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Above the Fold: The Soft Signage Market

Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer/editor based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for 25 years and has reported on many evolving digital imaging technologies including wide-format printing and newer electronic digital signage. He was the editor for a number of imaging publications and websites. He can be reached at bschiffner@optonline.net.

With the breakthrough technology of today’s digital dye-sublimation printers and the plethora of printable fabrics as well as robust inks available, now is the perfect time for shops looking to either enter or expand in the soft signage market.

In this article, SDG examines the soft signage market’s outlook and opportunities as well as equipment and applications, plus the economics of adding or expanding the service to an existing sign business.

One of the major appeals of soft signage is the natural drape of the fabric, which has been used for centuries in design and interiors. Fabric has an overall softer look and feel, and it can be effortlessly draped around curves. Digitally printed soft signage has changed the landscape of the trade show exhibit segment because it is very lightweight, easy to install and costs less to ship, plus can be folded or rolled without being damaged. It’s also important to note that soft signage materials are also finding their way into other short-term events, including festivals and temporary retail promotions.

Fabric LED backlit displays are also increasing in popularity, with almost translucent-looking fabrics, allowing for eye-catching advertisements and brand signs designed to generate consumer awareness. Backlit soft signage can be very dramatic or used to create a soft lighting effect. In addition, outdoor flags and fabric banners have become popular ways to attract consumers’ attention to retail and events.

Silicon Edge Graphics Lead the Charge

Randy Anderson, product manager, Dye-Sublimation and Textile line of ValueJet printers at Mutoh America Inc., Phoenix, says right now there are two major trends in the soft signage market, depending on how you break it down: silicon edge graphics (SEG) and banner replacements.

“SEGs, both in non-lit and backlit, are perhaps the highest-margin products providing point-of-purchase displays to entire walls as a backdrop. Banner replacements for banner stands (and) tablecloths allow these products to be more reusable.”

Anderson says now is the best time to be in this market with all the printing and media options available. He points out that there are three major differences between getting into this market 10 years ago and now. “First off, the technology is stable. Inks, equipment and media are all well tested and well established. Next, the entry-level equipment in many cases is less expensive; and the polyester fabric market has exploded with choices.”

Booming Markets

Sharon Roland, advertising and public relations manager, Fisher Textiles Inc., Indian Trail, North Carolina, points out that in addition to the trade show industry, the soft signage market is seeing a boom in the retail and sports marketing industries. “Many retailers are using SEG for window displays and in-store advertising. Fabric is easy to install and switch out. Since most fabrics are wrinkle resistant and lightweight, they can fold and ship in a small box. Shipping costs are less expensive than boards or other paper-based POP products.”

She adds that sporting events are utilizing more soft signage options inside stadiums and arenas for stadium runners and fencing graphics around the field. “Media pop-up backdrops with the team’s logo are also prevalent in post-game press conferences and are easy to transport and promote team brand recognition.”

Roland agrees that these days there are so many more options for fabric and equipment today than a decade ago.

She points out that for shops just getting into this market, they need to spend some time analyzing options for each step of the process: the printing equipment, the media and the finishing equipment, before diving in.

“To enter the soft signage market, you need a quality printer, heat press, finishing equipment and fabric media. Having all of this in-house will prevent outsourcing and save time and money in the long run. Fisher Textiles offers over 100 fabric media options for soft signage and we provide sample rolls for prototyping free of charge.”

Roland explains that printing technology has transformed this market. “In terms of fabrics, the soft signage market specifically has driven our product development team to create new and innovative fabrics that print beautifully, are durable, wrinkle-resistant and easy to sew. Fabrics have come a long way and there are so many more factors that go into R&D than in years past.”

New Developments

Fisher’s Roland notes that the company’s recent breakthrough product, GF 4019 Nirvana B.O.B., was developed specifically for the soft signage market. “It is a printable soft-knit fabric with a coated black back, offering a two-in-one solution for a printable fabric with a built-in liner. Key features are the soft hand, white point, ability to cold cut and (the) 100% opaque back.”

