Why Digital Textile Printing is Preparing for Takeoff
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Why Digital Textile Printing is Preparing for Takeoff

Digital textile printing is ready to expand beyond soft signage and dye sublimation into fashion apparel, upholstery fabrics and home textiles

By Eileen Fritsch, Industry Author

advancements have reached a point that will enable digitally printed textiles to expand beyond the already booming markets for display graphics, soft signage and sublimated sports apparel and swimwear.

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  • Every year, the SGIA Expo showcases steady improvements in large-format inkjet printers that can print on fabrics. While digital textile printers have been replacing flatbed screen presses for some time, a new group of single-pass industrial inkjet print systems that use pigment inks are expected to replace rotary screen presses for higher-volume, direct digital printing on a wide range of more durable textiles for fashion apparel, upholstery and home textiles.

    InfoTrends estimates the digitally printed textile market is currently about $12 billion worldwide, or about 1 percent of the overall textile market. But the ongoing shift from mass production to mass customization will undoubtedly increase this percentage. Even though it's too soon to know just how fast the growth might be, textile printing firms, equipment manufacturers and ink developers have plenty of reasons for optimism.

    "Well-engineered print platforms built for 24/7 high-speed production, reliable printheads and robust digital inks are coming together to serve a market that is demanding more versioning, short run lengths and tighter lead times," explains Terry Amerine, Director of Product Marketing for Durst Image Technology US.

    Here are six reasons why there will be lots of buzz about textile printing at this year's Expo in Atlanta.

    Reason 1: Growth Year Over Year
    At expositions across the globe, imagers are seeing a host of new equipment for digital textile printing, and both domestic and international trade shows are expanding in both square footage and attendance.

    Some digital printers at each show - including the SGIA Expo - will run at very high speeds that will allow them to compete with traditional rotary printers. Other printers will run at more restrained speeds to provide superior print quality for the high-fashion market.

    Reason 2: Manufacturers Want More Sustainable "Make to Demand" Methods
    Textile manufacturers and their customers are keenly interested in processes that reduce water and power consumption and minimize waste.

    Digital printing systems reduce the substantial amounts of water and power used to wash fabrics and prepare and clean screens. Digital printing also eliminates the space needed to store screens and unused inventory.

    Because consumer demand can be so volatile and excess inventory costs are high, some manufacturers are developing "make-to-demand" processes that synchronize production to actual orders. Digital textile printing can enable furniture manufacturers to adopt a "make-to-order" model in which the final product isn't shipped until customers choose the design for the upholstery.

    After Mark Sawchak of Expand Systems addressed executives at Walmart, a senior manager of the Walmart Foundation wrote a blog post explaining that digital printing could be used to make cushions for patio furniture. On the blog "Walmart Today," Robert Kenny explains: "The colors and designs on the cushions of your favorite patio furniture - and so many other products - are still screen printed. The majority of these fabrics are laboriously printed overseas, cut, sewn into cushions and shipped to the US. Often times, up to seven months pass from the time a retailer places an order until the product arrives on its shelves."

    With the "print-on-demand" capabilities of digital printing, Kenny writes, "The days of eating up valuable space in warehouses with backlogs of large patio furniture are almost behind us. It means retailers and manufacturers will be able to adapt quicker to evolving trends - and that the cost of a 10- to 20-color fabric will cost no more than a single-color fabric. Fabrics will now be printed to specific size specifications, minimizing waste and driving energy, cost and other efficiencies."

    Reason 3: Robust Printheads Enable Fast, Single-Pass Pigment-Ink Printing on More Fabrics
    Consultant Vince Cahill of VCE Solutions, who has followed the evolution of digital textile printing since the beginning, says that until recently, the markets for digitally direct-printed roll-to-to-roll textiles were typically limited to fabrics that could be printed with different types of dye inks (disperse dyes, acid dyes and reactive dyes).

    "Dye-based inks can produce very soft hand since they penetrate into the fabric fibers rather than sitting on top like pigmented inks do. Pigmented inks, on the other hand, provide greater resistance to fading when exposed to sunlight," says Cahill. "If you want products to last for years, such as hotel-room textiles or home furnishings, you really need pigment printing."

    A new generation of water-based pigment inks for textiles will make it possible to print on cotton, silk, polyester, nylon and wool, and will use an in-line dryer to cure the ink on the fabrics.

