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Soft Signage Opportunities

Tempted by the idea of soft signage? Could it be your next revenue stream? Harry Mottram wraps himself in flags and banners as he goes in search of soft signage

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Soyang’s showroom has an example of a back-lit graphic showing how bright they are

Hard choices in soft signage

There has been a quiet revolution in the way posters on billboards are displayed. Walk along the travellator at any airport and you will see superb examples of how soft signage works in the adverts that leap out at you. Light, bright and brilliant. Many are printed, not on paper, but on textiles such as polyester and just as importantly, they are back-lit giving them that shining finish that catches the eye in a way the traditional paper pasted onto a backing board simply does not.

There are the traditional markets of banners and flags, plus more specialised areas such as clothing, soft furnishings, accessories, shoes and merchandise. Once a sign-maker installs the equipment to produce soft signage it opens up a whole new and growing area of business.

First things first

So where do you start? Well these notes from FESPA help to give a brief overview: “But it’s worth asking just how the soft signage is printed. The obvious method is to use a dye sub printer, either to print to a transfer media or direct to textile. Dye sublimation forces the ink to penetrate deep into the fibres of the fabric, so that the pigments form an inherent bond within the substrate that can survive the washing, long exposure to sunlight and the adverse effects of bad weather. Moreover, the fabric retains its texture, though this isn’t really a concern with most signage.”


Dye sublimation forces the ink to penetrate deep into the fibres of the fabric

FESPA’s notes also offered some of the pros and cons of dye sublimation and of the costs of going full tilt into investing in soft signage equipment. They comment: “The ability to survive outdoors for long periods does mean that dye sublimation is more suitable for products such as flags or banners that are likely to be used for several years. But when it comes to short term promotional banners, or for exhibition graphics that are used indoors, many companies are finding that eco-solvent, latex or even UV, is quite acceptable.

Get on the move and make the most of soft signage opportunities. Picture: Awards Store

“So, not surprisingly, many print and sign companies are using their existing wide-format printers to produce soft signage rather than investing in the more specialised dye sub printers. There are a number of reasons for this, though the chief barrier for most sign-makers is the additional investment needed for a heat press or calendar to complete the dye sublimation process. Add in finishing equipment such as a sewing machine and it can mean spending £50,000 or more. Other issues include having to set aside the floor space and find staff with the necessary skills, particularly for the finishing.”

Soft signage has some crucial positives. They can be rolled up and transported in a bag, or despatched by post in a bubble wrap envelope, and then installed without any glue or a squeegee by just about anyone. No mess, no fuss.

Big brands


With the growth in the market there is a wider choice of printers available with all the main runners and riders in the frame. EFI, HP, Mimaki, Epson, Roland, Mutoh, Ricoh and Soyang all roll off the tongue as tried and trusted manufacturers with their network of distributors. Names you could reel off in a pub quiz should the question arise, but with growth comes competition, with new kids on the block such as Fun Sun Jet and DigiFab and many more.

The EFI H652 UV hybrid printer can print on most textiles including canvas and for those looking for an entry level machine that can print on a variety of substrates from wood to paper then hybrid is the word. HP has its range of Latex Printers like the 570 which prints banners and flags and as the sales pitch goes, allows you to say ‘yes’ to the jobs you have not been able to produce in the past, opening up a new revenue stream. Mimaki has it’s TX500P-3200DS printer which they say “significantly reduces production time through its simultaneous performance of two operations, printing and colour fixation, reducing two steps to one.”

Another manufacturer is Epson, which promote it’s SureColor dye sublimation textile printers that come in at around £10,000 a hit, with its precision core print head and Epson’s marketing pitch: “Open your eyes to the opportunities in textile printing: from sportswear to fast fashion and from soft furnishings to soft signage.” Sportswear includes trainers, shirts, scarfs and much can be seen in Roland’s showroom in Clevedon near Bristol.

The manufacturer says: “Roland DG takes all the difficulty and effort out of dye sublimation printing with simply brilliant and powerful Texart devices that offer solutions for soft signage, exhibits, décor, merchandise and more.

Branded clothing is a growing market often with very short runs for clubs and societies

Roland DG’s dye sublimation technology is the embodiment of versatility, providing opportunities in product customisation, signage, fabric printing and other profitable industries.”

