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A Growing Presence

Textile Printing Targets Various Industries

By Kim Crowley

Last issue Digital Output outlined three different printing practices associated with printing textiles—dye-sublimation (dye-sub) transfer, dye-sub direct, and direct digital print. All three are making headway in the fabric segment of the graphic arts.

Like any technology, textile printing comes with its own challenges and rewards. If a print service provider (PSP) succeeds through both, they will contribute to a growing niche that is quickly becoming indispensable to various design markets—including home furnishings and fashion.

Finding the Right Fit
Color management and pairing media with the correct print process is a constant concern, regardless of the technology used. “It is not an easy task to describe all of the challenges related to textile printing,” admits Avedik Izmirlian, president, DigiFab Systems, Inc. “In essence, for quality output you need the right RIP and coloring software, a properly pre-treated inkjet fabric, reliable printer, and quality ink.” DigiFab Systems develops and manufactures pre-treated fabrics for digital printing, sublimation paper, ink, CAD RIP software for textile and graphics applications, heat presses, steamers, and printers.

Media handling is sometimes an issue when printing on fabric. “One of the biggest challenges in textile printing is the ability to feed fabrics, maintain constant tension, and print without banding regardless of how stretchy and dimensionally unstable the fabric might be,” says Keith Faulkner, president, Splash of Color. The company incorporates a system of rubber-coated rollers and weighted dancing rollers on its HeatWave direct to fabric dye-sub printers to maintain constant tension. The system is also equipped with a cork-covered roller for printing on athletic mesh, spandex, and other stretch fabrics.

Marie Friemann, marketing, Mimaki USA, Inc. agrees that feeding material through the machine is tricky. “Paper-based materials make feeding easier, however some material—like sheer fabrics or stretchable fabrics—want to shift around during printing. This could cause head strikes or damage to the printhead,” she cautions.

Matching the right print technology with the correct material is a challenge. “PSPs must make a perfect match to achieve good resolution and a sharpness that allows for high dot gain, given the material structure,” states Grad Rosenbaum, VP, North American Signage Business, Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Faulkner also notes that during the sublimation process a consistent temperature is required across the entire bed of the printer. “This is critical because variations in temperature result in variations in color,” he says. Color management on textiles is complicated and requires monitoring many variables.

“Dye-sub transfer possesses the biggest challenge, since the speed and pressure of the transfer press are actual variables in color reproduction. It is very important to be consistent with these settings. This requires preparing color targets, transferring, and then measuring to create profiles—which is a substantial time investment,” explains Andrew Oransky, director of product management, Roland DGA Corporation.

Milene Ribas, marketing/education manager, conVerd, highlights the challenge of achieving proper color on final output. “Printing on fabric is much different then printing onto paper, film, or vinyl. It is a less stable substrate and possesses artifacts in the construction of the material that impact image quality. All of these issues were addressed by screenprinters and we use this knowledge to optimize our digital printing solutions today.”

Eco-Friendly Advantages
Large format technology offers “green” advantages. “Digital printing, because of its just-in-time nature, means only printing what is needed, rather than printing long runs and placing extra in inventory. Digital printing is also less harmful to the environment because there are no screens to image, wash, and store,” notes Patti Williams, consulting partner, I.T. Strategies.

“Generally speaking, water-based dye-sub inks printed on 100 percent polyester offer a very eco-friendly solution,” adds Faulkner. “Printing on natural fabrics—such as cotton—with Sawgrass Technologies, Inc.’s M-Textile water-based pigment inks is a step in the right direction.”

“A primary driver of soft signage is the worldwide movement to sustainable products,” explains Mike McEvoy, director of commercialization, Sawgrass. “Many PSPs want to print signage with natural fabrics and water-based inks.”

HP sees an ever-increasing demand for printing solutions that reduce environmental impact. “Printing on textiles allows customers to use recyclable materials. Textile printing also delivers energy advantages during installation because of the lightness of the material,” adds Rosenbaum. The HP Designjet L65500, which uses latex ink, was designed with the environment in mind.

Gandinnovations’ Aquajet textile printer features printheads that use minimal water-based ink when applied to the fabric, a built-in venting system, and a separate air cleaner unit.

The rise of fabric usage in large format applications can be attributed to the green movement. “It is a result of the industry’s desire to move away from PVC-based materials,” claims Oransky. “Fabric derives from natural and environmentally friendly materials including cotton and bamboo. Most synthetic fabrics are recyclable.”

Government regulations continue to push PSPs into using media free of PVC, phthalates, phosphates, formaldehyde, and glycol-ether.

Growing Niches
The roll-to-roll sector of textile printers is driven by signage, which is about 70 percent of the total square feet printed, according to I.T. Strategies. As more designers and creative sectors are educated on digital printing, apparel and decorating markets will permanently use digital textile printing.

Currently, digital printing on fabric for fashion and interior design fabrics is more popular in Europe than in North America. Williams says this is because it is challenging to find new customers, who previously purchased from textile mills, to adapt to this type of technology.