    Bed linens and clothing that will be worn next to the skin must meet strict standards for the chemistry of inks and fabric coatings. Thus most pigmented UV-curable inks that are fine for soft signage aren't suitable for products such as infant and children's wear or nursery bedding. According to Cahill, ink manufacturers are beginning to formulate UV-curable inks that can meet specific standards.

    Until recently, many printheads couldn't handle water-based pigment inks because their electronics were incompatible with water, unless the particles were ground very finely.

    In some cases, the super-fine grinding of the pigment particles resulted in translucent colors. Translucent inks are great for designs that include full-color photographs (such as soft signage for trade shows and retail displays). But see-through colors aren't so great for printing traditional designs or bold, solid graphics with one or two colors.

    While chemists have been developing more vibrant water-based inks with nano-particle pigments, equipment manufacturers have developed more robust, water-tolerant piezoelectric printheads that can handle a wide variety of ink types. These more durable printheads can be configured into the large, stationary arrays used in single-pass printing.

    Single-pass printing is significantly faster because all colors are applied as the fabric moves steadily beneath the printbars. With the scanning printhead, the print substrate doesn't advance until the printheads makes several passes back and forth over the same swatch.

    The first single-pass system to be marketed as a replacement for rotary screen printing was the LaRio by MS Printing Solutions. Expand Systems (SGIA member since 2011) introduced it to the US at the 2013 SGIA Expo. Mark Sawchak, Managing Partner of Expand Systems, says the LaRio makes it possible for US companies to print with the speed of rotary screen equipment while keeping the cost equivalent to (or lower than) the cost of screen printing.

    In 2015, SPGPrints of Boxmeer, the Netherlands will launch the first in a series of new Pike printing systems. It will use the second iteration of the SAMBA printhead by Fujifilm Dimatix. The first Pike printer is a six-color, single-pass machine in which each color (CMYK + orange and blue) is represented by an Archer print bar with 43 printheads for a printing width of 1850 millimeters. The print bar has a native resolution of 1200 x 1200 dpi and variable drop sizes from 2 to 10 picoliters. It will be able to print at up to 40 linear meters per minute. Wider versions (up to 3200 millimeters) and nine-color versions of the Pike are planned.

    Konica Minolta will launch the Nassenger SP-1, a single-pass printer that uses their own new high-performance industrial inkjet printheads.

    Pigment inks for single-pass printing systems will also be available from other major manufactures of digital textile printing equipment.

    Kornit Digital previewed the Allegro roll-to-roll textile printing systems in 2011 and will feature a new model this year that uses Fujifilm Dimatix printheads and NeoPigment(tm) Pure inks that improve the look and feel of printed fabrics. While the Allegro isn't a single-pass printer, it is a single-step, pigment-ink printer that eliminates the need for fabric pretreatment and post-print steaming and washing. It could fit well in design studios that choose to print and sew their own creations.

    Durst will display their range of high-speed Rhotex printers for textile printing, including the Rhotex 180TR transfer and direct sublimation printer. They will also showcase new pigment inks and inline pre- and post-treatments that will dramatically increase productivity.

    Higher-speed Durst digital textile printing equipment is already used at sites such as the Mascioni textile finishing facility in Northern Italy. Mascioni produces household textiles for brands such as Armani, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, as well as fabrics for hotel collections, technical textiles and clothing. They use Durst high-performance digital printing equipment alongside rotary screen printers because their customers expect full-service providers of textile finishing solutions to have concrete solutions for orders of all sizes. Mascioni added digital textile printers when it became clear that the costly and time-consuming screen set-up phase and low print speeds of flatbed screen printing wasn't economical for small- to mid-size orders.

    Reason 4: More Designers Know What Is Possible
    In the past three years, manufacturers have been showing designers what's possible with digital printing. Just as digital printing has enabled millions of new authors to see their works published, digital textile printing is creating new opportunities for enterprising designers who want to create their own brands and product lines.

    For example, in 2011, photographer/designer Bryony Shearmur launched luxury silk scarves using her images as the basis for the prints. On her new website "The Follow," Bryony Shearmur has expanded into home furnishings, framed fabric prints, wallpaper and ceramics. Shearmur's goal is to build a lifestyle brand "that embraces both traditional craftsmanship and modern design." She says that with all the new printing techniques, her options feel limitless.

