Dye Sublimation for Exhibits

In the world of trade shows, exhibits, exhibitions, events and displays of all kinds, nothing catches attention like bold colors, textures and graphics. The same could be said for the bricks-and-mortar stores, where getting the customer in the door is the key to success.

Dye sublimation technology has made achieving these show-stopping looks so accessible that this method of digital printing is fast becoming a front-runner in the interior and soft signage industries. In fact, back-lit and front-lit soft framing systems for retail P.O.P. applications are white hot in the textile industry right now, and it’s sublimation that is driving this success.

One of the reasons for this is sublimation’s ability to economically produce deep, vivid colors and high-definition images on a diverse range of substrates. This means as a business, you can create virtually everything needed to dress an elaborate trade show booth or a simple farmer’s market stand, all with this one technology. 

Here is a closer look at some of the most popular dye sublimation applications for exhibits and displays of all sizes.

Working with Stretch Fabrics

With all of the setup and takedown involved with displays, any technology that lightens the load is most welcome. Fabrics, such a Lycra or spandex, that can be stretched over metal or plastic frames are becoming more of the standard for just this reason. They can be folded for easy storage, are lightweight for reduced shipping costs, and deliver a dynamic look when on display. They’re even recyclable.

The possibilities for creative graphics and uses are endless, especially since signage manufacturers can turn around small runs of custom orders very quickly. The basic principles of sublimation production—create a design, print onto transfer paper and press onto the substrate—apply to stretch fabrics of any size. Because you design and print digitally, you can very quickly customize and fulfill orders without having to change your production set-up, which can cost valuable time and money. 

As for which fabrics to choose, Pacific Coast Fabrics’ Vice President Mike Sanders recommends warp knit stretch fabrics for banners and soft signage displays. He advises sign makers to become familiar with their chosen fabrics’ properties and behaviors, as well as the quality of manufacture. Consistency and reliability reduce the margin for errors and waste in production, which helps keep costs low and quality high.

Sanders added that the key to effectively using dye sublimation technology with stretch fabrics is taking the time to go through several rounds of trial and error to find what time, temperature and pressure work best for a specific fabric.

“You’ve got to find that perfect balance of elements,” Sanders said. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is they think they can run their machines all at the same setting. For example, with a calendar system, you need to change the speed depending on the width of the fabric. Light fabrics need a faster spin, while heavier ones need to go slower. If you don’t use the right speed and temperature, you’ll either scorch or stiffen the fabric, or you’ll leave a lot of ink on the paper instead of on the fabric.”

By testing several times and temperatures with each type of fabric you use, you’ll be able come up with production formulas that consistently deliver the quality you’re looking for. A little extra work at the beginning of your processes will save lots of time and money in the end.

Working with Hard Substrates

While soft signage and fabrics may dominate displays and exhibits nowadays, we also see a lot of hard signage in the form of acrylic, glass, fiberglass reinforced plastic and metal panels in varying sizes. These substrates are extremely durable and easy to clean, in addition to presenting stunning images to customers.

There are lots of applications for sublimated hard signage. On the grand scale of public exhibitions, conventions and trade shows, large panels featuring key images and designs can double as both an aspect of the decor and a communication tool. ChromaLuxe in particular offers aluminum photo panels in sizes up to 48” x 96” in a variety of finishes: gloss, semi-gloss, matte and clear (adds a metallic sheen to your image). These panels are designed specifically for producing high-definition images with sublimation technology.

The possibilities are both beautiful and moving. When these panels are affixed to a wall using a floating mount, designers can create a clean, modern look that supports various lighting elements for different effects. Digital images and artwork can also be sublimated across multiple panels to create a tiled mural effect. Add in creative lighting and you have a spectacular display that gets attention. 

Smaller signage has lots of practical and artistic applications, bringing both together in the name of commerce. Professional photography, branding elements, original or local artwork—all of these can be brought into interior store signage applications that create a unique atmosphere for customers. From stand-up easels for counter displays, wall placards and directives, to mounted menu panels, sandwich boards and tabletops, sublimated hard signage offers value to customers in nearly every industry.

What to Look For

If you’re thinking of getting into the sublimated signage business or adding sublimated signage to your existing shop, there are a few things to consider. Sublimation systems ideal for creating soft and hard signage vary, depending on your needs.

Shops that handle smaller jobs will need a 24”, 36” or 44” printer, and a flat heat press. Because most printers of this size have a roll-feed option for transfer paper, you can print much longer than you can wide with these, making them a great choice for school banners, in-store decoration, P.O.P. signage, events and other smaller-scale applications. These systems will also enable you to create hard signage products, giving you added value from your investment. 

For shops that regularly fulfill larger-scale jobs, such as show displays and public exhibits, a wide format system is the way to go. These consist of either a printer wider than 44” and flat heat press or a printer with a separate calendar heat system, which make them just right for large hanging displays, architectural wraps, trade show booth signage, exhibits and more.

It’s important to note that calendar systems are only for textile printing; you will need a separate printer and flat press to create your hard signage. A wide-format printer and flat press will enable you to also create large photo panels and smaller hard signage products at higher volumes. 

Our rule of thumb is to choose the smallest printer that will produce the transfers you need for your largest items. You can always create smaller prints on a wide printer; the opposite is not true.

When considering your printer options, make sure to add your method of heat setting into the equation. If you will be exclusively sublimating fabrics wider than 44”, a printer with a separate calendar system may be a great choice. These systems will be more expensive than standard printers. You can expect a 64” calendar system to run at least $30,000 to $50,000, while systems up to 3.2 meters can sell for up to $95,000.

Printers smaller than 44” range between $5,000 and $7,000. Then you need to figure in the cost of a heat press that is at least a 44" x 64," which can add upward of $15,000 to your initial investment.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Shopping for quality over price when it comes to your sublimation equipment will save you so much more in the long run than your initial spend. And with the huge number of products you can offer both existing and new customers, you’ll be raking in the profits in no time.