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Digital Textile Printing: Soft Signage, Fabric Solutions & Innovation

Once a subset of the fledgling digital graphics industry, digital textile printing has grown into a strong industry of its own, offering a growing number of applications produced using materials, technologies and products unique to this segment.

By Vince Cahill, VCE Solutions
Paolo Capano, INX Digital
Scott Fisher, Fisher Textiles

To learn more about digital textile printing, we talked with Vince Cahill, VCE Solutions; Paolo Capano, INX Digital; and Scott Fisher, Fisher Textiles.

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  • SGIA: Digital textile printing for graphic applications has become a highly valued, higher-margin choice for signage, environmental graphics and other applications. Where is digital textile printing used most effectively and why is it an effective choice?

    Cahill: Digital textile printing is used profitably and effectively for a number of applications and markets. Service bureaus provide textile designers and producers with prototypes in a variety of color ways. Many designers have acquired inkjet textile printers for their own design development, print samples and short-run production. Photographers and photo labs use inkjet for printing photographic images on canvas. Many amateur and professional photographers have found walls and markets for their images on canvas, including panoramas. The largest segment printing textiles, however, remains banner printing, flexible signage, building wraps and exhibition displays. Digital printing's ability to place eye-catching photographic images on easily transported and versatile textile surfaces has captured the imaginations of designers, advertisers and clients with its possibilities.

    Fisher: Digital printing is used most effectively when the client needs customization with a relatively low volume. The short-run nature of digital printing, along with digital files being used to generate the images, makes this a perfect match.

    Capano: We see digital textile printing as an effective choice because it fills an empty space in advertising and decoration markets. Digital textile printing covers mostly areas where vinyl and banners can't be used for certain occasions, such as outdoor flags. Fabrics are being looked at in a different light and, in many cases, are preferred instead of banners. This includes interior decoration for tradeshows, showrooms and point-of-sale advertising.

    SGIA: A great deal has been said about the advantages of using digitally printed textiles - particularly relating to reduced shipping costs. Beyond that, what are the factors driving the ongoing adoption of digitally printed textiles for graphics applications? What is it that compels customers to pay a higher price point for this type of printing?

    Fisher: Shipping costs certainly play a factor, but in that same spectrum, other aspects of shipping come into play. The fact that most textiles can be folded or shipped on a roll - as opposed to being crated - without the worry that edges may be nicked or damaged is significant. Textile graphics also have a higher perceived value or look when presented to customers.

    Capano: The main factor driving the choice is that it's all about the final result and the application itself. There are applications when both printed fabric and plastic can be used, but a printed fabric has a certain touch-and-look appearance that plastic lacks. Plastic, in some cases, may be a logical choice, but fabric has such appeal that customers will pay the additional price for it.

    Cahill: For many applications, digital textile printing is actually the most cost effective method. Digital printing enables targeted marketing, reproduction of personalized and customized designs and full-color photographs, printing of one-of-a-kind and short-run images and prototypes more cost effectively than analog reproduction methods. It provides these high-value services generally at significantly lower cost than analog print methods. Digital textile printing technology is improving at a relatively fast pace, while analog textile printing technologies have matured. The price of inkjet textile inks declines significantly with volume purchasing. As the volume of digital printing and market share of inkjet textile printing expands and competition increases, we will see the price of digital textile print output decline from specialty to commodity pricing, as we already see with the price of inkjet banner printing. Buyers want the custom features that digital textile offers and print suppliers are responding to customer demand.

    SGIA: What are the hottest markets for digital textile printing for graphics applications? What emerging markets offer the best opportunity, and why?

    Capano: Interior decoration is currently the biggest market. There are many different applications where fabric can be used to decorate walls, curtains, ceilings and carpets. There are other applications - furnishings, for example - where a designer can express himself artistically in a unique way using chairs, seats and sofas. Fabric is also more sustainable than PVC.

    Cahill: The hottest markets for digital textile printing have been fabric banner and garment printing. Interior decoration and upholstery also are applications that carry high-perceived value, which can justify the cost of customization. Improvements in inkjet textile technology are about to open traditional analog's longer run textile printing applications for digital production. Custom printing of technical sportswear for both direct and indirect garment and cut-piece printing is growing as consumers increase their involvement with sports activities where they use such custom garments.

