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Choosing the right inkjet printer for textiles

Features, Graphics | November 1, 2008 | By:

Make the right choice with up-to-date information about inkjet printers for textiles.

The basics

There is more than one way to print wide and grand format applications. Understanding the differences is the first step in a decision to “go grand.” Wide-format printer hardware may be classified by how the material is handled, especially how it is moved through the printer.

Roll-to-roll printers

These printers are the most common, in part because they cost the least. These are the options:

Paper-backed textiles through regular non-textile printers. HP offers printers, such as the Designjet 5000 and 5500 that can accept paper-backed textiles. The material must have a paper backing to feed through the pinch roller and grit roller system. This kind of material is expensive and the operator is limited to the HP inks, rather than textile inks.

Most print shops that wish to seriously go into digital printing on fabrics may experiment with a printer they already have, but quickly realize its limitations and will begin looking at a more sophisticated solution that is made for textiles.

Modified roll-to-roll. Mutoh offers its various versions of the Viper, and Roland has offeredprinters labeled and advertised for textiles, but as long as they have the pinch rollers and grit roller system, they are meant for wallpaper and other paper-backed materials.

Sophisticated roll-to-roll with tension, rather than grit, rollers. These printers use tension to pull the fabric and spreader rollers to keep creasesfrom growing as the somewhat stretchable fabric feeds through the system. The MC3 from Yuhan-Kimberly (DTP Link) has a fabric transport system sufficiently innovative that aspects have been patented. More importantly, the company offers a bulk ink system that is a vast improvement. The real advantage is having a company to back you up with significant knowledge about how to handle inkjet-printed textiles from A to Z, from pre-coating topost-finishing.

If a manufacturer concentrates on making solvent printers, they are good at this, but simply do not have the in-house expertise in fabrics, textile inks, calendering, heat fixation or the markets for these products. Good examples of what is better than a solvent-oriented solution include DigiFab, because everything it does is related to inkjet printing on textiles, and Yuhan-Kimberly because textiles is its business.

Roll-to-roll with sticky belt moving transport system. This is the next step up. Many companies offer these, especially in Italy. In the U.S. you can see these at d-gen, Yuhan-Kimberly and DigiFab (the StampaJet), among others. The newest model in this high-end market is from a cooperative project between Yuhan-Kimberly and Keundo—the K2 model.

There are many other brands of modified Roland, and occasionally modified Mutoh or Mimaki printers with a transport belt added, but most offer four, six, or eight colors. Yuhan-Kimberly offers 12 colors, in part because it is its own ink manufacturer for reactive and nano-pigmented inks.

Two additional roll-to-roll printer types are the stand-alone printer with adjacent stand-alone heat fixation, and the integrated printer with fixation.

Transport belt printers

These are more expensive since the belt may add $35 thousand to $50 thousand to the overall price of the system, so this kind of printer is at the mid-range to high end of the market. Most European, or other international printer manufacturers, design transport belt systems.

Dedicated flatbed printers

These are rarely seen since fabric generally comes in a roll.

Fabric first

In choosing a printer, decide first which fabrics you need to print on. If everything is polyester based, then dye sublimation is the usual route. If the fabrics are stretchable material, then it’s not really the ink that is the deciding factor, but the manner of transporting the fabric through the printer without stretching it.

Price is obviously a factor, but you get what you pay for. For a small print shop interested in growing, versatility is crucial. A large print shop is best served by having several different printers, each one dedicated to specific applications.

Durability is a factor we all wish in our printers. Printers made by Keundo, Dilli, DGI, IP&I or Yuhan-Kimberly in Korea are recommended. The most exciting new printers at SGIA 2008 were Korean. The Truepress UV printers of Dainippon Screen are an excellent example of the kind of quality that Japan can produce.

Be wary of printers whose record in quality control may not be reliable. Stick with products from companies with a fair and acceptable track record in wide-format printer manufacturing.

