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The Look and Feel of Fabric

Advances in printing, ink and fabric technology have made grand-format textile printing a strong growth area, particularly in the retail, home goods and trade show industries. This growth is attracting both sign and graphic shops as well as manufacturing companies to the textile industry.

Mike Wozny, senior product manager for EFI, says that his company recently entered the digital textile printing market with its July acquisition of Reggiani Macchine, which is based in Bergamo, Italy.

Reggiani’s inkjet technologies have been rebranded as EFI Reggiani and provide an extensive lineup of industrial inkjet printers that use water-based inks to print on fabric for the fashion and home furnishing textiles markets.

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER

Every year, the industry requests direct to fabric printers that can do the job faster and with a higher quality but at a lower price. And every year, the industry delivers, Wozny says.

“We have made significant inroads in the garment and home décor markets. When you hit the speeds we are hitting at the acquisition prices we are offering, the total cost of ownership is one-fifth of what it was five years ago,” he says. “Digital is more stable but much more mainstream in that textile garment industry as a result. They are making inroads into what was traditionally an analog business. It is much more digital today. As a result of that, a lot more industrial applications are coming online. Instead of painting a wall, you can use fabric today to change the look and feel of a room or hotel or overall space.”

The EFI Reggiani line of printers can print with 4 picoliter ink drop sizes at 8,000 square feet an hour. Three years ago, those speeds were unheard of. That has a lot to do with advances in printhead technology.

“They are more reliable, more repeatable, more accurate printheads,” he says. “The data paths to drive those printheads; the amount of data required to drive that is significant. And then the ink technology, along with the architecture to support it, has come a long way as well. If you look at the ease of use on inks, the consistency, it is a much better situation today than five to 10 years ago.”

The fabrics that are available for soft signage are also more advanced. They are softer, brighter and are more likely to be used in a direct printing application, he adds.

“Now there’s a good line of direct fabrics that come online that still have a very soft hand or feel to them that receive the ink well and provide an excellent image quality,” Wozny says.

Terry Amerine, director of product marketing at Durst Image Technology US LLC, says that direct printing to fabric profit margin opportunities are increasing. Fabric is more appealing because the creases and crinkles disappear when fabric is stretched, so “it is much cleaner, sharper and more aesthetically pleasing.”

Amerine adds that while the visual appeal is a huge part of what drives the demand for printed textiles, fabric is also lighter than vinyl and easier and cheaper to ship cross country.

“If you look at the major retailers and the number of locations they are shipping to, it is a cost savings. They are focusing on their carbon footprint, their sustainability strategy and this plays into that,” he says.

SUSTAINABILITY

Fabric is more sustainable than PVC. In the trade show industry, fabric banners can be folded up and reused, and they also can easily be cleaned.

“When you look at the aesthetics, freight savings and the durability … it is a better choice. It has a lot of advantages to it over a PVC banner,” Amerine says.

The home goods market has become a big buyer of printed textiles. Many companies are purchasing printed textile wall coverings and draperies. Backlit signs are also in huge demand.

In the past, most fabrics used a dye sublimation process, which is a little more complicated than printing directly onto fabric. With direct to fabric printing, the fabric is pretreated so that it will accept the dyes. In dye sublimation, there is an additional step that involves transfer paper.

Direct to fabric printing is cheaper because it eliminates the need for transfer paper, which speeds up the entire printing process. Printers also use water-based inks, which are more environmentally friendly.

EXPANDING APPLICATIONS

Durst produces all kinds of wide-format fabric printers. Its Rhotek series 322 are inkjet printers that are great for industrial soft signage applications. Durst’s Alpha series printers are multi-pass inkjet printers designed for the home textiles and fashion industries. The Alpha 330 is a massive unit that can print 11,000 square feet of fabric an hour and is in high demand in the home goods market. The Alpha 180 TR is a dye-sublimation printer for polyester and polyester blends that can also print direct with the addition of a direct-print kit.

The trade show industry is in love with fabric. If a company needs to purchase 100 PVC banners, one for each exhibition, it costs a lot of money. With soft signage, a company can buy 10 banners and ship them from exhibition to exhibition.

“You pay a little more for that banner than traditional vinyl, but you can pack it up, put it in a small package and ship it to the next exhibition. Roll it out, smooth out the creases and use it again,” Wozny says.

The person hanging up the banner has an easier time of it as well because fabric is easier to install.

Fabric has a higher value look and feel to it, which makes customers feel that their marketing dollars are providing them a better return on their investment, he says.

“When I go to a lot of events and do internal training with customers, one thing I hear is how can I continue to expand my product offerings and increase my bottom line,” says Candyce Holcomb, the Americas large-format category manager for Hewlett-Packard.  “The printing market is becoming more competitive. Printers are more efficient, easy to use and people are printing signs every day.”

Small mom and pop organizations can increase their margins by getting into fabric printing because they are able to charge more for these types of applications.

There are new opportunities to go into décor, wall coverings and things of that nature. Most print service providers are already making signs. They are already well-versed in sign display so it is natural and organic to move into textiles and fabrics,” she says.

CUSTOMERS DEMAND MORE FABRIC

“We live in a one-stop shop kind of world. We want to go to one place to buy everything we need,” Holcomb says. The same holds true in the sign market. If customers can purchase vinyl signs and fabric wall coverings all in one place, they are more likely to give that shop repeat business.

Randy Anderson, product manager for textile at Mutoh America in Phoenix, agrees, saying he expects that in the not too distant future, customers will be able to walk into the local mail store, Home Depot or Lowe’s and be able to print on textiles right then and there.

For the home design market, having the ability to match paint with cushion material, drapes and shower curtains is the next step.

“Whether Home Depot does it or they subcontract someone to do it, I think it is coming,” he says.

Anderson doesn’t believe that textiles are just for large applications like wall coverings, flags and banners, but smaller applications as well.

“That is our number one growth area right now,” he says.

Fabric signs last just as long outdoors as vinyl and they are easier to handle and harder to damage. Once the ink is embedded in the fabric, it’s permanent.  

Anderson also envisions a day when textile printers will include a heat press attachment so that shops can start a job and finish it on the same piece of machinery. Currently, print shops have to invest in expensive heat press equipment along with their wide-format direct to fabric printer.

That’s why most sign shops that get into fabric printing start out with a smaller, cheaper machine, which can add new revenue streams without too much outlay on their part.