Talk about making a statement! In June, Surrey-based SignAway, produced a 250m x 5m multi-coloured carpet and laid it the entire length of London Bridge.
I went to talk with company founder Greg Craigen about this eye-catching job, and about inkjet printing carpet in general as a viable business proposition.
By Lesley Simpson
Before we talk specifically about the recent, attention grabbing London Bridge job, can you explain why you took what is primarily a sports stadium and events branding/signage company into carpet printing?
Well we specialise in 3D effect signs for sports fields, and 15 years ago when we had to make a 3D look sign we had to order in white Astro Turf, cover it with masking tape and cut out the shape we wanted and spray the space with paint. If there was more than one colour we’d have to re-mask and go through the same process with the next colour, so a 50m2 mat for a cricket pitch for instance used to take us three to four days.
Then we thought it would be good if we could find a material we could digitally print onto. That would give us sharper images, and also much more subtle shading while saving time as well. What must be 14 years ago we started doing some development work to get us to that stage.
We only started digitally printing on carpet about seven years ago because it took us a good while to get the materials we wanted made up. We needed something with a rubber backing so it would lay flat on a pitch, have a fire rating etc. We came up with a whole list of requirements and went to manufacturers throughout Europe asking if they could fulfil them. We eventually came up with two types of carpet - our Gold and Silver grades - which are manufactured specifically for us to print using our large-format inkjet printer.
Once we had this solution we realised that it would have uses in short-term graphics applications like exhibitions, shopping centres, events – anything where you want to catch the public eye at floor level, and not necessarily with 3D effect images but anything. So we set up a website and did some work on Google Adwords so people searching for printed carpet could find us and it’s grown from there.
What kind of overall investment did you have to make to get the printed carpet side of things up and running, and is it paying off?
Initially it was all abut time. We spent a lot of time getting the right carpet, from finding the right fibres, right rubber backing etc. Then when we got the first manufactured batches through we found they weren’t easy to print on and there was a lot of trial and error. But eventually we managed to get to a point where we had a materials with lay flat fibres and heavy enough backing to work through the printer and do the job on the ground.
At first we were using an old HP machine, but we came to the conclusion that we needed to get a printer specifically made for carpet printing. We looked at a couple of large-format printer options and dismissed them, but we know the EFI Vutek was the Rolls Royce of printers in large-format so CMYUK took us out to Belgium. We shipped some of our materials there and ran them through the printer, and we were surprised actually at how well it worked.
But what soon became apparent was that while the printer was fine for test prints, if we were going to be running it seriously we had to make a few adaptions. Carpet is much heavier than any other kind of material you are going to put through a roll-to-roll printer - ours comes in 60m rolls - so we had to really strengthen the loading carriage and make some adjustments so that the fibres don’t hit the printheads, then we had to make some adjustments for the carpet coming off as well. We worked with EFI in Belgium, through CMYUK, to get all that sorted. Eventually we got it right.
So what about inks?
Well on carpet printing you probably use double what you would on vinyl. We had the Vutek specially profiled for our different grades of carpet, but the ink itself is just the normal UV ink you’d put through the machine. But we do stress to all out clients that this is a short-term, temporary application, it’s not to use as an office doormat! We have yet to look at things like LED inks, but we will be.
What do you say about the learning curve then?
We’ve now seen three or four other print companies try and do carpet printing and then just give up, send us the artwork and ask us to do it because it is a big learning curve. And you have to be very careful with the machine – keep it clean from fibres etc., so there are lots of precautionary measures you have to take too.
We use the Vutek GS5500 UV printer for carpet printing (and we have an Agfa Acuity too though that’s not used for the carpet printing). It means we have to be very careful about the printing we take on because we use the Vutek for other kinds of jobs too and it’s not easy to move from carpet to mesh to PVC back to carpet – you have to schedule the print runs very carefully.
We spotted a gap for something that’s niche. We were doing it already so it was really about gearing up to do it digitally, and for a wider group of people. Handling ten big clients in the sport market is very different from handling 150 wanting smaller pieces of carpet for exhibitions. But once we were geared up the transition was easy to make.
