By Cassandra Balentine
Digital textile printing is complex, but versatile. Several methods are used to print to textiles, including dye-sublimation (dye-sub)—either direct dye-sub or with the use of transfer paper—as well as direct digital printing.
The market is growing. According to recent research published by Research and Markets, Digital Textile Printing Market by Printing Process (Roll to Roll, Direct to Garment (DTG)), Ink Type (Sublimation, Pigment, Reactive, Acid), Application (Textile & Décor, Industrial, Soft Signage, DTG), and Geography – Global Forecast to 2023, the digital textile printing market is expected to be worth 2.3 billion USD by 2023—up from 1.76 billion in 2018—at a compound annual growth rate of 5.59 percent from 2018 to 2023. The study finds this growth due to demand for sustainable printing, increased demand for digital textile printing in the garment and advertising industries, shortening lifespan and faster adaptability of fashion designs, development of new technologies in the textile industry, reduced per unit cost of printing with digital printers, and growth of ecommerce.
To meet growing demands for fabric printing, print service providers (PSPs) are interested in obtaining the technology. However, they have many options. Several dedicated textile printing devices are on the market in both dye-sub transfer and dye-sub direct options. Additionally, some UV or latex printers are capable of printing directly to textiles as well as other materials. The question becomes whether or not it is time to invest in a printer with the sole purpose of printing to textiles. This article discusses considerations for a dedicated textile printer.
Above: Kornit offers DTG and direct to fabric digital inkjet printing technologies.
Deciding on Dedicated
As with any new investment, it is important to consider the options and choose the solution best suited to meet a PSP’s unique fabric printing requirements. Regardless of the specific printing method chosen, a dedicated solution may be the right decision.
There are normally two break points for specialty equipment purchases, advises Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, dye-sub and textile line, ValueJet, Mutoh America, Inc. One is when the volume of purchased fabric is great enough to justify the equipment costs and the other is when a better lead time is needed for delivery.
While some limited fabric selections are printable with UV or latex printers, the bulk of textile printing is output on dedicated devices, comments Larry D’Amico, director of sales, large format, Durst Image Technology US LLC. He says the decision to invest in a dedicated printer is a difficult one. “Do you buy a low-end device that gets you in the market but offers limited throughput to deal with significant opportunities, or should you invest more up front so that you have a machine with the bandwidth to address larger applications?”
The point at which to consider adding a dedicated printer is when textile applications become a regular part of work produced and the financials make sense. “This will vary for each PSP significantly,” suggests Tim Check, product manager, professional imaging, Epson.
“In my experience, a PSP only purchases a dedicated printer when they have enough work to keep that machine running all day or during their busy time if they have too much work and can’t run behind on that particular substrate,” explains Nick Buettner, director of technical sales, Advanced Color Solutions.
While a business may be doing soft signage work on a roll-to-roll UV or LED inkjet printer along with other graphics work, Mike Wozny, senior product manager, EFI Inkjet, shares that it is such a hot growth market that businesses often see a need for a dedicated printer just to keep up.
“It’s hard to say what volumes justify a dedicated machine,” comments Buettner. He suggests two schools of thought, the first being whether or not there is enough extra work for the machine to pay for itself, and the second determining if there is a bottleneck that a dedicated machine could be used to remedy.
Greg Lamb, CEO, Global Imaging, says another road to investing is the knowledge that the digital textile market is growing faster than other markets in the industry. “For a business to keep growing and become profitable, they need to look for revenue sources and product offerings that aren’t commoditized and should look to capture market share when the field is still fairly wide open.”
Application and Volume
One major consideration for textile printing is the application and volume needs.
According to D’Amico, the math varies according to the application, but basically PSPs need to calculate the volume and the potential profit and weigh that against the initial equipment purchase and running cost. “It’s a simple calculation that determines the justification for a dedicated device and also help determine the level of investment you can support.”
Figuring out when to invest in a dedicated machine for textile printing is a complicated question. “If you are already outsourcing to another person who is doing your fabric printing and the volume is significant, then you may be ready to invest right away,” offers Lamb. “Of course, what one perceives to be a significant volume versus the entry cost of the platform will vary and really requires a deeper dive into the numbers.”
Wozny says any shop approaching three to five hours of textile work on a roll-to-roll printer will want to switch to a dedicated textile printer. Businesses that do a lot of work in the trade show/event space have already seen the demand shift away from vinyl signage and many—if not most—have moved to dedicated textile equipment. “But the same type of transformation is coming to the point of purchase space as well, as backlit signage provides a high-end look that is preferred now in many retail establishments,” continues Wozny.
Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables, Roland DGA Corporation, believes investing in a dedicated dye-sub printer makes sense for those planning on creating decorated apparel and accessories, soft signage, décor, and/or promotional goods. “As far as volume is concerned, in order to justify the investment in the equipment, the PSP should anticipate being able to do a minimum of 1,500 square feet per month.”
Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation, thinks using a dedicated printer for a specific substrate is required if production volume per batch is large enough. Different inks are required for each substrate, so ink replacement for every one can be a challenge for PSPs when considering ink waste.
Mike Angel, sales manager, Western territory, North America, Kornit Digital, points out that whether producing on demand orders with no minimum requirements or traditional bulk orders with minimum unit requirements, a dedicated textile printer can be implemented to ease production backlogs or create additional revenue channels. “Digital production provides agility and scalability. Once a dedicated textile printer is in place it can be utilized both ways.”
Single Pass vs. Multiple Pass
Traditionally, multiple passes are used to improve output quality. Single-pass textile printers are emerging to improve speeds, however the technology comes with advantages and disadvantages.
“Speed is the biggest advantage of single- over multi-pass printing. Cost, physical size, and the length of the material needed to initiate printing are the biggest disadvantages of single pass,” admits Anderson.
Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc., points out that single-pass technology often provides faster speeds that fall victim to media feed calibrations. Each time media advances it must be done with exact precision in order for the next pass to match up appropriately. With single-pass printing, the drops are only produced over the area once, leaving no margin for error. Multi-pass technology offers more versatility in that each pass covers an area several times, which can be useful in overcoming feed rate variances. It also allows for more ink, giving tighter control over the density and expanding the printer’s capabilities.
Unlike scan printing, where the multiple passes of the printhead can be used to hide the effect of a nozzle dropping out, single-pass printing does not have this luxury and needs a way to overcome this problem, recommends Kim.
Check explains that the main benefit of single-pass printing is high-speed printing for a specific type of application. “However, the downside of a single-pass printer is the lack of additional applications. There is little flexibility to change print quality and compatibility with different materials and media.”
Hunter says it is common to see a business pair a large, single-pass printer with one or smaller, multi-pass textile printers. “This gives the operation the ability to handle both short runs and longer production runs efficiently and cost effectively.”
Single-pass technology is also expensive. This is due to the requirement for a significant number of printheads to cover the imaging width of these printers. Extremely high volumes are typically needed to justify this type of investment, according to D’Amico.
“Multi-pass printers have greater flexibility to address a variety of applications and can dynamically balance quality and speed. The equipment cost is lower to the point that several multi-pass printers may offer greater productivity and lower cost than a single, high-speed single-pass printer,” offers Check.
Angel says technology now enables producers to control print speed, print quality, and hand feel by adjusting ink coverage. “One or two passes is not a matter of equipment limitations or needs, but based on the producer’s sell quality requirements.”
Lamb feels the future is bright for single-pass technology. “The reality is that today there are only a couple of players in the textile space offering single-pass technology and the cost of entry is astronomical in comparison to scanning or multi-pass technology.” In his experience, the majority of these devices have been placed in traditional textile production countries such as Italy and Turkey.
Dedicated textile printers offer unique feature sets that make them well suited for a variety of fabric applications.
Angel points out that dedicated textile printers give producers full control of production needs. “They can be specific as well as variable data driven without comprising throughput.”
In general, textile printers feature a system for handling a variety of fabrics, the simplest being non-stretch or two-way stretch to the more elaborate sticky belts and systems for handling the full range of fabrics, explains Anderson.
Fabric presents specific challenges, especially when it comes to wrinkling and stretching. “Pinch rollers and tensioning systems that provide control over these elements are critical factors enabling proper printing on fabrics. It is critical that the materials used for the application are tested on any machine considered. Figure out how many times the machine has to stop to make adjustments during printing,” offers D’Amico.
Textile printers are usually in environments where fabrics are being cut, suggests Check. The printers need to be able to operate in environments with high levels of dust and lint.
“Other useful features are high printhead gaps that compensate for higher pile fabrics. Higher printhead gaps also allow for thinner papers to be used in dye-sub environments. Some machines offer belt drive systems that can be used for more difficult fabrics, such as ones that are dimensionally stretchable. These dedicated machines enable customers to produce goods without distorting the image due to stretch,” explains Maxwell.
Kim says post-processing methods can be fixed and combined or built in together for dedicated textile printing. “Dry heat fixation and a fume collector can be added for an all-in-one machine in the case of pigment or disperse dye ink. Pretreatment chemicals and methods can also be fixed in advance for a specific substrate and ink, so this can be included in an all-in-one dedicated machine.”
Devoted to Textiles
When demand for printing to textiles meets a certain point, PSPs consider adding a dedicated device to support growth and reduce bottlenecks. While there are many options when it comes to fabric printing, key factors like intended application usage and volume levels help determine when it’s time to invest in this technology.
Jul2018, Digital Output