We estimate the worldwide market for digitally printed textiles was $1.6 billion in 2015, and project that it will exceed $2 billion in 2016. More than 70% of the current market for digitally printed textiles is for soft signage, display graphics, flags and banners. We also note that approximately 60,000 digital-textile-print devices are installed worldwide; however, many of these are older and slower printers. The market for high quality, inkjet-printed soft signage in the US has yet to be saturated, and may not be for another five years.
Last year, at the SGIA 2015 Expo, attendees visited numerous booths that displayed the latest inkjet printers and, more notably, we saw an exhibit hall heavily adorned with soft signage, banners, flags and fabric displays, as well as advertising, branding and display graphics for POP/POS displays, banners, flags and theater backdrops.
A few years back, the printed-cloth display graphics would have been imaged on rigid stock, but today, tradeshow exhibitors have high interest in fabric signage, because it offers numerous advantages: fabric is lighter, flexible, easy to transport and install, plus storage requires less space and damage protection. Should you expand your businesses capabilities to print soft-signage and displays for tradeshows?
Industry reports project digital-textile printing growth at approximately 30% annually for the next 5-10 years, and currently, close to 75% of that projected growth is predicted to germinate from printing soft signage for tradeshow banners, displays and retail POP signs.
What is the most cost-effective way to print soft signage? Some proponents prefer digitally imaged, dye-sublimation transfers on fabric. Others prefer direct digital imaging with disperse-dye inkjet systems, and another group chose pigment-latex inks applied by HP’s thermal inkjet (TIJ) system. You may also find solvent, mild-solvent or UV-cure inkjet systems used for fabric printing. The solvent machines typically print on vinyl-coated fabric; the preferred fabric for sublimation and disperse-dye-printed indoor signage is polyester. Each system, ink and fabric, has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, polyester fabric has an inherent ability to retard flames, which explains its choice for exhibition halls and other areas where fire-marshal rules often require that displays be flame-retardant.
Your next choice is format, meaning image size. Normally, such choices allow you to range from 63-70.9 in. wide, but a few, more expensive, production-print systems will span a width of 8-10 ft.
Producing fabric-based tradeshow graphics requires more than a digital printer. The process also involves fabric cutting, shaping, sewing, fabric welding and subsequent integration with uniquely designed display frames. It’s not just inkjet printing. Typically, for example, fabric, tradeshow-graphic signmakers stretch printed fabric over pre-made frames (generally aluminum or fiberglass rods) or other structures. Prior to such installations, the fabric will require sewn devices that hold structural supports. Some fabric signs attach with Velcro® or grommets, and others use sewn-in straps; all fabric signs require sealed or hem-sewn edges.
You should envision the entire fabric-signage process as one workflow package, i.e., design concept to mounted signage. This process comprises design, design approval, prepress and print processing, post-print processes, component acquisitions, framework assembly (prior to fabric finishing, to allow real measurements), fabric finishing, final test fitting and adjustments, disassembly, packing and shipping.
In figuring your eventual return on investment (ROI), consider the throughput speed of the printers you might choose and calculate the ROI for each. Next, you must estimate the finishing time and expense. To make saleable fabric graphics, your shop will need a cutting, sewing, fitting and testing operation that makes a useable product from the printed fabric. Automating these processes will increase capital expenditures, but also reduce production time and, therefore, operating expenses. If this is a new endeavor, recognize that your shop’s soft-signage team will undergo a learning curve for each piece of new equipment, so your ROI plan should concede that training expenses may undercut initial production gains.
In addition, you need to map where you will house new equipment, personnel, assembly/testing and inventory. Try to foresee any bottlenecks. For example, can the finishing department keep up with your digital-print production? Suppose, for example, your print machines produce approximately 2,000 sq. ft./hr. – can your finishers keep up? Or, will the finishing process slow the overall workflow and, consequently, increase costs while slowing the cash flow? We estimate that soft-signage post-finishing processes will consume much more time and logistics than the printing itself. It’s possible that the finishing time may be six times that required for printing.
An alternative is to subcontract the finishing work, but such processing will slow your workflow, although you might consider it as a short-term, start-up choice. Truly, however, your best choice is in-house automation of cutting, sewing, finishing and fabrication. Establishing such a division will require additional investment, but it should save on labor costs, increase productivity and hasten the product-related cash flow and ROI.
Dene Taylor, Ph.D., consulted on this article.
Textile and Dye-Sublimation Print-Equipment OEMs
Durst Image Technology
Hollanders Printing Systems
Konica Minolta, Inc.
Kornit Digital Ltd.
Mimaki Engineering Co. Ltd.
Mutoh Industries Ltd.
Reggiani Macchine Spa
Roland DGA Corp.
Xennia Technology Ltd.
Soft Signage Cutting, Sewing, Welding and Finishing Equipment Suppliers
Zund Swiss Cutting Systems
Mactac IMAGin RoughRAP
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