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Bringing digital printing in-house

When textile businesses bring digital printing in-house, they are able to control the process, expand their offerings and attract new customers.

Feature | May 1, 2021 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

This 30-foot-tall SecondSkin graphic high-tension system from Brandit Graphics is built around two sides of a tent at the 2020 CES in Las Vegas. The modern and waterproof SecondSkin system is designed to achieve flat graphics for outdoor structures, providing a smooth surface for exceptional branding. Photo: Brandit Graphics and Structure Wraps.

Standing out from the crowd has become more important than ever for businesses of all stripes, and many turn to vibrant, riveting digital graphics to get their messages across.

Take trucks, for example. These vehicles have become traveling billboards, not only using graphics to advertise their companies or others, but to recruit drivers as well. And demand for digital graphics in that industry is picking up speed, says Lori Merlot, president of Merlot Vango Tarping Solutions Inc. Located in Verona, Pa., the company offers automatic tarping systems for open-top containers, dump trucks, dump trailers and flatbeds, in addition to truck tarps and trucking systems.

At one time, the company outsourced its digital graphics, concluding this was its best option because of equipment expenses and a steep learning curve. However, 12 years ago as the company began fielding more requests, the need to bring this service in-house became evident, leading to the creation of a printing division and design team, further propelling this aspect of its operations.

“Since the inception of the printing division, we’ve seen a steep increase in requests for advertising and logos on tarps, trucks, cranes and industrial equipment. Truck ads are increasing both for the truck owners and the advertisers,” says Merlot, adding that Merlot Vango Tarping offers a full array of graphic design services.

Digital advantages

According to Mike Syverson, textile manager, North America, for Durst Image Technology US, most print industries have incorporated digital printing solutions, either as a way to augment their traditional analog print or to replace it altogether. Industries such as corrugated, packaging and textiles are experiencing “accelerated adoption” of digital printing, he says, adding that all indicators point to continued increases.

Headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., Durst is a manufacturer of advanced digital printing and production technologies. The company has two primary platforms/product lines for digital textile production—the Rhotex, serving primarily the large-format, dye-sublimination market (home textiles, apparel, retail display graphics, tradeshow graphics and others); and the Alpha, the company’s high-speed textile printing system for high-production digital textile printing (home textiles, apparel, upholstery, etc.).

This graphic was digitally printed on 22-ounce vinyl substrate. Merlot Vango Tarping Solutions used a white ink layer below the printed graphics that allows for printing on any color of vinyl. 3M ink provided flexibility in the ink layers, preventing cracking. Photo: Merlot Vango Tarping Solutions Inc.

“The Alpha product line can be configured with specific ink sets depending on the application, such as reactive and acid dyes, disperse dyes or pigment ink,” Syverson explains. “Durst inks are tailor-made for each of our specific printer lines with unique formulas for specific applications.”

Along with inkjet preparation solutions and those designed for washing-off and finishing, Durst also provides software for any type of print company. Its software includes Durst Workflow for file preparation and processing; Durst Smart Shop for managing customer-facing job ordering; Durst Analytics, enabling businesses to check and monitor their print and production schedules; and the LiftERP suite, designed for full shop management from job input to invoicing.

Several factors are behind the textile industry’s demand for digital printing, says Syverson, such as shorter print runs, a need for faster turnaround, a burgeoning number of designs, customization and mass customizations, along with more varied products—all challenges similar to those faced by other print industries, he adds.

“As these demands increase, we’ll see more companies provide the option to digitally print textiles,” Syverson says. “Some markets, such as the custom sports apparel, have largely converted to digital production already and a larger conversion across the board is expected.”

Digital offers some significant advantages over traditional analog processes, he says. Analog can prove expensive for short-run print jobs compared to digital, where you can print different jobs back-to-back with little, if any, setup time in between, speeding up production and turnaround. Digital solutions are also more environmentally friendly, reducing the overall equipment footprint, power usage and the amount of water required for print production.

