By Melissa Donovan
Zeroing in on the textile market, it’s clear that just like those printing on non-textile materials, the same wants and needs of a printer apply. The reality is that print shops are looking to do more with less staff. Automated features are in high demand to increase uptime without breaking the bank. While the soft signage generated for trade shows, retail, and events bounces back, the added demand for on demand décor and apparel is not waning. Today more than ever textile printers must employ versatility to meet the varied requests of a print provider’s customer base.
Above: An example of apparel product produced with an Epson digital textile printer.
Features in Demand
Print service providers (PSPs) look for features on their textile printers to help achieve quality work for their clients. These include versatility and productivity at a reasonable cost.
“The most prominent features PSPs request when looking at a new textile printer revolve around ink versatility and image quality with the ability to print onto transfer paper or direct print with one ink set, productivity and capacity with the ability to print sellable quality at higher speeds and meet demanding turnaround times, and finally technology assets that allow for true unattended printing like large ink and media roll capacity, customer replaceable printheads, automated maintenance, and color management tools,” summarizes Joe Dawson, business lead, textiles, HP Inc.
PSPs demand operational excellence from new capital investments, points out Peter Casasanto, business development, Global Imaging Inc., whether it’s textiles or some other type of media. “They are asking, ‘how can we do more with less?.’ We are unarguably in a period of high inflation while at the same time facing a limited labor pool within the printing industry. The best way to offset inflation is through increases in productivity. It can be hard to increase productivity without enough staff.”
Casasanto suggests the best way to achieve higher productivity when printing textiles with fewer people is to eliminate process steps in both print and finishing areas. One way to do this is “via direct printing with true built-in inline sublimation, and inline is in demand in the soft signage world.”
Addressing the demand to do more with less, “it’s important that PSPs have reliable hardware with low maintenance needed. Certain features reduce downtime on the machine, and minimize the need for highly trained staff, making it easy for any operator to consistently produce high-quality, sellable output,” says Tim Check, senior product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America.
John Ingraham, senior marketing specialist dye-sublimation (dye-sub), Canon Solutions America, believes PSPs want to upgrade their older dye-sub printers for systems that offer higher productivity without having to increase their production footprint.
“We’ve seen a large increase in demand to make systems more efficient and cost effective while maintaining or improving the print speed and quality. These were areas of focus pre-pandemic and demand for these types of features has only increased as companies deal with labor shortages and an overall return to full production,” agrees Mike Syverson, textile manager, North America, Durst Image Technology.
Versatility is key no matter what type of printer you chose. “The world of digital textiles is vast with different markets and applications. Whether you are an experienced provider or new to the digital textile market, PSPs are looking for a dye-sub printer that offers them the flexibility to serve as many of these markets as possible with one device,” explains Deborah Hutcheson, director of strategic business development and distribution, Agfa.
“Versatility also plays a key role from a feature standpoint. Having a system that can run paper or direct print equally well is crucial in today’s world as it gives PSPs a choice on the best method of production for a given product,” adds Syverson.
While versatility and productivity requirements will always be the norm, the printing industry is at the whim of all that goes in the world. While we could say it’s the natural evolution of things, there are micro/macro forces at play.
“Trade shows, retail, and events are finally picking up after 24 months of the pandemic shutdown. These are three essential areas of opportunity to sell soft signage for PSPs, so the reopening of these large group gathering-type events is very positive. It’s not just about firing up printers that have been relatively dormant for months on end, it is also about bringing back skilled labor and experience to operate the equipment,” notes Casasanto.
Labor issues create challenges up and down the supply chain. “The pandemic accelerated PSPs’ needs to automate and minimize the amount of time operators would have to focus on a given output device. In many cases, the person operating the printer may be running more than one system, taking care of finishing, and even running the company where, pre-pandemic PSPs had sufficient staff for all of these roles,” explains Syverson.
Ecommerce also influences textile printing. “A rapid growth of print on demand (POD) through ecommerce adds new pressures. In 2020 and 2021, there was an explosion of new business all geared toward POD applications focusing on the home décor and personalization markets. These industries by their nature require very streamlined workflows with minimal personal interaction at virtually every level of the production to maintain the tight deadlines and margins,” shares Syverson.
“There is a push for versatility as PSPs launch into new markets like home furnishing and décor, personalized gifting with blankets and pillows, and fast fashion,” agrees Dawson.
With gas prices and other transportation-related fees at an all-time high, the cost of shipping a lighter weight sign/graphic is attractive. “As transportation and labor costs continue to surge, soft signage prints are lighter, require less space to store and transport, and are simple to install,” says Hutcheson.
“With increases in shipping costs and labor shortages everywhere, cost savings are critical. The ability to ship a fabric graphic folded in a box versus on a roll saves shipping cost,” cites Syverson.
Tony Simmering, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc., believes “it’s a natural evolution and the market is just getting more creative. PSPs are starting to learn that sometimes tapping in to different niche markets can be more profitable than trying to reach broadly.”
Besides the aforementioned features, there are other components to textile printers that seem to be all a buzz lately. While these are not specific to textile printers, fabric does benefit from the advancements in technology.
Larger ink tanks, media handing, automated cleaning mechanisms, and remote access are primarily discussed here and maintain a common link. “All of these features provide PSPs with the ability to run longer runs with minimal roll/ink changes and reduced maintenance downtime,” says Ingraham.
Larger Ink Tanks
Larger ink tanks offer the capacity to hold more ink, which results in less refill disruptions.
“A big difference with industrial inkjet printers is they do not utilize cartridges, but ink reservoirs. They are designed to be filled on the go without stopping the printer. In this class, ink is usually supplied in five to ten liter containers as the print volumes can be quite significant,” explains Syverson.
