By Peter Saunders
Fabric graphic applications are expanding into new and unique areas as sign shops, print service providers (PSPs) and other companies seek to diversify their business. Innovative, creative and sustainable processes and products are helping push the boundaries of design in enhancing outdoor and indoor environments. Developing successful new ideas in this field depends on the right combination of printers, colour management systems and textiles.
Soft signage is a growing market. IT Strategies, a research consultancy for the digital printing industry, predicts worldwide retail expenditures on finished output from digital textile printers will reach $1.6 billion this year, up from $1.1 billion in 2008, with soft signage accounting for approximately 70 per cent of that total.
There are several reasons for this type of growth. For one, fabric-based signs offer visual prominence through their differentiation from more common paper- and vinyl-based signs; there is a widespread perception that fabric is more upscale and sophisticated. This higher perceived value can mean higher profit margins for businesses producing soft signage, which also continue to face less competition in this area than when printing on vinyl or paper.
Also, soft signage is popular with many clients—particularly in fields like exhibit graphics—because its light, flexible nature makes it easier to pack and less expensive to ship, not to mention less likely to incur damage during these processes.
“The advantage is it’s durable and washable,” says Fran Gardino, business development manager for Mimaki, a wide-format printer manufacturer.
“Trade show exhibitors will use the same fabric graphics for several years, folding them up into a crate or container each time a show ends,” says Michael Richardson, Aurora Specialty Textile Group’s director of sales and marketing for print media. “They’re stretchable and wrinkle-resistant. You don’t need to take as much care as with a stiffer material.”
Further, many clients are looking for sustainable products and processes, including water-based inks and recyclable substrates. Soft signage has come to encompass a number of ‘green’ options in this respect.
“The potential market is much bigger than signs alone,” says Gardino. “A small restaurant chain or a hotel, for example, may order not only signs, but also wallcoverings, upholstery and curtains with the same branding. Before you know it, a sign shop can produce all of that.”
“Only a handful of fabric types are used for POP graphics, signs and banners,” says Richardson, “but once you get into markets like office and home décor, you need a greater array of materials. Signmakers are uncovering applications they didn’t think of before.”
“You can even print room dividers, infills and sound absorption panels for the architecture and interior design market,” says David Siegel, director of surface imaging for Designtex, a division of office furniture supplier Steelcase that designs fabrics for commercial and institutional upholstery and furnishings. “There is much more awareness now and people’s tastes are turning toward fabric graphics.”