Examining the dye sub marketplace and economics

Breaking Down Dye Sub, Part 5

Michael Syverson has been in the printing industry for almost 20 years, at the forefront of the pivotal time of analog to digital conversion. Syverson worked for EFI- VUTEk for 10 years and was instrumental in the development and rollout of five industrial inkjet printing devices, helping to create and refine many techniques that were critical to successful print through digital methods. Marilyn Davenport is the Public Relations director for Global Imaging Inc. 

When does it make sense to include dye sublimation as a part of your business? Recognizing the growth in the digital textile industry and the increasing demand for the rich, high-quality appeal of fabric and its efficiencies in shipping and handling, it may be now.

This is the final installment in our comprehensive series on dye sublimation, its benefits, intricacies and the technologies associated with it. In this final article we present an overview of the marketplace and it’s economic impact to help you formulate your future plans and make an informed, intelligent decision about the growth strategy of your business.

Typical applications for dye-sub include flags and banners, stretch graphics, trade show graphics, and retail point of purchase. (Image courtesy of Flag Crafters)

Q: What are the opportunities in the grand-format textile printing market?

A:According to a recent study by InfoTrends, printed textiles represents a $165 billion market, and demand is increasing for custom and personalized fabric design for home and office, retail soft signage, trade show and exhibition graphics. While the potential is great, less than 1 percent of printed textiles are digitally printed today, according InfoTrends. These are all areas of opportunity.

Another very important point is that the digital textile market is not yet commoditized. Printed fabric still commands high margins, and the market is not saturated. Competing profitably in this industry is typically achieved in several ways:

  • decreasing operating costs on equipment and supplies;
  • increasing efficiency with automation,
  • or faster equipment; and
  • finding areas to grow that aren’t yet saturated.

Of the approximately 30,000 U.S. sign shops, we estimate that less than 100 are doing industrial grand-format textile printing (we define industrial as 126" or wider on commercial speed inkjet textile printers).  According to a recent 2012 SGIA Market Trends report, graphics and sign companies expect a median growth rate of 11.2 percent this year. Of these companies, 60 percent said they will add imaging equipment or technology to their business and 50 percent said they will add post-print or finishing equipment. That trend shows an increasingly crowded market.

Q: What are the primary markets for dye sublimation?

A:The soft signage, retail, exhibition graphics, event/entertainment industries and customized fabric are the greatest textile printing opportunities. Typical applications include banners and flags, stretch graphics, trade show graphics, retail point of purchase, and the small niche markets like gaming tables and ceramics. Garments and interior and exterior design are also growing markets.

Fabric has a high perceived value that is opening many doors into a higher-end applications and clientele. (Image courtesy of Mimaki USA)

Q: What are the practical challenges of entering each market?

A: Many of the challenges for entering these markets are similar. As textile printing is still very much a craft, certain aspects need to be considered before jumping headfirst into this market space. For example, when fabric is sublimated to, there will be some amount of fabric shrinkage due to the high temperatures in the sublimation process. It is important to recognize this before printing graphics so sizing can be appropriately adjusted in the software. It is also important to note that the different characteristics of the many fabric options on the market need to be considered. For example the many variations of knits and weaves may have different stretch attributes to them, as well as shrinkage rates. Part of the craft is mastering your materials and equipment so that you can go into true production.

Specific markets have their own challenges that providers need to be aware of as well. If for example, if a company is planning to get into the tension or stretch fabrics segment of textile printing, it is important to realize that there are many other things to contend with beyond the print. Many of the structures and graphics in this market space are three dimensional by nature. A provider may need to source fabrication for the graphic frames (if they are not already doing fabrication in-house). Additionally, graphics need to be designed and printed with the three dimensional aspect in mind. This may require having someone with experience on hand to ensure graphics are set up properly for this sort of application.

In all cases, it is important for the print service provider(PSP) to understand all of the aspects of the process—from prepress to production to finishing —to ensure a solid product.

Q: What are the driving forces for digital textile growth?

A:Profitability and demand for a better end product are key drivers as digital imagery and printer output quality continue to improve. Fabric has a high perceived value which is opening many doors into a higher-end clientele and enabling printing businesses to increase their margins and market share. 

Transportation, handling, drayage and overall fabric management are less costly as well. In many conventional signage markets, the cost of shipping and drayage can far exceed the cost of the original graphics.

It is important for print service providers to understand all of the aspects of the textile printing process—from prepress to production to finishing—to ensure a solid product.

Textile printing has seen growth in Europe for many years. We are only starting to feel the upswing in demand and know-how here in the U.S. As mentioned before, this is not yet a commodity, so margins remain high. The wide-format industry in particular is on the leading edge of textile printing—with faster machines, improved ink technologies, printhead development, high productivity and quality output. 

Q: When does it make sense to move from outsourcing to in-house dye-sub production? 

A: This is really an individual business decision based on market demand, internal talent, growth goals and competition. However, the more expertise PSPs can develop in the applications and services they offer, the more successful they will be. This is a way to differentiate their business and remain competitive. If a PSP is currently outsourcing as a start point for their sales and marketing efforts, it is a good rule of thumb to say that when your monthly equipment lease rate is close to or more than what you’re outsourcing, it is time to bring it in-house.  This model may help explain how to approach the decision.

The best choice is to find the piece of printing equipment that will allow you to do direct print and transfer processes equally well. The Evo 33 pictured is designed to print using both methods. 

Q: What are some industry trends? Is direct print sublimation gaining on transfer?

A: Whether it’s direct print or transfer, dye sublimation is the preferred imaging method for soft and retail signage and exhibition graphics because of the rich color saturation and consistent high quality results that are possible.  Although direct print seems to be increasing in use and popularity, however in my opinion transfer printing is still the optimal way to achieve the sharpest, most superior end product.  The best choice is to find the piece of equipment that will allow you to do direct and transfer processes equally well. 

Textile customization, especially for shorter runs, is a rising trend, and here digital printing can save time and money. With new specialty inks and improved equipment technologies, the workflow can be streamlined and production increased.  

An increasing number of printer manufacturers are introducing new flatbed and inkjet systems designed for textile printing which contributes to market growth and innovation. As ink and substrate technologies continue to advance, the experimentation of different applications in digital printing will expand market demand and increase competition for unique, creative products. According to SGIA’s Marketplace study, the industry is on an upturn, and 88 percent of the study respondents are optimistic about the future. Digital imaging is the technology of choice and will eventually replace analogue systems and textiles are poised to replace vinyl and other rigid substrates. 

This is the final installment in our 5-part Breaking Down Dye Sub series

Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4