Larger ink tanks mean that you are replacing ink and mixing different batches of ink less frequently, saving time. “Ten liter ink tanks are also more cost effective than smaller sizes and it’s important from a reliability and image quality standpoint that the ink be in a self-contained, clean packaging and delivery system, so as not to introduce dirt and debris,” recommends Dawson.
Less operator interference and lower ink prices on bulk systems versus small cartridges are other benefits to larger ink tanks, according to Casasanto.
Automation is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps none more so than to eliminate manual error. Systems programmed to control winding and unwinding of media offer this.
“Precision transfer media winding can result in sharper ink transfers and reduced waste by minimizing the amount of paper shifting during the transfer process. With automatic media winding and unwinding unattended printing allows a single operator to manage multiple printers, reducing the overall production costs of the PSP,” says Check.
Roll changes, whether different fabrics being changed out or in the case of a printer that can handle direct and transfer technologies fabric changed to paper and vice versa, equal downtime. Automated media handling eliminates this as it keeps the printer running during the transition. “Additionally, features such as multi-roll loading to stage subsequent supply and take-up rolls dramatically reduces roll changeout times as you can prepare the new roll while the printer is still running,” continues Syverson.
“A heavy-duty fabric take-up system takes the stress away from textile management. Those bolts can be heavy,” stresses Simmering.
Advanced Cleaning Mechanisms
Similarly, the care and maintenance of a printer is getting automated and these features are found on textile printers as well.
Automated maintenance is essential in the quest to maximize uptime. For water-based, dye-sub systems Hutcheson notes advanced cleaning mechanisms are important because “water tends to evaporate, hence you need more cleaning to keep the nozzles open. These automatic cleaning systems minimize operator intervention and allow better production yields.”
Advanced features include printhead fabric wiping systems that ensure a pristine surface on the printhead, without involving an operator, and result in consistent print quality day after day. Additionally, systems are available that monitor the printhead nozzle health and automatically compensate or clean the nozzle to ensure high-quality sellable print quality. “These features help to reduce overall maintenance and downtime, and ensure the PSP has a reliable product that continues to produce sellable output,” explains Check.
“Properly designed ink delivery systems are made to run for entire shifts without wasteful ink purges or cleaning cycles as all of these reduce your overall throughput and increase waste,” says Syverson.
Last but not least, remote access via smart devices, while important for those on the go is also seeing a surge in use for typically more on-the-floor orientated processes like textile printing.
It’s all about data and leveraging it to the fullest. Remote access provides the “ability to monitor production off-hours and provide daily production feedback for managers,” says Casasanto.
“The trend in today’s market is leaning towards more remote diagnostics and quality control giving users the ability to proactively diagnose and manage systems maintenance with the ultimate goal of maximizing uptime,” explains Hutcheson.
This includes capturing real-time production information for a shop, as well as a dashboard view of notifications, low supplies indicators, or errors that require attention, which can help a PSP better understand their output and return on investment, shares Check.
Cloud operating systems also help manage fleets of the same printers, notes Dawson, so they “clone” the settings of each allowing the output and color to look the same across all devices.
“You can be in a meeting two doors over from the print area and still have the ability to track printer status. I see the future allowing PSPs to send print jobs while on the couch watching TV,” astonishes Simmering.
A good indicator of popularity is whether textile printers are being purchased. With trade shows back and people venturing out to see devices in person, expect those numbers to continue to grow.
Dawson sees a surge in demand and purchases in the last six to 12 months. He attributes this to many older textile printers that sat idle or were underused during COVID-19. Purchasing a newer device is preferable to investing in expensive maintenance and printhead replacement to get up and running.
“Once the economy started to open up again and we saw events, sports, trade shows, and retail return, many PSPs are choosing to invest in new printer technologies, rather than trying to fix the older equipment. Soft signage for retail point of purchase, sporting events, pillows, blankets, and home décor are all applications in high demand,” admits Dawson.
“Yes, we are seeing an uptick in purchases of textile printers,” agrees Casasanto. “Coming out of the pandemic, trade shows, retail, and events are back and these are the big three for soft signage. For some PSPs who didn’t consider soft signage as their core business, they sold their fabric printers, ultimately reducing the supply in the market, which has been good for those who stuck with it. In addition, ecommerce has taken off and many soft signage customers have branched into new markets, which is helping drive print demand.”
With shipping and supply constraints looming, Check believes a portion of textile product demand has shifted from global to regional providers—resulting in the purchase of more printers. “There has been a growing trend to shift to local production, and the challenges of the pandemic have accelerated the trend.”
At Canon, Ingraham notices “significant interest in ten-foot devices, which can be attributed to the fact that PSPs are looking to invest more into printing larger soft signage, display graphics, and backdrops.”
“Trade shows have largely returned to pre-pandemic numbers and PSPs supporting this market witnessed turnaround. Additionally, retailers are working on large scale fabric rollouts for their display graphics,” adheres Syverson.
In addition to trade show, retail, and event graphics, Simmering sees printers purchased for new niche items like flags and facemasks, in addition to custom fabrics and POD cut-and-sew clothing. Thanks to this variety, “the market appears to be steady and consistent.”
Referencing Valuable Needs
Meeting the needs of PSPs, the newest textile printers offer advanced features like automated maintenance, robust media handling, remote access solutions, and more.
These features address the versatile textile applications possible via digital print, in addition to combating labor shortages, all while offering the levels of productivity needed to complete a quality job. This attention to what a PSP values is what makes the printers thrive.
Jul2022, Digital Output