With government legislation banning flex in few states, the country’s signage industry as a whole is gearing up fast to ride over the changing curve of greener media.
Following the global stride towards greener materials, Indian conglomerates especially the corporate sector is fast embracing soft signage i.e. signage printed on fabric or textile. However, industry experts believe that it’s too early to speak about soft signage in India as the industry here is still at a nascent stage contributing only a meagerto the total signage printing.
Nonetheless, the deluge is expected to turn soon riding on the back of the government legislation banning PVC-based materials owing to the rising concern towards environment and hence pushing environment-friendly substrates which are also sustainable. We, at Sign & POP world, met a few printer manufacturers to know how this turn is impacting the curves of their businesses.
Fabric is Inevitable
Firstly, Flex has got a big NO as not only the raw materials used in manufacturing flex but also the flex as final product is hazardous to the environment, which in turn compelled as many as five state high courts to issue a legislation banning PVC-based materials, which got implemented strictly ensuring animal and public health concerns besides maintaining the beauty of the land.
Secondly, the term GREEN or Eco-Friendly automatically gets attached with the fabric. While experts believe that this is a traditional textile application but at the same time, it is one of the fastest growing areas in digital printing technology especially on textile. Fabric is also the most viable option to replace flex.
Experts feel that the industry is already passing through a mode of transition, whether willingly or forcefully. “Big corporates are now moving away from PVC media. In the meantime, few states in the south have already banned using PVC-based media, while other states have to follow sooner or later,” says Rajat Mitra of Caldron Graphcs.
This ban has restricted branding on flex media in many big cities including Bangalore and Mumbai. “No wonder the corporates are now looking towards more eco-friendly substrates wherein fabric is one of the leading one. Even being polyester-based, the fabric-based media degenerate in two to three years, while PVC-based media may take as long as 50 years,” says Mitra.
He truly believes that it is all about the corporates. “If suppose Unilever says that they are not going to use PVC media from now onwards, of course, it will force the vendors to look for alternative which ultimately will push the manufacturers to develop such media which is eco-friendly,” he elaborates.
Mitra opines that the industry or the market for soft signage is still at the initial stage. “As the market will grow, the demand will grow in tandem. And we are noting good transition as people have started asking for components that go well in fabric as medium. This shows a very strong intention of the industry stakeholders.”
Transition is Visible
As noted in the recently concluded comprehensive exhibition on garmenting and textile manufacturing solutions, Gartex 2018, most of the printer manufacturers were seemingly going in line with the transition by simply pushing printers which are capable of soft signage printing applications.
Considering that the solution is becoming common while the applications are getting more varied and going further deep as per the market demands, we tried exploring the opportunities in the segment. We found quite a few wide format printing machines, which are capable of printing on various media including fabric.
“We were expecting this transition to come eight years ago but because of the price sensitivity of the Indian market, the market could not evolve big into fabric. But now people are getting aware and it’s turning into fabric. Also supporting the cause is the ban from few state governments on flex. Particularly, it is the price sensitivity which restricted Indians to move towards Fabric,” says Sarbjit Singh, Director, Stratojet USA
Singh further adds, “Six years ago, we were doing 95% of PVC and 5% of Fabric. Today, we are doing 40% of Fabric and 60% of PVC. This shows that 5% has grown to 7-8 times. During past five to six years, we have noted that fabric is continuously registering the growth while flex is shrinking.” He says that for all this, Stratojet is future ready. “We do have UV printers which can print on Fabric. We have dye sublimation printers for garments, which we have been selling for four years. And to print flags, cotton, one can also use pigmented ink.”
He also opines that fabric open an extended door of opportunities for signage printers who are looking to enhance their revenue generation points and willing to diversify to this relatively new but future proof stream. Furthermore, fabric is also environment-friendly and lightweight, besides facilitating flexibility in installation thereby inducing saving on shipping cost.
