A decade ago, textile printing—the application of ink to some sort of fabric—relied largely on traditional screen printing technologies and electrostatic printers of the time, according to Patti Williams, consulting partner, I.T. Strategies. Electrostatic printers used for textile work have since fallen by the wayside, and while screen printing solutions continue to be popular for long-run or mass-produced printed textiles, digital inkjet is quickly becoming the technology of choice for short runs and sampling.
There is a plethora of digital inkjet solutions available today that are promoted as fabric friendly. Among them are a handful of printing systems that are designed to meet the specific needs of the textile market.
VUTEk, 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 designed specifically 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 on even challenging fabrics, such as knits and woven materials.
Gandinnovations engineered its jeti 3312/3318 DS (Dye Sublimation) printer to be compatible with any 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 compensate the occasional fabric job that comes through the shop door.
"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 steps in the process. So, 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.
Productivity and throughput is the name of the game when choosing a digital print solution, according to Ziki Kuly, director of marketing for Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) 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 dedicated printer to apply the dye-sub inks to paper, and another machine for transferring the image to the fabric," he explains.
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 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," HP’s Kuly explains.