Decorators that have already ventured into the world of dye sub for garments could easily profit from the soft signage market. Read on to find out how to take the next step


When you next go to a trade show, take a closer look at the banners and stands. Are the exhibitors displaying their branding on big, heavy, rigid sheets or on lightweight, non-crease fabrics? The London 2012 Olympics heralded an explosion in soft signage, explains Phil McMullin, UK sales manager at Epson: “The Olympics was trying to be very green and the organisers felt that printing on to textiles, hanging that textile up and then disposing of it in a very environmentally-friendly way was much better than printing on to self-adhesive vinyl, throwing away the silicon backing paper into landfill, applying the vinyl on to a rigid media and then wondering what you did with all of that afterwards. They felt that soft signage was much greener.”

Each year more companies and event managers are also realising that, as well as its eco-credentials, soft signage can lead to big savings in both material and labour costs. They are lightweight, easy to transport and easy to install. As Stephen Woodall, national sales manager (textile and apparel) of Hybrid Services, notes, “As it’s easy to change the graphic, retailers can vary their message, keeping it up to date with seasonal or promotional requirements. The knock-on for this is increased business for the printer.”

This backs up the assertion of Mark Elvidge, business development manager at Roland DG, that the retail market is fast becoming a lucrative industry for soft signage, adding: “Many high street stores now demand recyclable products that are eco-friendly and sublimation fits that bill quite nicely.”

Being able to offer both garments and soft signage is appealing to the Amazon-generation, which expects to be able to buy everything they want from one place, but how simple is it for a garment decorator to make the leap into this area of the sublimation printing market?

Signage shopping list

Decorators who already have a dye sublimation printer and a heat press can start creating soft signage straight away. “The transition from garment decoration to soft signage is generally very straightforward – provided the customer has the right equipment,” says Mark. “Artwork and software skills are transferable, but if a print professional only has a small format printer and an A3 press, in order to produce larger, more complex products, users would need to invest in larger machinery.”

Grant Cooke, product development and campaign specialist of Xpres, explains that an entry level set-up that includes a 44” printer, a large format heat press and a full set of inks could cost as little as £8,500, noting that this set-up would also be perfect those looking to branch out into the growing home decor market.

A rotary heat press, also known as a calendar, is recommended for those who want to offer a wide range of signage. “It’s all case of how big a soft signage they want to produce,” says Magnus Mighall, a partner at RA Smart. “I would say you need a rotary press over a flat press because then you’ve only got a restriction in the width of the machine rather than the length, because length with a rotary press is immaterial.”

For those wanting to go down this route, Grant says a 64” printer plus a 64” calendar unit will cost around £25,000, including delivery, installation and full training. Mark recommends the Roland DG Texart RT-640 that comes with the Roland DG RIP ErgoSoft Roland Edition software for £12,999. “The machine, developed specifically for dye sublimation, offers consistently reliable production capabilities through a wide range of profitable applications,” comments Mark.

Stephen at Hybrid says soft signage can be produced with either a direct disperse or transfer process, depending on the final end product. “Printing direct to a flag or mesh where the fabric is permeable works best on one of Mimaki’s textile printers, which feature a trough directly under the print area to catch any excess ink and avoid it marking off on the rear of the fabric, whilst delivering a print with excellent show-through, as required on a feather flag for example.”

Aaron Burton, digital development director at Sabur Ink Systems, recommends decorators moving into soft signage opt for a Mimaki TX300P with a Klieverik Calendar press.

Decorators also need to consider the fixings and finishings that are required for use with soft signage, as Stephen explains: “All graphics will need cutting out, light boxes require hemming with a silicon bead, and feather flags will need pockets and reinforcements sewn and attached.” Phil McMullin, UK sales manager at Epson, adds: “You’ll need an eyelet press, which can be a hand press or you can buy automated ones. You then need to buy cables of bungee cords, which any good general or signage supply company can provide.”

Finding customers

Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that finding soft signage customers is simple – spend a few minutes talking to your current customers and you’ll quickly find they have many signage needs. Tim Egerton, sales manager for Soyang Europe, supplier of digital sign media, says: “There’s an obvious link between garment decoration and event branding – printers may already be supplying corporatewear or specific outfits for the event, so providing soft signage products could be an easy upsell. Barrier graphics for finish straights at fun runs or cycle races that have a reduced wind loading compared to PVC banners, feather flags for golf tournaments sporting sponsors’ logos, or brightly coloured gazebos and marquees at fetes and fairs – all are digitally printable and can be produced on wide format dye sublimation hardware.” He also points out other promotional opportunities such as branded beanbags, parasols and deck chairs.

Phil from Epson advises always saying ‘yes’ to any question and finding the solution afterwards, to avoid risk losing clients to those suppliers who can offer everything that they want. “If you can’t do it in-house, what you need to do is partner with somebody who can do the other things that you can’t do, build up the demand and volume from your customer base and look at bringing it in-house when you’ve built it up to a reasonable level. Do a two-stage process: answer yes to every question, but make sure you have a good partner that can do some of the more specialist stuff for you; build up your knowledge of how it works and what kind of things your customers want and then go to the market and look at buying your own equipment and bringing it in-house so you can improve your profitability.”