Wednesday, 27 Apr 2016 15:00 GMT

Soft Signage

As soft signage grows, Harriet Gordon considers entry routes into the sector, asking the age-old question—is it best to go through a trade supplier or manufacture in-house?

Hoist the Colours

As spring tentatively begins to rear its head and the cold, grey mornings show signs of brightening up, we can start to anticipate warmer months ahead. Whether it is bunting at a church fete, banners at a street party, or flags flying at a fun-run, nothing signifies summer like a good piece of soft signage.
With this in mind, any companies considering moving into the soft signage sector, or upscaling their capabilities in this area, could not choose a better time of year than spring. But with a host of entry routes available, how do you choose the best option for your business?
In or out?

The first decision that must be made is whether to go through a soft signage trade supplier or bring the manufacturing in-house. I will be talking to experts from both camps. Peter Gunning, chief executive officer of Grafenia, firmly believes a trade supplier can help ease the move into the sector, as he explains: “Diving into this new arena is expensive unless you already have a customer base ready to buy, so entering the market via a trade supplier initially makes sense.

(Above & below) Grafenia launched its new range of soft signage products at The Print Show, held at the NEC in Birmingham in October 2015

“Ink on fabric is nothing like ink on paper. Entering into this new arena, figuring out how to tackle different substrates, as well as requiring the expertise of a textile sewing machinist, makes it a steep learning curve. We already have this expertise. In regards to the framework, you need the buying power to purchase in bulk to get the most cost effective solution.”

Grafenia is one such company that can help those new to soft signage. It installed the first 3.1m D-gen Telios Grande G5 dye-sublimation printer in the UK and has a host of products available to the trade.
Gunning continues: “We believe clients don’t know they need it until they’ve seen it. When they see it they want to buy it. We provide free demo equipment and a range of reseller tools that includes marketing collateral and file supply templates and support. Our Partner Lending Scheme is proving very popular and a great way to enter the market.

A Lending Scheme is operated by Grafenia, whereby partners can borrow a display stand to promote the range to their clients

“From our perspective, the dye-sublimation technology has evolved in such a way, it’s enabled scalability of machinery and therefore the production of much bigger display stands, at a much more cost effective price, particularly compared to the more traditional frame and panelled poster display stands.

“In return clients get more for their budget. Creatives love them, as they can realise their creative vision without having to spend time splitting up graphics and matching panels. The aluminium frames are lightweight, easy to construct, and totally collapse to the size of hand luggage, making them truly portable. The versatility of the fabric enables the client to fully brand your stand, including furniture; clients no longer need to hire generic furniture like everyone else.”

Indeed, if you do choose to outsource to a trade supplier you will not find yourself short of companies to choose from. The industry plays host to a vast array of firms only too willing to assist your entry into the sector. From companies specialising in textile printing services, such as Hampshire Flag, to firms who concentrate on the structural side, such as tensioning solution specialist Spirit Displays, you are more than likely to find what you require.

Manufacturers and suppliers of textile printers are of course mostly advocates for the do-it-yourself camp.

Stephen Woodall, national sales manager for textile and apparel at Hybrid Services, makes the case for bringing soft signage production in-house; he explains: “Doing this immediately gives the printing company control over the process and reduces the cost by not having to outsource. It also empowers the printer to react faster, and
as a result, the speed to market is that much quicker as well.”

He continues: “Hybrid has a great offering by way of hardware for the soft-signage sector. The Mimaki JV5-320DS direct-to-polyester dye-sublimation printer is a fantastic large-format option for sign-makers at 3.2m wide and has become a benchmark product. It has been very popular for producing flags and banners and has really set that standard for grand-format production in the soft-signage sector.

“The new Mimaki TS500P-3200 dye-sublimation printer is a large-format, 3.2m option for volume production which delivers high-quality output that’s perfect for high-end point-of-sale settings, where prints are often backlit and viewed at a short distance. With an unrivalled speed of 150sq m/h, the Mimaki TS500P-3200 prints on sublimation paper, which can then be pressed onto uncoated polyester, including fabrics with an element of stretch making it ideal for exhibition graphics, soft signage and the home-textile market. The machine is especially suitable for applications where a wider print-width is essential such as production of duvet-covers, curtains, and furniture coverings.”

One of the main considerations for print-service-providers who bring this capability in-house is the ease-of-use of the machines. With this in mind, Woodall continues: “The MTEX Blue has a one step process with in-line fixation and is easy to use, making it an ideal product for those new to soft-signage. The advancement of IR in-line fixation technology has improved the quality of the finish and made for a more streamlined process.

