For an independent B2B journalist like me, trade shows are a great place to have quick, face-to-face meetings with multiple sources and clients within a few short days. So I was delighted to attend he International Sign Expo 2022 held May 4-6 in Atlanta.
It was the first in-person trade show I had attended since October, 2019. Like Rip Van Winkle, I felt as if I was waking up from years of sleep to discover how much the world had changed. While everyone (me included) looked a bit older than the last time we met, most show floor booths and products seemed brand new.
Sign Expo was the largest in-person gathering of sign, graphics and visual communications professionals since the autumn of 2019. People liked being able to see, touch, and compare many of the future-focused innovations that exhibitors had announced but hadn’t yet demonstrated at an in-person trade show.
“The show floor was busy all three days – yes, all three days,” said Lori Anderson, ISA president and CEO. “More importantly, attendees came to do business.”
Here are some general impressions I gathered while wandering the show floor.
The audience was noticeably diverse. The show floor and educational sessions attracted young people who wanted to start their own businesses as well as older entrepreneurs who are considering selling the businesses they started 30 years ago.
ISA Sign Expo was a show for signmakers, sign printers, and sign painters. Everything a sign shop could possibly need to fabricate or print signs, brand experiences, musuem exhibits, or brand environments was on display.
While I expected to see digital signage exhibits, I was surpised to watch professional sign artists Kelsey Dalton and Andrew McClellan of Heart & Bone Signs hand painting a 15-foot tall mural promoting Sign Expo 2023 in Las Vegas.
But ISA International Sign Expo 2022 was about a lot more than signs. The versatility of digital printing, cutting, and engraving equipment makes it easier for sign shops to add product lines such as custom apparel, awards, gifts, decor, or promotional products to their offerings. Many exhibitors showed different types and sizes of flatbed printers, direct-to-object printers, and sublimation systems for making promotional products.
Some booths, such as the Epilog Laser exhibit, featured educational materials to help entrepreneurs build new businesses with systems for engraving, cutting, or personalizing all types of products.
In the Epson booth, Tim Check suggested that the company’s Epson SureColor F170 dye-sublimation printer provides a low-cost way for sign shops and start-ups to learn more about the dye-sublimation printing process for items such as mousepads, mugs, and awards. Priced at $399, the F170 desktop printer outputs dye-sublimation inks onto 8.5 x 11 in. sheets of dye-sub transfer papers. For less than $300 you can buy a heat press that will transfer the printed designs to the item.
Booth designs seemed more creative. One booth featured a digital sign wrapped around a hip-high corner wall. The graphics alternated between a crackling flame and underwater scene. So the people standing in the booth behind the display looked like they were eiether on fire or up to their waist in an aquarium.
Many booths featured QR codes, either on their booth graphics or on the equipment being displayed. When I scanned the QR code on one piece of finishing equipment, it took me to a web page with technical deails about the machine and links to other equipment from the exhibitor. This meant I didn’t have to catch the attention of a booth worker who may or may not have known the answers to my questions.
In the OmniPrint booth, Victor Pena sat on a pedestal above a display screeen and live-streamed interviews and panel discussions that were conducted via Zoom. The sessions focusd on how to start and scale custom apparel businesses using either an Omniprint direct-to-garment (DTG) printer and/or a direct-to-film (DTF) system for making heat transfers.
It was fascinating to watch Pena moderate the discussions and field questions from members of OmniPrint’s Creator Community who watched the livestream. But I couldn’t help but think: “Why am I mesmerized by this in-booth Zoom presentation when I have been so eager to return to live trade shows?” It’s probably because OmniPrint 360 was an excellent example of how a creative marketer could get the best possible return from having a booth at an in-person trade show.
Manufacturers and distributors of adhesive vinyls drew crowds by conducting wrapping demonstrations and timed competitions in their booths.
Flatbed and hybrid printers were everywhere. More than 20 companies showed compact flatbeds, wide-format flatbeds, or hybrid flatbed/roll-feed UV printers.