Roland adds that backlit fabrics continue to be one of the driving forces in the soft signage arena. Nothing competes with the pop of graphics when lit from behind. Fabric suppliers are always on the quest for new fabric offerings in this category. With the recent development of wider printers, we are also seeing a lot more demand for 5-meter-wide fabrics.”

Growing Markets

Roland adds that there is a growing demand for digitally printed acoustic panels used in gymnasiums, auditoriums and home theaters. “We carry two fabrics for this, GF 1708 Heavy Knit and GF 9048 EZ Stretch Premium. Both fabrics absorb sound and meet the required flame standards for this use.

Clients are also requesting products that can be fabricated with automatic cold cutting equipment to save production time and costs. Our GF 4019 Nirvana B.O.B. is an excellent option for this.”

She notes that Fisher’s new products include the F7 Certified Fabric line for direct print, GF1707 Soft Knit (white and black), GF 2240 Miami, GF 4608 Power Stretch (white and black), GF 9048 EZ Stretch (white and black), GF 8862 Single White Backlit and GF 8890 Firesafe 2.

Trends at Top Value Fabrics

Mike Compton, product marketing manager at Top Value Fabrics (TVF) based in Carmel, Indiana, says TVF continues to experience tremendous growth in the soft signage market. “Some current trends include the expanding use of backlit and SEG fabrics in travel venues such as airports, retail spaces and trade shows where our customers are utilizing two of our newest fabrics, including Microlux 240 8169WGFS and Deko-Tex Blockout 7255KMFLBS.

“We are also seeing an increasing demand for sustainably produced products such as our Deko-Green 7058RCFLBS, constructed entirely of recycled plastic bottles. All of these fabrics have an optic white finish and uniquely engineered print-receptive and flame-resistant coating as well as being REACH compliant and OEKO-TEX 100 certified,” he explains.

He adds that the evolving market and upward trends are also increasing for durable digitally-printable fabrics for outdoor use.

Things to Consider

Compton says for shops looking to enter the digital printing market for soft signage from scratch; there are several important factors to consider. “First, you want to decide which segments of the market you want to enter and become proficient at with an eye on growth markets and profitability.”

He says from the beginning stages you want to set a budget to determine what your expenditures will be to enter various markets. “Soft signage printing in the U.S. is primarily achieved utilizing a dye-sublimation or direct disperse process. This will require choosing the right fabrics for your applications, printer, heat calendar (press), software, inks, heat transfer paper as well as cutting, sewing and other necessary equipment. There are many options and price points to choose from.”

Do Your Research

Compton reports that because there are so many options and offerings, he encourages output providers to do their homework. “One of the best ways to look at your options is attending major trade shows. This is where you can find, learn and educate yourself on entire packages to fit your needs under one roof. Everyone is in the business to sell something. The questions you need to ask are what do you need? What fits your budget and what will get you into the markets you are seeking to enter?”

He adds that since the process can be a little overwhelming, at TVF they recommend you seek out industry experts familiar with the entire printing workflow. “We strongly believe in ‘solution selling.’ While we sell a wide variety of print media, we also work and consult closely with our customers to identify what elements, equipment and processes are needed for them to achieve success. There are also many industry forums you can become involved in to accelerate your education, including presentations, blogs and webinars.”

Strong Vertical Growth

Compton says that over a 10-year period, the demand for digitally printed soft signage has shown vertical growth with overall improvement in fabric choices, equipment speed, inks and ancillary printing system needs, enabling immediate turnaround time for custom printed graphics.

“Printing technology has and is evolving quickly. New generation printers have added tremendous speed with the introduction of new printhead technology, robust printing platforms, intuitive software, in-line curing becoming more advanced—offering increased output and ink flexibility—allowing print service providers to complete long run production in short time frames, transforming the market.”

Compton notes that print service providers face ever-shortening lead times from their clients and are now capable of hitting deadlines as they adopt new technology in the soft signage market.

Durable Backlit Fabric Options from TVF

“New media and substrates are in constant demand as clients seek fabrics to fit specific applications and growth areas in soft signage. Examples include more forgiving yet durable backlit fabrics such as our Microlux 240 8169WGFS,” Compton says. “This fabric is constructed with a knitted-in microfiber and engineered with light diffusion and print-receptive coatings, allowing the fabric to be printed on both sides with a varying look and texture.”

