotion, marketing, and advertising.”