So tell me a bit more about your carpet clients.
The main carpet clients are actually not the sports people anymore – but mainly creative agencies, exhibition organisers, shopping centres, corporates. We do have sports clients of course, we have those who sponsor Rugby for instance and want 3D effect carpets by the pitch at Twickenham. More of our carpet printing though is now for the likes of those overseeing something like a large concert, and they want something for the stage floor. We still do trade work, but that’s only about 25% of the carpet work we do, which is itself about 20% of our total £1.5 turnover.
How did the recent high-profile London Bridge carpeting job come about?
We have an agency client called Marmalade that we’ve done a few jobs for. They called us and said, “We’ve got a crazy idea – carpeting the east pavement of London Bridge. Can you do it?” We said it wasn’t crazy, but very doable!
The 250m x 5m multi-colour carpet was part of a campaign called ‘Spark Your City’ formulated by a group of artists that is spending three years creating art installations in busy cities around the world with the intention of impacting the people that will interact with them.
The London Bridge idea was complex in that it required lots of permissions, and from the time of getting the phone call to the time of completion we had four weeks. It means we had ten days to actually produce the carpet and install it on the bridge. It was produced in 25 x 5m sections on the Vutek before a truck picked up the pieces at about 1pm on Sunday (21 June) and took them to London Bridge, the road was closed at midnight and we joined the full carpet on site, finishing at about 4am, ready for the road to be reopened and commuters on Monday.
Over the eight years Image Reports has been conducting its Widthwise surveys printed flooring - of any description - has remained fairly near the bottom of the list when it comes to sectors PSPs are targeting. What are your thoughts on that?
Apart from the requisite R&D a printer needs to undertake as we’ve already discussed, it’s about the market itself. Firstly, anything you put on the floor can be seen as a trip hazard, and I think people are very scared of asking for something that might cause them problems! Then there’s the issue of longevity and how long printed flooring will last - and for printers that means concerns over what sorts of guarantees you can give customers. Managing client expectation can be difficult.
Also, looking back, there weren’t many options in terms of printable flooring options full stop. Now all the vinyl manufacturers and laminating companies are coming up with options for gravel, pavement, brick… and with laminates for durability, and guarantees on durability, that it’s non-trip etc. So that’s getting easier.
However, printed flooring is expensive, so a client used to paying a very low amount for print might baulk – so there’s a need for printers to deal more with the types of client who will see the value of the whole concept. And the square metreage of each job tends be quite small, so it’s not for everybody.
And it’s not easy. If a piece of carpet rips it can take the whole head carriage out. Also, you need to be aware that joining sections of printed carpet can be time consuming because of the way the image is laid down as the material goes through the printer. We bought a Zund, also through CMYUK, about a year after getting the Vutek because we realised that we needed to be very accurate when cutting for a perfect pattern join.
Where in the process do you get involved in the job?
A lot of people are used to screenprinting and don’t understand about digital printed flooring. So it’s about teaching them that we can match any Pantone colour etc. Sometimes clients want us to do a sample to prove we can digitally reproduce the colours they want. We get lots of calls from people saying “this is our idea, can you produce it” and then our designers say “yes, but what about tweaking this, or doing that, which will work better”.
So where now for carpet printing at SignAway?
We’ve now done a lot of the R&D and have a printer and substrates that work. It’s about 20% of our business and growing. The margin is good because it’s so niche and we can deliver very quickly to clients, all of whom are in the UK and want to work with a UK-based printer.
Also, the Zund means we can do things like cut shapes within the carpet and inlay another piece of carpet, so that’s opened up new possibilities.
Going back to the point of profitability, it’s very difficult to change the printer from gold to PVC to mesh to silver and back to gold for instance, and because we are getting so many carpet enquiries now if we don’t have a relevant print run on when a client needs something by, we charge a minimum fee now. It’s taken us a while to learn that but it’s all about continuing to learn.
For us the next step is probably buying a second printer that can work with carpet so we’re talking to CMYUK again about that.