New Research Shows Influence of Digital Textile Printing
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New Research Shows Influence of Digital Textile Printing

For at least 10 years, there has been a lot of discussion about the possibilities and potential for inkjet in the textile printing business. One of the first industry events I ever attended was dedicated to the subject. At the time, the suggestion was that as inkjet technology developed, there would be a dramatic shift in the way textiles are printed, including the garment-type textile printing methods.

By Tim Greene, Director of Wide Format and Jetting Technologies Research, InfoTrends

This new model would resemble the digital-analog transformation that occurred in the offset and screen printing markets based on the ability to customize apparel.

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  • This included one operation that would scan your body and create customized apparel. The theory was that the ability to print "on-demand" apparel would result in significant savings through less overstock and discounting of out-of-fashion goods.

    While the customized apparel market did not materialize as results suggested in a recent survey we conducted with wide-format printing establishments, "textiles" is one of the hottest applications for wide-format digital printers. However, textiles are not an application; they are print media. We wanted to figure out what applications are driving this textile consumption among wide-format digital print providers. InfoTrends and SGIA recently collaborated on a research project designed to provide a better understanding of the digital textile printing market.

    Market Structure
    After doing this research and analysis, InfoTrends' view on the structure of the digitally printed textiles market is that there are three major market components. The first is the sampling market - the first companies to adopt digital textile printing and the one that has the greatest requirement for short-run printing.

    These companies are the fashion designers and service bureaus who in the late 1990s purchased printing systems such as the ColorSpan and Encad wide-format devices that were designed specifically for textile printing. These companies use design software to create textile pattern designs and needed a way to cost-effectively produce accurate design samples. More production-oriented environments began investing in higher-end systems such as the now discontinued DuPont Artistri textile printing systems.

    The second market, the signage and graphics producers emerged at more or less the same time. Wide-format digital inkjet printing systems were improving in terms of achievable quality, and at the same time, more digital textile substrates were being produced to offer more finishes and special effects, which would inspire creative designs. These printing systems fall into two categories: dye sublimation printers and direct-to-textile printers.

    Dye sublimation printing has been around for a long time, and is the most common type of digital textile printing system that delivers good image quality and a high degree of permanence to the printed image. Some of the leading companies in the wide-format digital printing market including Roland, HP/Scitex, EFI/VUTEk, Mimaki and Seiko Infotech have developed wide-format, dye sublimation printing solutions. Also, no consideration of the dye sublimation market would be complete without mentioning Sawgrass Technologies, a company that has spent many years developing sublimation inks for various markets, including textiles.

    Direct-to-textile printing systems are relatively new and generally based on modified wide-format graphic printing engines from companies such as Roland, Mimaki and Mutoh. According to the research, direct-to-textile printing systems are seeing considerable growth as imaging systems' image quality, productivity and feeding mechanisms have improved.

    The ultimate objective for manufacturers of printing systems, inks, textiles and software is to penetrate the garment industry, the third market. The garment industry represents a huge market opportunity because of the volume of materials, but it also represents the greatest challenge in terms of image quality, permanence and overcoming the existing manufacturing economics.

    Simply put, the vast majority of garments are printed or produced in high volumes in the lowest cost manufacturing countries of the world such as India, China and Bangladesh. This creates an enormous barrier for digital production, which likely costs more. This is not to say there is no market for digitally printed garments; companies such as Brother and Kornit do quite well with their digital inkjet T-shirt printers.
    Textile Printing Industries

    Research Findings
    There is intense interest in digital textile printing from printers, printing equipment manufacturers and manufacturers of supplies because of the high volume potential and relatively high average selling price compared with paper-based wide format prints.

    InfoTrends and SGIA set out to measure some of the more important elements of the textile printing market with this recent survey. The more than 100 survey respondents included those who work in printing establishments, finished textile producers and manufacturers of inks and software for digital textile printing systems.

    How many employees does your company have?
    The results indicate that the printing establishments responding to the survey are fairly small companies, consistent with other InfoTrends research results on printing establishments. The data show a larger-than-average company size compared with other research because many of the respondents are screen printing establishments, which tend to be larger companies in terms of employees and annual revenue.

    Number of Employees

    What manufacturing processes are you using to image finished textiles?
    Today, most textile printing operations feature screen printing as their primary production process, and screen printing was the primary textile printing method among the respondents surveyed. It's also true that many of these establishments have both screen and digital textile printing systems.

    Manufacturing Processes Used to Finish Textiles

    Do you plan to add digital direct-to-fabric imaging capability?
    We see a fairly high level of interest in digital direct-to-fabric printing systems, as 54 percent of respondents who have no digital direct-to-fabric printing capability indicated they expect to add digital direct-to-fabric printing within the next 12 months.

    Plans to Add Direct-to-Fabric Imaging Capability

    How do you currently produce short runs of printed fabrics?
    (less than 250 square meters or about 2,500 square feet and/or sample runs)
    There have been a number of wide-format textile printing systems and supplies, for both direct-to-textile and dye sublimation, that we think have significantly advanced the quality and capability of digital systems. Major equipment vendors such as Roland, Seiko and Epson have recently launched new engines and systems aimed at the textile market.

