Creating Soft Spaces

Fabric Images Inc. helps awaken the world to dye-sub's possibilities.

Big Picture

There was a time when all tradeshow booths and exhibits were built of metal and wood, painted wall panels hung with vinyl banners.

That’s changing, thanks in part to some pioneering work in digital dye-sublimation printing undertaken by Fabric Images Inc. ( of Elgin, Illinois.

“There really are no limits to what we can print on fabric today,” says company president Marco Alvarez. “Dye-sub printing is now one of the most cost-sensitive ways to create an environment that’s lightweight and durable, with whatever look you want.”

Fabric Image’s creations are now a fixture in exhibit halls, museums, stores, and stadiums worldwide – wherever people gather. The company has become an international player in the market it helped create, with eight locations worldwide and more than 200 employees. Its 100,000-square-foot headquarters boasts an array of dye-sublimation wide and grand-format printers, capable of printing on material up to 16-feet wide. There’s also a metal-fabrication facility to produce the frames and structures that make fabric printing such a practical solution.

All of this is the realization of Alvarez’ singular vision and determination to combine the advances of digital printing with the versatility of fabric.

Tradeshow specialists
In 1995, when Alvarez joined the company founded by his father-in law Pat Hayes, Fabric Images had six employees and specialized in carpet bags and appliqued banners for the tradeshow industry. “I’d worked at DuPont, where I had seen what was going on with digital printing and inkjets, so I had some idea of the technology out there,” recalls Alvarez.

“At that time, we were cutting and sewing appliques onto fabric, and were limited in what we could do in terms of the color and graphics. Early on, I started looking for some way to print directly on fabric, and take the hand-crafting out of the process.”

He discovered that inkjet required special coatings for colors and graphics to adhere, essentially changing the nature of the fabric. By using heat-transfer dye-sublimation printing, however, prints could be infused into fabric without compromising its feel or flexibility, he found.

“Dye sublimation gave us the opportunity to print on more exotic polyester fabrics with the color gamut we were looking for,” Alvarez says. “Since many of these polyesters are also stretchy material, we could create new environments with printed graphics.”

The company unveiled the dye-sublimation option to its customers in 1996 with the purchase of a 52-inch RasterGraphics E-stat printer. Initially, the service took off as a lightweight alternative to frame-mounted vinyl signs and banners prevalent in tradeshow booths. “Our customers could save on shipping, because polyester is so much lighter, and have a better looking product than vinyl or appliques,” he says. “They could also easily change the look while using the same frames.”

The service quickly found its niche, and a year later Fabric Images installed its second E-stat printer. “Graphic designers started to recognize that, by working with lighter fabrics, they were no longer as limited by concerns about shipping weight or set up.”

Recognizing an opportunity, Fabric Images added a metal-fabrication department in 1997. “That allowed us to custom-build and print exhibits that were lightweight, easy to set up, and more cost effective,” Alvarez recalls. “We were the first company to do the printing, sewing, and metal work in house,” he says.

Demand for these services followed, prompting the purchase of a third E-stat printer in 1998. By then, awareness of Fabric Image’s capabilities, and the creativity it allowed, had its clients’ designers pushing its limits. “Our customers started looking for more organic shapes and larger pieces,” he says. “The weight factor really drove our business then, and the fact that stretched fabric looked better, and allowed them to do much more creatively, than anything available to them before.”

At that time, Fabric Images offered a limited selection of three or four fabrics. Alvarez turned to the fashion industry in search of a broader selection of polyester textiles and fabrics suitable for printing. “These new materials were more aesthetically pleasing. The idea of creating more engaging 3D designs with fabric really started to catch on,” he says.

Pushing the limits
As designers exploited the possibilities of printing on fabric, they soon perceived limits. Although seams could be hidden when stitching together larger images, the 52-inch width of Fabric Images’ E-stat printer was considered inadequate. By late 1998, clients began asking for larger and seamless prints, and so Fabric Images began looking for something that could produce them.

But printer manufacturers balked at Alvarez’ request for a 10-foot wide dye-sublimation printer, he says, claiming it was too expensive to produce and had limited appeal. Undaunted, he persisted: “We knew dye sublimation was the best application for fabric printing, and the demand was there for printing on much wider material.”

In 2000, Alvarez convinced Italian manufacturer Monti-Antonio to custom-build a 10-foot-wide heat press for wider fabrics. The following year, printer manufacturer Nur Macroprinters (acquired by HP in late 2007) agreed to partner with Fabric Images to adapt its Salsa 3200 for the company’s dye-sublimation printing needs.

