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The Fabric of Our Print Lives

Digital Print Suppliers Afford New Opportunity with Fabric-based Substrates

by Gretchen A. Peck

Digital printing solutions have profoundly impacted so many segments of the print industry—commercial print, advertising, direct-mail, and, of course, large format graphics and signage. But will digital inkjet printing make its mark on the textile printing segment of the industry? Perhaps not as quickly, or as profoundly, as it has in other categories of print, but never say never.

While many remain skeptical that digital print will ultimately replace traditional screen printing methods, there is some indication that the pairing of digital inkjet and fabric-based substrates offers real opportunity for print suppliers.

Inkjet vs. Screen Printing
Digital inkjet for fabric-based applications like apparel printing remains a forward-thinking concept. Typically, traditional screen printers deal with longer runs than, say, sign shops. And for long-run projects, screen printing equipment remains the more cost-effective alternative for that segment.

But according to I.T. Strategies, a consultancy that’s been studying the textile marketplace, "digital printing technologies open things up for a wide variety of incremental applications."

"Screen printing is sometimes more economical if you have really long runs," according to Cory Brock, who manages media relations for Gandinnovations—just one of the manufacturers of digital print engines capable of printing to fabric.

Where the pairing of digital inkjet printing technologies and fabrics has really made an impact is in the large format market. Inkjet 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, murals, and automobile covers.

Tradeshow 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," Brock suggests.

Technical challenges
Even though inkjet technologies have considerably matured in the past decade, using these devices to print to fabric continues to pose certain challenges.

Fundamentally, ink lays on, and adheres to, fabric differently than it may with other printing papers and substrates. And each fabric will behave uniquely. As a result, print suppliers must familiarize themselves with the nuances of each, and adjust their expectations for color and resolution accordingly.

And print suppliers must also take into consideration the post-printing processes involved in textile applications. How easily and quickly will the print dry? What digital printing solutions have post-op solutions for helping the curing process along?

"A post-printing heat application really makes the colors pop out and become permanent faster," Brock explains.

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.

In the next issue of Digital Queue, we’ll continue the series on digital printing for fabric applications, with a look at the best-of-breed printing systems.

Jun2006, Digital Output

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