Everything You Need to Know About Getting Into Soft Signage
Last week, EFI held its Ignite Virtual Experience, which was three days of live streamed sessions from experts around the world discussing the latest printing technology and applications, as well as product demos and Q&As.
On April 22, Mike Wozny, senior product manager at EFI, held a session covering what it takes to enter into the soft signage segment, including what equipment is needed and its potential impact on your business.
What is Soft Signage?
Wozny began the presentation by describing the specifics of soft signage. Sublimation ink on polyester materials using heat fixation makes up 90% to 95% of all soft signage, he said. Applications include everything from banners, flags, outdoor displays and furnishings, to wall coverings, trade show graphics, POP materials, and more.
He explained that although there are five necessary components for bringing in a new process — equipment, facility space, launch plan, people, and process — the two most crucial parts are "bringing in the right people and sticking to the right process" to ensure a streamlined workflow.
In terms of equipment, Wozny suggested looking into a device that has a wide application range.
“You need to connect with a printer capable of printing direct, paper transfer, and flag," he said.
Next, make sure to invest in equipment that has a low cost of ownership. For example, he said, "print heads should not be a consumable." He suggested looking for a recycled ink system, which will cut costs. It's also important to look for a device that offers high image quality and high throughput.
“You don’t want to compromise quality for speed, or speed for quality," he advised.
The device should also have 24/7 durability and an industrial build. "You want a device built from the ground up to handle fabric," he said.
Finally, when considering adding soft signage capabilities, in-line or offline sublimation needs to be taken into account since there are different benefits and drawbacks to each process.
Workflow and Product Requirement Considerations
When it comes to an in-line versus offline sublimation process, there are a multitude of considerations. Wozny pointed to two specific EFI devices to highlight the differences between the two processes. To compare the two, he looked at the benefits and drawbacks of the FabriVU 340i (in-line) versus the FabriVU 340 (offline).
First and foremost, an in-line process means that users can print and sublimate in-line, with the graphic coming off of the device as a finished produce, whereas an offline workflow requires a secondary process. Because of this, the total acquisition cost, footprint, and labor cost is lower in an in-line workflow decision, versus an offline one.
Offline, however, has the advantage of being able to print direct and paper transfer, enabling a wider application range; it allows for the use of uncoated fabrics via paper transfer; it allows for easier material changes; and ease of operation.
Both processes, however, offer consistent color and the ability to direct print to coated materials.
Wozny suggests that if a business plans on making a lot of fabric changes, offline might be the better choice, but it's important to weigh all benefits and efficiencies and make the decision based on individual needs.
When making the decision to add soft signage capabilities, Wozny pointed out that it is important to focus on acquiring "high resolution print heads to maximize ink coverage in the least amount of passes to minimize waste and cost." Also consider medium viscosity ink, which will result in more ink and less water per liter of ink.
Finally, Wozny stressed the importance of having key material handling capabilities to move material around, as well as a good finishing system — such as a laser cutting system — and sewing equipment.
More Considerations Before Jumping In
While entering a new segment is exciting, it's important not to take on too much, too quickly.
“The most successful people in soft signage align to three to four applications in the beginning, not all," Wozny advised. "It will give you the best chance for success.”
Focusing on three to four applications, he explained, will enable a quicker ROI and enhanced success overall. He suggested finding out exactly what customers are looking for and then aligning production to meet those application needs.
Shrinkage is a worry for many businesses considering adding soft signage capabilities, but there are ways to minimize it. Wozny said that the process is "counter-intuitive to what we know about UV.” Each material from different manufacturers reacts differently, so it's crucial to scrutinize every material before it goes into production.
“Love your material and make sure you understand it well before you put it into production," he advised.
There also needs to be consistent printer settings, such as calendar temperature and dwell time, and the material should be climatized.
Not only should every material be analyzed to prevent shrinkage, it should be profiled to maintain consistent and repeatable color. He suggested profiling every material at a minimum, but explained that high-end printers will actually profile every single batch of materials, since there can be subtle difference between materials of the same type.
Similar to considerations that need to be made to minimize shrinkage, constant temperature and humidity need to be maintained because any variations can result in inconsistent color.
Wozny also advised that businesses looking to enter the segment leverage professional help and learn the best processes and workflow.
Finally, he explained the importance of identifying a work space.
“Make sure you allocate the proper amount of space when bringing on soft signage," he said.
He gave an example of what a 50x60-ft. soft signage workspace might look like, with material movers, fabric suppliers, a heat press, a fabric cutter, a sewing system, material storage, and the soft signage printer.
Have the Right Expectations
Adding soft signage capabilities can bring in new revenue streams that could benefit your business. There are some considerations to make prior to adding any new technology and it's important to do due diligence when researching solutions, workflow, and process.
Wozny ended the presentation by stating that although there can be a large margin of profit resulting from soft signage capabilities, printers shouldn't expect to bring the devices online and begin producing at top amounts immediately.
"It's important to have the right expectations," he concluded.