Hybrid’s Woodall explains how the MTEX Blue all-in-one dye sublimation printer has a one step process with in-line fixation and is easy to use, making it an ideal product for those new to soft signage

“The MTEX Blue all-in-one dye sublimation printer gives full-width, consistent fixation across the material delivering vibrant colours and excellent levels of show-through. Green credentials are becoming more and more important as people not only want to do their bit for the environment, but cut down the cost of their energy consumption and the MTEX Blue’s Infra-Red heater unit also ticks this box.”

Material gain

As Hybrid’s Woodall explains, the industry is also seeing an increase in suitable substrates for this area from the material manufacturers. The number of textiles engineered for soft signage applications is expanding, opening up wider possibilities for sign-makers. Providing a more balanced view to the in-house/trade supplier debate is sales director of Soyang Europe, Andrew Simmons.

He comments: “Trade suppliers play an important role, especially in the grand format market, as many sign-makers don’t have the space or demand to warrant investing in a suitable printer. Working with a trade partner can help sign-makers respond positively to a new enquiry whilst maintaining the customer relationship, but of course producing things in-house brings its own benefits.

“It’s not always a cost or control based decision that prompts a printer to invest in additional kit. From a substrate perspective, moving it in-house can bring greater creative freedom by enabling the printer to take ownership of the production process, making it easier to explore different effects and select the best material for the job.”

Either way, Simmons is optimistic about the chances of those choosing to enter the market. He comments: “Soft signage is fast becoming a popular sector for sign-makers to move into for good reason – the market demand is there. We’re seeing sign-makers and graphics producers responding to demand from brands, retailers and exhibition companies looking to take advantage of printed textiles, so being able to offer a solution gives printers ready access to new revenue streams.”

Soft signage is fast becoming a popular sector for sign-makers to move into for good reason—the market demand is there

He also suggests that the initial capital investment might be less than you may imagine, continuing: “A prime development we’ve made with a number of our textile ranges is bringing new products to market that perform to our usual high standards yet are printable with non-textile specific technology. Giving companies with UV and latex printers access to exciting new textile products means no additional capital investment for them—and delivered in a single printing process too.

“As a leading manufacturer and distributor of materials suitable for digital printing, we hold a huge range of stock for soft-signage applications including backlit, frontlit, textile banner, mesh and flag material, all available from our UK-based warehouse on a next-day delivery. We’ve recently introduced new products with options at a range of price points—for example, we offer multiple backlit textiles, so customers can choose a solution that works for their client on price, as well as matching their printing capabilities, be it UV or dye sub.

O Factoid: During the peak of the age of sail, beginning in the early 17th century, it was customary (and later a legal requirement) for ships to carry flags designating their nationality; these flags eventually evolved into the national flags and maritime flags of today.  O

“Through our research and manufacturing facility in the Far East and with our European textile manufacturing partners, we’re in a position to feed back from the market and influence future developments. The close relationship we have with our customers enables us to really understand the challenges they face; so for example, new and lighter weight fabrics for external use have been introduced to assist with the demands of reducing rigging requirements and wind loading.”

A united front

While these commentators may hold different opinions on the best entry route to market, they can all agree on one thing—soft signage is on the up.

Looking to the future for the sector, Peter Gunning of Grafenia comments: “We believe that more and more personalised branded fabric will be used in the office and retail environment, from signage and displays to furniture and room dividers. Fabric naturally has sound dampening properties, reducing and softening office noise.
Equally positive is Hybrid Services’ Woodall, commenting: “The soft-signage sector is definitely set for continued growth. As new materials are engineered, new applications come online—there’s no denying how soft signage graphics make a terrific impact in retail areas, exhibitions, and airports, and this in itself results in increased demand.

Peter Gunning, chief executive officer of Grafenia, believes a trade supplier can help ease the move into the soft signage sector

“Another key factor is that soft-signage is sustainable. The environmental benefits increase its popularity; it’s easily removable and recyclable and it doesn’t damage easily in transit, helping reduce wastage too—it’s a win/win.”

Simmons from Soyang Europe is last to deliver his verdict on the soft signage sector, noting that what the customer wants is really driving the sector and that this is sure to keep soft signage evolving over the next few years. He concludes: “Customer acceptance and desire for a textile product is driving demand, so it’s not surprising to see new end-user requirements as the industry evolves. Take the impact of textile on retail point of sale over the last few years. That has undoubtedly driven other sectors to see its advantages, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see how things evolve in the future.”

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