By Melissa Donovan
Becoming knowledgeable about digitally produced textiles involves more than learning about printing. Final preparation or the finishing workflow is important to the overall look and feel of the graphic. Many customers in the custom textile space expect high-quality work and this means finishing must be done well.
Finishing equipment is a multi-faceted part of the process. After a fabric is printed, if it necessitates outside transfer processes, heat presses or calendars are used. Then, that fabric must be cut, either with a cutter or a router, depending on the intricacies of the graphic. Industrial sewers or welders piece fabric together to create a final product.
A variety of finishing equipment is available—though some are better known than others—to the traditional print service provider (PSP). Manufacturers of finishing products in this space are witnessing the increased demand for digitally printed textiles and taking great care in educating new users of their products. Together, both vendors and print providers experience how textiles are influenced by digital print.
Here, we outline products targeted toward digital textile manufacturers—both creating prints and patterns on devices 24 inches and wider, as well as PSPs looking to add direct to garment (DTG) printing to their business with tabletop devices.
Heat Transfer Presses
Fabric printing done through the dye-sublimation transfer method requires a transfer press—either a flatbed or rotary/calendar. According to Zuzana Cloete, business development, Practix Manufacturing USA, the model used depends on what is being produced.
A rotary or calendar press is suited for rolls of media. Practix Manufacturing’s OK-12 features a heavy-duty unitized frame, 12-inch diameter drum, and varying belt widths that allow for printing on fabrics of all sizes including 66-, 88-, 104-, and 128-inch belt widths.
Flatbed presses are available in swing away, clam shell, tray, or shuttle styles. “These can be used for heavier substrates such as plastics, wood, ceramic, or aluminum. Fabric-based applications include t-shirt logos, full-coverage garments, cut pieces, mouse pads, flags, banners, and floor mats,” continues Cloete.
Geo Knight & Co Inc. specializes in a product line of large format flatbed transfer presses—in addition to a number of other solutions. These machines meet the need for massive heater block sizes for printing transfers onto various textiles and substrates. Its Maxi-Press line includes both a manual and automatic transfer model. The 931 Triton is an air-operated automatic large format twin station shuttle press.
HIX Corporation offers a flatbed swing away, the SwingMan 20P, which Henri Coëme, global manager imaging products, HIX, suggests as a more user-friendly choice for the beginner due to providing the operator with an easier vantage point when looking down on the substrate.
RhinoTech provides flatbed heat presses. Its Digital Transfer Division specializes in helping start-up digital printers understand the industry and more importantly their business’ role in it. The RT DK20S is a swing away model that combines heavy-duty solid steel industrial grade pressing framework with easy-to-use electronics. The larger version of the machine, featuring a 20×25-inch heat platen, is the RT DK25S.
In either a flatbed or rotary/calendar press, automatic versus manual transfer pressure is a consideration. Manual pressure, or clamping down the lever or handle, is ideal for smaller production environments, according to Cloete. Automatic pressure usually relies on an air cylinder or air bag, which controls pressure and transfers ink evenly throughout the process.
Seaming or fusing of fabrics is referred to as welding and can be considered an alternative to sewing. For many it provides an added benefit of minimizing or even eliminating fraying, according to Traci Evling, president/CEO, JTE Machine Systems, Inc.
Forsstrom High Frequency AB’s Forsstrom radio frequency (RF) welders utilize a user-friendly interface. “Since welding normally is only 20 percent of the production time while material handling is 80 percent, our service personnel spend more time teaching the operators how to be efficient in material handling than how to weld with the machine,” shares Mikael Wallin, VP marketing and sales, Forsstrom.
JTE promotes its JTE Sonic Sew-N-Cut ultrasonic rotary welder for sewing the edges of items without tape or thread.
Miller Weldmaster offers its Impulse technology. “Impulse technology is simple to learn and operate daily. Our experienced team of field engineers spend time with mostly every machine sold by us to ensure the customer is not just implementing a solution, but using it to grow the business,” explains Truy Pham, U.S./Canada sales manager, Miller Weldmaster.
Sinclair Equipment Co.’s Triad Wedge Welding System can weld PVC, PE, PP, urethane, and other flexible membranes. It also welds supported and non-supported material in thicknesses of 5 to 100 oz. and is designed to be portable, versatile, and user friendly. The standard device is equipped with several weld styles including overlap, hem, fin, tube, sleeve, insert cable, tape, and channel.