“We took their existing inkjet printer and had to modify its sensors and fine tune the printhead to work for dye sublimation,” he says. “On September 11, 2001 we started jetting.” Experiments with direct printing to fabric failed. “We could print, but it was wicky – the quality just wasn’t there,” he recalls. “We tested a lot of different methods before we decided we really needed to print on paper, then transfer the image.”

Next, he worked with Boise Cascade to develop paper for the wider press. By year’s end, they had it. “That was a big catapult for us,” notes Alvarez. “We were the only ones who could do dye-sublimation printing on fabrics 10-feet wide.”

In fact, that may be when the possibilities Alvarez first saw for dye-sub printing began to be realized. Projects grew more ambitious as designers started combining larger graphics with an expanding selection of fabrics “The 10-foot width really opened the doors, from a creative perspective,” he reports. “We did things like 10-foot walls, 130-feet long for trade show exhibits.

“The metal part of our business started to really grow, as well. Designers were getting more creative in their structures and environments, and needed skeletons to hold that fabric in place.”
To keep pace with demand, a second Nur printer was installed in 2002, then a third in 2003. In 2005, it added yet another wide-format press, the Keundo 10-foot dye-sub printer.

Going global
The company’s profile mirrored its expanding output capabilities. Fabric Images added a marketing office in Orlando in 2004. It established the Fabric Images International division in 2005, then added a powder-coating division with the purchase of Palapa Coatings in 2006. A manufacturing facility in Mexico and New York sales office began operations in 2007 and Fabric Images of Europe, based in Italy, opened its doors in 2008.

That year, the company upgraded its print capabilities with three new Nur-badged 10-foot printers (now HP) as well as a 16-foot HP Scitex printer. To further support its superwide capabilities, the company ordered a 16-foot Heat Press Monti-Antonio in 2009.

As the scope of Fabric Image’s operations have evolved, so have the range of installations showcasing its comprehensive capabilities. It offers clients worldwide turnkey services in design, engineering, printing and installation. Its metal shop can produce the framework to realize any vision, indoors or out, in finishes to suit any environment.

The company continually searches for new materials to inspire designers with even more possibilities. The selection includes a variety of textured and stretchy polyesters, Spandex, meshes, knits and gauze. “As we’ve been able to offer more fabrics and textiles, people started looking at printing on fabric to create a more tactile, sensory experience, to draw people into a trade show booth or other environment,” says Alvarez.

For example, a wall of fabric printed to look like bricks, catches attendees’ eyes as they walk the aisles of a tradeshow. “They see that, wonder if it’s real, and just have to walk over to touch it and see for themselves,” he says. “We can take a textured fabric, and print it with graphics that opens up an entirely new arena in visual merchandising for slowing traffic and creating attention for a brand.”

Awareness and opportunities
The solution which began as a superior approach to tradeshow graphics has moved well beyond the conference hall. “Architects and designers now come to us with a shape or concept and want to know if it’s possible,” he says. “We’re getting brought in early on projects where they want to create a unique environment or display, and realize there’s really no other practical or cost effective way to achieve it.”

At the new home of the Dallas Cowboys, for instance, Fabric Image’s expertise is on display in the Dr. Pepper Star Bar on the stadium’s upper deck. The permanent installation features wide spans of material, internally lit within the freestanding framework to capture attention and highlight the brand’s trademark logo and colors. And for Mexico’s Chedraui stores, Fabric Images designed and printed the graphics and framework hung from the ceiling to draw shoppers to different departments.

In trade shows and exhibit spaces throughout the world, the company’s fabric creations continue to redefine the look and feel of environments within closes spaces. And just this past year, Fabric Images unveiled its own line of outdoor furniture, built of tensioned fabric for homes and resorts.

All this only hints at what’s ahead for the company and the service niche it has helped develop. Fabric Images will soon double the size of its headquarters in a 200,000-square-foot facility. The move could suggest the company’s own bright prospects. “As brand marketers and designers get a higher level of exposure to this type of printing, more will begin requesting and even demanding the unique quality that dye sublimation has to offer,” predicts Alvarez. “People are starting to accept printing on fabric as a great way to enhance any environment.”

As early adopters, he and his team faced and met many challenges. Through persistence, dedication and unshaken confidence they have transformed those obstacles into Fabric Images’ sizable opportunities.
“Dye sublimation is not the easiest print technology to work with,” Alvarez admits. “But once designers, architects, and brand marketers catch on to what it has to offer, the sky becomes the limit.”


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