By Jos Notermans
It’s been 25 years since Stork started developments on digital printing systems for textiles. By the end of 1986, a small project team was formed to study the technology. It confirmed that inkjet was the most probable to replace rotary. Meanwhile, independent market studies projected that by the year 2000, the majority of textile printing would be digital.
Stork started a development project, which was supported by the European government subsidy “Eureka!” The company patented its own printing nozzle for continuous flow inkjet and then launched the first digital textile inkjet printer at International Exhibition of Textile Machinery in 1991. The printer had a speed of 1 m2/hr and printed four color designs on a coupon of textile taped to a drum.
This launch was followed by another European subsidized project (BriteEuram), leading to a technology demonstration of a 6 m2/hr digital textile coupon printer, which was revealed at ITMA 1995. This printer, which was still on Stork’s proprietary continuous flow inkjet, led to the launch of the Stork Amethyst, a 20 m2/hr roll-to-roll textile printer in 1999.
Meanwhile, drop-on-demand wide-format printers for the graphics market, produced by companies like Encad and Mimaki, entered the textile market. In the early 2000s, these printers were transformed by integrators (mainly out of Italy) into textile printers.
Stork moved the inkjet technology developments to the graphic side of its business, which led to the first single-pass digital label printer in 2009. The technology showed that it is feasible to print inkjet at speeds over 30 meters/minute (similar to typical textile rotary speeds). Stork then focused on developing and producing digital textile inks. Quality and price of inks had to change dramatically in order to support an economical and technically feasible digital textile production system.
In 2011, printers at ITMA showed that the technology is here. Several ran speeds over 6 linear meters/minute. There was even a demonstration video of a single-pass inkjet system by MS that runs up to 70 linear meters per minute
The economics of these systems make digital textile printing an attractive alternative to flatbed and rotary printing, especially for the designs that run in lengths of a few thousand meters.
Twenty-five years ago, the projections were too optimistic—it took twice the time to get to where we’re at today. But there is no doubt that digital textile printing has arrived as a significant production technology in the textile world.