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Advancements in outdoor fabrics help get the message out

August 30th, 2009 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Improvements to outdoor fabrics have led to greater opportunities for digital printing.

Digital printing has opened the door to new possibilities in outdoor fabric applications. End product manufacturers, not to mention their customers, are becoming more aware of fabric capabilities in outdoor settings, as well as their uses, which include retail applications, event promotion, stage backdrops, inflatables and arena graphics.

“There are two major advantages for using textiles,” says Michael Richardson, director of marketing, print media, for Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc., Aurora, Ill. “One is that soft signage has been gaining in popularity due to the look and feel that fabrics deliver in promoting one’s message. Second is their lighter weight, so shipping cost is less.” Fabric manufacturers also report that their clients appreciate fabrics’ soft hand and flexibility, as well as their increasing eco-friendly attributes.

Fabric types and capabilities

When it comes to outdoor applications, traditional vinyl fabrics still populate much of the market, and with good reason—they are easily printable and have a proven success rate.

Under its Bantex line of banner media, Herculite of Emigsville, Pa., has nine different vinyls that can be used outdoors. Its best-selling outdoor product, Bantex 18 ounce Two-Sided, offers a super-strong reinforcement, an 18-month outdoor lifespan and, as its name indicates, two-sided viewing. All of the Bantex products, which do not need a special coating, can be printed via solvent and UV-curable methods.

Fabricators who use an outdoor banner material for digital printing should be aware of two very important factors, says Dan Dix, national sales manager, graphic products distribution for Herculite Bantex. “The thing that is going to make a product suitable for outdoors is its strength,” he says, adding that the scrim, rather than the thickness of the material, will determine its tear and tensile. “However, the surface won’t be as smooth as indoor banner material. But that’s not as critical because it is going to be used as a banner or billboard that won’t be directly in front of someone’s eyes.”

Some outdoor vinyls have been produced to mimic the look of fabrics. “If you saw a sample of this type of fabric lying on a table or up on a frame, it would appear to be a woven fabric,” says Drew Nelson, product manager, awning products, for Cleveland, Ohio-based Tri Vantage. “But it’s actually embossed to look like a fabric. And a material such as this offers excellent results when digitally printed.”

One such material, produced by Cooley Group of Pawtucket, R.I., is Weathertyte. Made of a high-performance composite vinyl substrate, the 16-ounce textured product, available in widths up to 76 inches and in 20 colors, features waterproof- and stain-resistant properties, resists mildew and is digitally printable. A lighter-weight version of the product, Weathertyte Lite, weighs 11 ounces and is designed for easier handling. It’s available in six colors.

In terms of woven fabrics for outdoor use, Tri Vantage offers the Vivitex collection of printable fabrics from Glen Raven, available in a matte finish for a soft appearance. Designed for most solvent, eco-solvent and UV inkjet printers, the collection includes Poly Oxford White and Sunbrella Inkjet White. These fabrics, which hold a heavy ink load with no bleed through or overprint, employ an inkjet-receptive topcoat, otherwise, “the ink will tend to wick into the woven fiber,” Nelson notes. The top coating expands the color gamut, improves opacity and adds durability to the substrate.

“Proper product finishing and installation are always very critical to the success of a fabric surviving various detrimental outdoor elements,” adds Eric Tischer, director of textiles and specialty products at Verseidag Seemee US (VSUS) in Randolph, N.J. “In addition, adding a post coating to a printed image for an outdoor application will often also offer an increased level of durability in regards to scuff, water and longevity.”

The manufacturer promotes four woven fabrics for outdoor applications, all of which are digitally printable. Seemee Soar is a lightweight, yet durable rip-stop nylon ideal for inflatables, spinnakers and wind applications. Featuring an acrylic coating on either side, the 100-percent polyester Insight Light and Insight Heavy are designed to stand up to the elements. V300 is a soft but durable product made up of 100-percent chlorofiber, while Tex Flag PFR is a sheer, lightweight fabric meant to minimize wrinkles and creasing. In addition, VSUS has just introduced a textile called Radiant, a 100-percent polyester product developed for outdoor banner and signage applications.

Regardless of the textile on which they choose to print, end product manufacturers and users need to do their homework on printable materials. That is, determining what needs a topcoat and whether the fabric is printable in the first place. “With the advent of inkjet digital printing, some people will say that you can print on anything,” Dix says. “That’s a very broad statement, because there are materials that work better and those that don’t work as well.”