    Fisher: We're seeing a strong trend toward printing tents, awnings and shades for outdoor use. It is definitely emerging for textiles with graphic applications.

    SGIA: A great deal of innovation has taken place in the past few years that allows companies to stretch printed fabrics over forms to make interesting shapes and displays. What other new and interesting applications have you see recently, and which of these applications do you see as a growing opportunity?

    Cahill: Direct and indirect digital printing offer opportunities for printing knit and elastomeric fabrics for use on exhibit and in-store displays and architectural and interior structures. Lamp shades, decorative room dividers, awnings, building wraps, privacy screens, light box graphics covers and tents account for just a few of the growing applications that I have seen coming into the market.

    Fisher: Stretching fabrics in frames to create an artwork-looking piece, either backlit or not, is an excellent application. New graphics can easily be put into the existing frame when the graphic needs to be changed.

    Capano: We have been at the forefront of ingenuity and innovation and our digitally printed fabrics offer many options. For example, take into account washability, stretchability, brightness, opacity and absorbency. You also must take into consideration if it can be backlit and whether it offers high mechanical resistance, transparency with light fabrics and overall softness. When an application requires one of these factors, our belief is that's when fabric is the best choice.

    SGIA: How have recent changes in materials, inks and printing equipment changed the possibilities and opportunities in digital textile printing for graphics applications? Do you see any of these changes as a major turning point for this industry area?

    Capano: In the last 10 years, many printing solutions have been introduced and quite a few companies began to adopt them. Once these applications gained visibility, the demand for fabrics started to grow. What was once impossible was no longer. Today, there are companies with little fabric knowledge producing great jobs, thanks to the easy solutions now available. The type of printing equipment, digital fabrics and inks available in the marketplace make it very easy to accomplish today.

    Cahill: When Mimaki developed its first TX printer using Epson PIJ print heads, it began a major leap forward for high-resolution proofing and sample textile printing. New print head developments included Konica Minolta's water-tolerant print heads for its Nassenger line, Brother International's heads for its garment printer series and Seiko Instruments Infotech's heads for the DuPont Artistri.

    Now, d.gen devices, all of these have marked past successful turning points moving toward production inkjet textile printing. The development of the Dimatix Q-class, Kyocera KJ4B and Ricoh Gen4 print heads mark a new turning point, offering equipment developers robust, water-tolerant piezo heads that they can more readily configure in large arrays. The recent introductions of large array printers offer capabilities that begin to rival those of analog textile printers.

    Textile coating chemistry has advanced to retard the wicking of inkjet deposited colorants. Some coating chemistries also enhance fixation and ink drying. Stork Prints (SPG Prints) with its wealth of experience in production textile printing has kept pace with the demands for antibacterial, functional nanoparticle, water repellant and fire retardant coating chemistries.

    The development of disperse dye inks for direct inkjet printing has found wide application. But much of inkjet inks for textile printing are the same basic chemistry that the traditional textile industry has employed for decades. I expect that we will soon see more nanoparticle structural inks, decorative metallic, conductive metallic and polymeric textile inks because the market is demanding that their digital prints provide all the decorative capabilities that screen printing and film transfers provide.

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    SGIA: Dye-sublimation printing is a major element of digital textile printing for graphics. Can you describe some recent, significant developments in dye-sublimation printing and explain why it is the primary process choice for certain product applications?

    Fisher: Whether you print direct or transfer print dye-sublimation, the end product is a very permanent high-color pop textile. These attributes are why it remains the primary process for interior graphics for tradeshows and indoor retail signage on textiles.

    Cahill: User adoption of inkjet disperse dye direct printing has enabled the elimination of production steps associated with the indirect inkjet sublimation process. It also eliminated the use of costly transfer paper. Sublimation dye is a low to medium molecular weight disperse dye. Direct inkjet print dyes often use the same inks that indirect sublimation printing employs. Most of the recent advances in disperse dye printing involve systems that heat and fix dye to fabric inline. Huntsman introduced a disperse dye with a clear carrier that prints colors that approximate the color after fixation, unlike other disperse dyes that use amber colored carriers. This development permits better color matching and faster color adjustment.

