Use the latest digital graphics innovations to turn your awnings into eye-catching signage.
By Sigrid Tornquist
It used to be that an awning was an awning was an awning. And a sign was a sign was a sign. Then, in a way that rivals the meeting of peanut butter and chocolate, commercial awnings and signage merged to become greater than the sum of their parts—attractive awnings that provided protection from the elements while delivering messages to patrons.
More recently, with the advent of advanced graphics capabilities, businesses are finding that they can advertise on awnings with detailed, multicolored images that demand the attention of potential customers with vibrant, detailed “look-at-me” graphics.
How can your graphics and awning business take advantage of such a union? Simple:
- Evaluate options
- Explore partnering
- Educate your customers
- Expand your scope of opportunity
“If you show someone the word ‘hamburger’ that doesn’t make your mouth water as much as a picture of a juicy hamburger will,” says Gary Buermann, owner of G & J Awning and Canvas in Sauk Rapids, Minn. Still, you need to consider the needs, wants and capabilities of your customer, as well as what you have the ability to deliver.
Having a comprehensive understanding of the different types of graphics applications and when they’re most effective will help you determine how to best meet the needs of your customers. “The first thing to consider is what material the customer needs,” Buermann says. “If they’re looking for something to illuminate at night, we’re talking vinyl or welding letters on Sunbrella.” If the customer wants two colors, Buermann recommends using the Sunbrella Graphics System adhesive, which he says is cheaper than having an image printed on the awning.
“However, digital is the better choice if there’s a lot of detail,” Buermann says. “And we’re seeing a steady increase in the amount of digitally printed awnings every year.”
Mike Von Wachenfeldt, technical service manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, agrees. “The segment of the market pertaining to graphics is growing, and consequently is of growing importance,” he says. “Digital printing is definitely becoming a more important factor [in graphics], whether it’s direct print onto the fabric or whether it’s printing onto a pressure sensitive vinyl or, more recently, thermal activated films that can be printed on and then applied to an awning.”
Glen Raven Custom Fabrics developed the thermal activated film for use in its Sunbrella Graphics System, which is basically a heat transfer machine. The adhesive is activated at a particular temperature. “What’s good about that,” Von Wachenfeldt says, “is that below that temperature the adhesive is non active (dry to the touch), meaning that after it’s activated at that temperature it will return to the non-active state when it cools down.” According to Von Wachenfeldt, the result is that it can be rolled up without wrinkling, creasing or dirt getting on the back side of a mesh fabric.
Another trend connected to digital graphics for awnings relates to how the awning is illuminated. Mike Gatti, business manager for Weblon Products of Herculite in Emigsville, Pa., sees the awning industry moving more toward frontlit applications. “It’s more of a refined, downtown look,” he says. “We have fabrics now that look richer, more like a canvas look—something that looks like a rich cloth, yet can be printed on or have graphics applied to it.”
The fabric Herculite has developed is called Herculite Natura and is a PVC composite for commercial applications. The fire resistant, waterproof substrate is designed to look like a natural fabric, but because it’s PVC and surface coated it’s durable and can be printed.
Breaking into the digital graphics segment of the awning market can be daunting at first, especially considering the expense of buying a printer and training staff to use it. Consequently, many awning manufacturers choose to outsource or partner with print shops until they build up enough of a graphics business base to warrant the investment.
“What we often see is that when manufacturers see that they’re spending $10,000 or $20,000 a year in outsourced graphics, then they make the decision to purchase some equipment on their own,” Von Wachenfeldt says. “They might start with a printer or one of our graphics machines; there’s usually a progression with that stemming from how much they’re putting out in graphics.”
For those who choose to outsource the graphics, building a relationship and a level of trust with the printer is imperative.
Rich Thompson, president of Ad Graphics, a service bureau for wholesale graphics in Pompano Beach, Fla., has worked on digitally printed awning projects with James Garbarsky and Marcello Raffinengo of Azure Awnings in West Palm Beach, Fla. The group uses its collective expertise and enthusiasm to provide improved products to their customers.
One such collaboration was a project that the two recently completed for a café in the high traffic, tourist area of Ft. Lauderdale Beach. The backlit awning features colorful, detailed images of the café’s logo and several menu options. Ad Graphics did the graphics and Azure Awnings built the awning, but the success of the project depended on the two companies working together to ensure that the customer’s needs were being met.
Meeting the customer’s needs included making sure that all the variables worked together. They needed to be sure that the inks would not distort due to welding the seams, that the material wasn’t too thick to weld and that both the material and the inks would stand up to the hot Florida sun. Awning substrates have long been exposed to the rigors of exposure to the elements, but the use of multiple ink colors used for new graphics applications are still in their infancy.
To make sure that he delivered a product that could perform, Thompson tested a variety of inks. “We put some inks outside,” Thompson says. “The only inks that we found to last outside are the 3M inks. And that’s really the key to the whole thing. You can have awning materials that will last for years and years outside but as soon as you put an ink on it, the awning is only as durable as that ink.”
Additionally, the need to weld the awning introduced challenges to both companies. “When you weld something you change the physical properties that could adversely affect the ink, the ink coverage and the material,” Thompson says. “If you’re just doing a one-color awning, that’s not a big deal but as soon as you introduce graphics to the mixture you need to be concerned about distorting the graphics.”
Testing how thick the vinyl needed to be due to adding graphics to the weld was the concern for Azure Awnings. “We took three different samples with three different thicknesses of vinyl,” Garbarsky says. “We found that the typical vinyl we use wasn’t going to cut it due to the way that inks adhere at the seams. We didn’t want to sacrifice the image quality at the seam point so we ended up using a thicker material than we would usually use.” The substrate he ultimately chose was 3M Panagraphics II Intermediate Flexible Substrate.
Educate your customers
How concerned is your customer with the thickness of the vinyl or the brand of substrate or ink that you use? Not very, according to Garbarsky and Thompson, unless the awning doesn’t pass inspections or doesn’t last more than a few years.
“Speaking to the awning side of things, the customer wants to be protected from the sun and wants the awning to look pretty and act as signage,” Garbarsky says. “If somebody tells them it will cost $10,000 as opposed to $15,000, they won’t necessarily care about the materials. But in two years if they’ve got to replace it, then they’ll care.”
And sometimes that means using materials that come with a higher price tag—at least at the beginning. Educating your customer to understand the importance of installing an awning that will pass fire tests by local officials can help the client understand the higher cost at the outset and ultimately the cost savings.
“We’ve got a lot of business because we’ve been able to pass every inspection on the first try,” Garbarsky says. “The fire department will do flame tests on site: if the materials light up on fire—that’s your inspection.” If that happens, you end up paying inspection fees, not to mention having to redo the awnings from scratch.
Expand your scope of opportunity
Ultimately, the key to making the most of the graphics applications phenomenon is to think beyond your existing borders. Ask yourself: Do you manufacture a fabric product? Where are the places that graphics could enhance the products I already produce? What areas could I explore beyond awnings?
“Look at the marine industry,” Von Wachenfeldt says. “Traditionally, graphics have not been a big factor on that market, but with the new thermal films, there’s a lot of potential in that market.”
If you already fabricate awnings with graphics applications, you may have the capability to expand to other markets without too much effort.
“It’s not only about growing the awning market,” Von Wachenfeldt says. “Now, it’s also about graphics for all your customers.”