Dye Sublimation Applications

Extending the Limits of Fabric Printing

Dye sublimation printing to fabrics has definitely energized the trade show and retail markets over the past few years. Outputting to fabric has exploded with vibrant colors and displays, generating mass appeal that can now be displayed in many distinctive and dazzling ways with the added benefits of easy and lower cost portability.

A host of new and improved inks, media, hardware and software are fueling dye-sublimation as an inexpensive, long lasting, sustainable and customizable alternative to other printing methods. In addition, breakthroughs in technology are also helping dye-sub graphics to play a larger role in the sign industry, particularly in cases where signs and displays that can be used multiple times. The durability of these inks and fabrics is also moving this market outdoors.

Transfer and Direct Print

“Dye sublimation has traditionally been done using transfer methods, where images are ink jetted onto a transfer paper, sandwiched to an uncoated polyester fabric and then run through a calendar heat press,” comments Eric Tischer, president at Verseidag seemee US Inc., Randolph, N.J. “In recent years, the market has seen an influx of direct dye sublimation printers that print directly to coated fabrics, and depending on the unit, either heat-set right on the same printer, or they require using an external heat press to heat-set the image. Both processes provide the printer with vivid, eye catching, flexible solutions for their customer base.”

This booth for Panasonic features swooping fabric structures and an elegant electronic digital display. The booth was designed by Lynch Exhibits. (Photo by Padgett & Co., courtesy of Moss Inc.)

Tischer adds that both direct and transfer dye sublimation represent viable options for many interior and exterior fabric applications. “From frontlit and backlit frames for retail and tradeshow, to flags and taffetas for translucent or double-sided marketing, printable dye sublimation fabrics offer soft, versatile and colorful visual advertisement solutions.”

Silicone Edge Graphics Popularity

“We are seeing dye sublimation fabric prints touching on most indoor P.O.P. applications that have traditionally been done on vinyl or rigid,” comments Greg Lamb, CEO at Global Imaging, Louisville, Colo. He reports that the popularity of the newer silicone edge graphics (SEG) customized fabric frame systems has helped make printed textiles to become a preferred material for interior signage.

“In the past when end users thought of printed fabrics, it often evoked an image of loose fabric pieces such as flags, banners and tabletop displays,” he adds. “Now, with customized framing and sewn-in SEG systems, end users can create rigid pieces custom trade show and experience exhibits, dimensional signage and retail P.O.P., all with a familiar and inviting fabric.”

Sharon Roland, advertising, promotion and publicity manager at Fisher Textiles, Indian Trail, N.C., also sees SEG as a growing trend in the industry for both trade show and retail applications. She points to the fact they provide a clean, finished look and the fabrics can be switched out easily, when marketing campaigns change or a new look is desired.

“These graphic systems can be backlit or frontlit, depending on the desired environment. All fabric printing processes can be used to create an SEG display—including transfer and direct-print dye-sublimation, UV-cure and other direct-print systems,” Roland says. “We carry many fabrics compatible with all technologies for this application.”

Taking it Outdoors

“With dye sublimated fabric applications the only limit is your imagination,” says Elissa Decker, fabric product manager of Moss Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “We are seeing growth of dye sublimation graphics in retail, and it’s also popular for seasonal outdoor events.”

Moss Inc. is a premier provider of tension fabric structures, display hardware, and large-format printing services for exhibits, events, and retail stores. With operations in Chicago, California, Las Vegas, New York, and Salt Lake City, they serve the exhibit, retail, event and sports markets. “We’ve been producing everything from auto show and museum displays to media backdrops and light-boxes for retailers and trade show customers to outdoor events,” she adds.

Decker reports that sports projects on fabric are perfect for short-term events taking place both indoors and outdoors. The fabric structures and graphics for outdoor sporting events and designed and created through their Moss Sports marketing division. “We select all products we choose for our clients with the specific requirements of time, weather, UV exposure, facility operations in mind,” Decker says. “What’s ideal is that there are so many choices of substrates out there—all designed with different properties.”

Dye Sub Durability

She explains that fiber content helps determine the durability of any fabric style. “Dye sublimation printing requires polyester fiber, which is inherently strong, resilient and dimensionally stable. It is also resistant to mold and mildew. It’s also important to select a fabric construction that meets the demands of the application. Woven fabrics have 90-degree yarn interlacings and are generally better suited for flags and banners. Knitted fabrics have looped-yarn interlacings and are generally better suited for applications that require stretch.”

Moss Sports used dye sub printed fabrics to help the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate a milestone anniversary at Heinz Field. (Photos by Aaron Jackendoff, courtesy of Moss Sports/Moss Inc.)

She points out that the major advantage with dye sublimation is its high print integrity. “The print is chemically bonded to the fabric, so it becomes permanent. Dye sublimation prints cannot scratch off or crack, and they allow you to achieve the brightest, most vivid colors,” Decker says. Popular fabrics include those used for backlit applications, printable opaque fabrics, outdoor fabrics and metallic fabrics, she says.

Sleeping Well in Atlanta

Another company that is taking advantage of the all the benefits that the technology has to offer is Dye Sub Graphics. In business since 2005, the company does dye sub printing to fabrics exclusively and recently relocated to a larger 18,000 square foot facility in suburban Atlanta, Ga. “We’ve experienced exciting trends in dye sub printing that have allowed us to expand during an otherwise down-economy,” states owner John Dunlap. “Soft-signage fabric banner business for retail in-store advertising has been very steady, and we’ve been successful in penetrating new markets such as the ‘Top of Bed’ (TOB) market for the retail mattress industry.”