Compton says one of the key elements with this fabric is its stable dimensional stretch. “Unlike other backlit fabrics, Microlux 240 does not show coating fractures from creasing and eliminates pinholes and hot spots from LED light sources. This new fabric is also wrinkle resistant and soft, allowing ease in handling, shipment and installation.”

He adds that the demand for durable outdoor fabrics is also increasing for applications including banners, fence and building wraps, marketing umbrellas, tents and canopies. “For these purposes, we have developed Deko-Tex 7048SUN, which is waterproof and engineered with an anti-fungicide treatment. We have also introduced our PVC-Free Mesh 2582GFS constructed of high tenacity yarns with excellent air-flow characteristics, providing excellent print quality and image sharpness for demanding outdoor environments.”

Sustainable Options

Lily Hunter, product manager, Textiles & Consumable Supplies–Roland DGA, Irvine, California, reports that one of the main factors driving this increased demand includes a shift toward using environmentally friendly (non-PVC-based) signage.

“This is due to a combination of customers seeking out ‘greener’ solutions for personal reasons as well as the introduction of local laws and regulations encouraging PVC-free signage,” Hunter says. “In addition, soft signage has an upscale look and feel that makes it desirable in a wide variety of settings. Some soft signage, such as dye-sublimated output, can also be laundered and re-used in the event it gets dirty or becomes wrinkled during storage and shipping.”

Hunter adds also increasing the popularity of soft signage is the fact that there are now more ink and production options available besides dye-sublimation (i.e., eco-solvent and UV printing) for creating this type of output. “For example, Roland recently introduced SoftSign Woven Polyester (ESM-SSWP2), which makes it possible for users to produce soft signage by printing directly on the material with a Roland eco-solvent printer or printer/cutter.”

Check Out All Printing Options

She says for shops looking at printers, purchasing decisions will depend upon the type of soft signage the print service provider wants to create, which will determine the type of printer and inks required. “Prior to making any equipment purchases, the PSP should also consider any other types of output they would like to produce in addition to soft signage. For example, if a shop will be printing a lot of vinyl decals, vehicle wraps and wall graphics, along with soft signage, then an eco-solvent printer/cutter like the Roland TrueVIS VG-640 may be the best choice. On the other hand, if the PSP wants the ability to make soft signage, as well as rigid signage on polyester panels (i.e., ChromaLuxe), then a dye-sublimation printer, such as a Roland Texart series inkjet, would be a better purchase.”

She adds that the company recently previewed the new Texart RT-640M, a multifunctional dye-sublimation printer, which gives users the option of either direct printing onto polyester fabric to create soft signage or transfer sublimation printing for rigid signage or stretchy fabrics.

“Keep in mind that in addition to the Texart RT-640M, you will also need a heat press to create dye-sublimated output,” she says.

Hunter notes that improvements in printing technology allow for better image quality, greater detail and wider gamut resulting in superior end products.

“Faster drying inks have increased productivity, while a wider color gamut enables users to hit more spot colors, such as those required by corporations for their logos. Advancements in printhead technology, including variable droplets, allow for images that are more photorealistic than ever before,” Hunter says. “There is demand for improved fabrics for backlit sign applications that minimize ‘crazing,’ so when the fabrics are backlit, flaws such as lines and color differences are less visible.”

Biggest Growth Segments

Mutoh’s Anderson says if you are looking at SEGs or they are already being offered in your business, then dye sublimation is your best printing process.

“Direct disperse ink is the choice for backlit SEGs, this will give good ink penetration into the fabric and maximize backlit performance,” Anderson says. “SEGs are probably the biggest growth market in the soft signage industry. These allow for displays that can easily be changed out by the customer, providing a cost-effective option over LED panels and can be much more cost effective than LEDs for huge displays.”

Anderson adds that one of the most common and perhaps overlooked applications are tablecloths. “Others are quick, easy, effective signage for trade show, craft fairs, meetings and greetings. Banner stands are another soft signage option where polyester is replacing PVC. Apparel is another growing area. Whatever the application, soft signage technology provides a stable platform on which virtually anyone can play,” he concludes.