by Cassandra Balentine
Digital printing, whether it is for décor, apparel, or signage, is an attractive solution for textiles. Dye-sublimation (dye-sub), digital dye-sub, transfer dye-sub, and direct digital printing are all methods for printing to fabrics.
Above: Kornit develops, manufactures, and markets industrial and commercial printing solutions for the garment, apparel, and textile industries.
Similar to any print segment, performance and activewear apparel printers look to increase production efficiency, ensure consistency and quality, and add features that set them apart from the competition. Manufacturers in this space are up to the challenge of meeting these demands by offering enhanced color management and increased printer performance.
Digital print presents capabilities like customization and faster time to market. As on demand fashion gains ground, the requirements of print providers serving these markets continue to evolve.
Performance, speed, and versatility are all factors for performance and activewear segments. “Companies want an industrial designed printer with high-quality output capable of production speeds and versatile enough to handle a number of ink sets for many products,” shares Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, textile and dye-sub, Mutoh America, Inc.
Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson, notes that activewear and performance apparel print companies look to increase production efficiency, maintain consistent and repeatable quality, and offer unique features that provide an advantage over the competition—such as fluorescent inks.
A variety of digital textile printing processes serve the performance and activewear market, each offering advantages.
Many sports teams and recreational organizations want to include features like custom names, numbers, and logos on activewear apparel. “Traditionally, there are not many options for printing to polyester; dye-sub, screenprint, and heat transfer require multiple steps,” admits Celine Tezartes Strauss, director of consumables and specialty systems, Kornit Digital. “Dye-sub handles more complicated designs on white polyester, but digital textile printing systems can do more.”
Digital dye-sub printers shorten the turnaround time from design to proofing to approval and production of printed textile output. “More designers print locally and make changes quickly before going into production. The ability to respond fast, edit, and conduct shorter custom runs are all attractive features for digital textile printing,” says Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles, ecommerce and supplies, Roland DGA Corporation.
Dye-sub transfer inks are well suited for producing textiles for performance and activewear. “These garments are nearly always made of polyester materials and feature a simple workflow process. The inks are printed on dye-sub paper and then transferred to the polyester fabric through the application of heat. The process does not require pre-treated fabrics, post-process steaming, or washing, which keeps cost and resource usage to a minimum. Dye-sub transfer printing produces imagery with sharp edges and highly defined details, which is important for products in the sportswear sector,” adds Hunter.
Specialty Ink Sets
Performance and activewear clothing benefit from specialty inks, which offer attention-generating visibility for practical purposes and a competitive edge.
Fluorescents in Demand
Fluorescent inks are available for digital textile printing. Used as spot colors, the inks are also involved in some unique color mixes not normally available in a CMYK configuration. “This additional gamut gives those with fluorescent inks a market advantage over those who do not,” suggests Anderson.
“We see increased interest in fluorescent colors because they are very noticeable; they pop, offering self-expression with bold colors,” adds Tezartes Strauss.
Check adds that bold fluorescents increase visual awareness, for example keeping runners visible and skiers easier to locate should they end up off trail. Additionally, these inks enable spectators to easily follow athletes wearing bright uniforms.
Victoria Harris, textile specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc., sees increased interest in dye-sub transfer fluorescent inks, not just for sportswear—but for swimwear as well. “Many designers are looking for highly vibrant colors for swim and activewear garments and show interest in the ability to print with fluorescent colors.”
Hunter says while there is some increased interest in these inks, it is not for everyone. “In most cases, the type of customer utilizing them has a specific printer just for fluorescent inks to meet brands’ and designers’ requirements. However, most dye-sub inks are capable of producing vibrant colors that really pop—and for some end users, standard dye-sub inks are sufficient for their specific needs,” she offers.
Dave Conrad, partner business manager, HP Inc., sees fluorescent inks as more of a novelty solution, mostly used for club sports like soccer and cycling. However, there is a definite market for them. “Some shops have good business to support the investment, but, overall, it is not a very large segment with regard to the market as a whole. Good ink chemistry can produce amazing color. The color gamut that can be achieved with CMYK can be strikingly close to neon or fluorescent, so the advantages of running fluorescent ink in the printer are minimal, unless that is all you print. Also, typically, when you run fluorescent ink you sacrifice printer speed,” he admits.
Several factors drive the demand for fluorescents in performance and activewear.
Performance and activewear—particularly in team sports—is ever changing and often requires fast response with customization availability. “Dye-sub transfer is a process that can be employed at all levels, from entry-level printers to high-end production models, enabling a range of print service providers (PSPs) to offer additional goods to their customer base,” explains Harris.
End users demand fashionable, high-visibility apparel, advises Check. Fluorescent inks offer increased visibility and let designers push creative limits. “With improvements in ink stability and increased printer performance, we expect more print providers to add fluorescent printing capability over the next several years.”
Anderson says the acceptance of fluorescent inks is driven by the ability to print colors outside the normal CMYK gamut. “These tend to be bright and unique colors,” he shares.
The Fluorescent Color Wheel
When it comes to adding fluorescents, yellow and pink iterations are popular.
Check believes this is because they are easily blended with CMYK to create a range of fluorescent colors including oranges, greens, and blues.