Adding to it is the developments going on in the digital printers which because of the introduction of LED UV-curing, has expanded the arena of applications by widening the range of possible printing media. As the demand of soft signage continues to increase, digital printer OEMs have started expanding their respective kitties by adding digital textile/fabric printers.
It shows that there is a reasonable demand in the market for which printers manufacturing companies like Colorjet is promoting various range of direct to fabric, latex and sublimation machines, which are meant for soft signages. The suppliers like ColorJet are pretty confident that a huge market for soft signage is there in the waiting, which may get a click with the forthcoming general election.
Green is the Motto
“We, at Colorjet India – the country’s largest manufacturer of inkjet digital printers, take environmental responsibility seriously, and therefore, continually work towards cleaner and greener environment-friendly digital printing solutions,” says Smarth Bansal, the company’s DGM – Product Management. According to him, soft signage has become widely popular in India. “Till date, we have put forth several models in the market for the segment.”
According to him, since nowadays a lot of fabric is being used for events like weddings decorations, banquets, etc. “To cater to these needs, we have a gamut of products in sustainable and green digital printing solutions to meet all signage and advertising needs that include soft signage like flags, banners, hoardings, demo tents, vibrant backlits, etc,” says Bansal.
Such solutions from Colorjet include Vulcan, which is the first UV roll-to-roll printing machine and works with zero VOC UV inks. The printer comes equipped with Kyocera printhead with the capability to deliver prints with high printing quality and speed.
Another printer is the Softjet Grand, which prints with aqueous water-based inks. It is a 3.2m wide printer, efficiently optimised to replace PVC-based media completely. It easily prints on polyester-based fabrics which can be recycled and uses environment-friendly aqueous based inks, an essential, to achieve goals of green printing.
Colorjet’s Polo HQ prints with ROHS eco-solvent inks and has been developed with proprietary GreenTech technology that enables the printer to print with environment-friendly eco-solvent inks and ensures low chemical emissions to reduce environmental and health hazards. Additionally, Colorjet’s regular range of digital printers like Irisjet Pro, Aurajet, equipped with Xaar technology and Verve Mini.
Bansal insists that in India, the demand for eco-friendly branding solutions is growing fast. “This led us receiving several enquiries for our water-based ink digital printers. We are also experiencing rise in demand for UV and Green Guard inks. This is the main reason we are pushing our green range of digital printers these days.”
Fabric-Compatible Printers Available in India
Apsom Infotex has Roland DG’s Texart series printer, the eco-friendly Texart XT-640 dye-sublimation transfer printer that embraces wide range of textile applications including sports merchandising and soft signages like polyester-based banners and flags.
ColorJet’s Vastrajet offers precise dot placements and high precision printing, and is suitable for a variety of fabrics including stretchable and normal like cotton, silk, wool, polyester and their blends.
HP Latex R2000 Printer is the first hybrid solution for rigid and flexible sign and display printing in one device. It powers PSPs with ultimate versatility through a single ink set. Applications such as retail, outdoor signage, window graphics, events and exhibitions, decoration and car wrapping are now a possibility.
Apsom Technologies has Konica Minolta’s scan-type high-and medium-speed inkjet textile printers, Nassenger 10 (580-310m2/h) and Nassenger 8 (240m2/h). These models are capable of higher-quality reproduction of colour gradients and repetitive geometric patterns that are difficult to reproduce on conventional textile printers.
Negi Signs along with its dye sublimation printers Mutoh RJ 900s and VJ 1624. Its NegiJet TX R-1900 is the 8-colour, 8- & 16-printheads digital textile printer comes powered by Ricoh Gen5, and can reach up to a maximum of 120m2/h and 240m2/h, respectively.
Offered under the banner of Negijet, Mutoh’s ValueJet sublimation printer VJ-1948WX directly prints on non-stretch polyester fabrics and are suitable for the production of high quality company flags, country flags, beach flags, personalised advertising, textile gadgets, clothing as well as home decoration fabrics.
