Growth of the Digital Print-and-Cut Market in the Digital Decoration World
This growing segment is more the norm than niche, and it represents the exploding marketplace serviced by print-and-cut heat transfers which have improved in performance from just a year ago.
By Josh Ellsworth, General Manager, Stahls' CAD-CUT Direct
There is a divide in digital decoration somewhere between sublimation and direct-to-garment printing.
Sublimation, by its chemistry, is only compatible with light-colored, polyester-based fabrics. In its current state, direct-to-garment is best served on high-cotton-content fabrics that are constructed relatively flat, so they properly feed through its chassis. This leaves a significant amount of textiles without a digital decorating solution. This gap is exactly where the bulk of recent apparel and blank product development is happening. This growing segment is more the norm than niche, and it represents the exploding marketplace serviced by print-and-cut heat transfers.
Fundamentals of Print and Cut
Print and cut in and of itself is quite descriptive of the process required to produce transfers. A device prints graphics onto a special heat-transfer media and then cuts away the unwanted components of a design. An artist or designer dictates to the machine what to print and what to cut by naming cut paths around the artwork that are readable by the machine and its RIP software.
To break the process down completely for heat printing applications, it looks like this:
The step of masking can be omitted from the workflow should you wish to decorate white or light-colored fabrics with the process. In this case, a special clear heat-transfer media would be utilized and artwork would be processed in a mirror-image format.
- Design art and specify cut paths
- Send art to printer/cutter
- Printer/cutter prints designs and then cuts around each design (printer/cutters can be integrated devices or separate units with distinct advantages to each workflow)
- After the cutting is completed, a weeding process ensues to remove all components of the design that are unwanted in the finished graphic
- A pressure-sensitive (sticky) masking material is laid upon the finished print and squeegeed down with pressure either by hand or via cold lamination
- The finished graphic is lifted from its backing, positioned and heat pressed to an item
Print and cut for heat printing is an optimal process for a variety of items. A heat press delivering accurate time and temperature under proper pressure is capable of applying full-color print-and-cut transfers to practically any item made of fabric. Simply put, if you can get your print area flat, you can heat print it with print-and-cut films and adhesives.
The Perfect Press is Paramount
Getting your item flat requires the right heat press, and heat presses for this function are not created equal. There is a new question decorators should be asking when shopping for a heat press: "What can I print with it?" Loadability is absolutely paramount to success. A heat press with flexible loading starts with a cantilever design, allowing an item to be split onto heat press attachments of various sizes.
Once a cantilevered design is confirmed, the next three critical pieces to being able to print more items and completely leverage the versatility of print-and-cut heat transfers are compactness of the loading base, available loading depth and types of interchangeable attachments available:
- Compactness of the loading base: While a heat press can be built or modified into a cantilevered design, the base on which your item is loaded can prevent an application in spite of this. For instance, some heat presses have a loading base of approximately 11 inches wide x 2.5 inches deep. This excess footprint at the point of loading prevents small pocket placements, sleeves and other applications. Compare this to an ideal loading base of 5 inches x 2 inches, and a difference in load ability is apparent.
- Available loading height: Some heat presses leave only a loading height of several inches. Although capable of printing most items, if you intend to print bulkier items such as golf bags, look for a press that delivers maximum print height. Heat-press machines mounted on a stand allow for maximum height of loading, upwards of 42 inches from lower platen to floor.
- Types of interchangeable attachments: The right tool for the job is necessary when heat printing. Splitting an item onto the press is a moot point when trying to print a sleeve on a 16-inch x 20-inch attachment or the under bill of a cap on an attachment with only flat edges. Ensure that the heat press manufacturer can configure attachments capable of handling your planned applications. Also ensure that attachments are affordable and easy to change.
With a versatile, accurate heat press feeding backend production, the advancements and power of print-and-cut transfers can really be harnessed.
Adhesive Innovation Ignites
Print-and-cut heat transfers from a year ago performed a lot differently than they do right now. What's behind the digital print is the adhesive. This is the foundation of print-and-cut heat transfers and what drives the growth. A few major developments in adhesive have to do with how they perform specifically on synthetic fabrics.
First, charcoal-based adhesives replace metallic-based adhesives of old, giving a new, lighter-weight feeling to low-bleed solutions. The majority of the traditional dyed-polyester marketplace still presents risk when decorating. The safe way to decorate these fabrics is with a charcoal-based product. The laundry list of polyester fabrics with potential to bleed includes dazzle, denier, spandex, neoprene, tricot mesh and more. While this technology is not something designed to block dyes on fully sublimated products (e.g. digital camo apparel and other patterns), there is development in wearables where roller printed garments provide printable options that rival sublimated prints.
