The Softer Side of Health Care
If you attended the recent PRINTING United show in Dallas this past October, there is no way you could have missed the increasing number of textile applications around the show floor. From furniture, to wallcoverings, to apparel, to signage, digitally printed textiles are on the rise. That is due in large part to the technology — from the printers, to the inks, to the software — finally reaching a tipping point where it can compete on both price and quality, but it is also due to the creative efforts of some of the pioneers of the space, pushing the limits of where and how digital textiles can be used.
One area in particular where digital textiles are already making inroads and are poised to see a massive surge in growth over the next few years is in and around health care.
Hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, and other health-related facilities have long strived to balance a clean, sterile environment that won’t impact the sometimes delicate systems of the patients who pass through the doors with a desire to feel warm and welcoming, and offer comfort to those who are experiencing pain, uncertainty, and stress. Everything used in these environments, from the paint on the walls to the fabrics in the curtains must be washable, cleanable, and designed to combat germs and bacteria as much as possible. For that reason, the options have traditionally been fairly limited in terms of what can and can’t be used.
“It’s been proven that a warm, pleasing environment helps aid in the healing of a patient. Because of this we have tried to make our patient rooms feel warmer, more appealing,” notes Larry Mills, manager, Printing Services, the in-plant print shop for Regional Health in Rapid City, S.D. “So, it’s now a system-wide thing at various hospitals and clinics trying improve the patient and family experience; we are trying to make them more appealing, and not just a cold, intimidating hospital room.”
With the rise of digital technology, the options for where and how to provide that warmth have already begun to expand, with the selection getting wider all the time. Textiles, in particular, are seeing a surge because new coatings not only make it easier to print vibrant, colorful pieces, they also bring a range of new features such as antibacterial elements to the picture. Paired with digital’s ability to print whatever a facility might want or need, on demand, with little to no turn-around time needed, and it is easy to see why these applications have been among the earliest to embrace the new technologies.
A Perfect Marriage
Kristen Dettoni, the founder of Design Pool, an agency dedicated to helping interior designers connect with printers to create personalized products and spaces — including custom textiles — notes that just in the past five years, the range of substrates she has seen come to market has increased dramatically. Faux leathers, which are a type of vinyl, in particular, she notes, have seen demand increase as much as 25%.
“These materials are fairly easy to print on,” says Dettoni, “they are flat, compared to a woven or textured material. It’s perfect for health care because it can be easily wiped down, and doesn’t absorb fluids. We’re getting a lot of interest in using it for upholstery, so that’s where I’m seeing the initial point of interest.”
From there, she notes, many health care facilities then see the power of digital printing, and begin to look for other areas where it can be deployed. Digitally printed privacy screens around beds, for example, is another application that is starting to gain traction.
“Traditionally, [privacy curtains] were woven fabric, with yarns then died to create patterns, then sewn to a mesh and hung on a ceiling track,” says Dettoni. “There were not a lot of printed wovens in the industry. I think this was due to the traditional method of heat transfer paper, which would require minimum orders of 500-600 yards of paper with a short shelf life, which was too much of an inventory risk for a company.” She points out that is changing, however, giving the example of Tana-Tex Inc., which has produced a knitted product with the mesh already included, eliminating a step and providing a product that is print-ready. “Tana-Tex’s genius is the knitted substrate… [which makes] the design seams more seamless, and any design can be printed.”
“The innovation is there,” she continues. “and the innovation with printing has really helped as well. All privacy curtains need to withstand high washing temperatures for laundering, and the latest technology on digital printing dyes has made this possible. Whatever they’ve done with the inks for things like bleach cleanability is really changing the market.”
But the opportunity for PSPs to get into this vertical goes beyond just the waiting room chairs or the privacy curtains. Wallcoverings is another strong growth area. At a digital textile printing summit in Orlando this summer, Scott Minette, president, Image Mill, a graphics company based in Monroe, Wash., related a project his company was involved in where they replaced the graphics in the elevator banks for a children’s hospital. “That was one of our earlier dye-sub projects,” he says. “We jumped in with both feet and figured it out.”
For the project, he notes, they had to use a more rigid material for the wallcoverings than the traditional fabrics used in dye-sub applications because it was anti-microbial and could be easily cleaned. That required some trial and error in terms of figuring out how the material took the inks and coatings differently, as well as how to account for heat expansion that the fabrics he used in the past didn’t experience. “We did dye sub instead of UV because it really impregnated into the surface,” Minette notes. “You can scratch it, light it on fire, etc., and its almost indestructible, within reason. Also, people just like the look of dye-sub versus UV.”
For PSPs, the opportunity in the health care vertical does go beyond just potential textile applications, as well. Window graphics is another possible application that has only just begun to see experimentation. Regional Health’s Mills notes that his facility is currently experimenting with a frosted privacy film, and printing photographs to brighten up spaces without compromising security or cleanliness.
“I found Concept 790AE Etched Glass Air Egress Film from General Formulations,” Mills says. “This is a grey frosted privacy film that we took a bit further. We printed scenes on it, and installed them on the patient room windows, and everyone LOVES it. You may still be in a hospital bed for hours, days, or unfortunately weeks, but at least now you do not need to look at a roof top A/C unit or a steel roof. At night the prints are still visible, but subtle. During the day, with light behind them, the graphics just light up and are amazing. Security didn’t want to cover the entire window, they wanted a little open space at the top, in case they needed to see out, so currently they just lower a shade over the unprinted window areas.”
To start, the hospital installed the graphics in six rooms as a test, and it went over so well, eight more are in the design phase, with each room given a unique photographic scene. There is even talk, Mills says, of bringing the concept into rooms that don’t have windows to help give those patients the same relaxed environment, as well as possibly moving into wall graphics in rooms where space is more limited. “We’re looking into the potential for an adhesive canvas for some of the walls, closet doors, things like that,” he notes.
“The opportunities for indoor wallcoverings and murals - as well as other interior décor applications, such as art work on canvas — are growing rapidly. Hospitals and health care providers see the benefits of brightening up their interior spaces by applying printed wall panels instead of painting the wall itself,” says Sal Sheikh, the VP of marketing at Canon Solutions America. “This creates opportunities for themed spaces, or more pleasing environments.” He went on to note that new wide-format printing technologies have also come to market that provide printed graphics that are safe to hang in schools, hospitals, and other interior spaces that are both chemical and abrasion resistant, and approved for use in sensitive environments.
For wide-format print providers, the health care vertical is an intriguing one. From new textiles and other substrates, to antibacterial and bleachable inks, to faster print engines with more automation, the proverbial stars are aligning to make this a potential growth segment that could explode exponentially over the next few years.
For those wanting to get into this segment, start to form the relationships now. It could very well take years of networking, of doing small jobs to prove the capabilities, and of pitching new ideas before a PSP sees tangible results, but for those willing to take the risk, and willing to make the effort, the end results could be just what the doctor ordered.