Where we’re going

A prime goal of the textile printer manufacturing industry is to create a textile printing factory, soto speak—an inkjet printer that will replace screen printing. A second goal is to build a textile printer for the masses—a textile printer that will sell in the thousands. This could be the new Yuhan-Kimberly MC3 textile printer. The MC3 Premium is for all fabrics, including stretch fabrics, and the K2 is ahigh-end production machine with 12 colors and MEMS print heads. Since 1999 Yuhan-Kimberly has been the ink developer and manufacturer for manyof the popular water-based wide-format inkjettextile printers.

Dye sub trend

For dye sublimation, one trend is to avoid using a separate calendering machine. Print shop operators want to print and fix all inside one unit, but when they have a full-scale two-step system—printing onto transfer paper in their printer, and doing the dye sublimation in a Monti Antonio, Klieverik, AIT (Transmatic), Practix, or DigiHeat system—they say that the colors do pop more. So there is still a bright future for these five leading manufacturers or distributorsof dye sublimation heat fixation equipment.

In general, people tell me they wish they could print easily on materials other than just polyester. This is an advantage of a system such as the K2 of Yuhan-Kimberly. It can use nano-pigmented ink or reactive ink and thereby print on many more materials than merely polyester.

And look at the swatch book of DigiFab. That company, too, really knows how to produce colors that pop. I was equally impressed by the colors in the demo room and display area of DTP Link (Yuhan-Kimberly) in Seoul, Korea. So one trend is toward a printer that is flexible enough to do dye sublimation if desired, but that could also handle reactive or nano-pigmented ink for more diversity.

One pass? Not yet

The dream is to be able to print everything in a single pass, but problems persist—specifically detecting failed nozzles and creating a replacement nozzle on the fly. Newer alternatives give up trying for one-pass, and instead simply do page width but at about four passes. The new HP Scitex FB7500 UV-cured flatbed for flat and thick signage is an example.

Also, on the HP Scitex and on the VUTEk DS system, the print heads must move enough to cover their tracks, so to speak. This is why real one-pass printing is not realistic yet. Extra passes are needed for two reasons. In order to cover banding tracks of missing or misdirected nozzles, you need to cover the path edges between one print head and the adjacent one. You also need to achieve a color saturation that will make the image pop with intense coloration. Most one-pass systems can’t jet enough ink to provide the pop that signage needs.

There is, however, a new printer in Europe that is aiming for successful one-pass, but in wide path rather than page-width. Wide path means a printing pass width of from 20 to 30 centimeters wide, depending on the system. This new printer uses UV-curing and will be launched at VISCOM Italy. The price will be under one-half million Euros because they do not need the entire “page-width” of solid print heads. For the HP and VUTEk systems, each color needs its own page-width bar, and the heads must overlap. That’s more than one-half million Euros in print heads alone.

Universal ink

In general, the future belongs to whichever manufacturers can develop the next universal ink. UV-cured ink is currently the ink that can print on everything, including textiles, but UV-cured ink is primarily a temporary solution to resolve the VOC and sustainability issues of solvent and screen printing inks.

UV-cured printers will be dominant the next five years, so you can buy one now and be confident that it won’t need to be replaced immediately. Hopefully you will be making a profit before the next new ink technology arrives, but the day will come when either a water-based or alcohol-based ink will take over.

Be innovative

In any case, waiting until next year when the next-best-thing appears may not be the best decision. There will always be a newer, faster, more sophisticated printer. If you wait, your competitor, who did not wait, will harvest those clients. His clients will probably stay with your competitor even if next year you finally have your new printer. Likewise, look to innovate and expand your offerings with specialized applications—but be faster than your competitors, or they will be the first to introduce these innovative products into your market area.

Editor’s note: Dr. Hellmuth recently had the opportunity to see the printers mentioned in this story first-hand. There are several new printers on the market by other manufacturers of wide and grand format printers, include Gandinnovations and Mimaki.

Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth is the founder and president of FLAAR, The Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research. The organization is the result of his interest in digital imaging to bring the history of ancient civilations into the present by means of digitally produced displays. See

Wendy Hensley assisted on this article. She is the manager of the large format print lab at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio.

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