Many models shown for the first time, including models introduced in early 2020 during the lead-up to the to drupa international expo that was scheduled for 2020 but cancelled due to COVID.
To fully illustrate their capabilities, the flatbed printers at Sign Expo were printing on dozens of different types and thicknesses of rigid and flexible materials.
For example, it’s one thing to read the spec sheet that shows that Roland the Roland VersaUV LEC2 S-Series UV flatbed printer can decorate items up to 7.87 inches high. But when you see the 64-in. UV LEC2 S-Series printer decorating batches of metal lunchboxes, it’s easy to understand why UV flatbed printers can be instrumental in expanding product lines.
Durst, which makes high-end, industrial digital printing and production systems for graphics, soft signage, packaging, labels, and ceramics, was at ISA Sign Expo for the first time in quite a while.
In addition to showing the Durst- PS350 mid-to-high productivity hybrid flatbed/roll printer, Durst helped Vanguard Digital Printing launch two new printers. Vangaurd announced the VK300D-HS (a higher-speed version of their VK300D) that can print up to 60 boards per hour and the VKH900-HS hybrid UV LED printer. The VKH900-HS combines the spped of the VK300D-HS flabed with capabilities of Vanguard’s VKR300-HS roll-to-roll model.
In 2020, Durst acquired a majority stake in Vanguard Digital Printing. Systems. At a Sign Expo press conference, executives from both companies explained the synergies that are strengthening the merged companies.
Vanguard was a 2015 start-up company that quickly made a name for itself with well-engineered, award-winning flatbed printers for entry-level and mid-level production. The acquisition gives the Italy-based Durst a stronger presence in U.S. markets and enables Vanguard to expand its sales in Europe. Smaller sign shops that start with Vanguard flatbed printers can upgrade to Durst printers as they grow.
Vanguard owners can also take advantage of Durst’s software-driven “pixel-to-output” workflow. Durst software includes the Lift MIS/ERP, the Durst Smart Shop web-to-print solution , Durst Workflow for prepress and production, and Durst Analytics for data and transparency.
Digital Direct-to-Film (DTF) systems offer sign shops a cost-effective way to produce decorated apparel. Unlike DTG (direct-to-garment) printers that work with a limited range of pre-treated cotton and cotton/poly shirts, a DTF system can print on non-treated, cotton, silk, polyester, denim, nylon, leather, 50/50 blends, and more.
STS Inks demonstrated two modular DTF systems they developed with Mutoh, a manufacturer of wide format printers. One system uses a 24-inch Mutoh VJ-628D printer, the second is built around Mutoh’s 64-inch XPJ-1682D printer.
In the DTF process that STS Inks uses, the logos and other artwork are printed in reverse onto a single-side coated PET film that can withstand the higher temperature and pressures of a heat press. Then, the STS Automatic TPU Adhesive Powder Shaker applies a powder adhesive to all inked areas of the film. The shaker removes any remaining powdered adhesive from the non-inked areas. The powdered film is then placed in an STS Transfer Film Curing Oven where the adhesive powder gels with the ink.
The images transfers to the garment when a heat press fuses the adhesive-backed image to the garment.
Kingdom DTF, Reece Supply Company, OmniPrint, and Epson showed other methods for getting stated in DTF printing for garment decoration. For example, if you already own an OmniPrint DTG Freejet printer that works with the company’s GamutPlus or Direct Ink brand, you can buy a Freejet DTF starter kit that includes 100 sheets of film, adhesive powder, a powder funnel, application tray, and squeegee. At Sign Expo, OmniPrint showcased their OmniDTF printer and drying unit.
Adhesive materials were available to decorate almost any surface imaginable. At least 20 companies were promoting adhesive materials that could be used to produce temporary promotional graphics, permanent decor graphics, or digitally cut shapes for for garments and promotional products as well as decals, and labels.
