Tips for Choosing the Right Materials for Your Applications
When it comes to the success — or failure — of a project, sometimes it doesn’t hinge on the installation, the print quality, or the turn around times. Instead, what can make or break a project is the choice of what substrate it’s produced on.
That was the subject of the session at PRINTING United Expo in Atlanta, Georgia this week focused on “Evaluating Digitally Printed Fabrics and Materials for Success.” Marco Alvarez, vice president of fabric images; and Jamie Herand, vice president of graphic operations, Orbus Group, brought more than 40 years of combined expertise to help printers make better decisions when it comes to choosing the right media for the right applications.
If there is one thing they wanted attendees to take away, it’s that testing is critical. Never just assume a fabric, or rigid board, or even paper will work exactly as intended with your inks, presses, and environment. Every situation will have unique variables that can impact everything from ink adhesion, to wrinkle resistance, to water resistance, to elasticity of the material, and more.
“You have to become students of the craft,” said Alvarez. “Learn the materials and really try to figure out what they can do through testing and trials.”
To do that, the pair detailed the extensive testing process they go through every every new material or new press they install in one of the their locations. Alvarez stressed that shops shouldn’t feel obligated to go through t he entire thing — pick and choose the parts that are relevant to your business, the products you want to produce, and the substrates you want to offer, and go from there.
Herand’s first tip was to create a folder of problem files — job files that you have had issues with over time. It could be one with a tricky color, or a difficult design, for example, but the key is to have those files ready to go when testing materials, since then you can see the results on the actual examples that are relevant to you.
Beyond that, you should also create a test pattern that will allow you to check a wide variety of tests in a single piece. For example, have a grid pattern somewhere in the design to test for fine, straight lines. Include text to make sure the printed words are clear and legible. Include solid colors — Alvarez prefers solid black, since it can be the hardest to do well, and if it prints, then other solid colors should follow — and include things like logos if you’ll be printing a lot of those, or images that are similar to the type and style your customers are looking for. Creating the right test file will allow you to easily evaluate every substrate and press, and easily be able to compare them.
Another thing to consider when testing is the finishing process. “You might find a beautiful fabric that you love, and that prints well, but your team can’t finish it,” said Alvarez. Make sure that whatever finishing process you plan to use, the team can easily manipulate the fabric to create a polished, finished piece without puckers, wrinkles, etc.
For the actual test itself, a few things to look for include:
- Scratch resistance
- Spot Cleaning
- Print Distortion
- Water Penetration
- Fade Resistance
And those are just a few — the tests you’ll want to run if you target graphics for trade shows will be very different from what you will want to test for outdoor graphics, or retail installations. Knowing the verticals you want to get into will help you narrow down the tests that will be most relevant for your business.
That said, Herand noted that a substrate failing and initial test doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be used. Figure out why it failed — can you adjust the ink density, or the curing process. Perhaps the environment around the machine just needs to be tweaked a bit — is it too humid, or not humid enough? She suggests going to manufacturers of substrates you are considering, and getting a small sample to do a few simple tests. And then for the ones you like, ask for a slightly larger sample to do the more robust testing to really put that material through the wringer.
She also stresses that you should document all the conditions and results, and then have multiple shifts run the samples at different times, to make sure the material will perform under any conditions your shop might encounter on a regular basis. “And even once it’s approved and you start using that material with live projects,” she said, “keep testing and documenting.”
Finally, don’t stop testing at the press — also test shipping and handling, especially for fabrics. Make sure your staff knows how to fold and pack finished projects to ensure nothing is damaged in transit, especially if it ships alongside frames or stands. Make sure it is folded in such a way that when the customer unboxes it, the piece won’t be wrinkled. Make sure if a package is left in the elements, the printed materials will not be damaged.
In the end, both Alvarez and Herand once more emphasized that it’s not a process that is every fully completed. There are always new substrates, new inks, and new presses to test, and keeping a library that your staff can rely on to know what works — and what doesn’t — will help your shop grow and be successful long term.