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A Methodology to Textile Printing

Choose Devices Based on Application Preference

By Melissa Donovan

Digital textiles are created by direct print, direct dye-sublimation (dye-sub), and transfer dye-sub. Between the different printing practices, signage and specialty—apparel and furnishings, are two of the most prominent application categories.

 

For a print provider looking to enter textile printing, a fair assessment of what they plan to offer is worthwhile. Basic signage for display, trade shows, and events may already be familiar territory.

 

With apparel and furnishings—both in and out of home—learning how to run the printer is the first step, and the design and marketing of the finished product is an additional challenge.

 

As with any investment, acquiring a large format textile printing device requires planning.

 

User-Friendly Sways Decision Making

In life and in business, it is common to gravitate towards taking the easy road, the more simplistic opportunity—the user-friendly process. The graphic arts is no exception. Between the three textile printing processes, there are some challenges and certain method(s) do outweigh the other(s) in output quality and usage.

 

“In choosing a textile printer, the most important thing a print provider should consider is what application provides the best opportunity to make a return on investment. Transfer dye-sub is less user-friendly then direct because of the additional step of having to process the paper and fabric through a heat press. Although the transfer method requires more labor and materials, it can be a better choice if the primary use is producing one offs or very short runs,” recommends Keith Faulkner, president, Splash of Color.

 

The capacity and expectancy of a print service provider (PSP) must be taken into account. The typical run length a device will be used for is an important consideration. “A print shop that produces one offs more than mid-run production is better off with a simpler printer and calender. A print provider should look at its production process as well. If he has a full shift, it may be wiser to invest in a system that allows him to print and fix unattended. If the print doesn’t run continuously, he may be better off with a printer that doesn’t run full roll-to-roll production,” argues Roland Biemans, sales and marketing manager, Hollanders Printing Systems (HPS).

 

Between direct and dye-sub printing, direct is a user-friendly choice because it requires no additional heat presses, no waste from transfer paper, and generally no change outs from one ink to a special sublimation ink. Many manufacturers are making a run at the direct fabric printing market. For example, Hewlett-Packard (HP) offers its latex-based portfolio for textile printing.

 

At ISA 2011, HP introduced the HP Scitex LX820 and LX850 printers with HP Latex Inks, ideal for soft signage applications. Both offer print widths of up to 126 inches. The new devices work with just-released HP Scitex LX610 Latex Inks, which provide improved water resistance on fabrics.

 

“HP Latex Inks offer print providers an alternative to dye-sub technology for printing on fabrics. A direct printing approach, heaters are integrated into the printer to dry and cure ink—with graphics coming out fully dried. It is a simple process with no separate calender, heat press, or transfer paper required,” explains Gerard Winn, worldwide product manager, HP Scitex.

 

Between direct and transfer dye-sub; direct dye-sub offers the best of both worlds. It is a true dye-sub product, without the added work of an external heat press and transfer papers. “Direct dye-sub is more user friendly because you get everything you need in one machine. In one step you can put the ink on the fabric and it is embedded online,” summarizes Larry Salomon, VP wide format, Agfa Graphics.

 

Agfa’s :Jeti 3324 Aquajet is a direct dye-sub system ideal for cotton- or silk-based soft signage. With printing and pressing in one step, there is less room for error—making it very cost effective.

“With direct dye-sub the end user prints on pre-treated fabric then runs the printed goods through a heat press to bloom and fix the dye. Heat transfer requires the extra step of printing coated paper, aligning the paper with fabric, and running it through a heat press,” explains Michael E. Compton, national sales manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.

 

Mimaki recently introduced the Tx400-1800D and Tx400-1800B direct dye-sub print systems. In conjunction, Mimaki is producing disperse/dye-sub inks, as well as reactive dye-based inks for true vertical integration. The full ink offerings allow for printing on almost any fabric for any market. The series prints direct or to transfer paper using the same ink set.

 

Greg Mora, GM, DGI, notes that dye-sub transfer is still preferred for apparel because of its finished quality. The company’s Fabri-T dye-sub transfer printer is a new offering for the U.S. market. This device offers an internal media drying system, automated maintenance features, and a bulk ink delivery system.

 

For those starting out, Mike Wozny, strategic product manager, EFI, notes that inline solutions are ideal. “Long time users tend to align to an offline sublimation process as it provides the greatest amount of flexibility to produce different effects,” he adds.

 

EFI recently introduced the VUTEk TX3250r dye-sub printer in April 2011. It is an eight-color, 1,080 dpi printer capable of printing up to 1,070 square feet per hour (sf/h) onto both textiles and transfer paper. The production-level device prints at up to 3.2 meters wide.

 

Technological Factors

Whether a PSP goes for a user-friendly device or not, there are other considerations. Such as which method is best for specialty and signage applications. 

 

Directly printing onto fabric means less steps, with no transfer paper or heat presses involved. However, if you direct print onto fabrics with eco-solvent or solvent ink, coated fabric is necessary to maintain image quality.

 

Direct dye-sub printing to fabrics allows users to control stretch by including a heat press in the same machine. Generally, fabric must be coated to minimize dot gain. Fabrics are printed first, then taken to a sublimation unit to create the final graphic. Transfer dye-sub means the image is printed on special transfer paper and then sublimated onto the fabric using a heat press.

 

“Sign-based applications can benefit from both direct as well as from transfer printing; it all depends on the balance between cost and quality and the production and application requirements,” shares Biemans.

