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New fabrics for digital printing

November 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Through technology and innovation, textile manufacturers meet the growing needs of suppliers and end users with versatile fabric offerings.

The growth of digital textile printing is evident in the number of fabrics that manufacturers have released in the last year. The push for new fabrics reflects a combination of feedback from end-product manufacturers and their customers, who are always on the lookout for innovative ways to stand out from the crowd.

“Customers ask us for new fabrics to work for a specific application,” says Jon Weingarten, president and CEO of Dazian in Hackensack, N.J., which focuses on higher-end custom projects. The company recently introduced a three-dimensional tension fabric (3-D Celtic), ceiling fabric (Safety Net) and a fabric for blackout and backlit applications (Blackout Satin) based on customer input. “Brand marketers need to position their image and products so that they’re viewed differently from the competition. Businesses want something that is really different and special.”

Herculite Products Inc. in Emigsville, Pa., carefully incorporated customer feedback in developing its Bantex® Curl Free two-sided banner material, as well as adding multiple products to its existing line of 3P InkJet Textiles. “As the technology evolves, end users are asking for new products that are more than just a tweak of an old product,” says John Evans, vice president of sales, graphics media, for Herculite.

For instance, Herculite unveiled a fabric called Value Stretch after receiving inquiries for a product that could stretch across the face of a back-lit sign. The new Bantex product, on the other hand, came about with the advent of the retractable banner stand, as customers were seeking a material that would not edge curl—a common problem with these stands, Evans notes.

In addition to seeking end-user feedback, some fabric manufacturers will test the efficacy of a new product. “We conduct beta testing with our customers to let them preview products before they are introduced,” says Tiffany Guard, product manager—inkjet media for Neschen Americas in Elkridge, Md. “We review all recommendations and feedback during testing, allowing us to make appropriate modifications prior to launch. This process may be time consuming and labor intensive, but it’s necessary research that yields successful products that customers support and endorse.”

Hot trends in fabrics

Over the last 12 to 18 months, several key fabric trends have emerged. In many applications, including trade show exhibits and retail POP, polyester remains king. “Polyester is now a very sophisticated fabric,” notes Michael Katz, president of Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems in Healdsburg, Calif., who estimates that 95 percent of all textile printing is done on polyester or a polyester blend. “There is a long history of handling it, and it has leapt forward because it’s so easy for printers to work with. Just in that category alone you have a multitude of different weaves, thicknesses, textures and treatments. You can have a scrim, stretchy knit and banner and flag materials.”

The improvement of polyester is reflected in the increased use of direct sublimation, which is the fastest growing fabric printing method, according to Dan Dix, national sales manager, graphic products distribution, for Herculite Bantex. “What’s nice about direct sublimation is that through the use of a heat-fixation unit, the ink is bound to the polyester polymers, and the end product is washable,” Dix says.

End-product manufacturers and their customers have shown continued interest in eco-conscious fabrics and print methods, though some fabric manufacturers believe that demand has waned, if only temporarily. “I thought the green movement would come faster than it has, but the economy has slowed down some of the green requirements,” says Evans, noting that Value Mesh FR, a recyclable, PVC-free 100-percent knitted polyester, has joined the 3P InkJet Textiles line. “Eventually, interest in environmentally friendly fabrics will come back.”

In addition, some end users are shying away from products with PVC content, says Blaise Humphries, product development and international sales manager for DHJ International in France. “We are seeing that PVC-coated fabrics are no longer being accepted by discernible end users for indoor applications due to health and safety considerations,” he notes. “Non-PVC coated textiles have an increasingly important segment of the market.” DHJ is also adding the Oeko Tex® Standard 100 (a label indicating that a textile poses no risk to health) to existing textiles and researching the feasibility of producing textiles made of recycled polyester without lowering quality standards, Humphries adds.

End-product manufacturers seek versatility in their digitally printable textiles. For its part, Herculite offers Universal fabrics (part of its 3P collection) that work with aqueous, solvent and UV-curable inks. “It’s a good product for distributors to handle because if a customer comes in with three different applications that require three different printers, they can offer one fabric,” Dix explains.

The flag and banner industry, for one, is on the lookout for flexible solutions for printed end products. “A nagging problem has been the inability to use one printer and one ink set to generate real nylon flags, as well as various other polyester-based items,” notes Mike Glaser of Glaser Mills in Huntington, N.Y. To solve the problem, the mill has turned to the new MxF ink set by Sawgrass Technologies, which allows the nylon and polyester to be printed on the same machine within minutes of each other, Glaser says.

Talk it out

For end-product manufacturers, the key to staying on top of all the new developments in fabrics is to keep in touch regularly with their manufacturers. “Product manufacturers and their suppliers should meet at least twice per year, ideally quarterly, to review current market conditions and opportunities, and to discuss what’s new from both perspectives,” says Bryan Rose, vice president, commercial graphics division of Cooley Group in Pawtucket, R.I.

Furthermore, understanding the supply chain is crucial, says Michael Richardson, director of sales/marketing, print media for Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc. in Aurora, Ill. “We always search for domestic weavers or knitters first,” Richardson says. “However, not all styles, especially in wide width, can be found in the United States, so an overseas source must be found. Managing the supply chain can be a challenge when an unexpected demand is placed. As much notice a print service provider can provide manufacturers, the more likely this can be managed.”

Equally important for end-product manufacturers is communicating clearly with their customers to help determine the best fabric and printing method for end use. Richardson recommends that end-product manufacturers ask the following questions of their customers:

  • When does the project need to be in the client’s hands?
  • How long will the product be in use?
  • Is it an indoor or outdoor application?
  • Will the product have to be assembled and disassembled multiple times?
  • How will the product be stored when not in use?
  • What local codes may come into play when the fabric is in use?
  • Does the client foresee the need for replacement panels or parts of the graphic?

Both end-product manufacturers and their customers will continue to play an important role in the development of future fabrics. “Customer and end-user involvement is critical to success from the early stages of concept development to the final stages of commercialization and throughout the product lifecycle,” Rose says.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer in Pine City, Minn., specializing in interior design, residential construction and architecture.

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