Brilliant Backlit Graphics Here, There, and Everywhere
Have you noticed? Backlit images are not just for trade shows, retail displays, casinos, menu boards, and movie posters anymore. Today, backlit prints are also being displayed in store windows, corporate offices, art galleries, bus shelters, kiosks, schools, houses of worship, and lobbies.
Advances in lower-cost LED lighting, printable fabrics, cutting systems, and silicone-edge graphic (SEG) displays have made it possible to include backlit graphics in full wall displays, staircases, ceilings, event backdrops, counters, and podiums.
“A lot of creativity has gone into figuring out how to take SEG backlit graphics to the next level,” says Brian Ebenger, VP of business development for XCEL, based in Champlin, Minnesota, which specializes in providing standard and custom-built frames for backlit and unlit silicone-edge graphics (SEG).
“Fabric backlit will be one of fastest growing applications for wide-format graphics for the next 10 years,” predicts Timothy Mitchell, senior director of product development for Sarasota, Florida-based S-One Holdings Corporation. “Fabric backlit images make an impact. And fabric is easier to print, ship, and replace.”
Advances in Printers and Software
The ability to reproduce high-quality images and consistent colors is a must with backlit images. Every flaw that is already magnified when an image is enlarged is accentuated even more when backlit.
“In my opinion, the demand for perfection in backlits is the single hardest challenge in the industry,” Mitchell said. In addition to printing errors, the graphics can be scratched or creased during sewing, and shipping. If you make an error with backlit, Mitchell says, “You are going to be stuck with a product that gets rejected when you put it in a lightbox. The error shows right through.”
The two most popular platforms for producing backlit fabric graphics are sublimation “soft signage” printers and UV inkjet printers. Mitchell says latex inks look great on fabric but can be prone to scratching during finishing.
“UV is going to be the most scratch-resistant when you put it on a coated backlit fabric,” Mitchell says. “When you use white inks, you can get some beautiful prints. But you still want to ship it on the roll and keep the print in that format because you want to avoid creasing. Creasing can show up in a lightbox, even with dye-sub coated fabrics.”
The holy grail of backlit fabric graphics is to be able to print consistent, high-quality color images on an uncoated fabric that can be folded up in a bag for shipping.
Soft-signage textile printers are a popular choice for companies that specialize in printing fabrics for all types of indoor and outdoor displays.
Latest Innovations on Display
At PRINTING United Expo, exhibitors such as Durst, EFI, and Agfa showcased the latest innovations in sublimation fabric printing systems that can either print on transfer paper or direct to fabric. Agfa’s new Avinci 110 sublimation inks for the Agfa Avinci CX3200 offer the deep blacks and brilliant reds that dye-sub printer users have requested.
The Durst P5 TEX iSub and EFI FabriVu 340i+ soft signage printers have inline fixation systems and color managed workflows that may make it possible to print quality images direct to backlit fabric. This would eliminate the need for print service providers (PSPs) to print on high-quality transfer paper and invest in a separate heat calendar to transfer the images to the fabrics.
The contactless inline fixation technology in the TEX iSub eliminates blurring and bleeding of colors to ensure excellent color consistency as well as extreme sharpness of detail in images and text.
To meet the growing demand for soft signage, St. Paul, Minnesota-based The Vomela Companies bought the EFI VUTEK FabriVU 340i+ printer at PRINTING United Expo for use at Visual Impact, an out-of-home advertising, retail, hospitality and event graphics business that was acquired by The Vomela Companies in October.
“Soft signage is a growing category for our company — for events, retail, and the out-of-home advertising market,” said Mark Auth, Vomela’s CEO and president. “The inline fixation capabilities of the VUTEk FabriVU 340i+ will increase our speed to finish and help to create shorter lead times.”
Hybrid flatbed/roll-to-roll UV presses may be more practical for smaller sign shops because they can print on a wide range of both rigid and flexible materials.
Because LexJet distributes EFI, Mimaki, and Epson presses, LexJet experts can help sign and display graphics companies and in-plants find the UV, dye-sub, resin, or solvent-ink system that best meets their immediate needs.
LexJet VP of Sales CJ Forker said once customers get started with wide-format printing, LexJet can help them add capabilities as their print requirements grow and evolve.
When PSPs are equipped with several different types of presses, they can choose which print platform is best for a specific backlit graphics order.
Scott Powers, VP of sales for D’Andrea Visual Communications, based in Cypress, California, likes that dye-sub printed backlit fabrics are soft and can be more easily folded without creases. UV-printed fabrics look sharper and richer but do not fold as easily.
“We print dye-sub for larger trade-show graphics so they can be folded” for shipping and storage, Powers says. “But for smaller retail backlit fabrics, we print UV and roll them. For up-close viewing, UV printing is nicer than dye sub.”
A Wide-Range of Materials
The first inkjet backlit graphics were printed using high densities of aqueous inks on translucent polyester films that were rigid enough to insert into bulky, pre-built lightboxes that used fluorescent tubes for backlighting. The graphics had to be laminated for outdoor displays and looked dull during daylight hours.
For up-close viewing, the image resolution of those first inkjet backlit graphics on polyester films in the 1990s couldn’t compare with the image quality produced by the Durst Lambda. The Lambda converted digital images into silver-halide processed photographic prints. The Lambda set a high bar for image quality, but the range of materials it could process was limited to photo papers and Duratrans backlit film.
While fabrics are quickly becoming the de facto method of producing photographic backlit graphics, PSPs can also make backlit signs with materials such as clear and translucent polyester films, translucent adhesive vinyl, and clear or translucent acrylic panels.
