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The New Rich Texture of Print

Fabric Affords New Creative Opportunities for Customers and New Revenue Opportunities for Print Suppliers

By Gretchen A. Peck

If you asked me about this market six months ago, I might have said that I didn’t have much to talk about. Now, it’s a market with a whole lot of interest," suggests Patti Williams, consulting partner, I.T. Strategies.

In fact, Williams finds herself talking about the subject of digital textile printing a lot, having invested the better part of a year studying the market. She’s passionate about what she’s discovered along the way. Printing to fabric, in particular, may be the next huge opportunity for digital print suppliers.

Stretching the Investment
There is a plethora of digital print solutions available today that are promoted as fabric friendly. Among them are a handful of wide format systems designed to meet the specific needs of the textile market.

EFI, for example, manufactures the VUTEk FabriVu 3360, a dye-sub printer that can be used to produce a range of fabric applications through the transfer process, and can even print directly onto some substrates, such as flag material and poplin.

The DuPont Artistri 2020 was also designed for textile applications ranging from apparel and home furnishings to soft signage and trade show displays. The roll-to-roll solution can print up to 71 inches wide, even on challenging fabrics, such as knits and woven materials.

Mimaki USA just introduced the Tx3-1600, an inkjet plotter designed specifically for textile applications. The manufacturer says this solution is particularly adept at printing to stretchable fabrics.

Gandinnovations engineered its Jeti 3312/3318 DS printer to be compatible with fabrics that have at least 50 percent polyester content.

And while other manufacturers don’t have solutions dedicated exclusively to fabric applications, many are adaptable enough to accommodate fabric jobs that may come through the door.

For example, the NUR Tempo II offers an eight-color configuration that accommodates both rigid and flexible substrates, including mesh, banner material, canvas, and cotton fabrics.

"Now, there are new machines on the market that are direct-to-fabric dye-sub machines that take away the need for transfer paper. So, that’s one fewer step in the process. We’re seeing an increase in productivity as a result," Williams suggests. Leggett & Platt Digital Technologies, for example, has the VIRTU TX, a hybrid (roll-to-roll and flatbed) solution capable of printing directly to uncoated textiles.

The types of applications customers request should drive the decision on which printer to choose, suggests Williams. "You have to look at the types of fabrics your customers are demanding. Certain fabrics require certain types of inks. And, if you’re printing on one type of fabric and need to switch to another for the next job, it’s not often that easy to purge your machine and change the inks," she explains. "I think what you’ll start seeing—as businesses are built up—is that a lot of printers may want to buy more than one machine, to accommodate an even wider range of fabrics."

Throughput is the name of the game when choosing a digital print solution, according to Ziki Kuly, director of marketing for Hewlett-Packard’s digital inkjet business.

"When you’re talking about fabrics, you’re talking about a labor-intensive process. You have to print on paper, then transfer it to the fabric using a hot-press machine. Those steps take time and money, obviously. And of course, you need a dedicated piece of equipment for both steps—a printer to apply the dye-sub inks to paper, and another machine for transferring the image to the fabric," Kuly says.

But for the average digital print supplier, the market may not support the investment in a dedicated printer for fabric-based jobs, in addition to the other digital print engines it may be using for traditional vinyl and paper jobs.

"So, we came up with a solution—a dual machine, the XL 1500—which can switch between solvent inks and dye-sub. In 30 minutes, you can switch from one to the other, and you don’t have to invest another $200,000 or more on a dedicated dye-sub solution," Kuly explains.

David Siegel, president of Portland, ME-based Portland Color, says, depending on the width of the job, two digital solutions enable his company to produce a growing number of fabric jobs—the HP XL 1500 and a DuPont Artistri.

Portland Color got into fabric simply by following the market trends. The company started out supplying presentation graphics for corporate meetings and other events, but in the mid-90s, began to make strategic investments in wide format printers and scanning equipment, according to Siegel. By the new millennium, it had brought in Océ LightJet printers and acquired a local photo lab, Portland Photographics.

"We had an employee base that was full of photo knowledge and print experience," Siegel explains. "And we were able to capture a pretty wide market—from artists to retail to trade show work. It ran the gamut."

The company was soon faced with, "a market that was getting much more competitive," Siegel adds. "There were lots of companies doing large format printing using the LightJet. It had become a commodity buy at that point. So, we had to make a decision about what technologies to test, moving forward. Through some talks with business partners and vendors, and lots of internal discussion, we decided that fabric was the direction we’d go."

The Fabric Aesthetic
Digital printers are already staples at shops producing large format print. Now, they’re beginning to marry the equipment with fabrics for everything from signage to fine art reproductions, and from murals to automobile covers. Trade show graphics are also an emerging application, for fabrics are less fragile and more portable than their rigid alternatives.

And by fabric, we’re not just talking about your standard run-of-the-mill canvases, although that’s certainly a popular option, but flag material, polyesters, cottons, nylon, silk, and others. "Items such as open-weave flag, water-resistant transfer fabric, and heavy tent and awning are some of our [customers’] more popular selections," according to Cory Brock, media relations, Gandinnovations.

The gamut of fabrics available for digital printing applications is wide. Natural-fiber and synthetics come in a rainbow that comprises everything from canvas to knits, and from silks to satins. There are even specialty fabrics, such as Fisher Textiles’ Gaming Suede for gaming tables and Crazy 8 Billiard Cloth, a polyester suede that has a stain-resistant and anti-friction coating.

Neschen Americas offers the SEAL Inkjet Textiles line of media that includes a polyester-based fabric with a surface coating that enables the fabric to be used with dye-, pigment- or oil-based inks—an important consideration for a company running a variety of print systems.