    In August, Expand Systems exhibited at Printsource New York, a trade show at which textile and other surface designers showcase their work to major American manufacturers, apparel brands, retailers and catalog companies who might want to license them for production. According to Ann Sawchak, many Printsource attendees are just beginning to learn about the advantages of digital textile printing. But they did express interest in how the cost of producing fabrics on the MS LaRio compared to rotary screen.

    A key partner of the Printsource conference is "Make It in Design," (www.makeitindesign.com) an online school for designers interested in the art and business of surface pattern design. "Make It In Design" offers workshops and master classes for anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing their designs on fabric, wallpaper, homewares and stationery. The organizers of "Make It In Design" also publish "MOYO," an online magazine dedicated to surface pattern design and offer a "How to Build a Brand" video series.

    In the Philadelphia University booth on Educator Row and the Digital Textile Printing Zone at the 2015 SGIA Expo, you can meet Hitoshi Ujiie, Director of the Center for Excellence in Surface Imaging at Philadelphia University School of Design and Engineering. Ujiie has taught digital textile print design at Philadelphia University since 2000 and played a lead role in establishing The Center for Excellence in Digital Inkjet Printing of Textiles. Here, design students have been testing digital inkjet printing technologies from Mimaki, Mutoh, Epson, Roland, Dupont, Sawgrass Technology, Solunaris, and Ergosoft.

    Ujiie sees new opportunities emerging not just for textile designers, but for those who can design for other types of digitally printed surfaces as well. This summer, he launched a new Master of Science degree in Surface Imaging in which students can develop imagery for porous substrates (such as fabrics, vinyl, cork and wallcoverings) and non-porous substrates (such as ceramics, metal and glass). The program is preparing students for careers as imaging specialists in the design and production of imaged products for environmental graphics, architecture, apparel and home furnishings.

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    Although wide-format textile imaging systems were originally engineered for graphics and soft signage, Ujiie says, "We're already seeing the equipment adapted for use in architecture and interior design fields to generate decorative patterns and imagery for murals and wall applications."

    Reason 5: Retailers and E-Tailers Want to Shorten the Supply Chain
    Shortening the supply chain from production to the shelf is a major factor driving the adoption of digital printing, says Ann Sawchak of Expand Systems. "Major brands and retailers are now putting a cost to time. Many have also talked to us about the need to reduce the loss associated with overstocking."

    "Companies want to minimize the time-to-market between design and the ability to sell the product either online or in stores," says Amerine. Retailers with ready access to high-speed print production can compress the amount of time from concept to finished product from months to a matter of days.

    Mark Sawchak believes textile printing can ultimately help bring textile manufacturing back to the US. Since 2007, Expand Systems has collaborated with the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, helping them to get equipment and software to support teaching everything from fashion and design to technology and engineering.

    As a result of the collaboration, a team from the College of Textiles received a $639,112 grant from the US Manufacturing Innovation Fund established by Walmart, the Walmart Foundation and the US Conference of Mayors. The funds are being used to help complete a 2,600-square-foot digital print, cut-and-sew facility for research on the College of Textiles campus.

    College of Textiles faculty members Lisa Chapman, Harold Freeman, Trevor Little, Nancy Powell, Andrew West and Expand Systems' Mark Sawchak are working with industry partners such as Arden Companies and specialty chemical suppliers to develop an optimal digital printing system. Digitally printed fabrics for outdoor furnishings, coupled with an efficient cut-and-sew fabrication process offer a game-changing strategy for the domestic textile complex.

    "We're thrilled to support the efforts of North Carolina State University to transform the processes that will ultimately drive resurgence in American manufacturing," said Cindi Marsilglio, Walmart Vice President of US Sourcing and Manufacturing.

    "We firmly believe that implementing a technology-based solution to produce products here in the US will enable Walmart to meet its objective of fostering the movement of manufacturing back home," said Mark Sawchak.

    Another innovator in textile printing is Trevco, Inc. Founded in 1989 as a licensed apparel manufacturer, Trevco has developed highly automated print-on-demand capabilities that have expanded the number of licensed designs that Trevco can manage - not just for garments, but for home textiles, too.

    Trevco is now partnering with textile screen printers and other companies who want to print licensed designs on throw pillows, body pillows, pillow shams, duvet covers, ottomans, beanbag chairs, shower curtains, bath mats, totes, towels, woven throws, tapestries, iPhone cases and wall art.

    The owners of the licensed designs like Trevco's one-source approach because they don't have to shop around for product manufacturers or collect royalty payments from different suppliers for T-shirts and another for bed sheets.