Fabrics coated for backlit printing typically have high white points for saturated colors, greater opacity to hide the light source, and tight weaves to prevent pinholes from appearing in the surface of the graphic.
When clear day/night backlit films are printed with white UV ink base layers, the graphics can be designed to include a second-surface image that will change the look of the graphic when the print is lit for night viewing. Printed and cut translucent adhesive vinyl can be applied to clear or translucent acrylic panels used in illuminated displays. Or coated light-diffusing acrylic panels can be printed directly for use in a permanent lightbox.
Familiarity with the full range of substrate options can be a big plus in a wide-format graphics shop.
Improved Color Management Tools
Backlighting a printed image not only exposes artifacts in the print, but also color inconsistencies.
“Like with any other digitally printed graphic, for the best quality backlit graphics, it is necessary to generate your own printing profiles in house,” says Geoff Kilmer, CEO, PhotoWorksGroup in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“This gets you the most accurate color balance and the most efficient ink use.”
To get accurate color profiles for backlit fabric display graphics, Kilmer recommends using a spectrophotometer that has a transmissive mode so it can measure the colors being generated when light is transmitted through the fabric instead of being reflected off it.
As color scientists and software developers have improved the color consistency of industrial digital textile printing systems, the tools and software for managing backlit fabric graphics are becoming more accessible.
Barbieri won a 2022 Pinnacle InterTech Award for its Spectro LFP qb Textile Edition. This fully automated reflection/transmission spectrophotometer is designed specifically for color management in dye-sublimation and digital textile printing.
Agfa’s Asanti workflow software for sign and graphics production features a calibrated print mode in which new media can be calibrated and profiled in less than 15 minutes. This includes media on Agfa’s Avinci CX3200 3.2m soft signage press.
LED Lighting Innovations
Cooler, more flexible LED lighting gives lightbox designers much more creative latitude than the rigid fluorescent tubes used in high-cost, first-generation lightboxes. Lighter weight, more energy-efficient, longer-lasting LED lighting can be configured multiple ways to create thinner, edge-lit lightboxes as well as portable or ceiling-hung lightboxes.
Depending on the graphic size and display location, lightboxes can be fabricated with LED light strips, LED guided light panels, LED sheet lights, LED lattice lights or even motion lighting.
Backlit displays that use arrays of programmable “pixels” of clear or colored lights can create the illusion of motion in static display graphics. At PRINTING United Expo, Flowbox showed creative examples of this.
Customizable and Portable Displays
Printed fabrics edged with flat gaskets (aka keders) can be inserted into slots in aluminum extrusions that can be cut to any length and assembled to form tensioned-fabric displays of different sizes and shapes. These lightweight, modular systems are easy to set up and take down and can be shipped at lower costs in small boxes.
Some suppliers specialize in manufacturing both non-lit and backlit SEG frames.
For example, XCEL started out as a producer/converter of flexible media for wide-format printing. When their customers began considering fabric as an alternative to traditional vinyl, XCEL switched gears and became a manufacturer/distributor of everything a PSP might need to convert printed graphics into SEG signage, including framing systems, lighting, keder, and sublimation transfer paper.
XCEL engineers can design and build everything from 12x12" frames to monster-sized frames for specialized installations. They use SOLIDWORKS to design new concepts and use 3D printers to make prototypes.
Their experts recommend specific lighting systems that work best with the combination of fabric and display systems being used.
“A 24x36" backlit fabric will require different lighting than an 8x8' frame,” Ebenger explains. Edge lighting around the perimeter of the frame might work fine in a relatively small frame, but it wouldn’t be practical in a large 8x10’ frame because the intensity of the light will be visibly greater at the edges than at the center of the graphic.
The right combination of fabric and lighting system ensures that the lights are bright enough to illuminate images on relatively thick fabrics without creating hotspots. The depth of the frame also affects the optimal performance of the LED lights. When LED lights are positioned too far from the fabric, it impacts the look of the graphic.
Not all SEG frames are custom-built frames. PSPs can find pre-built or modular portable backlit display frames for countertop displays, 8x10' trade-show booth backwalls, pillowcase display systems, back-loading window display frames, and modular retail displays.
At PRINTING United Expo, TC3 Displays showed an easy-to-use modular framing system that can accommodate graphics on textiles, rigid panels, and/or roll-up graphics on display films. The aluminum beams and connectors to build custom displays interlock with a simple twist of the wrist. Backlighting can be provided with T3’s Wandalite tubular LED lights. The unbreakable lights are easy to transport and install. TC3 also offers a battery-operated lightbox wall on wheels that can be easily moved within a retail space.
Thin-profile snap-open lightboxes can display backlit graphics on display film. Lightboxes with acrylic panels can be mounted on indoor and outdoor walls or placed in freestanding displays on sidewalks, and in hallways and entrances.
Trends and Opportunities
By following trends and new backlit graphic display products, PSPs can discover plenty of opportunities to set their businesses apart from competitors.
XCEL’s Ebenger said some clients are now requesting dimmable backlit graphics with sensors that automatically turn on the backlighting when motion is detected. Programmable lightboxes that make elements of the image appear to move are also becoming popular, as are double-sided SEG frames for store windows. The double-sided frames make full use of retail window space by showing one image to people outside the store and a different image to people inside the store.
With these and other innovations in materials, lighting, and display systems, PSPs can continually show clients and prospects something new and different in backlit graphics.