How Fabric Graphics Changed the Tradeshow World!
Dye-sublimation fabric graphics took the tradeshow world by storm in the early part of this decade. Before that, the only real way to print on fabric was to silk screen. Dye sublimation printing changed everything. It offered a higher quality, lower cost graphic, which could easily be mounted on aluminum extrusions, such as ClassicMODUL. Suddenly, aluminum extrusion systems, which had been step-children in the exhibit industry, were transformed from ugly duckling rentals into an hybrid exhibit swans. Bid, bold, and colorful exhibits with tension fabric graphics became the norm from 10′ x 10′ portable displays, like Perfect 10, to 20′ x 20′ islands, like Visionary Designs. It was the classic chicken and egg scenario. Dye-sublimation fabrics made hybrid exhibits possible and hybrid exhibits made fabric graphics wildly popular.
Dye sublimation, also known as dye-sub, is an interesting process. Initially, a print-on-paper is produced in a mirror image. This image is one you don’t want to judge too quickly because the paper print looks awful. The colors are terribly dull and not crisp or sharp at all. Once it is on paper, it is then run through the sublimation press. The sublimation press takes the paper print and runs it through rollers very close to the transfer fabric. The paper along with the fabric passes at a very slow speed and a very hot temperature. As they pass close to one another, the “solid” ink instantly skips from liquid into a gas and literally impregnates or dyes the fabric. The vivid color jumps to life like the old Clorox commercial and the print now resembles Lambda printing on cloth.
The dye-sub process has several additional advantages as well. Dye-sub graphics can be folded without “breaking” the ink (similar to what happens when you fold a piece of paper printed on your desktop printer). The fabric is lightweight and durable, and folds into a compact shape for save and secure shipping. Fold, Box, Label, Ship.
The major advantage of a dye-sub graphic is overall durability. Most custom exhibits and even some portable displays use backlit plex graphics or thin roll-able graphics. Those had to be handled with “white glove” care because they could get easily scratched, broken, or dinged. A dye-sub graphic is much smaller to pack and can’t be broken. Good grief . . . it’s fabric. At the end of the day, the only way to damage a fabric graphic is to burn it, bleach it, or cut it. Dye-sub is also washable in the gentle cycle of most washing machines or it can be spot cleaned with a carpet cleaner.
One of the least talked about advantages may be the most important. Traditional photography or inkjet prints, which are laminated or mounted to plex, usually have some form of frontlighting, such as halogen lights. That lighting looks good with one noticeable exception. The lights create a glare (even on textured laminates) or hotspots. And it never fails that the hotspot is always in the most critical part of your message, photo, or logo! Unlike those traditional first or second surface graphics, fabric graphics absorb reflective light, which turns a serious negative into a positive.
The last of the big benefits to fabric is cost. Money matters. Tradeshow and event budgets are getting squeezed or are under scrutiny. In most cases, fabric graphics are about half the price of a Lambda or inkjet print of the same size. With the new super wide dye-sub printers, you can print up to 120 inches without a seam and up to 72 inches with a “Better than Life” quality.
Before fabric graphics, an extrusion system looked like a cheap rental exhibit. Today’s rental exhibits are as custom as a Rolls Royce. Many have towers up to 20 feet tall in custom configurations that are less expensive to install all the time. No longer is it necessary to ship huge panels and plex graphics when you can use lightweight aluminum and fabric. Most rentals have become indistinguishable from new exhibits. Even smaller 10′ x 10′ and 10′ x 20′ hybrid exhibit rentals are now available in shapes and features unimaginable just two years ago.
Looking at the big picture (no pun intended), dye-sub fabric printing hasn’t changed the world like the Internet or antibiotics or opposable thumbs. But for us who allow trade show exhibits to rule our lives, it is pretty darn important.
To learn more about Pillowcase and Tension Fabric Graphics, download this helpful FAQ document: Pillowcase and Tension Fabric Graphics FAQ.
See you next time with the tale wags!
— Reid Sherwood