    Trevco processes the incoming orders from retailers and e-tailers and reformats the approved designs for the type of product and substrate that will be printed. Orders and files for non-apparel products are sent to the appropriate printing partners for output and drop shipping directly to customers. Trevco then processes all of the royalty payments and paperwork for the license-holders.

    Trevco currently serves more than 70 licensors for products related to movies, TV shows, cartoon characters and musicians (e.g. Batman, Elvis, Power Rangers, Jurassic Park, Shrek, Aerosmith and The Blues Brothers). Trevco also prints licensed apparel, furnishings and accessories for the US Army, US Air Force and US Navy.

    Reason 6: Equipment Manufacturers and Ink Developers are Gearing Up for Growth
    According to the post published by the For.Tex Textile Solution Center, less than 2 percent of the estimated 30 billion yards of textiles printed in 2014 for interior decor, home furnishings and apparel are digitally printed. Because this percentage is expected to grow rapidly, companies such as EFI and Epson have announced acquisitions that will give them the right combination of technical and marketing expertise to drive the expansion of digital textile printing.

    In July, EFI acquired Reggiani Machine of Bergamo, Italy. Reggiani has been in the textile business for more than 60 years and manufactures analog and digital printing equipment for fashion and home furnishing textiles. Their equipment portfolio runs the gamut from Reggiani's original rotary screen technologies to an extensive lineup of industrial inkjet printers that use water-based inks to print on fabric.

    "This acquisition gives EFI an immediate leadership position in one of the world's largest industries undergoing the transformation from analog printing to digital," said EFI CEO Guy Gecht. "The addition of Reggiani's innovative team and their world-renowned 'Made in Italy' textile printing technology will drive continued growth in industrial textile."

    Reggiani's inkjet technologies will be rebranded as EFI Reggiani. The portfolio addresses the full scope of advanced textile printing with versatile equipment suitable for the water based pigment, acid, dispersed, and reactive dye printing inks used with different types of textiles.

    Reggiani thoroughly understands the factors driving the transformation from rotary screen to digital printing because they have relationships with leading textile manufacturers around the world.

    Epson Italia S.p.A., an Epson Group company, recently completed a buyout of For.Tex S.R.I. For.Tex sells textile printing inks and treatment agents used in textile printing processes. Epson has worked closely with For.Tex since 2003 as part of Epson's joint development of the Mona Lisa digital textile printer by Robustelli. The For.Tex acquisition gives Epson know-how across the entire textile printing process and will enable Epson to future accelerate growth of the textile printing business.

    Other companies that have strengthened their positions in the global textile market include Sawgrass Industrial, MS Printing Solutions and Sensient Imaging Technologies. Sawgrass Industrial joined forces with Kiian Digital and J-Teck to create the world's largest industrial digital sublimation group - The JK Group. Sawgrass Industrial is a leader in the high-end market of digital sublimation and water-based pigment inks for fashion, sportswear and home décor. JK Group President Dennis Wilby said, "Following the combination of Kiian Digital and J-Teck last year, the addition of Sawgrass Industrial takes the JK Group into a global leadership position in the digital sublimation sector and at the forefront of the textile pigment inks market development."

    Sensient Technologies Corporation, which makes pigment and dye inks for digital textile printers, recently acquired the assets of Xennia Technology Ltd. Xennia's product lines consist of reactive, acid and sublimation inks for printing on a range of textiles and other substrates. Xennia develops complete application solutions tailored around specific customer requirements.

    Looking Ahead
    "Reggiani's customers recognize that inkjet is the most important technology for the future of the industry," said Ambrogio Caccia Dominioni, the Managing Director of EFI Reggiani. He said Reggiani Machine wanted to be part of EFI not just because EFI is a leader in industrial inkjet technology, but also because EFI is a leader in print-industry workflow solutions. He believes that EFI and Reggiani can introduce leading-edge products that will accelerate the analog to digital transformation, which is vital to the future profitability of textile buyers.

    Not everyone who gets into the textile printing business will come from either a textile, screen-printing or graphics background.

    For example, two Internet geeks founded Spoonflower in 2008 as a custom fabric site for crafters and design enthusiasts. Their spouses were frustrated by the limited selection of commercially available fabric prints. Spoonflower started manufacturing printed cloth in a one-room former sock mill with sparse financial resources and equipment that wasn't always reliable.