“Bringing together digital print shops and customers is a critical component for success. It is something that the digital print community needs to work on. The need to come together is not limited just to print shops and buyers, but also to designers, photographers, and others who should be participating in the creation of digitally printed products,” she says.

“Garment manufacturers and other industries are immersing themselves in digital printing,” says DigiFab’s Izmirlian. “Reasons include short run production and the appearance of new, faster, and reliable textile printers.” The company’s StampaJet high-speed textile printer utilizes a self-cleaning adhesive belt transport system and two hot air infrared dyers. It prints with all acid, reactive, disperse, pigment, and sublimation inks via a large capacity bulk ink feed system, and is equipped with Evolution Textile RIP software.

Mimaki’s Friemann predicts that fine art, fashion, and design will soon embrace digital and dye-sub textile printing. “The art world is always looking for new concepts and ideas. It is easier to make a prototype or one-off garment using a digital machine. As custom interiors become more popular so will digital print in interior design,” she adds.

“With the latest ink technology, digitally printed or sublimated fabrics have passed many of the industry standard tests for durability, and should last as long as most traditionally printed fabrics,” says Roland’s Oransky.

Fisher Textiles Inc. offers a new apparel fabric line for sublimation printing, which consists of jersey and mesh fabrics that have a moisture management chemical for wicking. “These fabrics are ideal for athletic wear,” says Jeff Cheatham, director of sales, Fisher Textiles.

According to Cory Brock, director of marketing, Gandinnovations, the wearability and comfort of printed fabric is no different than wearing a polyester shirt. “Ink adds no discomfort to wearing the product and the durability is significant.”

A conVerd customer supplies organic, cotton-based apparel designed for children. “The colorants used in digital textile printing are very similar to those used in conventional printing methods such as screenprinting, except they are formulated for inkjet. The characteristics of the printed fabrics are very similar in wearability and durability,” Ribas reiterates.

Fabric Flag Store
American Flag Store is a provider of flags, flagpoles, and other flag accessories. The company employs six people and operates out of a 5,000 square foot building in Mauriceville, TX. American Flag Store’s client orders mainly come from the Internet, and include corporate logo flags, real estate flags, and message banners for businesses and organizations. The company invested in a direct to fabric dye-sub printer to bring production in-house, lower the cost of flags and banners for customers, and speed up delivery.

The store uses FuZion fabrics and prints with a Velotex Xpress direct dye-sub system, both from US Sublimation. “Our main reasons for purchasing a textile printer were to lower cost to customer, speed up production time, and develop more control to lessen outsourcing,” states Christopher L. Baugh, president, American Flag Store.

The Velotex Xpress is for indoor and outdoor applications. The printing width is 64 inches and the maximum resolution is 1,440 dpi. It uses dye-sub disperse, acid, and reactive dye; and textile pigments.

Direct fabric printing is a growing opportunity for the company. “We believe the quality to be equal to paper machines. We base the quality on customer comments and so far they all are positive.” A recent set of fabric banners was used on a parade float for a seafood company. “The customer was extremely pleased. He called to tell us his float won first prize,” says Baugh.

Advanced Production
Monroe, NC-based Advanced Digital Textiles’ 35,000 square foot facility offers printing and finishing solutions for virtually every type of textile fiber available, including polyester, cotton, silk, linen, nylon, rayon, bamboo, hemp, lycra blends, and spandex blends.

The production scale inkjet printing facility employs an array of proprietary, custom-made, water-based inkjet printing systems. Their systems include direct disperse printing for polyester fabrics; dye-sub for polyester fabrics; direct reactive printing for cotton, silk, and linen fabrics; as well as direct acid printing for nylon fabric.

The company works closely with domestic and international fabric mills to provide woven and knitted fabrics. Fabrics are pre-treated in-house to provide optimal print quality and color vibrancy. The shop is also able to apply post-treatments to provide effects such as fabric softening, UV protection, flame retardant protection, and soil/water repellency.

The shop’s ability to print various fabrics with a variety of treatments labels them as a unique supplier. “It provides us with the opportunity to service an abundance of industries with a practical and environmentally safe product,” states Nicholas Del Verme, owner, Advanced Digital Textiles.

For a recent NASCAR race project, Advanced Digital Textiles partnered with Luxury Tec to produce an innovative broadcast media stage using digitally printed fabric. Advanced Digital Textiles utilized water-based eco-friendly inks using both a direct disperse and a dye-sub printing process onto polyester-base fabrics. To enhance the performance of the graphics, they applied a post-treatment for UV protection and soil/water repellency.

A Multifaceted Process
There are many variables that must be successfully instituted to ensure a color-accurate, high-quality textile print. Media handling, heating systems, dot gain, and ink type all play a role.

Next month, the final segment of our series on digital textile printing focuses on fabrics. More specifically the article discusses the benefits of this type of media.

Aug2009, Digital Output

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