The Alpha is one of two primary platforms that Durst offers for textile production. The Alpha product line is a high-speed textile system designed for high-production digital textile printing for more traditional textile markets, such as home textiles, apparel and upholstery. The line can be configured with specific inks depending on the applications. Photo: Durst Image Technology US.

A growing demand

Landmark Creations, a Burnsville, Minn., manufacturer of custom inflatable displays for event marketing, art displays and stage production, as well as tunnels for sports teams and arches for racing events, uses digital printing to produce the surface art for its inflatables.

“The demand for digital print is 100 percent,” says Stephanie Meacham, vice president of operations. “We started digitally printing several years ago because the demand to replicate photo-quality products on a giant scale could no longer be done using paint methods like airbrush, appliqué and hand-print. Digital print also allows quantities of products to be produced uniformly.”

Steve Lamb, CEO of Brandit Graphics Inc. and Structure Wraps Ltd., both in Las Vegas, Nev., says they’re doing more digital printing, mainly driven by their graphics on their large-scale tent structures (Brandit specializes in branding structure tents with high-tension, weatherproof graphic tension systems; Structure Wraps focuses on tension graphics wraps for outdoor tent structure applications). 

“We predominately use PVC for outdoor tension graphics work, as it’s waterproof,” Lamb explains. “However, we’re working with various vendors as well as progressively developing our tension systems so we can provide a lighter fabric material that will work outdoors. Textile and soft signage has been growing massively in recent years.”

The great thing about today’s digitally printed graphics is that almost any type of fabric substrate can be used, says Angela Gaffke, marketing/design manager for G & J Awning and Canvas Inc. Located in Sauk Rapids, Minn., the company manufactures canvas products including awnings for indoor or outdoor applications, along with nontraditional shade structures, metal awnings and awning signage, and products for the marine and industrial markets.

“Granted, results can vary,” Gaffke adds. “But digital printing provides the ability for customers to create elaborate designs and logos that can then be used for signage or just as a part of their branding process.

“For us, I think the demand is slowly increasing as more people learn about the possibilities they have with their own branding and how digitally printing their logos and/or designs can assist,” she continues. “I believe that educating our customers about the possibilities is very important for increasing the demand for digitally printed artwork.”

Designed as a stage display for Katy Perry’s 2019 OnePlus Music Festival & Tour, this mighty and colorful 25-foot inflatable robot from Landmark Creations is constructed using Mambo Polyester fabrics. Photo: Landmark Creations.

Outsourcing or in-house?

Gaffke says G & J Awning and Canvas initially outsourced its digital printing but brought it on-site in 2016. Its outsourcing bill was getting too high and it was not always in control of the provider’s production schedule. Also the company was fielding more requests for full-colored logos that involved images or gradients that made it difficult to provide an exact replica without printing them out. Although it still outsources certain projects, such as those larger than what its latex printer can handle, the company is able to do about 90 percent of the projects in-house.

G & J Awning and Canvas opted for a latex printer because this didn’t require setting up anything special, such as ventilation or climate control, Gaffke explains.

“We could just plug it in and go,” she says. “We liked that with a latex printer there’s no cure-time either. Basically, once it is printed and through the heaters, it can be laminated immediately and ready to use.”

Lamb says Brandit Graphics and Structure Wraps have been providing printed graphics for 20 years, printing mostly in-house to maintain better control over the outcomes. 

“In the early days we mostly used print equipment for vinyl printed graphics,” he says. “Over the last 10 years we’ve adapted to produce grand-format graphics for large-scale outdoor applications.”

They do have some in-house design capabilities, although most of the time clients have their own design teams. Clients send them their files and they take it from there, says Lamb.

“File origination and handling plays a big part in how the print will output,” he explains. “We help and guide clients to provide art in the best format, which helps deliver quality production. Color is also important. Having been in print for 35 years, I learned early on how vitally important brand color and consistency is to clients. Durability and colorfastness are also way up there.”