Josef Osl, GM marketing, Zimmer Austria, explains some of the science behind popular fluorescent colorants, rhodamine and flavin. Rhodamine is a reddish shade color that is fluorescent active. “As it lays outside the standard color gamut between red and magenta, it is not only preferred due to its fluorescent properties but also to widen the color gamut. Same with flavin, which is located between yellow and cyan, but is quite a bit brighter than yellow. It is fluorescent and it is located well outside the usual yellow/cyan gamut line. Accordingly, it supports an enhanced color gamut especially with yellow and green shades.”
He says both rhodamine and flavin have one thing in common, due to the fluorescent properties they exhibit poor UV light resistance.
“Rhodamine and flavin are increasingly preferred as supplementary inks by manufacturers due to widening the color gamut. On the other hand, consumers favor the bright colors blended form these two additional shades with other process colors. The brightness and color yield can’t be achieved with regular red or yellow,” adds Osl.
Cost and Maintenance
While innovative solutions bring value, they often come with an increased price tag and added maintenance.
Fluorescent dye-sub ink does cost more per liter than traditional CMYK, however the fluorescent inks are typically bold and can be used sparingly. “The ink cost difference to producing a cycling jersey with fluorescent inks versus CMYK inks may only be a few pennies,” states Check.
Anderson says fluorescent inks typically do have an initial higher cost than CMYK inks, but even at a 20 percent cost increase that cost is minimal per print depending on how much fluorescent is actually used.
“Most of the time, fluorescent inks are a little higher in cost than traditional CMYK inks,” agrees Hunter. “For example, Roland Texart SBL3 fluorescent inks are priced at $119 per liter, while our standard colors are sold at $99 per liter.”
Maintenance is another consideration when utilizing fluorescent inks.
Check warns that existing fluorescent dye-sub inks work best when fresh. Over time, the colorant particles settle and exposure to air can cause ink clumping, which can lead to printhead clogging issues.
Epson developed its new UltraChrome DS6 inks to prevent clogging issues. The only maintenance required is to agitate the ink weekly.
Tezartes Strauss believes there is no difference in maintenance procedures for these inks relative to Kornit’s other inks.
In the case of Roland Texart SBL3 fluorescent inks, Hunter says additional maintenance is required. “Performing the standard recommended maintenance routines keeps a printer running for a long time. However, fluorescent inks do have a shorter shelf life than standard inks—ours are 12 months as opposed to 18 months—so it’s best to run the printers regularly to use up the inks.”
Several features of digital textile printing equipment are attractive for performance and activewear apparel, many surrounding quality control and printer performance.
Built-in technologies and processes designed to ensure consistent quality output are important, according to Harris. Printer features like a high printhead gap enable high-quality printing on thin transfer paper without concern for cockling, which can produce uneven results or cause a printhead strike.
Increases in ink stability are critical to produce consistent results over time, notes Check. Epson created the new UltraChrome DS6 ink to ensure long-term reliability of the printers, and consistent repeatable print quality over time.
Waveform control is another attractive feature. “This manufacturer-specific technology improves visible quality and dot gain to produce sharp edges and fine lines even at faster speeds and higher printhead gaps,” shares Harris.
Color matching is essential. “The ability to reproduce prints with matching color and having that process be simple is important for repeat orders or when clubs and teams expand their memberships and rosters,” suggests Conrad.
The HP STITCH dye-sub printers feature an on-board spectrophotometer and a color library created specifically for the RIP included with every HP STITCH printer.
Spot color replacement for accurate color reproduction is utilized for team and league sports and is a desirable feature for designers. “The faster the color sample or strike-offs are approved, the quicker the product can go into production and be delivered to market,” says Harris.
Anderson points out that eight-color ink capacity and the ability to run whatever inks give each application the most advantage are attractive for performance and activewear applications. “If print speed is the goal, it is hard to beat a CMYKx2 set up, especially considering a four printhead, high-speed model like Mutoh’s ValueJet 1948WX,” he shares. For high-quality output, light colors are available. For an expanded gamut, add orange or violet to hit colors not available in a normal CMYK set up.
Printer performance impacts the entire business model, therefore increasing the amount of sellable product produced per day directly links to increased sales and profit, says Check.
People want design variety, and the ability to print multiple application types using one system. Tezartes Strauss lists features like photorealism, semi-transparencies, and the ability to prevent dye migration, which are possible with Kornit’s Avalanche Poly Pro system.
Nozzle check and recovery systems are two functions that work together to enable continuous or unattended printing. “During printing if a nozzle-out is detected and cannot be recovered, the nozzle recovery systems substitute nozzles without interrupting printing, which optimizes continuous productivity,” explains Harris.
If transfer speed is your bottleneck, a fast-release ink tied to an appropriate paper can decrease transfer speeds. Anderson points out that Mutoh’s DH-21 dye-sub ink is a high-release ink with rich black capability.
Osl says textile processing and garment manufacturing are industrial manufacturing solutions and functionalization with possible combinations is complex but increasingly important. Zimmer offers solutions that combine several options within one printer.
Performance and activewear is one segment of fashion taking advantage of the offerings digital textile printing offers. Direct digital printing as well as direct dye-sub and transfer dye-sub are methods that support this market. The availability of fluorescent inks are especially attractive to PSPs contributing to this segment. DO
Jul2020, Digital Output