Soft Signage Market Opportunities

There's no better time than now to jump on the soft signage and flexible fabric bandwagon

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

This article examines the soft signage market’s outlook and opportunities and 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. Also, outdoor flags and fabric banners have become popular ways to attract consumers’ attention to retail and events.

Silicone edge graphics lead the charge

Randy Anderson, product manager at Mutoh America Inc., says right now there are two major trends in the soft signage market, depending on how you break it down: silicone 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., 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.”

Growing markets

There is a growing demand for digitally printed acoustic panels used in gymnasiums, auditoriums, and home theaters. Its clients are also requesting products that can be fabricated with automatic cold cutting equipment to save production time and costs.

Mike Compton, product marketing manager at Top Value Fabrics (TVF), 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…We also see an increasing demand for sustainably produced products,” says Compton.

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.”

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, TVF recommends seeking 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 10 years, the demand for digitally printed soft signage has shown vertical growth with an 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.

“New media and substrates are in constant demand as clients seek fabrics to fit specific applications and growth areas in soft signage,” Compton adds.

The demand for durable outdoor fabrics is also increasing for applications including banners, fence and building wraps, marketing umbrellas, tents, and canopies.

Sustainable options

Lily Hunter, product manager, Roland DGA, 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 explains. “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.”

Now that more ink and production options are available for creating this type of output, the popularity of soft signage has increased.

Variety and options

For shops looking at printers, purchasing decisions will depend upon the type of soft signage the print service provider wants to create, determining 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 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, then a dye-sublimation printer would be a better purchase.”

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 adds. “There is a 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 shows, 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.

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Mike Clark

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