Avery Graphic Solutions demonstrated their smart VELA window film for interior windows in offices, stores, hospitals, and other settings. The translucent film becomes clear when the electronic circuitry embedded in the material is switched on. When occupants of a glassed-in area want privacy, they can keep the film in translucent mode. When they want to open the room to more natural light, they can switch it to clear. In a retail setting, the clear windows used to display products can be converted into digital display screens for product promotions.
Systems for cutting and converting prints into products were in abundance. More than 30 companies were promoting digital routing, cutting, engaving, laminating, and other systems for converting printed materials into ready to use products. But specialty finishing systems were on the show floor too.
Lamina Systems showcased an inline folding, gluing, and taping machine for converting diecut, creased, or slotted materials into boxes, displays, and bags.
Colex Finishing, Inc. and Fotoba International demonstrated the Fotoba XLA170 Automatic X/Y Cutter operating in-line with a Canon Colorado 1650 printer that was being used to print wallpapers. The Canon UVgel Wallpaper Factory automatically cuts the printed wallpaper into custom sizes and lengths, while the rewinder re-rolls, labels, and tapes the wallpaper rolls so they are ready to ship.
The Textile Finishing Systems group of Media One provides turnkey sewing, welding, and cutting solutions for print-service providers that want to convert digitally printed and sublimated fabrics into displays, flags, curtains, tents, and other products. The company also provides consulting, training, services along with fabric, keder, loop, zippers, flag accessories, and sewing machine consumables.
Some exhibitors offer specialized services to small sign shops that can’t provide everything that a client might require.
The Sign Pack offers month-to-month subscriptions to sign design services. The specialized sign designers can help with presentation layouts, technical and permit files, as well as pre-production files.
Easelly’s Outsourced Print Graphic Design Service provides access to more than 30 designers of a full-time, part-time, or small-project basis. The designers are experienced in designing signage, brand assets, vehicle wraps, infographics, billboards, business cards, and direct mail. They can also help with logo design, landing pages, blog graphics, and more. Instead of contracting with freelance designers on a project-by-projet basis,,you can subscribe to the monthly plan that best matches the number of design tasks your company has each month.
Advantage Innovations is a nationwide graphic installation company with offices in 20 locations. Specialties include custom retail graphics, signage, die-cut vinyl, surveys, and full decor packages.
National Installations offers installation services for graphics, vehicle wraps, POP displays, interior signage and window film applications.
Space Tailor is a Korea-based company that offers interior pattern designs to printing and signage companies that print window films and fabrics for interior decor.
Sulliway Engineering offers structural system design and analysis with structural detailing for sign projects. Drawings and calculations are stamped with a Professional Engineering State Seal ready for submission to Building Departments for obtaining a permit. Projects include signs, awnings, billboards, canpoies, tension fabric structures, electronic message centers, large frame structures, tents, and LED structures.
Swagforce provides an e-commerce portal through which designers and creators of custom T-shirts and other promotional products can sell their merchandise.
Comments from Exhibitors
The show floor was busy right up to the close of the show. Attendees relished the opportunity to see products in action. Vloggers and YouTube content creators rushed from exhibit to exhibit conducting interviews and reporting on the most exciting products.
Tom Wittenberg, HP large format industry relations and event manager for North America described the mood at Sign Expo as upbeat: “It was a special pleasure to return to shows with our industry colleagues. The show exceeded expectations on attendance and booth activity for HP.”
“There was constant activity and visitors at our booth throughout the event – even during the last hour of the show!,” said John Glazer, executive vice president of Elliott Equipment.
“Graphic Solutions Group (GSG) was blown away with our results, more than doubling our sales at the previous show in 2019,” said Matt Smith, director of national accounts for GSG. “The customers who came to this year’s show were very engaged and interested in spending time talking to us and intrigued by the new products we were showcasing.”
Sign Expo 2023
The next ISA Sign Expo will be held April 12-14 in Las Vegas, NV.