    We think there is a significant market portion that may move toward digital processes because there are short run requirements. Even if the digital direct-to-fabric printing systems themselves don't work perfectly, there are significant economic advantages to be gained. However, 55 percent of the respondents indicated that their screen printing equipment is "optimized for handling short runs".

    Current Production of Short Runs (less than 250 square meters or about 2,500 square feet) and/or Sample Runs.

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    What is your total volume of textile production per month in square feet?
    Total Volume of Textile Production Per Month in Square Feet
    The mean textile production among the survey respondents was nearly 1,115 square meters (12,000 square feet) per month. However, when we look at the breakout by volume, 46 percent of respondents indicated they print less than 92.9 square meters (1,000 square feet) per month and 24 percent said they print less than 464.5 square meters (5,000 square feet) per month. Therefore, 70 percent of respondents are producing less than 464.5 square meters (5,000 square feet) per month.

    In this case, the one or two companies that produce several hundred thousand square feet per month increase the mean greatly. Some companies that run these extremely high volumes of textiles print them digitally. For example, I met a gentleman whose European printing company was engaged in printing theater backdrops 4.87 m (16 feet) wide, three shifts a day.

    Percentage of Fabrics at Various Widths
    Of what widths are the textiles you print?
    How well suited are today's wide-format digital printing systems for digital textile printing? One of the key variables is width. Are today's wide-format printers wide enough to handle the majority of textile printing jobs?

    According to the data, the answer is yes. With 95 percent of the textile work happening at less than 2.54 meters (100 inches) wide, today's wide-format digital printing systems (and certainly those that are wider than 100-inches) can handle the load required for digital textile printing, at least in terms of width.

    Also, from a digital perspective, at least two companies I know of (EFI/VUTEk and HP) can provide a conversion kit to make some of their grand-format digital printing systems into dye-sublimation textile printers. If you are considering this type of conversion, current data show that those systems can effectively serve the textile printing market in terms of required material widths.

    What applications are you producing with digital direct-to-fabric imaging?
    Applications Currently Produced with Digital Direct-to-Fabric Imaging
    I noted previously that there is intense interest in digital textile printing systems for end users and, for most, the actual print volumes of textiles is relatively low. InfoTrends believes that one of the reasons there is high interest - and why the market for textile printing systems is so hot - is because companies are looking for alternatives to vinyl-based signage.

    Because the vinyl printing market is very competitive, pricing and profit margins have gotten squeezed. There is a premium for textile printing; we've seen prices up to $14 per square foot for printed textiles in some of our recent work. Additionally, some print buyers are asking for banners and signage that is not vinyl-based because vinyl is difficult to recycle and is non-biodegradable.

    Several wide-format textile media manufacturers are developing textile-based print media to meet their companies' needs. For example, 3P Inkjet Textiles offers a range of recyclable fabrics for digital printing which include: a complete "green" value line for direct sublimation printing that is recyclable, a UV-Transfer line for transfer sublimation and UV-curable inks and natural cotton fabrics that are biodegradeable. Dickson Coatings is another manufacturer who makes a line of textile print media for digital printing called Evergreen - free of PVC, formaldehyde, phosphates and other undesirable chemicals - that are manufactured using less energy and without producing any volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

    The survey respondents indicated soft signage is their primary application when it comes to textile printing. Approximately 60 percent of respondents said they produce soft signage.

    Perhaps this is "survey bias" because the SGIA audience is signage-oriented, but the respondents also indicated they are producing other applications such as short runs and fabric samples as well as custom interiors for commercial and home décor.

    What technological developments would be required in order to move more production to digital direct-to-fabric printing technologies such as inkjet?
    Required Technologicial Developments to Move More Production to Digital Direct-to-Fabric Printing Technologies
    The results show users believe there are many improvements needed for digital inkjet systems to take on a greater role in textile printing.

    The most important issue for these printers is running costs. The cost of digital printing remains higher than for screen printing, and so people whose business is based on screen printing are sensitive to technological transformation that results in higher costs.

    The data also indicatd that users believe there are considerable improvements required in terms of color quality, color fastness and durability solutions which have been under development for a number of years by inkjet ink developers. Other areas identified as needing improvement, such as greater print speed and improved resolution, also are being improved by hardware and print-head technology suppliers.

    Moving Forward
    Digital printing, and inkjet in particular, is moving into every aspect of the screen printing market, and textiles are no exception. The opportunity to (more cost-effectively) produce samples - and produce short textile runs for specific events - represents the "low-hanging fruit" for digital printing. Soft signage and interior décor applications represent aspects of the textile printing market that are here today and increasingly are produced digitally.

    While T-shirt and other types of digital garment printing already exist, InfoTrends has found there are important product, technological and economic hurdles to cross before digital printing represents a significant portion of the garment printing industry. InfoTrends expects the development pace in the digital printing of textiles market to accelerate as biodegradable and recyclable textile print media products can be manufactured more energy efficiently and through a greener process than PVC-based print media.

    Tim Greene is Director of Wide-Format and Jetting Technologies Research at InfoTrends. In this role, Greene works with many of the leading OEMs, suppliers and distributors in the wide-format printing market. Greene is responsible for developing the worldwide wide-format forecast, conducting primary and secondary research, writing reports and white papers, supporting clients and working on strategic consulting engagements. tim_greene@infotrends.com


    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rd Quarter 2008 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2008 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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