One of the biggest potential growth markets in the wide-format market today is in the area of digital printing of textiles and fabrics. Several factors continue to drive the category, including a growing demand for shorter runs, a need for faster turnaround on projects, and a demand for more personalized production of textile products ranging from soft signage to apparel to home décor.
Recent advances in equipment, including innovative transfer and direct-print sublimation printer technologies, plus vastly improved ink disbursement systems, as well as a host of new colorful, lightweight printable fabrics are helping to drive the entire category, providing shops with a host of new applications to offer customers.
“We are seeing a revival in digital textile printing beyond transfer sublimation printing and direct disperse sublimation printing,” reports Rob Almstrom, president at American Print Consultants LLC and a distributor for INX products in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “Prior to the economic recession of 2008, sublimation printing, as well as other forms of digital textile decoration, were on the rise. These technologies included natural fiber and nylon-based fabrics using acid- and reactive-dye inks.”
He points out that an impact of the so-called Great Recession was a substantial slowing of the growth of sublimation printing—along with everything else. Much of this was due to the significant investment in post-processing equipment necessary to finish these goods.
“As the economy continues to recover, we are seeing immense growth in digital sublimation printing as well as a new demand for more fabric choices and products as the use of digitally prepared textiles expands into new markets and industries. We are also seeing remarkable gains in the development of larger and faster digital textile printing equipment to meet the demands of the current market growth.”
Almstrom adds that on the printable textile manufacturing side, “Better coatings, more consistent manufacturing, and advancements in fiber manufacturing and blends have allowed for an increase in the quality of the final product. Yet, despite these advancements, the costs of these materials has, in many cases, decreased. Improvements in the chemistry and versatility of inks as well as the development of faster, more versatile printing equipment has aided in an overall increase of image quality and color gamut.”
Focus on Fabrics
Michael Compton, product marketing manager at Top Value Fabrics, Carmel, Indiana, says one of the big trends he sees is that shops are focused more on speed and quality than ever before. He says this includes their need to acquire high-speed production printers capable of producing large production runs for immediate turnaround of finished graphics.
“Our print service providers (PSPs) continue to meet the demanding standards of their customers. For that reason we provide innovative textile print media with superior print receptive coatings for direct as well as heat transfer printing,” Compton adds.
The coatings, he says are especially critical with direct printing where ink needs to properly disperse on textile fibers while providing brilliant print color and detail. Coatings are particularly critical on backlit fabrics where rich, vibrant color is needed while eliminating hot spots and pinholes from LED lights used to illuminate graphics, such as those printed on Top Value Fabrics Supernova fabric.”
He adds that they pride themselves in supplying premium-coated fabrics for the majority of print and ink system combinations including direct dye-sublimation, heat transfer dye-sublimation, Latex and UV inks.
Latex Printing Technology
Tom Wittenberg, sign and display marketing manager at HP Inc., Alpharetta, Georgia, adds that Latex printing is very versatile and can print onto a wide variety of coated and uncoated materials including textiles. “New generations HP’s Latex inks have imparted greater scratch and abrasion resistance," Wittenberg says. "HP Latex Technology has advantages over dye-sublimation in that you don’t need to deal with transfer paper and heat presses, and latex can print on a range of fabrics beyond polyesters.”
He says that turnaround time is quick because the ink is dry when the print comes out of the printer.
Wittenberg reports that textile manufactures have figured out how to make slight modifications in their production processes to expand the usability of their materials across multiple platforms such as latex. “In previous years, dye sublimation printing was expensive and required a significant expertise to handle the multiple steps. While alternate printing technologies such as latex have some limitations in matching the quality of dye sub and the broader substrates, the quality is very close and the range of substrates that are available service 85 percent of the market. When you combine that with the ability to eliminate transfer and post-print steps, the reduced complexity in achieving desired colors using standard workflows, the result is an expanded textile market with more PSPs getting involved.”
More Projects Getting Personal
Lily Hunter, product manager, Textiles and Consumables, Roland DGA, Irvine California, says one of the biggest ongoing trends impacting the interior décor/textile markets is customization/personalization. She reports a growing demand for customized items such personalized pillows, wallcoverings, lampshades and rugs that are decorated with attractive graphic designs. “Depending upon the type of product, several different printing technologies can be used to produce this kind of output, including dye sublimation, UV and eco-solvent. For example, dye sublimation printers and inks are being employed to create customized polyester-based products, such as pillows, curtains, rugs, and window coverings like blinds and shades. UV and eco-solvent printing technologies are also being used to produce some of the same type of customized interior décor items, as well as wallcoverings (using environmentally-friendly media like Roland’s WallFlair removable fabric) and fine art reproduction on canvas.”
Almstrom says there are some central challenges in the use and application of fabrics for digital printing using both direct and transfer technologies. “Some of these challenges in the use and application of fabrics for digital printing, using both direct and transfer technologies, are producing consistent coatings and materials that perform well for direct and transfer applications. Textiles that can web and feed properly on digital equipment while resisting shrinking, scorching and discoloration during fixation, can also be challenging. Matching the chemical compatibility between the very wide array of inks and textiles on the markets is a daunting task, to say the least. The molecular weight of dyes and surface energies of the materials including ink, paper and textiles all play a huge factor in successful digital textile production.”
Compton reports that there are challenges in the use of fabrics for digital printing including determining which fabrics perform best for providing the end-use client with outstanding, eye-catching, finished graphics for their application.
