by Gretchen A. Peck
"We’ve always listened to our market, to our customers," ICL Imaging’s sales and marketing manager, Bill Smith explains. "If they don’t ask for it, we don’t go out and buy it. So, when they started coming to us, saying, ‘Hey, we’d love to print on some of this beautiful fabric we’re seeing. Can you guys do that?,’ we knew it was something to look into."
Founded in 1956 in Framingham, MA, ICL Imaging is a large format graphics and photography printer, supplying everything from tradeshow and vehicle graphics to POP displays, building wraps, and custom wallpaper. It was ICL Imaging’s core tradeshow business that started to drive them into the fabric realm.
"The market, for us, started with the exhibit companies that were trying to come up with things that were a little different for their clients," Smith recalls. "They were looking for lighter-weight alternatives, so they could ship to shows easier. And the designers of these pieces really liked to experiment with new materials, because it gave them a way to help distinguish their clients from all the others on a show floor."
For ICL Imaging, offering fabric alternatives to their customers proved trickier than expected. It wasn’t simply a matter of just buying fabric instead of vinyl and other substrates, running it through a printer, and off the job goes. Doing fabric right meant some very careful planning and investment.
The shop already had a 16-foot super-wide printer from VUTEk, which could be used to generate fabric-based graphics meant to be viewed from afar. The resolution of that printer was perfect for trade show graphics hung from the rafters, Smith stipulates, but they found they needed to invest in a higher-resolution printer for graphics that would reside on a show floor, at eye-level to patrons. So, the company added a 104-inch Roland dye-sublimation printer for work of this kind.
"We had to make a new investment," Smith recalls, "because so much of our business was beginning to depend on fabric."
ICL also hosted a fabric boot camp, hiring a local consultant to educate the production and sales teams about general fabric principles. As with any substrate, fabrics have their own unique properties, and ICL learned quickly that different fabrics are going to react to application of print a little differently.
"You need to do a lot of testing when you’re using fabrics," Smith suggests. "When you print to a transfer paper, that image is going to look completely different after it’s transferred. The colors aren’t true; they’ll seem a little flat on the transfer stock, and of course, the image is in reverse. So, how do you color correct under those conditions?"
ICL Imaging purchased a smaller flatbed press that would allow the printer to perform tests economically. "We’re able to print with it and tweak the colors faster, and not waste as much material," Smith explains.
They also spent time building custom color profiles specific to each print engine technology and each type of fabric.
And finally, ICL Imaging had to build a new stitching and finishing team for fabric jobs. "We had to learn a lot, and quickly, about sewing," Smith suggests. "For example, how do you make a pole pocket? How do you measure for a pocket? What is a hem? What is a seam? These were very new terms for us."
The printer could have easily partnered with a local supplier to manage finishing of these complex projects, but after careful analysis, decided it was best to do it all in-house. "Its worked out quite nicely for us," he confides. "If you have to send a job out to be stitched, you can’t control it. You’re at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. So, having the ability to do it all in-house is something that’s really good to have, but often, very difficult to achieve."
There are countless suppliers offering fabrics to print suppliers these days. (For a complete list, see the August issue of Digital Output.) And there are an even greater number of types of fabrics from which to choose.
For this type of guidance, ICL Imaging often turns to its equipment manufacturers for guidance, asking for information on the types of fabrics they themselves have tested. And, like always, the printer relies on its customers for guidance, as well. "We get samples for the salespeople, so they can poll their customers and find out what they like and how they may potentially use them.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of fabrics on the market, and as a printer, you’ve got to be able to suggest the right ones to your clients," Smith stresses.