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Transitioning into Textile Printing

Similar to what is happening in the commercial market, digital devices for the textile arena allow for customization and cost-effective short runs, creating a wide range of marketing opportunities.

But that is where the similarity with the commercial market ends.

“There is a real opportunity for the producer to create unique higher margin items to add to their existing capabilities,” notes Randy Anderson, product manager and resident expert on textile printing for Mutoh America, Inc.

Particulalry with an investment in dye-sublimation machines, the margins and return on investment are significant, says Mike Wozny, strategic product manager for EFI’s inkjet division. “For what it costs to run the printer ½ hour per day, you can make your monthly payment,” he says.

Soft-signage is gaining in popularity as printer capabilities increase and fabric choices expand, adds Kevin Currier, manager, Application Solutions, Durst Image Technology U.S., LLC.

Signage created from textiles—replacing PVC banners or vinyls—deliver a more luxury appeal, notes Tomas Martin, strategic marketing manager for HP’s Large Format Division. “With e-commerce growing over the past 10 years, consumers are going to the retail shop for the overall experience, and signage created from textiles enhances that experience. Maybe later on they will go back to the e-commerce site to purchase, but the experience at the retail level will drive them there. When you see Nike stores or Abercrombie & Fitch—the people who shop there want a full experience; that experience in the retail shop is very, very important.”

For the end user, replacing PVC banners with soft-signage delivers significant benefits. “Just from EFI’s perspective—we are in approximately 100 trade shows every year.,” says Wozny. “Before we had dye-sub, we bought banners for each of the trade, used it, and then threw it away. Now, instead of 100 banners we only need 10, because we can re-use them. We may have pay more per piece but the overall cost is much less.”

Another benefit of soft-signage is in shipping and installation costs. Lightweight fabrics are less costly to ship than heavy cardboard signs. Also, the drayage costs—moving the banners from the freight dock to the exhibit—is less, because you pay by weight.

Look Before You Leap

If you’re considering leaping into this market, you should have a thorough understanding of the vast amount of fabrics and weave styles that are available on the market today, says Currier. Further, you should be able to link the fabrics to the appropriate applications in order to best serve your customers’ needs.

“All fabrics are not intended for all uses,” says Currier. “Things like indoor and outdoor use, the way certain materials drape, and finishing options are all factors in what fabric to offer in any given application requirement.”

The key is to determine accurately the market the printer is after, and it is a huge market that uses different technologies for finished products, says Anderson.

At EFI, printers pulled into this market via a customer request will often partner initially with a non-competing firm in their region, eventually seeing that the high ROI make it worth bringing the capability in-house, says Wozny. “When we sell the machine, we do what we call a ‘consultative business development’ sell. We find out what business they are in today, and where they want to be. We help them with the economics.”

Textile printing does require a different type of sell than commercial printing, Not only is the technology different—the process, market and production opportunities are also very distinct for each application,” says David Conrad, marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc. There is a wide range of applications around textile printing, from wind sails, banners and trade show graphics in the sign industry to one offs for the fashion or home furnishings market.

Many novices to the industry will start with UV or Latex inkjet, which allows them to also output other substrates beside fabrics, and then move into dye-sub inkjet. “The truth is a large part of the growth of the market is because of Latex inkjets,” says Wozny. “

However, he added, while Latex and UV inkjet can be used to print textiles, dye sub is designed to run fabric. Customers are willing to pay more for dye-sub products, because of the quality of the output. “UV changes the feel, it’s a lot more lumpy than dye-sub,” says Wozny. While the elongation characteristics of UV have improved dramatically, you can still see a difference up close on the fabric.”

EFI’s 3.2 meter VUTeK TX 3250r dye-sub device prints direct to textile or indirect via the transfer process, allowing a wider range of fabric use. Its fast-drying inks allow running speeds of up to 1,800 sq.ft/hour. It prints up to eight colors in high-resolution at 1080 dpi.

EFI also sells a 3.2 meter wide roll-to-roll UV printer, the EFI R3225.

“Dye sublimation has always been considered the ultimate in impactful color and richness,” says Currier. “Much of this can be attributed to the post finishing application of heat and pressure that drives the pigment into the weave, creating a bond difficult to achieve in any other way. The advantages of this workflow are deeply bonded ink, high saturation and no apparent change to the feel of the fabric once the ink is deposited. This is often referred to as ‘hand.’”

