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Suppliers strive to keep up with new print technology

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What a lovely world it would be if honing in on the latest and greatest textile printing process were as easy as finding the latest and greatest toothpaste or flat-screen television. But in the former case, you must consider not one but three sources: printer, ink, and fabric makers. And—as much as you’d like to think they do—suppliers don’t always work synchronically.

“We try and keep track of what printers are coming on the market and try to have good relationships with the printer manufacturers,” says Scott Fisher, vice president of sales and marketing for Fisher Textiles, Indian Trail, N.C. “It seems that the printers are made for something else, to print vinyl or some other media, and then we are brought in to see whether that printer might be able to print textiles.” At that point, the game becomes one of adaptation.

Fisher points to the introduction of direct-to-fabric dye sublimation printers. “The printer was introduced with not much thought to where the fabrics would come from,” he says. “Printers are on the market before there are fabrics available for those customers, and then we catch up afterward.”

Fisher has had more luck with ink manufacturers. “They will call and say, ‘We have an ink we think we can print direct on. Do you have something that will work?’” Fabrics go back and forth for testing, but, Fisher says, that scenario is not ideal because the ink companies are also somewhat at the mercy of printer manufacturers. And in the case of direct-to-fabric printers, sometimes manufacturers don’t find the market big enough to dedicate a machine solely to that application.

According to Fisher, two areas particularly need collaborative innovation:

  • backlit fabric images, which can look washed out.
  • double-sided banners, which often reveal reverse images from the opposing side. “The liners are heavy, may not be suitable for outdoors, may have different shrinkage properties,” he says.

Fisher sees innovation in the increasing availability of fabrics that incorporate coatings, whether it’s to allow direct printing or to provide a particular attribute such as antimicrobial properties, water repellency or light blocking. Again, it’s often a case of adaptation—such as taking a coating used in an apparel or industrial application and using it in digital signage.

The challenge may be in keeping up with new technology. “I think the best way for [printers] to keep up with it is to attend the trade shows,” Fisher says, “and to have an open mind about testing new products that are coming on the market. It seems people get so bogged down with their day-to-day business that they don’t look at these emerging products until they’re already mainstream, and then they’re catching up instead of being on the cutting edge.”

Printing direct-to-fabric with dye sublimation has become more mainstream; consequently, there are more fabrics on the market to support that technology, Fisher says. But, he adds, print shops need to consider output quality, the speed of a machine, the cost of consumables (including ink and fabric), and compare that to the traditional dye sublimation transfer process.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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