Stitching one garment on a consumer sewing machine may suffice once, but investing in an industrial sewer is a lifesaver, especially when dealing with wider than usual fabrics and high volumes.
Consew machines are available for heavy-duty sewing onto digitally printed fabrics. The lockstitch machines are ideal due to their use in upholstery markets. The Consew Model 206RB is offered in several iterations, including a long arm option for wider projects.
Media One Digital Imaging Solutions, LLC distributes the Matic Cronos and Cronos Plus sewers. The flexible solutions feature flat seams for PVC/silicon keder, Velco, hemming, and reinforcements. An automatic conveyor belt moves in double directions—front and back—to make for easy handling of fabric. According to Jason Bartusick, marketing and digital printing specialist, Media One, the Cronos devices are ideal for beginners.
Bartusick explains that the company has held a number of time trials between various seamstresses, from the least experienced to the most experienced sewers. Those least experienced worked on a Matic sewer and during five different applications the operator proved to be 50 percent faster than the other more experienced seamstress working on a different device.
S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co., Inc. offers two basic machines for finishing digitally printed products. Both are two needle, needle feed machines with built-in synchronized cloth pullers. “These machines allow printers to hem and finish printed panels without puckering and waviness, which are two common problems when the wrong sewing machine is used,” explains Steve L. Kaplan, president, S. Kaplan Sewing Machine.
Singer Sewing Co. also manufactures hardware for the industrial space. Its HD-110 Heavy Duty sewer is a popular model and is distributed in the sign and display industry by Global Imaging, Inc. An included extra-large acrylic extension table allows for easy maneuvering of large projects.
Traditional flatbed router/cutters found in wide format print are one option for those looking to cut costs by utilizing devices already in house. There are more targeted devices when it comes to cutting textiles, which take fraying of edges and shifts of the fabric while it runs through the machine into consideration. Depending on the application a rotary tool, laser cutter, or hot knife is ideal.
“The digital printer needs to determine the edge quality required for the application. If it needs to be sealed, a laser technology is recommended; whereas unsealed edges can be cut with a rotary tool,” explains Beatrice Drury, director of marketing and communications, Zünd America, Inc.
Steve Aranoff, business development, MCT Digital, agrees. “One major advantage of laser cutting on polyester fabric is the ability to heat seal the edges, which is the main reason a lot of shops hot knife cut rather than cut with pinking shears or scissors. Hot knife or laser cutting both leave the edges sealed and help prevent fraying.”
Fiab offers the Fiab 3000 CMS, which precision cuts thick specialty fabrics. The wide format automated cutting device creates simple, complicated, or small radius cuts. The cutter offers a standard, fully adjustable marker port in addition to its textile friendly features.
Foster Keencut offers the Foster Keencut Heat Knife Carrier, which affixes to a cutter bar. Another alternative from the company is the AZTC Hot Cut System. In both scenarios, inaccuracies found when manually cutting fabric are eliminated such as uneven cuts and unraveling.
Gerber Technology’s Paragon Cutting System is available in the L-Series, cutting up to 1.08 inches of vacuum-compressed material; and V-Series, which cuts up to 2.8 inches of compressed material. The user-friendly interface is designed to guide users through every step, while simultaneously maximizing productivity.
The Versa-Tech Laser solution from MCT is specifically engineered for textiles. The textile tools offer laser cutting with a unique dual belt, laser proof automatic conveyor feed system, and optional tension-less textile roll-on systems. This in particular, explains Aranoff, ensures that the fabric being fed through the device is relaxed and not stretched prior to cutting.
Media One offers the Matic Helios laser cutter. Bartusick says that since fabric tends to move a lot compared to paper or media, it has a tendency to stretch, bow, or distort. With the Matic Helios, the laser is equipped with a projection system that allows it to adjust as the fabric moves.
Zünd’s multifunctional digital cutters are equipped with vision registration for perfect print-to-cut registration even if the material is stretchy or prone to distortions. Camera-aided registration ensures finished pieces are cut cleanly and accurately, with repeatability. A driven rotary tool is specifically designed for cutting textiles and other fibrous materials. Zünd offers a laser version of its cutters, the Zünd Eurolaser, which is also available in combination with standard cutting tools.
When a PSP is unsure about what to purchase or how to utilize finishing equipment for textiles, it turns to the manufacturer or vendor for guidance. Bartusick shares that the confusion he comes across most often involves the learning curve expectation. “Most companies aren’t doing things in the most efficient way, and usually the learning curve can take three months to master production,” he explains.
