Textiles are receiving a lot of attention, especially in the digital space. For this application, print providers rely on a variety of methods for printing to fabric, including direct dye-sublimation (dye-sub), transfer dye-sub, and direct to fabric.
The traditional dye-sub process offers high-quality fabric prints with both benefits and limitations. Similarly, direct-to-fabric printing also offers its pros and cons. It’s imperative that print providers are educated on the advantages and challenges associated with each process to obtain the best results at the lowest costs for their customers.
Advancements in print engines, printheads, textiles, and inks all play a role in the future of digital direct-to-fabric printing. “There has been a wave of new fabrics introduced into the market that can be printed directly by eco-solvent and sublimation inks,” says Lily Hunter, product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. “At the same time; ink technology is advancing as well. The challenge for end users is to understand the differences between the many fabrics and inks to ensure that they achieve the print quality and color consistency that the application demands,” she explains.
“The goal is to help customers eliminate worry about ink reliability and consistency issues that previously plagued the industry by providing solutions that enable a more robust, consistent, and reliable production platform to keep business running at full speed,” comments Eddie Murphy, professional imaging, Epson.
Craig Reid, VP – digital, for INX International Ink Co., sees a much greater proliferation of equipment and printhead options, which enable both mass production systems and custom equipment to be tailored to meet nearly any requirement and cost point.
Ruth Zach, marketing communication coordinator, Bordeaux Digital PrintInk, notes that direct-to-fabric printing is growing rapidly. “Although it is relatively small compared to the entire textile industry, the continuous growth of digital printing within the textile industry—same as in other industries—is certain. “The immense changes in digital printing technologies enable the penetration of digital printing into textile and other industries,” says Zach. She notes several factors that account for the high demand of digital printing solutions on textiles, including faster printhead technologies, new inkjet printers dedicated to textiles, a demand for short-run textile jobs, and the need for high-quality printing with minimum preparation.
“Customers are looking for ways to become more efficient by offering high-value applications that enable higher margins as well as savings on shipping and storage costs—textiles are emerging as a powerful alternative,” comments Ester Sala, worldwide product manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Latex 300 printer series, HP. “Understanding that transformation is critical to play in this space, I expect that key industry players will continue to evolve ink and printing technology to meet changing customer needs with solutions that are efficient and easy to use.”
Speed has a major impact on ink productions designed for digital textile printing. “The development in high-speed digital printing equipment has continued and inks must meet performance standards in terms of image quality and reliability,” says Ashley Scoville, marketing coordinator, industrial division, Sawgrass Technologies. “Uptime is of utmost importance to these businesses and maintaining quality throughout production is critical,” she adds.
Roland’s Hunter explains that in general, people continue to require ink that produces vibrant images on a variety of media, for applications ranging from banners and textiles to soft signage and retail displays. She says that durability is also important, as well as environmental considerations.
Reid suggests that direct-to-fabric inks need to be more consistent compared to traditional dye-sub inks. “There is no added step to hide potential issues as there is with the transfer process.”
Paul McGovern, marketing and promotions manager, Mimaki USA, Inc., comments that textile printing has been around for a long time with the particular ink sets for analog rotary presses. His company’s goal is to duplicate these processes and ink colors through digital technology. “Today, we have the challenge of reformulating and jetting these inks in a more refined, thinner viscosity format to adapt to inkjet nozzle dispensing technologies,” he explains.
Ink chemistry will always evolve and expand to offer more colors, fluorescents, and spot colors to meet the latest demands. “Ink trends will follow the path to meeting current and future market demands for printing various textile substrates in many colors, while offering better adhesion and fade resistance,” suggests McGovern. He points to the ability to print on leather as a new industry using flexible inks dispensed in UV-cure inkjet devices where the ink is applied with a LED curing process, which, because of the lower heat temperatures, does not dry out the oils and leather materials.
INX’s Reid adds that dispersed dye for soft signage and pigmented aqueous for t-shirt inks have come on strong, but the next big growth trend may be water-based pigmented inks for cotton type fabrics, home decoration, and architectural applications. “We also work with and see additional growth in other types of ink sets that are suitable for synthetic textile applications,” he shares.
Fabric for All
The demand for fabric graphics is expected to grow as its unique benefits are realized. “Fabric is both fashionable and practical, lending to a high-end look a graphic while creating a product that is easier to handle, install, ship, and store,” notes Hunter. “We expect to see a much greater variety of fabric options hit the market for sublimation and eco-solvent printers.”
Businesses are learning that having a high-quality, reliable ink matters as it relates to the bottom line, comments Scoville, “As speeds increase, businesses are focused on streamlined, efficient production. Downtime is costly.”
With technology improvements and more textile media options, market potential grows. Inks are an important factor in the mix. The next part in this series looks at ink options—both OEM and third party—for direct-to-textile digital printing.