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Walk This Way

Freeman Brings the Decorative Touch

Part 3 of 4

By Thomas Franklin

Freeman Company is known as something of an exhibition empire—the $1 billion-plus company produces expositions, corporate events, conventions, and exhibits from 70 offices in 40 cities in the U.S. and Canada. The mix of services is sweeping—from freight and audio/visual services to digitally printed graphics and grand format signage.

Integral to the company’s commitment to "make the impossible possible" are innovative digital graphics thanks to Mike Hidden, corporate graphics manager, Freeman Company.

A veteran of the billboard printing industry, Hidden joined Freeman’s Chicago, IL office where he manages a variety of EFI/VUTEk grand format printers, including the 196-inch EFI/VUTEk 5330 roll-to-roll solvent printer, among other equipment.

One innovative application Freeman creates on a regular basis involves carpet. Before the capabilities of printable carpet, trade show carpet production was considerably laborious. Such projects were completed by cutting multiple pieces of color carpet, "it had to be exact and it took forever," shares Hidden. The company worked with printable carpet for several years to little effect before experimenting with Ultraflex Systems, Inc.’s Ultra Carpet.

"We used a number of different carpets, but the thick ones were wrecking our machines," Hidden recalls. "With the Ultraflex we found it was thinner and more flexible—you didn’t have to blast the heat, it dried much quicker, and the colors stayed true," he explains. Color is especially critical, as previous carpets retained hardly any color.

Among Freeman’s core businesses is trade show graphics, and Hidden’s team is frequently producing 15x15-foot and 20x30-foot carpets for major shows. "Companies use them because it provides an extra special boost in the booth," says Hidden. The key is to make the logos dramatic. Too small, and people will step right over the carpet. The carpets are printed with solvent ink and geared for short term, indoor applications.

In 2007, Ultraflex asked the Freeman team to produce a vivid carpet for its booth at the 2008 ISA trade show. The classroom-themed, 20x30-foot carpet was awash in different colors and designs, including a space designed to replicate wood. Unlike the simple patterned logos that are the staple of much of Hidden’s work, the Ultraflex carpet had to stand out. It was to serve as a showpiece for the media’s capabilities.

All carpet production is a two-man job, Hidden shares, and this was no exception. Ensuring proper media registration is perhaps the most difficult element in printing on carpet. "After ten or 15 feet, you’ll get a sag between the pinch rollers." To avoid any slack, Hidden’s team uses double-sided tape to adhere the carpet to the rollers.

After the carpet was loaded in the printer, "someone has to watch it print, and stay on top of it," Hidden explains. The EFI/VUTEk 5330 was set to print at 150 square feet per hour to ensure proper registration and media handling when running Ultraflex’s carpet through. After printing, a VUTEk roll cleaner thoroughly scrubs out the printer.

The Ultraflex trade show booth carpet was rugged enough that a finish wasn’t needed. "We’ve tried applying Scotch Guard to some carpets, but they’re such short term projects that it isn’t necessary," he explains.

The tiled strips were shipped to the Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center and installed by aligning the edges and adhering them with double-sided tape. "We don’t want seams," says Hidden, so there’s no stitching.

"We definitely see a push from our clients for more innovative output. There is a huge demand for prints made on a range of different materials and a big push for direct-to-fabric. People want the dye sub look but won’t pay dye sub prices," observes Hidden.

To keep up with client demand requires constant education. "Every show we attend we learn something new. The amount of technology introduced in the last few years is amazing."

Next week learn about a variety of innovative projects for a popular tennis tournament.

Click here to read Part 1 of this exclusive online series, Grand Format Innovations.
Click here to read Part 2 of this exclusive online series, CGS Imaging Center Stage.

Aug2008, Digital Output

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