Secondly, as performance wear and synthetic fabric construction grows, so does the inherent risks to your business - ruining more expensive items. Bleeding is a top issue, but is still second to scorched fabric. Heat sensitivity is a major challenge in the world of heat printing and screen printing. New adhesives now apply as low as 250 degrees Fahrenheit with short dwell times at low pressures. This lessened exposure to heat greatly reduces the risk of damaging an item when decorating.
Lastly, in the world of print-and-cut adhesive development is an expansion of available styles with superior adhesive. In the past, superior bond and stretch adhesives were reserved for the highest priced materials and only on basic styles of print-and-cut films. New adhesives that apply at a low temperature inhibit bleeding, stick to any fabric and are coated to a variety of polyurethane films at varying price points. Standard metallic, glitters, clear matte, clear gloss, color changing metallic and opaque round out some of the finishes currently available.
With the right heat-transfer media and the perfect press to put on transfers, we turn to image quality where solvent and eco-solvent ink technology has presented several advancements in last few years. Most new generation printers have the ability to be configured from a selection of up to nine ink colors. The greatest advancement for heat-printing decorators among these nine colors is new light black ink. This addition is substantial in that it provides for smoother grayscale gradations, more natural skin tones and sharper photorealism in general. Metallic ink has also improved since its onset and provides the most added impact for non-apparel applications. Image quality for print and cut is renowned as being high clarity with crisp edges and lines, and it continues to improve.
The benefits of digital printing in general can't be overstated when it comes to graphic reproduction. Regardless of the process, logos and artwork of all kinds can be reproduced onto a blank item of choice. Traditional print methods put spot colors into the hands of the artist, almost putting creativity on rails - think of it like asking Van Gogh to paint by numbers. True creative freedom is discovered in the art of digital printing and design. With this, the realization in designs of patterns, textures and fills continues to drive growth. Regardless of market sector, design is becoming dimensional, and brands express themselves beyond a typical logo. Printed patterns and well-blended graphics help to communicate feeling. Whether a graffiti wall, a mash up of bohemian patchwork or a powerful lightning display, these graphics impart meaning for brands and elevate the finished piece.
Of course, every artist is not Van Gogh and every business does not have an artist. The good news is that rather inexperienced small-business owners are finding success with print and cut as well. Intuitive open-source art creation tools coupled with stock photography and full-color clip art enable a novice to design graphics on the Web without barriers of entry. One-click 3D effects, custom gradients, photorealistic fills and easy-cut path addition help solve one of the biggest challenges in the process - creating sellable art.
With this, we turn to the development of printers and cutters themselves and find that growth is also being fueled by a widening point of investment and capacity options for both the small decorator and the commercial decorator. Print-and-cut device manufacturers have released new format devices on both ends of the spectrum. Twenty-inch print-and-cut machines are designed with small- to mid-sized shops in mind and present a sub-$7,000 price point for investment. Sixty-four-inch print-and-cut machines are designed not only to allow a shop to make the most of the print-and-cut machines versatile applications in banners and signage, but present efficiency and cost savings to the high-volume heat printer by allowing the printing of a common manufacturing width roll of 59 inches wide.
Regardless of machine investment, another constant remains, and that is weeding away the graphics produced with print and cut. This piece of the labor component is the most costly and time intensive. With creative use of weeding borders and reversed production workflows, experienced print-and-cut operators are finding significant time savings in weeding. For instance, rather than nesting a variety of free-floating graphics and burdening the weeding employee with navigating a variety of art complexities, small details are "boxed in," creating a fast and efficient initial pull. Small details are then controlled individually, either prior to masking or in a reverse weed technique after masking.
Ultimately, any decorator who invests in print and cut will have to understand its unique and growing position in the market of finished fabric items. Unless a special adhesive or special effect is needed, it's primarily a technology for small- to mid-sized runs, much like the complementary technologies of sublimation and direct-to-garment. It can be leveraged across a wide gamut of products including but not limited to T-shirts, hoodies, pants, shorts, performance wear, belts, shoes, bags, jackets, sports balls, athletic braces, stuffed animals, soft toy boxes, table throws, tent tops, can koozies, car interiors, chairs, seat cushions, hats, basket and goal post padding, wrestling mats, innerwear, mouse pads, pad folios, gloves, umbrellas, corkboards and more. The growth in print and cut shouldn't be that surprising. As performance textiles and new items increase, so do technologies that can decorate them. Versatility is print and cut's sweet spot, and decorators are finding that they can logo practically anything with this powerful technology.
Josh Ellsworth is general manager of Stahls' ID Direct. He has been in the industry for 10 years and within that time has helped to implement apparel customization solutions in some of the largest manufacturers in the United States. Josh speaks regularly at industry trade shows and continues his educational efforts online through his website at joshellsworth.com.
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, Spring 2015 Garment Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2015 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.