By Lisa Guerriero
Part 1 of 2
Advancements in wide format digital print allow for the production of printed textiles to be handled cost effectively and efficiently. Interest in U.S.-based industrial fabric creation is growing. Many large corporations participate in initiatives to increase domestic manufacturing.
The Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund, a partnership between Walmart, the Walmart Foundation, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, focuses on the development of U.S. manufacturing, with the goal of making it easier and more competitive to create household goods domestically.
This is achieved through grants supporting research projects aimed at advancing the production of goods in the U.S. In 2014, seven groups were awarded a total of $4 million in grants. One of those winners was the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University (NC State).
The university, aided by Expand Systems, LLC, applied for a Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund grant to explore ways to improve the production of outdoor patio furniture cushions. Mark Sawchak, managing partner, Expand Systems, has worked with the university since the late 1990s and helped write the proposal.
NC State and Expand Systems’ proposal and subsequently the final project is based around the idea that digital printing, combined with cut-and-sew automation, offers efficiency and other benefits to compete with overseas production. Digital technology—in this case, direct to textile—enables on demand printing and easier inventory management, bringing more designs to market faster.
“The time from design creation to production is greatly reduced by printing digitally versus screenprinting, especially with the products being manufactured in the U.S. and potentially closer to the retailers distribution centers. As printing speeds increase and ink prices lower, the cost of printing fabrics digitally makes economic sense,” explains Sawchak.
The Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund awarded the $639,112 grant in August 2014, helping NC State complete its 2,600 square foot, on-campus digital print and cut-and-sew facility.
Proof in Printing
At press time, NC State was running tests to determine the best possible means of cost-effectively producing a high-quality printed fabric to then be constructed into a cushion. When it came time to choose a print method, the university decided on direct print to meet lightfastness specifications required by Walmart.
A 71-inch MS-JP5 Evo printer manufactured by MS Printing Solutions and distributed by Expand Systems is currently used to process and print fabric in rolls. At full commercialization, the team plans to utilize machines like the MS-LaRio, a continuous single-pass device designed to replace traditional rotary printers. It prints at up to 70 meters per minute.
Project leaders chose MS Printing Solutions for its ability to achieve the same print result across all of its platforms. Sawchak says the printers are used worldwide from small to large scale production purposes.
Although the printing method and hardware are selected, numerous other factors are still in development. The ink will either be high-energy disperse or pigment, and several brands are in consideration. The team is also testing software, including RIP options from DPInnovations Inc., ErgoSoft AG, and MS Printing Solutions. Also undetermined are pre-treatment application methods—like padding, knife coating, spraying, and foaming—as well as post coating the fabric while still in a roll.
The team at NC State also plans to research automated systems for cutting and sewing, looking for efficient finishing options as well as how to integrate those process to create a production workflow that complements digital printing.
All of these elements combined affect printing and production speed, ultimately impacting productivity and its influence on the bottom line. “All along the way, with all the variables, we are looking at cost as part of the project,” notes Sawchak.
After producing several test runs, the team hopes to have a commercial product on the market by the first quarter of 2016.
Business, education, and philanthropy unite to establish the NC State and Expand Systems project. Seeking to provide a domestic alternative to overseas textile production, the initiative provides an opportunity for research into the best printing components and cutting/sewing options. Exploring these factors help promote the benefits of digital printing in the industrial fabric segment.
Oct2015, Digital Output DOIP1510