Mimaki and Fujifilm have already been pushing their wide format machines from last couple of years which are capable of printing directly on textiles. There are machine majors like Caldron, DCC, NegiJet, Britomatics, etc. which are having the options open for the segment. However, there are still some suppliers which are warming up to the idea of getting in to fabric signages.
Amidst all this, there are players who are not yet confident of this turning scenario. “When it comes to soft signage, there are lot more anticipations than practically happening. We do have textile printers but the turn as predicted or expected is not yet happening. We are successfully selling both UV and sublimation machines to our customers but the contribution from sublimation is restricted at 10% only. This is because the price is still a deterrent in a market like India which is extremely price-sensitive,” shares Sanju Bamel, MD, Dakash Enterprises.
Despite this, he seems pretty optimistic about the future of the soft signage trade in India. “See, flex is getting restricted due to its non-eco-friendliness and hazardous attributes. Citing the danger to the environment & health of people, few state governments have already banned the use of flex for any promotional purposes in their respective geographies. Obviously, there would not be any way out but to switch over to fabric,” says Bamel.
Dye-Sublimation vs UV
Notably, the ability to print on to fabric with dye-sublimation is one of the best methods for soft signage as it allows inks to directly disperse on the substrate making it more saturated. Further, the ink that penetrates in signage fabric is also needed to be viewed from both the sides especially when it comes to flags printing. It also adds quality in the backlit displays and large banners because it does away the imperfections that may come when the fabric is stretched.
Being more elaborative, G. S. Negi, MD, Negi Signs & Supplies Systems Co., says, “The current technology leader in printing soft signage is seeing a shift away from traditional paper transfer methods. In dye-sublimation, which is a two-step method, a printer is meant to transfer imaged ink to the paper, which is then transferred to the textile through a fixing process using a heat transfer press.”
Negi further adds that recently introduced dye sublimation machines are capable of direct to fabric printing thus eliminating the two step process of using a transfer paper. “In the new technology, similar to the paper transfer method, direct printed textiles need to pass a head press to sublimate the image deep in to the fabric – a process that can either be handled in the in-line of the printer or as a secondary process offline.With all these infrastructural developments in line, we are confident that soft signage has a very bright future in the time to come.”
Speaking about the huge investments in flex and solvent machines, Negi suggests that those with solvent printers do not need to worry as there is the possibility of compatible fabric media in near future. “There are thousands of solvent printers operational in the market which can’t be sidelined or ignored just because of the non-acceptability of flex. I am sure the industry would have been working to develop fabric-based alterative media with solvent compatibility. So, the PSPs should remain patient.”
On the contrary, when it comes to the fate of flex manufacturers, Annshuman Nagpal, Genral Manager – Sales, DCC Print Vision LLP., says that since only five states have imposed ban on PVC-Flex, the scope for flex is still there and that the market for them has not yet dried up.“However, the paradigm shift in the industry is very much visible and fabric will soon be ruling from the roost. No one can avoid the transition from flex to fabric because at the end of the day all those substrates which are not eco-friendly will have to be banned,” he insists.
According to him, soon the media will either be polyester-based or artificial fabric. “Backlit fabric will come in a bigger way. The next year, being an election year, will witness massive demand for fabric to be used in signage. We see a bright future coming in for both – fabric and us. Definitely, this will push the demand for sublimation as well as UV printers,” he asserts.
But somewhere in the middle of our conversation, he cautions, “For D2F, of course, it is a proven technology; but for D2G, a lot of R&D is required at the moment because it is not something which is very stable as far as industrial is concerned. However, now with a new technology coming in the form of hybrid printing, the one with M&R, where it’s a fusion of screen and digital. This is a commendable advancement and is going on.”
DCC Print Vision is now planning to expand its presence nationwide for which it is soon going to set up its dealer network across the country. “We are targeting tier two and tire three cities, for which we need to appoint more dealers. For now, we have 15 dealers, and want to have 80+ dealers by the end of the year,” says Nagpal.