    Indirect transfer sublimation is a good choice for pending projects when one wants to be prepared but does not want to risk imaging fabric prematurely. Transfers are also easier to transport than finished fabric. One can also print small format sublimation on desktop printers. Direct disperse dye printing can reduce cost for signage and banners, but will often require post-print washing to remove all unexhausted dye.

    Capano: Dye-sublimation is the easiest and best textile technique available to print fabrics, including synthetics. Polyester fabrics are a bit more complicated since they can have many different outlooks, depending on touch and the overall structure. However, the process is easy enough that even non-specialized textile companies are involved.

    The two main printing processes are similar to other digital printing methods. What it comes down to is, if you want a washable item, there is no other way to print it. Using solvent or UV inks is not an option.

    SGIA: In production textile printing, a significant shift toward digital printing is taking place, with groundbreaking new equipment being introduced this year. What do you see as driving this change, and how will these changes affect the broader textile printing industry?

    Capano: The change is being driven partially by desire. If you see something nice and it gets wide exposure, you accept and start to want it. In the largest textile districts, digital is present but we are far from seeing it in high volumes. Digital is a leader in the high-end markets - high technology fabrics such as silk - because digital printing costs are similar to analog (screen printing) costs.

    In the lower end markets, such as cotton, textile is used only in specific situations such as for samples, prototypes or special designs. Como, Italy, one of the pure worldwide silk districts, has more digital printers today than screen printers, but it's the opposite in the worldwide cotton districts. Traditional printing still has a high number of printers operating.

    Cahill: Developers of screen printing and textile printing equipment have experienced the contraction in demand for their products. The market was flooded with used equipment as textile printing migrated from developed industrial economies to low-cost expanding ones in Asia. While much of production large-run textile printing has shifted to Asia, digital textile printing has grown in Europe, Japan and the Americas for prototypes, samples and short-run printing. As demand for distinctive custom and personalized fabric design for home and office environments increases, these applications will account for a greater share of the market.

    As new large array and single-pass inkjet printers begin to match the throughput speeds of textile screen printing for elastomeric and delicate fabrics, we can expect that inkjet will also gain greater market share. Since drop-on-demand inkjet will generate significantly less waste than the screen print process, we anticipate that the actual true cost of inkjet ink for printing textiles will begin to approach that of screen ink. While most of the world's longer-run textile printing will continue to be printed in China, India, Korea and other Asian countries, I expect higher-end textile applications to employ digital textile printing closer to market.

    Fisher: Digital printing served as a way to prove out a design or concept for them in the past, now that the printers are faster and producing at a lower cost this has become a viable option for these markets to use in lower volume situations or in order to keep inventory down.

    SGIA: What do you see in the near future for digitally printed textile for graphics applications? What change in this area are we likely to see in the next three to five years? And what is the current state of the digital textile printing opportunity?

    Fisher: I think you will see more customizing of everyday textile products; more and more graphics will be done on digitally printed textiles as other industries see the benefit of this technology combined with textiles. Opportunity exists for any printer who is open to printing things that are a little outside the box, while the in the box business will continue to grow as the speed and cost of this type of printing opens up new doors.

    Cahill: Earlier this year, Stork SPG Prints, La Mecanicca and MS introduced large print array roll-to-roll textile printers using Kyocera KJ4B printheads, and Durst introduced its Kappa textile printer. Konica Minolta reportedly will debut a new textile printer, MS and Ten Cate-Reggiani reportedly will introduce single-pass inkjet systems for textile printing. Garment inkjet printer manufacturer, Kornit also will exhibit a roll-to-roll print device.

    But with the flood of manufacturers entering the market with robust textile inkjet printers, one may ask, "Does enough market demand exist to sustain all of the new players? Will we see textile print production begin to move back closer to where its output is consumed? Will Asian production transportation costs rise and spur investment in the new textile inkjet solutions?" We have entered the digital age, but customer demand and cost will drive it.

    Capano: The future is all about innovation and having the creativity to generate new products. Textile for display graphics is a winning option when the application requires printed fabric. There is a huge opportunity for us that we can create by using the proper technology. The same opportunity exists for the display graphic industry to present new and unique printed textile solutions.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November/December 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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