Meacham says there are certain advantages to outsourcing, such as not having to maintain the equipment, manage print supplies, pay an operator or make specific accommodations like establishing a climate-controlled space. “Saturation changes based on humidity and temperatures,” says Meacham, so keeping the room at a consistent temperature and humidity is critical to ensuring colors will look uniform on long runs. However, the oft-mentioned lack of control over the entire process was a big downside. Consequently, Landmark Creations does most of its printing in-house
on two printers and employs five full-time designers.

G & J Awning and Canvas created this custom shade sail for a customer who wanted a design versus a solid color. The image was digitally printed on a mesh material by Ultraflexx. The project entailed the setting of a steel post and wall brackets for the three-point connection required for the sail. The shade sail is installed in the spring and removed in the fall. Photo: G & J Awning and Canvas Inc.

Research before buying

Gaffke advises deep-diving into researching printers, seeing them in action, getting samples printed on the same kinds of fabrics the business typically uses, and checking them out at trade shows before deciding on which would make the best choice. 

“Think about how your current operation is set up and the space required for the printer,” she says. “How wide is the media you would typically be using? Do you need ventilation or climate control? How expensive are the inks and media being used? What other avenues would you be able to pursue to help pay for the operation of the printer?”

Merlot says the team at Merlot Vango Tarping did a lot of self-education—talking with manufacturers/vendors at trade shows including IFAI Expo—before purchasing a large-format printer. The first one lacked a white underlay so the company could only print on white vinyl, she recalls, but now it has large-format printers and can print on any color vinyl or aluminum, allowing for the creation of rolling billboards with state-of-the-art resolution.

When calculating whether adding digital printing to the operations makes sense, Syverson says businesses should review their current offerings and talk to their clients.

“They may already be talking to providers who have digital offerings for their shorter print runs or specific jobs that lend themselves to digital versus screen,” he explains. “There is often a saving in labor costs with a digital option, as a print device can be set up and operated by one person instead of the two or three on a rotary press, but it’s important to understand the overall costs of the process and equipment to ensure a digital solution makes sense.”

And when it comes to costs, remember this, says Merlot: “Quality printers come with a price tag and knowledge, which is what it takes to make a business thrive.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: A greener footprint

Consumers are increasingly factoring sustainability into their purchasing decisions, inspiring manufacturers to embrace more eco-friendly processes to remain competitive.

“Digital printing achieves considerable energy and water savings compared to traditional printing methods,” says Sergio Prenna, global marketing manager for Huntsman Textile Effects, Huntsman Corp. “It also uses less chemicals, reducing waste while producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This helps mills and printers comply with stricter environmental regulations and standards and the requirements of the world’s top brands.”

Headquartered in Singapore, Huntsman Textile Effects innovates textile dyes, chemicals and digital inks, providing these to iconic brands and retailers worldwide (Huntsman Corp, a global manufacturer of differentiated and specialty chemicals, is headquartered in The Woodlands, Texas). 

Textile Effects offers reactive inks, including a range of different reactive blacks. Within the company’s digital ink portfolio are solutions like NOVACRON® ADVANCE, a next-generation solution with enhanced coloristic and printing performance, and flagship inks like LANASET®, NOVACRON XKS HD and TERASIL®, used primarily for apparel, sportswear and home textiles. The company’s inks are designed for high fixation rates, fastness and minimal waste. It also provides inkjet preparation and washing-off/finishing solutions.

When deciding whether or not to convert to digital printing, Prenna advises mills to evaluate the total workflow and printing costs involved.

“The entire supply chain needs to be considered in the transition to digital textile printing, including energy, utilities, carbon footprint and waste generated to make an informed decision if digital printing is the right choice,” he says. 

“While the initial investment may be high, there are significant long-term benefits to digital printing compared to traditional print methods,” Prenna continues. “Sustainability, both environmental and economic, are key to survival in today’s apparel and textile industry. With steady innovation in digital inks, digital textile printing contributes to both.”

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