An Inviting Turf
The entry of fabric in to signage has opened up doors for those who are already catering to the garment segment. “Yes, this is an opportunity for people like us,” says Sanjay Desai, Director, True Colors – a digital printing company. “Now the industry is getting consolidated when it comes to offering solutions for various applications. Till recently, we remain focused on textile but what we anticipate is that the future has many things for us to explore.”
According to him, the customers for graphics/signage and that of garment manufacturing are getting common because of the media. “Earlier both the segments were different. So, we never thought of graphics. But now there is a transition happening and is pretty visible where fabric is being used for backlit signage. This is nothing but opening up new avenues for us which we can explore as a viable option sooner or later.”
Desai adds that most of the fabric printers come with 1.8 meter width option which is not compatible for signage or graphic industry. “But, whomsoever is catering to garment manufacturers do have the options of printers with wider width up to 3.2 meter. We do have that but were not catering to the signage manufacturers.”
For now, the company is sourcing printers from various Chinese manufacturers depending upon the applications and the manufacturers’ specialty. “In our portfolio, we have sublimation, D2G, high-speed printers, heat transfers, etc., with which we are catering to almost customers at each price bracket.
Inking the Fabric
Although dye sublimation is the primary and preferred printing method for soft signage, the recent developments in inking and coating technology has made soft signage printing more compatible with UV-curable and latex inks. These new developed inks are capable of addressing the issues such as durability, lightfastness, operational efficiency and output quality.
“In Inks, lot of transitions has happened. Initially, digital printing was very-very expensive and was meant only for a niche segment. Now that the prices have come down considerably and still on a downward curve, inks have also come down at far cheaper prices. Though people have started talking about digital in comparison with Rotary, but the match will take some more time. But soon the digital will be at par with rotary thereby opening the doors for many smaller investors to move in,” opines Nagpal.
Nagpal’s vision is also supported by the fact that the market is getting flooded with the introduction of competitively priced wide format latex and UV printers, which have made it possible for smaller companies to enter in to soft signage market. The signage that is printed with LED UV-curable inks does not require a second treatment like that in dye-sublimation ones. This has also added limitless substrates to the list of printing compatible media.
Almost all the players have both the options – sublimation as well as UV, with them to cater to a wider base of customers, touching almost each price bracket. While the advancement is sublimation is on, the digital printers that are manufactured nowadays are made very stable and sturdy, need least care.“However, invest in quality and opt for the technology wherein per piece production is lower, not the capital investment if you want to make a secure future in this segment and remain successful,” suggests Nagpal.
Recent advancements in the ink formulation have addressed the concerns like cracking on flexible materials and brightness or vibrancy in the final output. These newly developed inks can now provide a reliable cure on soft signage applications because their being flexible to an extent that it can expand up to 400% of their original size without even showing the signs of cracking.
Fabric is Available
Fabric to replace flex was missing from Indian turf for last couple of years, and was sourced from overseas manufacturers. Quite a few printer manufacturers consented that it is now available in the market. “Fabric is available in the market. If you have the urge you can find it there in the market. However, for those, who have invested in solvent should wait as we expect that solvent-compatible media will soon be made available.
There are many companies who are trying media that can go on solvent machines and the base is quite wide, which can’t be ignored. Lot of fabric manufacturers in Surat are finding it as an opportunity and I am sure very soon they will be shifting their focus to developing and manufacturing fabric for signage.
“We are getting lot of demand from people who are engaged in developing or creating Political campaigns that include flags and banners. Most of the states in South as well as Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra are looking at fabric as the ultimate alternative for PVC. We are getting fabric, priced as low as Rs 4/sqft, which is even a cheaper option than PVC,” informs Mitra.
He adds, “We have 65gsm-fabric, which basically works for flags. We are offering it at Rs 2.5/sqft. For now, we are importing this, but also looking for sourcing it indigenously. For this, we are exploring Surat market where negotiations with a couple of fabric manufacturers are going on. Once we got settled with anyone here, the prices will further come down by 40 to 50%, going much cheaper than flex.”