Additionally, says Currier, dye sub printed textile can be folded without fear of cracks in the ink film at the creases. “This allows large fabric pieces to be shipped cost effectively as they can be folded and packaged in small boxes,” he says. “If wrinkles occur, they can be stretched or ironed out.”

However, with dye sub devices, whether running direct to fabric or paper transfer dye sub, a heat press and in some cases a steamer is necessary to set the color. All of these things require equipment and the staff and time to run them. Dye-sub processes that depend on paper for transfer also incur additional labor and cost.

The range of fabrics available today for soft signage sublimation printing is wider than ever. The multitude of choices in weave style, weight, and appearance, while giving the customer a multitude of options, also places high demands on a printing system’s media transport capabilities. “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,” says Currier. “Today’s industrial level printing equipment must be designed to manage these materials while achieving high production throughput. “

Durst offers its Rhotex 320, a 3 meter wide, production level fabric printer that uses water-based dye sublimation inks. It is designed to handle fabrics of all weights, even the most temperamental of weave styles.

On the high capacity textile front, the Durst Kappa 180 can run reactive inks, dispersion inks, and acid ink systems, for applications from home goods to apparel.

Reactive inks are generally used for cotton and cotton blends, dispersion inks for synthetic fibers, polyester, and polyester mixtures with more than 50% polyester, and the Kappa acid inks for silk and silk mixtures.

The Kappa has a print speed of more than 600 sq.m./hour and a resolution of 1056x600 dpi in high-speed mode. In high-quality mode, print speed is up to 320 sq.m./hour, with a resolution of 1056x600 dpi.

Within the dye sub arena, being able to handle the transfer paper more efficiently and provide proper ink saturation for the best color pop is an area where the technology is improving.

The Mutoh ValueJet line of printers for this market offers a proprietary wave pattern, called Intelligent Interweave Print Technique (i²), to help eliminate banding. Operators are able to choose from a number of wave patterns based on the type of material you are printing and the ultimate results you are trying to achieve.

The ValueJet printers are also equipped with ValueJet Status Monitor (VSM), a smart phone application that is used to monitor the printer’s performance and status. The VSM, included with the printer purchase, lets operators monitor ink levels, heater temperatures, media status, and update their firmware remotely. “They can even be alerted to when a print job has started when it is paused and when it is complete, all without having to be standing in front of their printer,” notes Anderson.

The ValueJet 1624W can print up to 600 sqft/hr, and the dual staggered print heads on the ValueJet 1638W provide the production capability of 1,000 sqft/hr. The ValueJet 1628W’s dual print heads allow for up to 8 colors (CMYK x 2); both models offer an optional heavy-duty take-up to provide for additional production capability for long run jobs.

These ValueJets also models offer an easy to navigate control panel and advanced paper handling capability for seamless paper path printing onto a variety of different types of transfer paper, says Conrad.

Keeping All Your Options

Inkjet allows for direct to substrate prints that require none of the postprocess finishing that dye sub needs, explains Currier. With recent developments in coatings from the fabric manufacturers, color saturation and deep blacks can be achieved with very little difference in comparison to dye sub.

Durst also offers the P10 320R, a UV curable inkjet roll-to-roll printer with fabric handling capabilities, a resolution of up to 1,000 dpi and speeds up to 160 sq.m/hour. “While its not dye sublimation, the quality makes it a viable alternative for many fabric applications,” says Currier.

One of the benefits of using an HP Latex device, says Martin, is that it can output both traditional wide-format substrates, as well as textiles. HP has added features to its HP Latex printers to facilitate an easy transition into textile printing, he adds. 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.

“With HP Latex, transitioning from signage to temporary textiles does not require a retraining of the employee base, just a new focus for sales staff,” says Martin. “If employees know how to load a roll in the printer, hit the print button on the RIP and cut material as with traditional signage, then training is about 90 percent done.”

PSPs can use the same grommet maker for textiles as they do for PVC and signage as well as the same sewing machine for a professionally finished look. Specific to textiles, they will need to invest in a serger for reinforced edges, a hot knife for cutting, and sealing edges and pinking shears.

There are many digitally printable textiles available that are cut to sizes fitting an HP Latex printer, says Martin. These textiles include polyesters, poly-blends, natural fibers, natural blends and other synthetics. HP Latex Printing Technology can also print on coated as well as uncoated textiles.

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