Eco awareness

As with most sectors these days, the fabric and digital printing industries are actively researching environmentally friendly options. In many regards, green is still in its infancy in the fabric industry, but innovative manufacturers have made large strides in developing products designed to perform well while being eco-sensitive. “The shift toward green began in the U.S. printing industry around 2005 and has been moving rapidly forward ever since,” says Jaime Giannantonio, marketing manager of Ultraflex Systems Inc. of Randolph, N.J.

Ultraflex offers earth-friendly textiles that contain no chlorine, bromine, iodine, fluorine, PVC or heavy metals. The company’s manufacturing process complies with all ecological certification. What’s more, all of Ultraflex’s textiles are made from 20-percent recycled polyester and are 100-percent recyclable. The most distinctively green textiles from Ultraflex are the UltraTex Organic and UltraCotton fabrics, which are made from 100 percent natural and organic materials. UltraTex Organic U230 is woven from 100-percent organic plant fiber, and is biodegradable, recyclable and naturally fire retardant. Its uses include backlit or frontlit functions for both indoors and short-term outdoors. UltraTex Organic C265 has the same attributes as the U230 but is woven from 100-percent organic plant fiber with a water-based coating on one side.

The attributes that make these textiles ideal for particular outdoor applications include their structure, whether they are woven or knitted, their strength based on how easily they will tear and their coatings, which make them compatible with certain inks, such as mild/eco solvent, solvent, UV or latex. Some of the products are offered up to 5 meters wide and are available with a universal coating for solvent and UV printing on one side and dye sublimation on the other. Additionally, the company applies a water-based coating technology that is biodegradable. “New technologies are being implemented into the coating of the textiles that make them more resilient and useable outdoors, when in the past they might not have been,” Giannantonio says.

VSUS continually strives to be as sustainable as possible through all stages of product development, manufacturing and disposal, which the company accomplishes through its state-of- the-art production facility in Krefeld, Germany. VSUS manufactures a full line of green/eco-friendly fabrics lacking any PVC resins, heavy metals, fungicides, phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Aurora Specialty Textiles has added two eco-friendly fabrics to its line of UV- and dye sublimation-compatible products: Act II and RePlay 2, part of the company’s Weaves of Green line of recycled fabrics. “The source for these is plastic drink bottles, which make up 100 percent of the yarn used in these products,” Richardson explains. The two products, both tightly woven for durability during outdoor use, also resist mold and shrink issues if they get wet. The main difference between the two is that Act II has more of a canvas-like texture, while RePlay 2 sports a smoother poplin-like surface.

In addition, Aurora offers a program called FabRecycle that allows users to return their scrap and used prints made from the company’s 100-percent polyester dye-sub/UV fabric line. Aurora then places the material back into the recycle stream, where it can be developed into other products, such as carpet padding or filler insulation.

The Cooley Group is committing significant resources to environmentally sound processes. “Our substrates are being designed to use fewer raw materials, be lighter weight and be 100-percent recyclable,” says Bryan Rose, vice president/business manager of the Cooley Group, Sign & Digital Products division. “Cooley has also developed the reFLEX recycling program, where we can take back old billboards and signage and recycle them into new products.”

What the future holds

When it comes to the outlook of digitally printable outdoor fabrics, “we believe that fabrics are going to be a major part of the banner industry going forward in the United States, just as they are in Europe,” says Dan Dix of Herculite. Furthermore, many textile manufacturers and distributors agree that technology will improve capabilities on both the printing and fabric sides. For instance, Dix predicts a move away from solvent printing with more focus on UV curable processes, as well as direct sublimation.

“People are looking for wider fabrics, and I think we will see even more wide-format printers that can handle these materials,” adds Tri Vantage’s Nelson. “Users are also looking for better weatherability in their fabrics, materials that have an enhanced UV resistance and can stand up to the elements.”

According to Tischer, VSUS’s goal moving forward is “to continue to develop new substrates that exhibit increased product features and characteristics, such as improved printability, hand enhanced eco-friendly attributes and various durabilities.”

Not surprisingly, manufacturers foresee the industry’s commitment to eco friendliness increasing. “The green aspect of fabrics will involve using textiles made from post-consumer waste, being able to recycle the graphics again after use and using natural base materials such as cotton, although that will be mainly for indoor use,” Richardson comments.

Because of their look, soft hand and flexibility, outdoor fabrics present many opportunities to promote one’s message. Additionally, continued improvements in digital printability and sustainability will further enhance the capabilities, characteristics and applications of these textiles moving forward.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer in east central Minnesota specializing in interior design, residential construction and architecture.

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