Dunlap reports that TOB advertising such as custom-constructed foot-protectors, headboard covers, and pillow shams business has expanded exponentially over the past several years.

“The mattress manufacturers continue to demand even more sophisticated and eye-catching advertising products,” Dunlap says. “Specialty fabrics have been developed and are extremely popular like Tricot made from synthetic fibers and a unique weave allowing it to be smooth on one side while sporting texture on the other. We’re compelled by our customers to create TOB products with multiple fabric layers, laminated backings, embroidery and weaving, and, of course, custom-printed graphics,” he points out.

Dye Sub Graphics uses an arsenal of Mimaki digital printers, multiple rotary heat-presses, and an extensive sewing center to meet customer demand.

“We continue to evolve our business to offer new and unique dye sub printed fabric products to create a level of differentiation from our competitors,” Dunlap says.

Evolving Product Line-up

Global Imaging is the exclusive U.S. distributor of the PrinterEvolution line of printers that includes Evo33 DS and eSUV printers, and the new commercial-size Neo64 DS water based dye sub printer with onboard sublimation unit. They also sell the REXframe reusable textile display system. “Our products provide excellent price-to-performance ratio, whether it’s a small business just getting started in fabric printing or an industrial facility with higher production demands,” Lamb says.

He states that a big trend he is seeing among his customers is utilizing backlit in combination with their REXframe system. “Being able to print 10 foot by any length as a single seamless piece is changing the landscape of printing. Airports used to be all Duratrans, limited to 70-inch width. Now any size is possible.”

“We’ve found a winning combination in the REXframe system and dye sub fabric prints produced on our Mimaki units. Customers are thrilled with the quality of the frame and the color and detail of the graphics,” comments Rob Evans, VP Business Development at Five Inc., Lehi, Utah. “SEG graphics—marrying SEG frames with a fabric graphic are hot. In particular right now, lightboxes or backlit fabric prints are huge. This is across the board in all industries—event, trade show and retail,” he points out.

Another Global customer, Josh Bevans, CTO at Design To Print, St. George, Utah, adds their top selling products include stretch and backlit.

“Stretch material (similar to Spandex) is useful for so many things,” Bevans says. “Back walls, trade show booths, table skirts. With the quality we are now able to achieve, backlit fabric is becoming a favorite. It ships easily because it’s foldable and very lightweight.”

Bow-Flags are Popular

“We’re fortunate in that many of our products are always trending,” reports general manager Nicole Kaufman at Carlisle, Pa.-based Tex Visions, which specializes in printing on fabrics and providing high-quality products such as banner stands, flags, banners, fence wraps, tents, signs, backdrops and advertising umbrellas. “We believe in looking ahead, understanding the ever-changing trends that shape our industry, and pursuing growth, not only in our valuable team but our product offerings,” she adds.

Firesist awning fabric is said to be ideal for commercial awning, canopy and shade markets like this application at SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf. (Image courtesy of Glen Raven Inc.)

She says that currently bow flags are their most popular product, followed by roll ups and advertising tents.

“The popularity of these products isn’t just limited to certain periods of the year, but maintains a year-round demand,” Kaufman says. “While there are sales upticks during trade show season, we do see these products being ordered in large quantities due to their overall appeal and multiple application uses.”

Looking for New Markets

Mike von Wachenfeldt, technical services manager for Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C., says that fabricators and suppliers are continuing to work together to enter new and untapped markets.

“There are a number of markets such as the marine market where there is huge potential for growth,” von Wachenfeldt says.

He points out that right now the only product that they have that would be suitable for dye sublimation applications would be their Firesist awning fabric.

“As the name implies, it is a flame retardant fabric commonly used for commercial awnings,” von Wachenfeldt says. “The ivory color may be dye sublimation printed, either direct or paper transfer, to produce awnings, pop up tents or umbrellas suitable for indoor or short-term outdoor applications.”

Wrinkle-Resistant Fabrics

Roland says wrinkle-resistant characteristics have been added to fabrics, making them easier to transport, install and dismantle. “Flame retardancy has also been improved,” she says. “Clients are requesting a broader range of fire retardancy standards other than NFPA 701, which include EN13501, ASTM E84 and California Title 19. In addition, improvements in dye finishing of fabrics have created a better white point, which is particularly important if the panels are unprinted and a certain ‘whiteness’ is desired.”

She says some of their popular products in this area include GF 4417 Soft Knit, which is a Warp Knit 3 bar fabric that is 100% Polyester. “This wrinkle resistant fabric has great definition and presents a very high-quality print. It is compatible with dye sublimation, UV and latex printing. This fabric gives equal stretch in both directions and offers excellent wrinkle resistant characteristics.”

Continuing Evolution

Tischer says they continually look to innovative products that allow printers and fabricators the most flexibility while offering quality solutions. “Fabrics continue to evolve with regards to their makeup, for instance their feel, stretch, opacity/translucency and durability characteristics. These qualities allow for printers and fabricators to do more nontraditional, stylish applications with this medium versus traditional banner vinyl or rigid substrate.”

He adds that one area where manufactures such as Verseidag seemee are continually improving fabric is on coated fabrics for direct dye sublimation outputs. “Advancements in ink-receptive top coatings and treatments allow for improved image quality while keeping the fabric's natural hand. The type of coating used on fabrics is instrumental for direct dye sublimation outputs, so that the ink and substrate combination offer the optimal print solution.”

Verseidag seemee offers 15 products geared for the transfer and/or direct dye sublimation and soft signage advertisement and home decor markets. “We pride ourselves on top-quality, price competitive product solutions specifically manufactured to maximize these print outputs,” Tischer concludes.