If you’re out to master the art and science of digital textile printing, there’s good and bad news to consider. First, the bad news. Being able to turn out quality digitally-printed textile products requires what one expert calls a never-ending learning curve. Understanding printing technology, ink chemistry, and the dizzying array of fabric choices is only the beginning of the challenge.
You also have to design a process right for you, master profiling, acquire the ability to provide outstanding finishing, and ensure you’re doing it all at optimal productivity and profitability. And don’t forget the importance of finding a niche that can serve as springboard to greater market penetration.
The good news? Hurdle all the above, and you’ll be in great demand.
According to Avedik Izmirlian, becoming a digital textile printing expert can be daunting. Izmirlian is president of Digitab Systems Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that has specialized in textile printing for 19 years.
“There is no such thing as an absolute expert in digital textile printing, because the learning curve never ends,” he asserts. “The basic thing you need to know is that printing on textiles is not like printing on paper, because each different fiber has to be printed with different kinds of inks. The pre-treatment and post processing varies as well, depending on whether you’re printing on nylons, silks, polyesters, cotton, or other types of fabrics.”
Others experts, such as Randy Anderson, product manager with Phoenix-based Mutoh America, Inc., report many variables go into achieving expertise.
When producing custom textiles, some applications require a great deal of information, and others much less, he points out. “First, you should know which technology is best suited for your particular textile application,” he says.
“You need to print direct-to-fabric when using natural fabrics for product output [going into] home furnishing, fashion, and traditional textile products. Usually these will need to be coated for dot control.
“Direct printing may require some post processing to set the ink and wash out coatings and carriers, and can require a specialized fabric handling system to transport fabric through the printer. These add to the cost of equipment.”
In dye sublimation, by contrast, a reverse image is printed on paper-based media, heat is applied and the dye is sublimated into the fabric.
This is the typical application for polyester, a cut-and-sew product whose end uses range from sportswear to trade show displays, t-shirts, flags, banners, and specialty items, he says. The process is versatile and can also be employed to produce a wide array of polyester and polyester-coated materials from fabric to metal, including awards, promotional, and personalized items.
Understanding ink chemistry, printer technology, fabrics, and the process in which the ink is delivered to the finished product is critical to becoming expert, Anderson says. But keeping in mind the finished product’s end use may be the most important consideration. “This will affect not only your choice of materials and application, but also the method in which you design your process,” he says.
“If you are producing trade show graphics for a few uses...certain practices are acceptable. If you are proofing textile for mass production, your practices need to be on a different level.” In the latter, he says, it’s essential to make informed choices on the mix of hardware, media, software, and materials to provide the best results for customers, while at the same time achieving the level of productivity and profitability you require to compete in your own marketplace.
Echoing this point is Tomas Martin, strategic marketing manager for HP Large Format Production division with Hewlett-Packard Co. “For a print service provider to become a digital textile printing expert, the first and most important step is to identify the intended use of the fabric,” he says.