For the customer, fabric offers a certain richness, a way to stand out in a sea of vinyl. "If everyone else has a vinyl sign, and you have a fabric sign, yours is differentiated; people will look at it. And there are some applications, like cosmetics, where they’ll demand something more upscale. You’ll never find a vinyl sign in a cosmetic department," Patti Williams remarks.

For print suppliers preparing to offer fabric work, knowing the ins and outs of the medium is critical, suggests Bill Smith, sales and marketing manager for Framingham, MA-based ICL Imaging. Before the company ventured into the softer side of large format printing, it held a crash course on fabrics for the sales and production teams.

"We were taught the different properties of woven fabrics and knit fabrics, for example," Smith recalls. "And we learned important tricks of the trade—like, when you have a bias, the fabric will stretch more one way than the other, while knits tend to stretch in both directions. This was all new terminology for us."

Beyond the fabrics that may be best compatible with solvent-based printers versus dye-sub machines, for example, the printer and customer have to consider other variables. Where will the print be displayed? Is it an indoor or outdoor installation? Does it need to adhere to any particular fire-safety regulations? Will it be traveling, and thus, need to be lightweight, durable, and resilient?

Choosing the right fabric for the print job requires some fundamental understanding of both its molecular structure—what it’s made of and how it will behave with print—and its aesthetic value.

Think of the fabric substrate as not just a structural component of the print job; it’s a critical part of the design, as well. A cotton twill fabric will have a different aesthetic connotation than something printed on silk, for example. For more delicate, elegant indoor applications, the print supplier may recommend a solution like Fisher Textile’s Venice Satin, L&P Digital’s VirtuSatin, or a silk from DigiFab Systems.

Or perhaps the job calls for a more ethereal choice, in which case Drop Screen from Dazian Fabrics may be more appropriate; it’s said to have a rice-paper-like quality. Dazian has other exotic offerings as well, like Venetian Velvet, a medium-weight, rich velvet. For a fine art reproduction or mural, one might consider a poly/cotton blend canvas from InteliCoat Technologies. The choices are endless, limited only to the creative imagination.

Learning the New Fabric Language
One of the first large fabric jobs ICL Imaging produced was for Wellesley College, Bill Smith recalls. It was a photography study produced by one of the college’s museums.

"It was intended to be a traveling exhibit that would premiere on campus and then go around to other installations around the country," he explains.

"People in China had been given some disposable cameras, and they were encouraged to take photos depicting the average Chinese woman’s life—what work was like, what family life was like," he continues. "All of the cameras were then collected and brought back here to the U.S., where the images were developed, edited, and selected for the exhibit. They wanted to have the photos displayed on silk, so we tested a number of substrates and finally found one that worked just perfectly."

For ICL Imaging, offering fabric alternatives to their customers proved trickier than expected. It wasn’t simply a matter of just buying fabric instead of vinyl and other substrates, running it through a printer, and off the job goes. Doing fabric right meant some very careful planning and investment.

"The market, for us, started with the exhibit companies that were trying to come up with things that were a little different for their clients," Smith recalls. "They were looking for lighter-weight alternatives, so they could ship to shows easier. And the designers of these pieces really liked to experiment with new materials, because it gave them a way to help distinguish their clients from all the others on a show floor."

ICL uses two primary printing systems for fabric jobs—a 16-foot VUTEk from EFI, and a new 104-inch Roland SolJet Pro V SJ 1045. Choosing the best-of-breed technologies was the foundation for ICL’s evolving business model, but the investment didn’t end there.

"You need to do a lot of testing when you’re using fabrics," Smith explains. "When you print to a transfer paper, that image is going to look completely different after it’s transferred. The colors aren’t true; they’ll seem a little flat on the transfer stock, and of course, the image is in reverse. So, how do you color correct under those conditions?"

ICL Imaging purchased a smaller-format flatbed press—a 16x20 Knight K20S—that allowed the printer to perform more economical tests. "We’re able to print with it and tweak the colors faster, and not waste as much material," Smith explains.

The printer also spent time building custom color profiles specific to each print engine technology and each type of fabric.

Once the ink dries, the job is far from over. Some fabric applications—jobs like event tents, for example—will require time and expertise to assemble, too. Often times, individual pieces of print must be stitched together, and occasionally, there may be cross-over graphics, which require registration to be dead-on.

And finally, ICL Imaging had to build a new stitching and finishing team for fabric jobs. "We had to learn a lot, and quickly, about sewing," Smith suggests. "For example, how do you make a pole pocket? How do you measure for a pocket? What is a hem? What is a seam? These were very new terms for us."

The printer may have easily partnered with a local supplier to manage finishing of these complex projects, but after careful analysis, decided it was best to do it all in-house. "If you have to send a job out to be stitched, you can’t control it. You’re at the mercy of someone else’s schedule," Smith cautions. "So, having the ability to do it all in-house is something that’s really good to have, but often, very difficult to achieve."

The Future of Fabric
Patti Williams and I.T. Strategies have some predictions about where the market will trend in the coming years. Soft signage will continue to be in high demand, Williams suggests, but that will lead to a much more competitive environment for the print-for-pay shops, and it will be difficult to stand out among the masses. For those daring big print suppliers who want a jump on the competition, they might consider decorative print services.

The decorative category includes everything from wall coverings to upholstery, and from window treatments to bedding. These can be home furnishings, but may also be strategically placed print ads.

This is already starting to happen, Williams confides. I.T. Strategies polled more than 700 print-for-pay shops, who were asked what "top two applications" they were focused on right now. "Five percent said decorative printing," she notes. "That’s remarkable!"

Sep2006, Digital Output

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