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Fabricating Success with Digital Textile Printing

Digital textile printing is by far one of the most exciting developments in the wide-format industry.

There are a host of applications trending within the digital textile market, most notably soft signage, home décor, and upholstery. Fabric printing has a tendency to be divided between solvent/latex/UV (which require special coating on the fabric) and sublimation (which could require a finish coating on the polyester fabric, as well as the need to sublimate the fabric after printing).

In general, reports Joan Perez-Pericot, worldwide marketing director, Large-format Production Division, Graphics Solutions Business, HP, there are two kinds of textiles: long-term, such as fashion or interior décor—the upholstery on a sofa, for example; and temporary textiles, such as those used in retail, tradeshows and events, or for seasonal soft signage.

“These temporary uses have a much higher reorder rate and higher per square foot charge, even in low quantities, than long-term textiles,” says Perez-Pericot. “With a low cost of entry, an easy transition and the highest per square foot pricing in the market, textile printing can be a natural and highly profitable next step for large-format print service providers.”

Temporary Textiles

Within a retail environment, temporary textiles include framed textiles, drop signs, double-sided drop signs, and teardrop banners and curtains. A second market is tradeshows, events and entertainment, which represents a huge opportunity for textile printing as there is an ongoing need for signage—and lots of it. Temporary textile applications for this market include roll-up banners, tents, and backdrops. “Printing each of these items on fabric instead of PVC reduces the weight, making them less expensive to ship and easier to install, with a nicer look and feel,” says Perez-Pericot.

Printing signage on fabric—soft-signage, is one of the fastest growing applications within the digital wide-format textile marketplace. Soft-signage—the fabric is typically made from polyester or cotton—is an alternative to paper, vinyl, or PVC signs. The application, which first took hold in the mid-1990s, represents 70 percent of the market for all digitally printed textiles.

Currently, soft signage is used for a wide range of applications, including interior decorations, such as wall murals; exhibition graphics; retail point-of-purchase, such as banners or flags; outdoor and event banners; and specialty applications, such as hot air balloons.

Soft-signage printing continues to gain in popularity as printer capabilities increase and fabric choices expand. According to IT Strategies, inkjet printing has become the most common technology for producing graphics on textiles, achieving more than 45 percent penetration of the overall soft signage market.

Direct-to-Fabric

An emerging technology that takes soft-signage printing to the next level is direct-to-fabric printing using disperse dye sublimation inks, says Keith Faulkner, president of Splash of Color, who sees soft signage as the “next big wave in the sign industry.”

Faulkner adds, “The HeatWave Direct-to-Fabric printer is a complete solution including printer, on board sublimation unit, bulk ink system, inks, and RIP software. This system makes it easier than ever to enter the fast-growing textile printing market.”

The HeatWave printer features two precision stepping motors and synchronized dancing rollers that automatically fine tune the media feeding process to ensure precise movements with every pass of the print head. Also a special cork covered cylinder can be used to print on stretchable fabrics such as Lycra, spandex, and other sports textiles.

“No longer do you have to use transfer paper, an expensive heat press, and extra manpower to complete this process,” says Faulkner. “The roll-to-roll operation produces an efficient workflow with very little employee oversight.”

There is a wide range of polyester fabrics available in the market that fits most every customer requirement. “Although you can print on uncoated polyesters, for best print quality we recommend using fabrics that have been direct-print finish coated,” says Faulkner.

The range of fabrics available today for soft signage printing is wider than ever, “Many print systems offer VOC- free water based inks allowing for an environmentally friendly approach that can be complemented by using recyclable polyester materials,” says Kevin Currier, Manager, Application Solutions, Durst Image Technology U.S. “When combined with the higher resolutions and precision dot placement available on many systems, a truly attention grabbing fabric graphic can be manufactured.”

Know Your Fabric

Knowing your fabric/coating options is the best advice I can give to any entry level fabric printer,” E. Tyler Reich, Director of Marketing, Que Media. “First and foremost, let me say that coating is everything. A good coating can help even the worst ink sets meet the required dry times and display vibrant colors.”