“There are options that are either coated for direct dye sublimation printing or uncoated for heat transfer printing, and both directions can yield premium image color, quality and sharpness. It is also important to understand how profiling various fabrics as well as properly setting heat press temperature and dwell time plays a critical role in establishing, creating and producing optimal finished graphics. Not all digital textiles are created equal. Print service providers should rely on trusted venders to consult with them on fabrics best suited for their desired print quality and application.”
One Major Limitation
Hunter says that there’s really only one limitation when it comes to dye sublimation systems—you must use polyester fabrics. “That being said, if the bulk of your business involves decorating dark cotton T-shirts, you’ll be better served by heat transfer systems or screen printing methods than dye sublimation.
“When it comes to comparing direct-to-fabric printing versus dye-sublimation transfer printing, it’s important to note that each of these technologies has its pros and cons. If we’re talking about direct-to-garment (DTG) for direct printing, that’s only good on cotton products and mainly dark cotton products.”
Coastal Business Supplies
T-shirts and apparel are two of the major soaring markets and one of the major suppliers of equipment in this area is Maryland Heights, Missouri-based Coastal Business Supplies. The company sells a wide variety of direct and transfer sublimation printing equipment from OKI, Mutoh, Sawgrass and Epson; as well as a range of materials and sublimation heat transfer papers for the garment decoration business.
Jim Tenholder, sales manager, explains that improvements in fabrics and equipment have helped with durability customers are wanting and are now getting more vibrancy out of their graphics. “Over the past few years, there have been major enhancements in durability and also providing graphics that pop.”
He also points out that the main challenges with DTG are that you are restricted to only using cotton fabrics. “You can print to polyester with transfer paper systems and you have a lot more flexibility for different types of textiles. However, if you are looking for more durability of the graphic, then DTG is the way to go.”
He adds that the future of this business is all coming down to shops finding a machine that can handle a wide array of different fabrics that can produce vibrant graphics.
Developments a HP
Wittenberg reports that HP is examining some new options for this market—testing products using ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards for durability. "When you combine the environmental aspect, the versatility and flexibility of the latex inks," he says, "the elimination of odor associated with UV inks, our ability to add an ink collector with our L365, L560 and L570 products, cookbooks that explain how to use the product—we are eliminating many of the fears that traditional PSP’s had with entering the textile market.”
He adds that HP Latex Technology can print direct to textiles, both natural and synthetic, without the need for transfer papers—a big advantage over dye sub processing. “It also provides the versatility to allow you to print all of the other applications and media that HP Latex is capable of manufacturing,” he concludes.
Roland Customers Expanding Offerings
Hunter points that they have quite a few customers in the U.S. and Latin America who are using Roland Texart printers and new Texart SBL3 dye-sublimation inks to expand their creative options and product offerings. “The introduction of our new Texart fluorescent sublimation inks has helped generate an increase in Roland’s Texart printer sales as well. Our standard 8-color ink option (CMYK, Lc, Lm, Or, Vi) has also allowed us to make great strides in the photography and art world,” she adds.
New Products, New Capabilities
Almstrom explains that the development of faster, higher velocity drop producing printheads and advanced material handing capabilities, reducing loss due to head-strikes and other production artifact, are some of the improvements in printers that are addressing any production issues. “Better fiber blends, carefully matched chemistry and more advanced coating techniques are some of the improvements in the production of digital textile that are addressing production issues as well.”
He reports that on the ink and media side of the market INX International Ink Co. is focused on growing with the digital printing industry and staying at the forefront of innovation.
“Digital textile technology is no exception. Our team of chemists and skilled technicians are currently testing new, better performing and more economical solutions," he says.
Better Coatings, More Choices
Top Value's Compton adds that there are considerable ongoing improvements in fabrics, print systems and inks that consistently improve the output of high quality finished graphics.
“In addition to our premium quality print receptive textiles for the growing dye-sublimation market, we have also developed a complete line of textiles in partnership with HP Latex and our partner mill, Aurich Textilien," he says. "This line features a uniquely formulated, proprietary coating to enhance performance and ink fastness properties when printed with HP Latex Inks.”
He points out that print system manufacturers—such as Mimaki, EFI, Durst and HP—continue to design and develop larger, high-speed, high-production printers equipped with industrial printheads and inks with high color density providing high-quality, high-production that can keep up with the growing demand for long-run, immediate-turnaround production.
"At Top Value Fabrics our new products—such as DigiCompetiton and our new line of Latex Performance coated products continue our efforts to enhance our line,” says Compton, adding that Top Value's recent acquisition of Pacific Coast Fabrics expands their product offerings and strengthens their West Coast distribution network for printable textiles.
Fabric Printing Providing Flexibility in Georgia Shop
Compton points out that one of Top Value’s innovative end users is Meno Enterprises/Planet Tradeshow located in Ball Ground, Georgia. Jared Hager, project manager, states, “We print on many fabrics from Top Value Fabrics including their new DigiCompetion display fabric as well as Supernova backlit fabric. The fabrics are easy to work with due to their consistency from roll to roll and perfect white point. With Supernova, we are able to print and provide brilliant backlit displays for tradeshow booths as well as customer marketing campaigns. We print Supernova with our standard cyan, magenta, yellow & black dye-sublimation ink set and achieve rich, dark colors as well as extremely bright colors that give a fluorescent appearance with images that look three dimensional,” Hager concludes.