To print t-shirts and smaller garments most manufacturers have desktop textile printers like Mutoh’s ValueJet range and Ricoh’s Ri100 printer, while HP and Canon amongst others also feature a range of these printers which are ideal for small high street instant print shops and start up business as they can be as little as a few hundred pounds. At the other end of the spectrum, there are wide-format printers like the recently unveiled Agfa Avinci DX3200 dye sublimation printer, designed primarily for the soft signage market. The 3.2m-wide machine enables sign-makers to carry out building wraps, large wraps over construction sites as well as a host of other soft signage jobs as it can handle a variety of polyester-based applications, such as banners, POS, outdoor graphics and flags.

A few months ago, Epson launched its SureColor SC-F9300 (replacing the SC-F9200) dye sublimation textile printer, designed for fast, high-volume printing for clothing, textiles and soft signage. It includes what Epson call their Precision Dot technology featuring a halftone module, look-up tables and micro-weave and UltraChrome DS inks to improve print quality. Phil McMullin at Epson UK says: “It’s a challenge to top a product that is already incredibly reliable, very fast and produces extremely high quality prints. It’s faster, with improved handling of even very thin substrates, and all but eradicating cockling and other common feeding problems.”

It is a far cry from the origins of printing on textiles which began in China and the Far East more than two thousand years ago, with wood block printing onto banners and flags used in battle and in ceremonies. Other civilisations also invented the method in isolation, but the one problem remained was that of colour fastness. Oil-based inks and heat pressing helped to overcome these issues, but the methods remained unchanged for centuries until the advent of the Industrial Revolution when copperplate engraving sped up the process and increased quality.

The desktop presses can turn out t-shirts and branded work apparel in full colour.

The breakthrough came with Thomas Bell in 1783 at his factory in Lancashire when he invented a revolving engraved metal cylinder press. Further improvements were made during the next 150 years but really things did not change dramatically until the introduction of digital inkjet printing in the late 1980s. Silk printing of course was the technique of choice and is still popular today partly due to the low cost involved in setting it up. It is also a tried and trusted technique using a mesh, a stencil and squeegee to press the ink through the areas not covered by the stencil onto the material. Registering the various colours can be problematical, although artists use this as part of the style and indeed silk screen printing onto textiles has become a favoured discipline for artists and craft workers.

Take a walk around Sign & Digital UK (the sign industry’s main trade show), Drupa in Germany or The Print Show this September (18th to 20th) and it is an eye-opener as to how many firms are involved in soft signage. There are the makers of sewing machines like Solent Sewing and Welding, which are based in Portsmouth and has been manufacturing sewing machines for the signage industry (although their initial business was sail making for the maritime market). And there is the Welsh company in Wrexham, AE Sewing Machines whose machines are used in the garment industry as well as soft signage.

Ink technology

Much of the technology involved in soft signage is around inkjet digital printing heads which deliver a greater degree of colour, variety and accuracy than ever before. Ink technology in particular has improved in leaps and bounds. Rachel Blake of InkTec says: “With growth by volume for dye sublimation expected to continue at 11.6 percent year-on-year across 2018 to 2023 (a significantly higher rate than the three to four percent seen in the more mature conventional textiles printing market), no wonder many are looking for ways to get involved.

Bags,scarves and shirts: the possibilities are endless

“This rise of digital textile printing, particularly for soft signage applications, is therefore driving an attractive additional service opportunity for traditional sign printers. Ideally positioned; rather than tackling this by outsourcing the printing and fulfilment, more and more are recognising that they can actually tackle this shift in product offering relatively easily in-house. So with this flexibility in mind, more sign printers are entering the realm and seeking out cost-effective alternative dye sublimation inks, such as InkTec’s SubliNova range.

“These sublimation inks are focused on the 1.6m wide and below wide-format inkjet sector, and are predominately used for promotional and textile production such as for t-shirts using transfer paper. This includes the six colour SubliNova G7 range suitable for Mimaki, Roland and Mutoh printers, where InkTec have a licence agreement with Sawgrass Technologies.”

VOCs

Advances made in ink technology in recent years have helped revolutionise the industry by allowing inks to adhere to textiles and not to wash off or fade. Developments such as ultraviolet (UV) curing and latex have overcome some of the issues. Solvent inks consist of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which evaporate readily and allows the inks to dry quickly. Since they are pigments and not dye-based they are fade resistant and waterproof, but there is a downside. Subject to environmental legislation, VOCs can be toxic and need to be treated with caution as they are a pollutant and are subject to strict anti-pollution regulations adding costs to the printing process.