    By selling custom-printed fabric and offering a marketplace for hundreds of thousands of unique designs created by independent artists, Spoonflower tapped into the do-it-yourself "maker" movement that has blossomed in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

    Today, Spoonflower not only prints custom fabric, but also custom wallpaper and gift wrap for designers around the world. As the textile industry prepares for massive expansion in digital printing, Spoonflower just landed a $25 million minority investment.

    "Digital textile printing is finally coming of age," says Gart Davis, one of Spoonflower's co-founders. "The time is right to invest in growth and to bring on a partner like North Bridge, who shares our optimism about the opportunities to transform an industry through on-demand manufacturing."

    It's hard to predict whether the top-end analog-replacement equipment will be adopted as quickly as some manufacturers hope. As runs become shorter and manufacturing becomes distributed closer to the point of product use, many firms may not require top-speed, high-capacity equipment. Digital printing may shift away from large-scale manufacturing plants into smaller business with niche printing and finishing requirements.

    Plus, as commercial print providers have learned, processing 2,000 to 3,000 short run orders per day requires a significant amount of automation. Installing automated web-to-print, MIS and prepress and production systems is far more time consuming and complex than installing a new digital press. Populous countries such as India and China may not see the immediate value of installing highly automated systems if they want to keep as many people working as possible.

    But as US companies such as Spoonflower and Trevco have demonstrated, textile printing opportunities can exist for business owners who are innovative with their business models and marketing efforts.

    While some big manufacturers may choose to bring textile printing in-house to protect their designs, textile printing is not yet push-button automatic. The machines and processes can still be finicky and require some focused expertise that manufacturers might not want to get involved with.

    At the 2015 SGIA Expo, most exhibitors exhibited equipment, inks and fabrics for use in sublimation printing or with latex or UV-curable inks. That's because there is still plenty of room for growth in sublimated apparel and decorative and promotional applications such as curtains, awnings, backlit fabric displays, flags and banners.

    For large-format graphics producers, Durst has introduced a new range of functional aqueous inks that is incorporated in the Durst Rho WT platform. Durst Water Technology is a groundbreaking innovation for soft signage and was essential in establishing sustainable and odor-free large-format products for point-of-sale and interior decor applications.

    As the demand for soft signage and other large-format applications of fabrics continues to expand, "Print-service providers need a strategy to manage the increasing demand so they can meet the deadlines and have the flexibility to move as quickly as their customers require. Outsourcing textile printing will be an increasingly difficult strategy to maintain in the coming years," said Terry Amerine of Durst.

    For More Information
    To learn more about the wider world of textile printing beyond graphics and signage, plan to meet some of the top consultants, ink developers and equipment manufacturers who will be attending the Expo. Even though pigment inks may give you the versatility to print on a variety of fabrics, those printed fabrics can't be converted into furniture cushions as soon as the fabrics are dry. Depending on how the printed fabric will be used (e.g. outdoor furniture or dining-room chairs), you may need equipment that can apply the appropriate topcoat.

    At the Expo, you can meet Mark Sawchak of Expand Systems during his presentation on "Market Trends for Digital Textile Printing" on Wednesday, November 4 from 9 to 10:30 am. If you have an idea for a new business model or textile-related product, he can help you develop the business plan or find ways to beta test your concept and scale it up over time.

    In a presentation on the "Economics of Digital Textile," also on Wednesday, November 4 from 9 to 10:30 am, Tommy Martin of Mimaki USA can help you pair the right textile printing solution (dye sublimation, reactive, acid, textile pigment, latex, solvent or UV-curable) to right application. He will talk about what's involved in setting up a digital textile-printing shop, including processes, costs, and outsourcing vs. in-house production.

    In the Digital Textile Printing Zone on the show floor, you can get information on technical and design requirements, recommended workflows, color management, finishing techniques and recommended best practices for a variety of ink and fabric combinations.

    At 11 am Thursday, November 5, Vince Cahill will give a no-spin overview of the current developments and opportunities in digital textile printing. At 1 pm on Thursday, Ken Bach of Aberdeen Fabrics will talk about markets, opportunities and new applications for digitally printed textiles.

    To help visualize what's possible with digital textile printing, stop by and chat with students and faculty members from the Textile Design Program and Surface Imaging and Design Programs of Philadelphia University's School of Design and Engineering. Their enthusiasm and artistry will inspire you!

    Eileen Fritsch is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Contact her at eileen@eileenfritsch.com

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September / October 2015 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2016 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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