By Gail Nickel-Kailing
Although 2008–2009 was one of the most challenging periods that many print service providers have ever faced, wide-format digital and screen printers remained positive about how 2010 would play out. A report on digital printing of textiles from IT Strategies, Hanover, Mass., which advises companies in the digital print industry, forecasts an annual growth rate of 14 percent for the five-year period ending in 2012, with more than 627.6 million square feet of digitally printed textile signage retailing for about $1.17 billion. IT Strategies’ Patti Williams says, “It’s on a roll—no pun intended. The segment has been growing and growing and growing.”
The corner turned
Print service providers are an optimistic bunch. Kurt Wenzel, managing partner for Imaged Advertising Creations, Toronto, Ont., launched his company at the beginning of 2008. “I didn’t thrive over the last year and a half, but I survived,” Wenzel says. “If you can make it in bad times, just think what you can do in good times.”
Susan Last, COO of Fastsigns, Carrollton, Texas, has a broader view than most print service providers. Fastsigns has more than 550 franchisees in the U. S., Canada, U.K. and Australia. “Print and sign buyers have cut back in relation to the economic decline,” Last says. “Any purchase that could be delayed was delayed.”
The overall market declined as end product customers scaled back with less advertising, fewer trade shows and lower cost promotions, but Sawgrass Technologies Inc., Mt. Pleasant, S.C., had a good year. “Our business was up,” says Patrick McGinnis, director of marketing. “Extraordinary, given the circumstances.”
New applications, new opportunities
Fabrics can be creatively applied to many products to provide marketing professionals with fresh ideas to deliver promotional messages. Jaime Giannantonio, marketing manager for Ultraflex Systems, Randolph, N.J., says, “Anything different is hot right now—especially substrates that have several applications—for both indoor and out.”
Carmen Rentzios, owner of Fastsigns, has turned out exciting projects on a Zund UV printer, a Mimaki solvent printer and an HP inkjet printer. The company produced a fabric floor mat for a boxing ring, fabric banners and draperies for churches, wallpaper for restaurants and an office, tablecloths and lamp shades by printing on Lexan.
Films are a new substrate worth exploring. Customers of 3M, St. Paul, Minn., apply perforated window film to anything from buses to buildings. Skinit, a 3M customer in San Diego, Calif., is utilizing a new wrap application on items as small as the iPod Shuffle, and a 3M rough wall film can be applied to brick or concrete walls with heat. The company’s newest is a rear projection film that turns a clear glass window or door into a projection screen for in-store static or animated advertising.
Vinyl floor graphics hold down a popular niche, but carpeting is a viable option. Carpets can be sublimated or direct printed with solvents or UV-cured inks. Because more printers have adjustable heads that can be raised for thicker substrates, carpet can be printed like vinyl but with a double strike for a bit more ink.
UV printing has made it possible to print faux leather for handbags, shoes and furniture. Combine direct print and dye sublimation and print an entire room, including “leather” for the chairs, fabric for the draperies, wall film for a rough wood or brick wall, lamp shades, and a table top.
As the green movement grows, new technologies will be formulated. Today’s print buyers are looking for solvent-free, water-based inks on natural fibers, such as bamboo and cotton. “There’s a lot of buzz around green substrates,” says Tom Trutna, president of Big Ink Display Graphics in Eagan, Minn.
Dye sublimation transfer evolved as wide-format equipment capable of printing on paper was used to print dye-sublimation ink on paper to be heat transferred offline. Banners and other soft signage can be printed directly on vinyl and paper-backed fabric, but dye sublimation gives bolder, more permanent colors.
McGinnis believes that pigments are the future print process. As technology moves from solvents to water-based pigment inks, printing on natural fabrics will become easier. Direct printing with UV-curable pigment inks or with latex inks offers the means to print on natural fibers without the post-processing required of dyes.
At the same time, dye sublimation is ideal for indoor use. The fabric is light, easy to handle, and can be rolled, folded and installed without folds or wrinkles. Unfortunately the only fiber suitable for dye sublimation is polyester. While polyester comes in a variety of weights and weaves (linen, poplin, muslin, silk, velvet, gauze, canvas) as well as mesh, knit and metallics, users may prefer natural fibers.
Equipment is constantly evolving, and new machines are introduced regularly. Mutoh, Phoenix, Ariz., has introduced three new printers designed for soft signage since 2009, and Mimaki, Suwanee, Ga., has also rolled out new equipment in anticipation of growth.
In September 2009, an SGIA Market Strategies survey identified the five top markets that “graphic imagers” were targeting: retail stores, corporate branding, ad agencies, nonprofit organizations and food service. More than half the respondents expected government and government contractors and health care to have a growing demand for specialty imaging.
Vince Mallardi, executive director of the Printing Brokerage/Buyers Association, has been analyzing the print buying market for more than 30 years. For 2009 Mallardi anticipated that small community banks, commercial real estate, telecommunications, automotive, lawn and garden, leisure activity, retail and health care would be buying signage for POP, outdoor advertising and other wide-format printed products.
Find a partner
The wide range of products coming off wide-format digital printers reaches from display graphics to an assortment of niche applications, primarily involving printing direct to substrate.
Now is the time to help your customers promote their products and services better as the economy begins to turn around. As Wenzel says, “Understand the opportunity and don’t let it go. Get to the right person and build relationships.”
And consider new working relationships with your customers. “In the past, we had a single-minded approach to what we could do,” says Jonathan Colley, president of PacBlue Printing, Vancouver, B.C. “Today it’s changed to, ‘What do you want to do?’ Anything’s possible. You tell us what you want and we’ll find a way to make it happen. We’re no longer a supplier; we’ve become a partner.”
These partnerships with customers, equipment manufacturers, and ink and substrate providers will generate more choices and more opportunities for growing businesses.