Each component in the textile finishing process—heat press transfer, welding, sewing, and cutting—has its individual challenges. Depending on the PSP’s experience, each offers a different level of discomfort or familiarity.
To combat any issues, it is ideal to have a good relationship with your heat press supplier. “Investing in a reputable U.S.-made heat press that has same-day support and is well known in the industry as being a long-time robust manufacturer of equipment is the biggest time, money, and customization saver you can buy,” advocates Aaron Knight, VP, Geo Knight.
“Don’t purchase random equipment. Investigate systems that are compatible. Systems should work together, and be tested many times so customers can feel secure that they are purchasing recommended equipment to get the job done,” adds Gregory Markus, president, RhinoTech.
Once in the shop, learning how to use a heat transfer device is a relatively fast process. “The learning curve for the art of transferring is low. It is a matter of learning and experience based on three variables—heat, pressure, and time. Luckily, the ink manufacturers each have a recommended dwell time—the length of time the product is under the heater. From that starting point one can adjust the temperature and/or the time based on the substrate until results are optimal,” recommends Cloete.
Welding is not unfamiliar to PSPs, especially those working with vinyl for large banners or building wraps. When adding a welder, PSPs should ask the same questions they would when considering purchasing any other device.
“Where are the bottlenecks? Which processes are you struggling with? Are you and clients happy with the quality of textile prints currently provided,” asks Pham.
The material a welder can be used with is influential to the final decision. Wallin sees the versatility of a device as a selling point. “It is important to be able to use the equipment for more than one kind of production,” he recommends.
“The digital printer needs to become an expert on which technology is best for each material or substrate, or he/she can go to one company that provides a wide variety of solutions. For example, if a digital printer needs to hem edges of polyester banners, but also prints vinyl, a dual technology solution may be best,” adds Evling.
For sewing machines, Kaplan suggests customers purchase one or more hemming attachments. These are guides or work aids that maintain the proper hem margins, greatly simplifying the use of the sewing machines.
He is also quick to add that while welding fabrics is fine in most cases, sewing does provide some extra durability and sometimes may be necessary depending on the application at hand. “This is particularly true in situations where a printer has to provide banners with pole pockets for hanging on pole hardware, particularly in an outdoor environment,” he continues.
For choosing the correct cutter for your needs, Jen Kester, marketing manager, Foster Keencut, advises print providers consider the type of media they plan to cut, the size cutter they require, the volume of work, how important accuracy is, if there are any physical space constraints, and what is the quality/price comfort point.
“Printers also need to evaluate the automation features available for processing fabrics reliably and efficiently. From a simple guide rail that allows the material to be fed smoothly onto the cutting surface, to a sophisticated center winder/spreader system that maintains constant tension control,” says Drury.
Increased demand for digitally printed textiles has affected businesses of all kinds, including—and especially—the vendors. “We have seen all-time record sales in heat press equipment for several years running. Digital printing methods simply cater to impulse purchases, better margins for the producer, and better quality and variety of options for customization than traditional embellishment methods,” shares Knight.
Zünd has experienced considerable increased demand for both its laser and rotary cutting tools due to their value in cutting digitally processed fabric.
Textiles have opened up opportunities for Miller Weldmaster. Pham says the company applied technology that has previously been successful in the awning and tent markets to digital textiles.
Wallin shares that Forsstrom’s smaller RF welders are in high demand thanks in part to digitally printed textile production growing.
Digital printing continues to influence the textile market, from apparel to décor, in a number of trends.
“Probably one of the more dramatic uses of digital printing and textiles on the consumer level is the digital sportswear apparel markets. Creative uses of vivid graphics have caught the attention of consumers and increased the demand for more unique and high-impact sportswear,” shares Aranoff.
Markus agrees, citing how the influence of digital printing on apparel continues to transform the decorated clothing market as a result of technological advances in solid heat press equipment, heat transfer papers, printers, and toners. “The use of foil and rhinestones heat pressed into digitally printed images become easily doable for a new start-up printer,” he adds.
Sizzle, Snip, Stitch
As digital printing technologies evolve to output onto more than traditional substrates, the back-end work that goes into finishing these graphics will be faced with challenges. Finishing is a multi-faceted process, with careful consideration made in how to work with delicate materials that have a tendency to shift and easily fray. Heat transfer presses, welders, sewing machines, and cutting devices are now offered on an industrial level to ensure digitally printed fabrics are finished with a high-quality appearance.
Jul2014, Digital Output