19 November 2019 Digital Printing Technologies

The wide appeal of fabric print: the printed textile market is on the up

Demand for bespoke printing in clothing, home decor and exhibition and retail stands, is rising fast and this means opportunities for enterprising printers.

Display printing has gone soft. Inkjet printers are reading interior design magazines. Others are drawn to road cycling and other sports with a striking strip. And there are gyms, sports tours, stag and hen nights, company uniforms and more that can be printed on T-shirts, polos and sports apparel. All can be printed using inkjet printing, either direct to the garment or via dye sublimation transfer paper.

This is the right path for any polyester fabric or anything with a polyester coating. The dye sublimation inks are printed to a transfer paper which is then applied to the fabric via a combination of heat and pressure to separate the colours from the transfer sheet and drive them into the fibres.

The result is a bright vibrant image that has the impact needed for sports clothing and especially for back lit graphics. And because the ink is impregnated into the fabric fibres, it will not rub nor wash off.

The digitally printed textile market is predicted to explode, growing from $1.7 billion to $3.9 billion from 2018 to 2023, according to Smithers Pira. This amounts to 180 billion square metres of fabric being produced each year, 22 billion square metres printed and only 12% of that printed with dye sublimation inkjet, even less direct to substrate.

The retail fashion market is driving much of this and it is unlikely to fall within the reach of evolving display printers. The supply chains are too well established, even though these are adapting to reduce waste, have faster response times and to create bespoke or even personalised designs that ambitious printers might consider.

However, there is still plenty of market for commercial printers to chase, much of it work that did not and could not exist before. This covers low cost T-shirt printing for events or promotional wear, bespoke cushions, curtains, upholstery, furniture, soft signage, and more, perhaps for designers they already know. It is the same transition that the graphics industry has been undergoing for the last 20 years.

Soft signage has been the most successful application to date. It has several advantages. Soft signage is lightweight, so easy to transport; it stretches into position, so creases and folds ought to disappear; the inks are vibrant, perfect for back lit displays; and it is not hard to recycle PVC. Instead, polyester is straightforward to recycle with no reason for it to end up in landfill. Different fabrics with different characteristics are growing in availability as demand rises.

The professional textile printer will use a high throughput inkjet press, something from Kornit, the Konica Minolta Nassenger or Efi's Bolt presses. Commercial printers have plenty of options.

The Roland DT-12 is its entry level device, printing on cotton fabrics for T-shirts, tote bags and the like. The object is placed on a platen, smoothed into place, then two or three minutes after printing the image is in place and a few minutes later the product is ready to take away. It is a viable way to start a home business or for a company to dip a little toe into this water as a value added service for existing customers.

The next step up is an eco solvent print and cut device, printing to a heat transfer material for logos or designs that can be applied to a T-shirt or promotional item that has a suitable polyester coating. The technology starts to open the door to homewares, souvenir tea towels for example, and cushion covers. This is an option for those not wanting to make a full commitment to textile printing. This is again pitched as a business in a box for around £5k.

Roland DG then moves you up to dye sublimation, aiming at sportswear where artificial fabrics are ideal and for other home textiles, with the necessary polyester coatings. As with any dye sublimation process, a heat press is also needed as part of the set up.

To date Ricoh has been concentrating on direct to garment printing with a similar choice of entry level bench top Ri100 through to more productive Ri6000 printing on cotton materials.

This is just the start for the supplier. It has developed a micro factory concept for printing from orders placed through an online portal. This triggers a production process that involves printing the fabric, cutting, sewing, inspection, packing and dispatch.

The inkjet process will reduce over production in the fashion industry, says Ricoh. Inkjet also has a key advantage over the existing screen and dye printing processes in eliminating washing stages that can create pollution. Ricoh reckons that textile printing is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution.

As yet Ricoh has not announced a specific product for textiles, though a number of its printheads available to OEMS are suited to both dye sublimation and direct to garment printing.