O Factoid: The breakthrough in textile printing came with Thomas Bell in 1783 at his factory in Lancashire with his revolving engraved metal cylinder press. O


Aqueous inks use water or a neutral or benign liquid and can be dye or pigment-based but require special coated substrates to adhere correctly and are not suited to vinyls and similar materials. UV inks when exposed to ultraviolet light as part of the printing process dry instantly and are used for man-made textiles while latex inks are water-based, dry quickly and can be used on textiles. Dye sublimation inks consist of a pigment suspended in a liquid solvent that, under heat and pressure print onto the fabric.

There is a wide variety of inks available, but most manufacturers will insist you buy the inks they supply when you buy or lease one of their machines. Agfa, Roland, HP and so on have developed their own inks which are recommended on their particular machines.

Soyang Europe has just announced new textiles it has been manufacturing in China. Mark Mashiter of the firm explains: “The textile market continues to grow and we have new backlit, black back and display polyester materials manufactured at our new factory in Haining, China, and also from our long-standing European partners.”

Soyang say their ST608 Athena Backlit material gives a smooth textile finish and comes in 3.2m wide rolls and is suitable for both UV and latex inks. The firm also has two new products from Endutex; Terra 260 BW FR Black Back and Sirius Backlit which adds to the evidence there is a growing demand for such products.

The company says: “Terra 260 is a black back textile ideal for retail and exhibition graphics where there’s a requirement to have no light from the reverse, such as when disguising a supporting framework or concealing existing graphics. Available in widths up to 5m, Terra 260 can be printed with both UV and latex inks. Sirius is a high-quality backlit fabric that, importantly, is available in widths up to 5m which is uncommon for a backlit textile. Compatible with both UV and latex printers, Sirius is ideal for larger, more extensive graphics. Both new fabrics satisfy the stringent EN13501-1 fire classification procedure.”

And there is the growth market of floor textiles. Soyang’s Mashiter says: “Across all sectors, we’re seeing that printed flooring is playing an increasingly important role in commercial, industrial and even domestic environments and our flooring collection is expanding in response to this demand.”

Decide on your market

Soft signage is a wide field to go into so it is best to choose an area that will suit your business. A limited factory space will work better with the smaller garment presses for the t-shirt and accessory markets, including branded workwear. If you have space, then a wide-format machine makes more sense but you also need space for the storage of materials and for laying out work and setting up. Costs do not just stop at the substrate, inks and machinery.

There is the bill for power, wages for a skilled operator and a calculation over covering any down time. Some machines and processes are faster than others so take the volume you hope to achieve into account as part of your calculation. If you have the customers then this is an area that all sign-makers should have a look at.

Sign-makers set to embrace soft signage


InkTec has responded to the topic of soft signage saying that it is no wonder many are looking for ways to get involved. The company says: “This rise of digital textile printing, particularly for soft signage applications is driving an attractive additional service opportunity for traditional sign printers. Ideally positioned; rather than tackling this by outsourcing the printing and fulfilment, more and more are recognising that they can actually tackle this shift in product offering relatively easily in-house.

InkTec manufacture inks that can be used for a range of printers

“With this flexibility in mind more sign printers are entering the realm and seeking out cost effective alternative dye sublimation inks, such as InkTec’s SubliNova range. These sublimation inks are focused on the 1.6m-wide and below wide-format inkjet sector and are predominately used for promotional and textile production such as for t-shirts using transfer paper. This includes the six colour SubliNova G7 range suitable for Mimaki, Roland and Mutoh printers, where InkTec have a licence agreement with Sawgrass Technologies.

“Advances in ink types and media have also meant that the usual barriers to entry have largely been removed and the ranges available have expanded, particularly for the digital textile printing arena, such as the Easy Tex Self Adhesive Fabric - newly introduced to InkTec’s Natura range.

“InkTec are soon to launch a new UV ink that is very flexible and therefore suitable for direct printing onto soft signage with printers that have Konica 1024/1024i and Ricoh Gen5 print heads. This is also ideally placed for high production, as it can be used on Jetrix flatbed printers with a roll to roll facility and also the imminent new LXiR320 3.2m roll to roll UV printer.”

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