With all these on the fore, it is pretty evident that the soft signage market will continue to grow and will further evolve with time. Rapidly increasing the range of applications which include banners, flags, retail POP/POS, backlit displays, etc. are nothing but predicting the expanse of the soft signage industry which it is readying to attain sooner than later.
There is a huge demand of backlit signages especially from the retail brands which were inclined to re-inventing their identity. For example, footwear major Bata, Landmark’s value fashion chain Max, Future Group’s departmental store chain Big Bazaar, etc. have preferred to opt for soft signage for meeting their respective objectives. According to these brands, soft signage is vital to these transitions and relied heavily on light boxes and backlit fabric way finding signages to get a revamp.
Recent Developments in Global Arena
With all this on the Indian turf, let’s take a look at the recent developments in the global industry in the name of soft signage. In last one year around, there have been a series of announcements – be it about the software facilitating fabric printing more easy or a D2F printing machine which is capable of printing on fabric directly. Quite a few companies have announced their new products and thus gave their nods that soft would be the call this general election.
Kiian Digital, JK Group’s flagship brand, recently announced its Impress soft signage system, which is an integrated digital printing system designed to meet soft signage digital printing market demands. The system combines the deep technical expertise of MS Printing Solutions, Caldera Graphics and JK Group Digital Inks; all part of the same group.
Meanwhile, GCC announced the launch of its plug-in software GreatCut 4 that helps users to complete all print and cut tasks in the design software they are familiar with. It supports the most commonly used design software—CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator to the latest version. Moreover, the software’s compatibility with CorelDesigner as well as its new functions can facilitate users to present perfect cutting results in an effortless and seamless way.
Similarly AGFA Graphics introduced InkTune and PressTune software to reduce production costs. In designing and creating solutions based on hardware, software and consumables, the company focuses on its crucial ECO3 (ecology, economy, and extra convenience) to make prepress and printing operations cleaner, more cost-effective and easier to manage and maintain.
Going forward, Fisher Textiles has recently announced one of its newest fabrics for brilliant backlit silicone edge graphics, GF 6090 SunBright, compatible with transfer Dye Sublimation printing. The basis of development for this knit fabric was to enhance light dispersion for the production of brilliant backlit prints.
GF 6090 SunBright gives a rich colour and has a super soft hand. It is wrinkle and craze resistant, easy to sew and features an excellent stretch for a quick installation and proper fit in aluminum framing systems. This fabric weighs 6.3 oz/sqyd and is stocked 123 inches wide. It is flame retardant.
Before that Fisher Textiles had introduced GF 4019 Nirvana BOB (stocked in 320cm or 126 inches width) featuring coated black back, which is suitable for soft signage silicone edge graphics and roll up banner stand applications. Compatible with transfer dye-sublimation and UV curable printing, the flame-retardant GF 4019 Nirvana BOB is ideal for retail advertising and trade show exhibit environments.
All these developments clearly evince that soft signage is getting familiar though slowly but strategically across the global signage industry and India is not very far from this pervasive shift. As we all know that soft signage is a digitally printed fabric signage, wherein the media used is either a polyester-based textile or cotton or cotton blend. It’s not that the term is new or the usage has suddenly increased but the inclination of the signage industry as a whole nowadays is towards soft signage. Also, there are reasons for it.
Introduction of new technologies as well as materials are expected to continue. While dye-sublimation still leads in the printing method for soft signage, but the entry of new low-cost UV and latex machines and inks are expected to gain momentum over time. Together with the finishing solutions, followed by a compelling cloud-based workflow, the segment will generate profitable opportunities in the foreseeable future.
There are challenges of incorporating them into exterior signages and there has also been resistance because of the price point which is about 20% higher than regular media. The good news is that leading signage players are investing towards it and more interestingly, Indian machine manufacturers are contributing to the growth trajectory. Though in infancy, the tide is sure to take a turn and, that too towards a more sustainable and hazard-free environment.