Trends in fabric graphics

Photos courtesy HP Canada

Photos courtesy HP Canada

By Kevin McKay
New printing technologies continue to meet the needs of an increasingly ‘visual’ world. Using fabrics rather than traditional papers or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), for example, soft signage is now a rapidly growing segment of the wide-format digital printing market.

There are a number of reasons for this growth. With their distinctively upscale look and feel, fabrics can support higher-margin applications, including interior décor. Their low weight and flexibility offer logistical convenience, as transportation, storage and installation are all easier and more cost-effective than with other substrates. Fabric-based signs can also be uninstalled and reused with less risk of damage.

Another advantage in today’s market is low environmental impact. Many fabrics today are made of sustainable and/or recycled materials—and some can be recycled after use.

Fabrics can be very versatile. Depending on the specific type chosen for printing, different effects are possible. Options include polyesters, poly-blends, natural fibres, natural blends and a range of synthetics. Special materials like voile, for example, which is thin and semi-transparent, can be used to define and separate indoor spaces.

While polyester-based fabrics typically cost more than PVC for banners, the resulting soft signage can sell for as much as four times the price, leaving the sign shop with a significant profit margin.

Fabrics can achieve a variety of effects, including semi-transparency. Photo by Peter Saunders

Fabrics can achieve a variety of effects, including semi-transparency. Photo by Peter Saunders

Print productivity
The material itself, however, is only half the story. Durable aqueous inkjet printing, such as with ‘latex’ water-based inks, is also helping signage applications—both indoors and outdoors—take advantage of fabric graphics, including point-of-purchase (POP) displays, exhibition graphics, wall murals and event banners.

Latex inks, by way of example, are a hybrid of pigmented water-based inks combined with aqueous-dispersed polymers. They do not require an external dryer for curing. Both outdoor-durable and odourless for indoor use, they can be printed on a wide variety of coated and uncoated materials, including polyester-based fabrics.

Some of the environmental benefits of water-based inks are also health benefits. Odourless graphics are becoming more important to sign shops’ clients who manage quick-service restaurants (QSRs), medical clinics, fitness centres and other facilities where print-related odours would be a concern. In fact, some of these customers now refuse to buy any graphics that use solvent-based inks.

Odourless inks are an advantage for sign shops, too. Compared to traditional solvent inkjet systems, durable aqueous inkjet printers do not require the purchase, installation and operation of special ventilation, air monitoring and respiratory protection systems. The printers’ operators do not require any special training for the transportation and use of hazardous materials.