Looking at coatings, “don’t hesitate to ask your media provider what type of coating is being used, so you can make sure that you are getting a good product for your money,” says Reich. Different types of coatings include: matte water resistant porous coating, which is compatible with aqueous, latex and UV-curable inkjet printers; micro/nano coatings—glossy instant dry and water resistant aqueous coating designed for aqueous printers; swellable coating—glossy and semi-glossy aqueous, non-water resistant coating for aqueous printers; and glossy and semi-glossy coating for eco-solvent, solvent, latex, and UV-curable printing.

When choosing media, look at its water resistance, media curl, and binding (how well the media's coating is adhered to the substrate), notes Reich.

“Most fabrics do not have curling issues since they are woven and tend to be very flexible,” says Reich. “Make sure that you are getting a high grade fabric. Many manufacturers use harsh chemicals to clean their fabric before coating because the virgin threads are usually very dirty. Unfortunately when these chemicals are introduced into a fabric weave it tends to break down the fiber and reduce the resistance to tearing (tinsel strength.)

Que Media weaves its own fabric. “We use a wet weave system that keeps the fabric clean and consistent during the weaving process,” says Reich. “Backlights are installed on each weaving machine for quality control.”

The company also rolls fabrics onto jumbo rolls 3,000 meters long—double the industry standard, and mixes its chemical compounds with purified (reverse osmosis) water, so coating mixtures are consistent and free from impurities. Its long drying machines ensure excellent binding, says Faulkner, as time and even temperatures properly cure on the fabrics.

“Our end product is a very strong fabric that is very consistent in color representation and perfect binding to withstand the elements,” says Reich.

HP has added features to its HP Latex printers to further facilitate the easy transition into textile printing, reports Perez-Pericot. These features include a 61-inch print width on the HP Designjet L26500 printer, double-sided printing capabilities, a textile loading accessory, front tension for smooth quality, an ink collector on the HP Scitex LX850 Printer, edge holders, and most recently, a platen cover.

“If a print service provider can install a roll of PVC or vinyl in the shop’s wide-format printer, he or she can also install a roll of textile into an HP Latex printer,” says Perez-Pericot “There are many digitally printable textiles available that are cut to sizes fitting an HP Latex printer, including polyesters, poly-blends, natural fibers, natural blends, and other synthetics.”

Demands on Printing System

While the many choices available can make offering the right fabric for your customer’s needs possible, it can also put high demands on a printing system’s media transport capabilities,” says Currier. Durst offers the Rhotex 320, an industrial strength 3.2 meter wide system equipped with the Quadro Array 30D AQ Heads, configured to print seven colors (CMYK + Light Cyan, Light Magenta, and Gray) for photographic quality at up to 775 sqft/hr.

“Fabrics can consist of anything from heavy bodied weaves to extremely light sheers, so look for a system that is designed to not only handle transport through the printer but to compensate for wrinkling, walking and other inherent issues associated with fabrics,” explains Currier. “Systems that do not overcome these issues will account for high production losses.”

Also look at the system’s RIP and color management capabilities, advises Currier. “Failing to get a RIP that can truly handle dye sublimation ink management will make everything more difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating. Some RIPs offered in inkjet printing do a mediocre job of managing color in dye-sub printing. This is of special concern when compared to systems that use light inks. A RIP that works well enough for UV or solvent printing may not be sophisticated enough for use on a 6 or 7-color dye sublimation printer.”

For example, many light sheer materials and flag fabrics require special attention to ink limiting in order to attain the balance of ink the application requires.

Take note of the dryer system; if it’s insufficient to dry the ink on the fabric there is risk of offsetting onto other portions of the fabric as it is rolled up for sublimation.

“If these points are met, you should be satisfied with a system that allows for productive, efficient fabric printing with high impact, consistent color, and the ability to offer a range of materials that fits your customer’s needs,” says Currier.

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