Wide-format Graphics: An overview of digital finishing


All-in-one sewing and welding machines can finish silicone-edge fabric graphics.
Photo courtesy Miller Weldmaster

Sewing systems
Sewing has become more important as some PSPs expand their focus beyond display graphics to encompass interior décor and apparel applications, which can be printed using dye sublimation inks onto paper, transferred onto polyester-based fabrics and cut on a flatbed table before they are sewn. Compared to the traditional, non-digital production of such applications, wide-format inkjet printing offers the benefits of ‘just-in-time’ production, customization and versioning. Manufacturing cycles have been shortened from weeks to days.

As such, InfoTrends anticipates major advances in the automation of sewing for everything from pillows to soft signage to activewear. There are models geared specifically for sewing, seaming and heat welding, including some that sew edge gasket beads for signs and sew and hem pole pockets and ropes for banners. A cooling system may be needed, for example, to prevent the sewing needle from getting too hot and deforming the latex bead common to channel-based graphic frames. Otherwise, operators need to stop at given intervals to cool the needle, rather than work continuously.

Available since the early days of wide-format inkjet printing, lamination is one of the oldest and most widely accepted finishing processes in the sign industry. The earliest aqueous inks could not withstand the rigours of outdoor use, so the technology quickly evolved to meet the industry’s needs.

Today, despite the introduction of more durable inks and substrates, lamination remains a necessary step 
to ensure the graphics can hold up to the demands of outdoor installations. It is certainly a basic requirement for vehicle wraps and decals. Roll-based substrates are often laminated before they are cut. There are hot and cold laminators, as well as liquid laminators for use with UV-curable and latex inks.

A growing need
Finishing has always been an integral part of the overall manufacturing process for wide-format graphics. As sign shops, PSPs and other digital printing companies have continued to market more specialized products, however, the choice of the right finishing equipment has become even more important. And with today’s wider array of printable materials, the growth of digital fabric printing and increased press speeds, the need for digital, automated finishing equipment has become clearer in hard economic terms. Sewing, in particular, is seeing a resurgence 
in demand as it transitions from a labour-heavy process to a more fully automated one.

Today’s sign shops can select from a wide range of RTR cutters, flatbed cutting tables, routers, laminators, sewing machines and welders, among other systems, depending on the nature of the products they need 
to finish. Each machine must be considered as part of an overall workflow, which will change over time.

With this in mind, vendors and resellers bear some new responsibility for training highly skilled operators of their finishing equipment. And as the installed base of such equipment continues to grow, programs will also need to be introduced at vocational schools and colleges, to ensure the sign industry has access to a new generation of workers who are properly trained to optimize digital technology.

Steve Urmano is director of InfoTrends’ wide-format printing consulting service and develops annual global market forecasts for hardware and supplies used in the wide-format graphics market. This article is based on a white paper he prepared for the International Sign Association (ISA). For more information, contact him via e-mail at steve.urmano@infotrends.com and visit www.signs.org/research.

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