Emerging technologies in fabrics, inks and printing equipment lead the way to innovations in digital textile printing.
By Holly O’Dell and Amy Orchard
Digital textile printing offers a variety of advantages over more traditional printing methods, including lower costs for short-run end products; speedy, on-demand production of crisp, colorful items; higher productivity due to shortened lead times and environmentally friendly (water-based and nontoxic) inks. The possibilities grow with each new development in fabrics for printing, inks and printing machinery.
Advances in fabrics
The growth of digital textile printing is evident in the number of fabrics that manufacturers have released in the last year. This push for new fabrics reflects a combination of feedback from end-product manufacturers and their customers, who are on the lookout for innovative products to help them 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 LLC in South Hackensack, N.J., which focuses on high-end custom items. In fact, the company recently introduced a 3-D tension fabric (3-D Celtic), ceiling fabric (Safety Net), and a fabric for blackout and backlit applications (Blackout Satin) based on customer input.
Herculite Inc. in Emigsville, Pa., incorporated customer feedback in developing its Bantex® Curl Free two-sided banner material, and added 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, Herculite’s vice president of sales, graphics media.
For instance, Herculite unveiled a fabric called Value Stretch after receiving inquiries for a product that could stretch across the face of a backlit sign. The company’s Bantex product, on the other hand, was developed in concert 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 says.
Since 2009, several key fabric trends have emerged. In many applications, including trade show exhibits and retail point-of-purchase, polyester remains king. “Polyester is now a very sophisticated fabric,” notes Michael Katz, president of Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems in Healdsburg, Calif. Katz estimates that 95 percent of all textile printing is done on polyester or a polyester blend. “There is a long history of handling it,” Katz says, “and it has leapt forward because it’s so easy for printers to work with.”
As end-product manufacturers communicate with their customers, they are wise to focus on helping customers determine the best fabric and printing method for end use. Michael Richardson, director of sales/marketing, print media for Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc. in Aurora, Ill., 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. In summary, says Bryan Rose, vice president, commercial graphics division of Cooley Group in Pawtucket, R.I., “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 life cycle.”
Advances in inks
Just as fabrics have advanced in the area of digital textile printing, so have inks. Within the last two years alone, ink manufacturers have introduced a variety of dyes and pigments suitable for digital textile printing.
The inks’ content and performance continue to improve thanks to companies’ ongoing commitment to research and development as well as evolving technology. New types of ink deliver unique opportunities for print shops to expand their markets and for end users to create a fabric-based product that sets them apart from the crowd.
In creating its newest ink, called Sepiax, Graphics One in Burbank, Calif., listened to its customers’ desire for a green alternative. Sepiax is a pigment ink comprising about 70 percent water. “We have seen a lot more people who want to print on fabrics without eco-solvent or solvent inks,” explains Dan Barefoot, president of Graphics One. “That way, you do not have any issues with government agencies [related to environmental concerns] and you still get a beautiful image.”
Sepiax has been designed to print on nearly any substrate using printers on the market with preheaters. What’s more, the substrates—which, for textile printing, can range from vinyls to cottons—do not require a coating. Using this ink, end users are creating products for the interiors market, such as fabric wallpaper and custom upholstery fabrics, as well as flags and soft signage. In addition, Sepiax is warranted for outdoor use for up to three years.
This awareness and interest in eco-friendly products was at the forefront when Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP introduced its HP Latex inks in late 2008. “We perceived that customers wanted to have the durability of a solvent ink on diverse materials, along with the environmental benefits of water-based inks,” says HP product manager Tomas Martin. The HP Latex inks are water-based inks compatible with coated and uncoated polyesters and are ideal for indoor textile end applications such as wall coverings, soft signage, event banners, architectural decorations for corporations and light boxes.
Despite the increased versatility of inks used for textile printing, not all of them are created equal—nor are the fabrics they work on. “There are multiple types of textile substrates, and each one interacts with the ink in a different manner,” says Nitin Goswamy, president of A.T Inks, with U.S. offices in Charlotte, N.C., which is preparing to launch a line of solvent sublimation inks.
Not quite sure which ink and fabric are right for your application? Acid dyes are used with silks, nylons, wools and nylon-Lycra® blends, while disperse dyes are mainly used in the printing of polyesters. Pigments work well with cotton, linen and cotton/poly blends, and reactive dyes typically are applied to cotton, rayon and some linens.
To achieve ideal results, Goswamy adds, it is crucial to use ink that is optimized for a certain textile. When choosing inks and a printing system, print service providers should first consider what market they’d like to serve (e.g., soft signage, garment printing, flags and banners) and order the appropriate equipment and accessories from there.
With new inks on the market for digital textile printing, print shops—and, in turn, their customers—have many choices for a host of applications. Inks will continue to become more versatile, from color gamut to eco-friendly formulations.
Advances in printers
The direct-to-textile digital inkjet printer is the most recent innovation in the textile industry and has been an exciting development because of the endless options it can offer for signage, trade show graphics, flags, banners, home furnishing and fashion segments.
Durst Phototechnik AG, with U.S. operations based in Rochester, N.Y., is a manufacturer of professional large- and medium-format digital printers dedicated to the direct-to-textile process, particularly in the soft-signage sector. “With the introduction of the Rhotex, we have entered into a fabulous printing space with a dedicated machine for the textile market, which is very important to us,” says Chris Howard, vice president of marketing and sales for Durst Image Technology U.S. LLC. “Currently, there are 15 of the Rhotex machines running in Europe and now some are on their way to the United States as well,” Howard says. “It’s a highly efficient and productive machine and can produce 600 square feet per hour.”
At Mutoh America Inc., based in Phoenix, Ariz., digital textile printing advances include the ValueJet (VJ1628TD). Versatility is key in this machine, making it a good option for both polyester fabrics and dye-sublimation paper processes to create point-of-purchase signage, trade show graphics, museum fine art, banners and flags. “Its two heads and eight channels allow the printer to be stocked with two different ink sets at once—one for natural fabrics, the other for direct or transfer,” says Randy Anderson, product marketing manager. “So one print could be cotton, then the media changed for a poly, without changing inks.”
Industry innovations continue at Mimaki USA Inc., based in Suwanee, Ga. In early 2010, Mimaki released its TX400-1800B inkjet printer with a newly developed belt system, designed to help stabilize flexible materials that tend to stretch during printing. This advancement also allows the machine to run at a higher speed and lower ink costs.
“Direct-to-print wide-format inkjet printers are really picking up steam,” says Steve Urmano, director of marketing for Mimaki. Commercially, digital printing on fabrics has opened new opportunities for business owners. For example, it’s now possible to print a small piece of fabric, or enough for a garment, to demonstrate a new design. By contrast, in mass production, digital printing offers savings of time and money for short-run and custom jobs.
In addition, the new textile printers have built-in calendering mechanisms, eliminating the need for transfer paper, Howard explains. The process of calendaring outside the printing station fixes the inks and creates the brightness of colors. “Printing is done directly on the fabric,” Howard says, “and then in a lower area the system heats the ink and sublimates it within the fabric itself.”
As textile designs go straight from computer to fabric via an inkjet printer, the time and cost savings are clear. Across the board, these new machines address the need for speed and performance in an effort to optimize results so businesses can meet the demands of their current customers while orienting themselves for future success. “The companies that are making the investment in these machines should be very excited about the increased business opportunities coming their way,” says Durst’s Howard.