 

HPS’ most popular textile printer, targeted toward the sign and display market, is the ColorBooster XL—a 3.2 meter six-color system. It is specifically designed for textile printing and includes a built-in airco system for humidity and temperature control, which allows for precise and consistent reproduction.

 

Factors such as dot gain and fabric texture are huge components when determining whether a process is best for specialty applications; where detail is crucial.

 

“When selecting any of these methods for a specific application, it is important to understand the differences in workflows and the overall image quality generated by each,” cites Fernando Catania, product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.

 

Roland’s sublimation VersaArt printers, the 64-inch RS-640 and 54-inch RS-540, require Roland’s BU-2 high-capacity ink system and SBL2 sublimation inks for sublimation printing. They print up to 342.6 sf/h and support unattended production. Optimized with a take-up system, media rolls of up to 66 pounds are handled.

 

The best applications for direct printing onto fabrics are large and grand format signage, which are generally viewed at a distance and do not require precise detail. Transfer sublimation printers are recommended for shops focused on specialty applications where fine text and other elements need to be viewed up close.

 

“It depends on the fabric type, everything except polyester should be direct printed. There are special coatings for some of these specialty-based materials to help control dot gain and some may require special post treatments to optimize appearance and performance,” explains Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.

 

Mutoh’s ValueJet 1628TD and 2628TD are dual printhead, dual ink printers loaded with direct print ink in one printhead and transfer in the other. This makes the machine capable of printing with a wide array of sublimation products.

 

Due to the need to coat certain fabrics before they are printed on directly with UV or solvent ink, these have a harder, more rigid texture. Faulkner suggests that dye-sub is the preferred printing method over direct print for specialty applications such as apparel and furnishings because the resulting product will have a softer hand or texture.

 

The HeatWave DFP-74 from Splash of Color is a direct to fabric sublimation printer, allowing users to print directly to polyester materials and then sublimate the printed fabric in a single roll-to-roll operation. The system is designed to maintain constant tension while being fed with precision stepper motors. A cork covered roller is available when printing on stretchy fabrics such as Spandex. A quartz-heated calender ensures fabrics are sublimated at a consistent temperature, to maintain similar color across the width of the fabric.

 

Fabric shouldn’t be a limitation in deciding whether direct or dye-sub is a best fit; especially as over the last few years manufacturers have created pre-treatments that resemble a softer hand. Read more about fabrics for digital print in this month’s article, Give Fabrics a Hand.

 

Sublimating Heat

Heat presses are essential to the sublimation process, whether they are separate devices or integrated into the print system. When sublimation inks are heated, they quickly form a gas that permeates and permanently dyes the fabric. This is in contrast to solvent and eco-solvent inks, which bond to the surface of the media.

 

Whether printed directly on polyester fabric or transfer paper, dye-sub ink must be heated between 180 and 190 degrees Celsius. It is at this temperature the dyes pass directly from a solid to a gaseous state and bond permanently to the polymers on 100 percent polyester fabrics.

 

David Gross, president, Condé Systems, Inc., cites two types of heat presses—flat and rotary; also referred to as calendered. “Flat presses are used for most types of sublimation, both hard and soft substrates and many apparel applications. Rotary or calendered presses are similar to large drum laminators. These presses are ideal for banner and large soft signage applications. A roll of paper is printed and then married to the fabric by running it through a rotating hot drum.”

 

A Fitting Retreat

Group Imaging, based in Mesa, AZ, began in 1996 with a focus on photo lab work. As the company grew—at press time it was expanding into a 21,000 square foot space—they began to dabble in dye-sub printing. Initially, they purchased a Mimaki JV4 dye-sub transfer printer and a 67-inch DigiHeat heatpress from DigiFab Systems, Inc.

 

About 50 percent of Group Imaging’s work is fabric printing. Many of the jobs utilize Fisher Textiles, Inc.’s products. 85 percent of its client base includes churches and parachurch organizations, such as Compassion International.

 

In December 2010, Group Imaging turned to Mutoh and purchased a new ValueJet 2628TD, which prints on fabric up to 104 inches in width. The shop had previous experience with Mutoh products, namely five eco-solvent and solvent printers, and felt confident in its newest acquisition. The device prints directly to fabric or via dye-sub transfer depending on the type of ink placed in the machine. This is one of the reasons why it was purchased. As Jeff Burris, president, Group Imaging, says, it allowed him and his staff to experiment with direct to fabric printing without purchasing a dedicated printer.

 

After installing the ValueJet 2628TD, Burris shares that the learning curve was low. After years of working with Mutoh devices and dye-sub printers, his 16-person team was able to steer clear of any surprises.

 

A Methodology to Textiles

Working with industry trade organizations and taking classes, attending Webinars, and visiting annual shows are excellent ways to become familiar with digital textile printing. PSPs learn the various technologies, ink sets, and fabrics and are provided with an up-close trial-like experience before making an investment.

 

Signage is an easy addition to an existing portfolio thanks to versatile printers and a small learning curve. Those looking to add apparel and furnishings to their offerings should consider the importance of working with a dye-sub transfer machine, as it provides high-quality graphics. However, acknowledging the subtle nuances of this device; from additional steps to more waste, is important. PSPs looking to enter digital fabric printing should assess their workflow and see which application—whether specialty or signage—is a fit.

Click here to view the Options for Digitally Printing Textiles Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!

Jul2011, Digital Output

 
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