Finishing Opportunities in the World of Wide-Format Printing
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Finishing Opportunities in the World of Wide-Format Printing

More than just sewing on a machine, the finishing process requires an individual to be multifaceted with the capacity to handle all it entails.

By David Rodriguez, CEO, Textile Finishing Systems

With a curiosity for the newest printing technologies, I dove into wide-format digital printing nearly 10 years ago.

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  • The experience of running, designing and manufacturing my brand in the fashion industry for more than three decades prepared me for the large-format printing and finishing industry.

    But over the years, we have seen a decline in the manufacturing of products within the sewing and manufacturing industries in the United States. Our skilled labor force has dissipated due to our lack of education and training. Now is our time to once again reestablish the meaning of "Made in the USA."

    The finishing process in our industry has always created a challenge for both large and small companies. The series of actions to achieve results can be challenging with finding skilled labor, buying the right machine or equipment and setting up an efficient workflow. Managing these goals in alignment with your budget and growth expectations is key to producing results with higher margins, creating jobs and bringing manufacturing back to the United States.

    Finishers in our market need to be versatile and have the ability to work in a fast-paced manufacturing environment. More than just sewing on a machine, the finishing process requires an individual to be multifaceted with the capacity to handle all it entails. The diverse assortment of fabrics and materials depend on a skillful hand with the preparation, measuring, cutting, sewing, welding and finishing. The following provides an overview of the finishing process.

    The initial preparation for the finishing process requires fabrics to be laid onto large tables to check for flaws, defects, head strikes and any discoloration in the print. Measurements and cut size are crucial in relation to the frame or structure dimensions. The fabric should be cut with the seam allowance based on the composition of the fabric and application. These include keder/silicone edge graphics (SEG), pop-ups, pillowcase zipper applications, 3D structures, pole pockets, table throws and basic hemming.

    Making the Cut
    It is also essential to limit your fabric assortment and offer no more than three to four fabric choices to your clients. This creates a more efficient workflow for your team in the cutting and sewing process once the standards are determined with cut size and seam allowance. Handheld cutting tools can often be challenging, time-consuming and the source of the bottleneck in your workflow. Graphics need to be measured, marked and cut precisely to the desired size for the frame or structure.

    Knits are generally cut using a handheld rotary blade on a self-healing cutting mat using a straight edge transparent ruler. Woven fabrics are cut using a hot knife to seal the edge to avoid fraying and are placed on a tempered glass surface using a straight edge metal ruler. The computerized automated machines for cutting fabrics and other substrates with the use of laser or a variety of cutting tools is the solution for large production runs and volume. These machines are designed for speed and accuracy and eliminate the measuring process.

    Laser cutters designed solely for cutting fabrics are the best solution for minimizing the production process, resulting in a quicker turnaround of the finished product. The sealed laser cut finished edge eliminates steps in the workflow that include hems and buttonholes, allowing the process to be faster while increasing the workflow output. Lasers also have the ability to cut beyond the X/Y formation like most automated machines and can handle curves, angled cuts and grand- scale format prints.

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    Back to the Basics
    The fundamentals of sewing are simple and straightforward and are easily attainable for both skilled and unskilled labor depending on the type of machine or finishing required for the particular application. Manual or automated machines that can handle a variety of applications are essential. However, that is not always the case when it comes to product assortment in our market, as required finishing involves

    basic hemming, pole pockets, keder/SEG, loop tape, nylon webbing and zipper applications. These manual industrial sewing machines come in a variety of makes and models to handle any application. They are flexible to facilitate both straight and curved seams. Standard industrial sewing machines are furnished with table tops approximately 20 inches by 48 inches that require additional tables to assist the operator with handling the fabric. This will help control the tension and keep the fabric from falling onto the floor, helping maintain an efficient workflow. (See Figure 1.)

    Equipping these manual machines with servo motors offers some automation with the sewing process. These features include auto thread cut, auto back tack, auto foot lifter and the ability to control the machine speed and stitches per minute. Custom guides can be designed for any application to provide consistent quality and eliminate complications.

    The advanced technology of automated sewing machines continues to grow and expand in all sectors of the manufacturing industry. These machines do not require a skilled sewing operator. Machines are equipped with software, sensors and conveyor belts synchronized to the speed of the machine. The output is 60% to 80% faster and the quality is consistent with the use of guides and folders for the variety of X/Y applications, including keder/SEG, loop or nylon webbing, hemming and pole pockets.

    Techniques and Applications
    Welding is another finishing technique used primarily for vinyl/PVC banners with the traditional pole pocket and hemming applications primarily used for outdoor banners. The outcome of your finish will depend on the type of weld and machine used.

    Automated ultrasonic impulse welding machines can handle both vinyl and fabric with the use of permanent glue tape. These ultrasonic welding machines create heat the old-fashioned way, using a tool to apply pressure between the vinyl or fabric to create friction. This friction creates heat and fuses the materials together. These automated machines come in several widths from 4 meters to 8 meters wide and can handle hemming, pole pockets and seamless applications. These machines allow you to program and adjust the size of pole pockets and hems with the push of a button with optional guides for attaching tubular keder or zippers.

    Radio frequency is the scientific method where radio waves are sent through the die and into the material. The waves cause the molecules in the material to vibrate, creating heat to form a weld. Most radio frequency machines are only equipped to handle 48-inch lengths at a time and can handle hems, pockets, zippers, loop tape, webbing and zippers.

    Hot air welding is achieved by temperature-controlled hot air and is available in either a handheld device or table unit. The handheld unit is primarily used for hemming the perimeter of outdoor signage. It requires a large table surface, steady hand with uniform pressure and timing.

    The table units require skilled labor as well as additional tables to assist the operator with handling the operation. The machines can also come with optional guides in different increments for pole pockets, hemming and keder applications.

    The entire process - from print room to the finishing department - requires the right research based on expectations and product assortment. The reality is it can be a simple process when standards, systems and equipment are put in place to create an efficient workflow.

    In a world with technology and innovation on the forefront in all industries of manufacturing, it is technology that will allow your business to grow and increase profit margins. Eliminating outsourcing in coordination with manufacturing and distribution can become cumbersome and reduce your profit margins. Having the entire manufacturing process in house is a cheaper alternative in the digital era. Automation and robotics with the manufacturing of sewing for large-format applications and apparel is clearly the wave of the future improving competitive advantage and products.

    This will make US companies more vital and competitive as they invest more time and money in the workforce and cross-training employees. The ultimate goal is increased, productive manufacturing in the United States with lower costs and top performance.

    Today's top global business leaders have multiplied their organization's effectiveness by harnessing the power of unbundling, disaggregating enterprises of all kinds, from the smallest start-ups to entire entities. Businesses can become more valuable by splitting and increasing value by delegating functions once regarded as necessary parts of the whole. This allows growth in the digital media industries and is the wave of our future.

    It was just a decade ago that David Rodriguez entered the digital market world. As an entrepreneur for his own brand, he spent nearly three decades as a fashion designer in New York manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing.

    He has also consulted and designed for well-known brands in the business. Having experience selling and producing domestically and internationally, he is an expert in foreign and domestic relations.

    Blending all of his experiences has enabled David, as CEO of Textile Finishing Systems, to provide an unhindered look at the challenges associated with digital media's giant need for finishing systems and solutions.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, July / August 2018 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2019 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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