Epson has been pushing at the direct to garment opportunity with a first dedicated fabric machine launched eight years ago. It has machines installed in textile design colleges educating the next generation of designers who will be driving work to the new inkjet presses. The company has now introduced an entry level dye sublimation printer. This is the SC F500, a 610mm printer that will sell for less than £2,000. A heat press will be needed alongside the printer, perhaps a further £1,000 investment to reach a set up suited to printing sports apparel and which is simple to handle.

“We take away the pain of printing dye sublimation,” says Phil McMullin, UK sales manager Pro Graphics. “The process requires some thinking and understanding of the heat stage to get the best out of the print, making adjustments to temperature and pressure for the material. But compared to what printers are used to understanding, this is pretty basic stuff.”

The new machine can be supplied with matched ink and transfer paper to ensure the best match for material and printer. Some customers, using non dedicated Epsons, have tried to run third-party dye sublimation inks through the aqueous inkjet heads. There has been some success, says McMullin “but ultimately it will damage the printer and the quality of print will suffer”.

The new press will build on the success of the larger 1.1m and 1.6m printers. Anything that can carry a polyester coating can be decorated using the transfer material. This includes a wide range of solid objects and Chromalux aluminium panel. “As long as it has a polyester coating, anything is possible.

“We believe that there’s a pent up demand for a printer with a small footprint that is easy to set up and is cost effective,” he explains. The 140ml ink cartridges will sell for £24 each, considerably below the €1/ml that many inks sell for. “It’s an easy and low cost way to test demand in the dye sublimation market,” he says.

Investment appeals to the trend for end customers to single source print and marketing needs and for printers offers an opportunity to compensate for the stripped out margins in commercial printing. “Being able to say ‘yes’ when a customer comes in is essential. This is much more than a conversation point, however. It is about how can a supplier become indispensable to his customer, helping to present their brand in a coherent professional way,” he says.

Mimaki has products across the range, from entry level to specialist high speed dye sublimation machines. “Whether it’s a printer producing backlit fabrics, large volumes of textiles or entering entirely new markets, Mimaki has a machine,” says Brett Newman, chief operations manager at Mimaki distributor Hybrid Services. “And there’s a choice of ink technologies so we can focus on what the customer wants to do with the kit.”

Those customers are frequently display and commercial printers moving into new spaces and encountering specialist fabric designers and printers or decor printers that are investing in inkjet and realising that they can offer more conventional retail display products with the investment.

At present the commercial printer has an edge thanks to knowledge of finishing processes, colour management and inks. They need to graft on knowledge about fabrics and the finishing treatments that may be needed by the end customers he adds. “It’s not a black art. It’s no more difficult than what they have done already,” Newman says.

CMYUK, one of the leading distributors of inkjet equipment, has invested heavily developing expertise in textile printing, offering the Efi FabriVu dye sublimation machines and Mimaki’s portfolio. It has supplied a FabriVu 340 to KGK Group for a new 1,000m2 factory with Monti Antonio heat press and Zund cutter.

The company had first dipped its toe in fabric printing six years ago and has since found that demand had outstripped its ability to supply, making the high speed printer essential and opening new doors. “We can now offer them so much more, with better quality, quicker turnaround,” says KGK director Dan Pitts. And it has attracted new customers “like moths to a flame. It’s actually quite amazing what we’ve done with the machine without actually having to promote it,” he adds.

“People have contacted us through word of mouth, or they have contacted manufacturers who have recommended us, or they’ve done the research and we’ve been doing things like printing on towels, printing on sun loungers – personalisation, weird and wonderful things you would never have thought of.”

CMYUK has earmarked fabric printing as a major focus for the next few years, assembling a team of experienced people, the Efi and Mimaki kit and the materials needed. “It’s about soft signage for retail and exhibitions, textiles for upholstery, decor and fashion.

“We know there’s a market there that we haven’t really got to yet that has used these materials and technology for a long time, and we are getting inquiries from these established businesses and from start ups. It’s all merging together,” says Michael Crook.

And he points out that there is a need to understand the applications. For upholstery for example, dye sublimation is essential, printing with UV inks will not receive the require fire safety certifications, he says. “We appreciate that this will not happen overnight, however there is a lot of exciting opportunities just waiting to be developed.”

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