By Olivia Cahoon
Garment manufacturers implement digital textile printing to offer a faster time to market and shorter production cycles. The ability to produce products on demand allows manufacturers to reduce inventory and related challenges like overstock or pre-decorated products.
“In the age of fast fashion, where styles change quickly, digital printing allows for shorter runs to meet garment industry manufacturers’ various needs and deadlines,” says Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables, Roland DGA Corporation. This is beneficial for customizing and personalizing apparel quickly and cost efficiently.
Above: Mimaki monitors new and/or improved equipment, jettable technologies, fabrics for direct to fabric printing, and current market acquisitions, which help guide product development and sales and marketing teams.
In the garment industry, digital print technologies provide a cost-effective method for trying out designs and fabrics in real-world settings before production runs begin. With the ability to complete short runs on digital technology, garment manufacturers avoid lengthy design and fabric testing used by traditional production methods.
“Digital printing technologies enable faster turnarounds for samples and short runs, and the ability to produce a wider range of samples versus analog screenprinting methods,” explains Tommy Martin, product manager, textiles and apparel business development and marketing, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Randy Anderson, product manager, dye-sublimation and direct to textile line of ValueJet printers, Mutoh America, Inc., agrees and believes screenprinting makes smaller runs impractical and costly while digital allows manufacturers to reduce or eliminate large stockpiles of pre-printed fabrics. With digital, smaller manufacturers profit from lower volumes with one-off customization and higher margins than stock garments.
Designers have more design freedom with a broader available color gamut and no restrictions on testing. Pre-decorated inventory is no longer needed, which reduces delivery turnaround times and overstock risks.
“Digital printing offers a wider variety of products and limitless graphic designs to be offered because of on demand capability,” shares Mike Angel, sales manager, Kornit Digital. Manufactured, assembled, and sewn fabrics are decorated on demand, in small batches, or with no minimum requirements. Fully manufactured products are assembled on demand like apparel or shoes.
In addition to shorter runs and customization, digital printing technology broadens garment manufacturers’ offerings and expands product lines. Kevin Currier, business development manager, Novus Imaging, an M&R Company, offers, “it not only lets them produce their current offerings faster and less expensively, it brings new opportunities for products they might not have previously considered.”
Adopting digital print technology for fabrics, especially in a manufacturing setting, is still a relatively new technology with challenges and learning curves. This includes printer selection, equipment maintenance, optimization, and color management. “There are many steps in a digital production workflow and each presents its own peculiarities,” warns Currier.
For optimal digital print quality and hand feel without major technical challenges, Angel says specific substrate and graphic requirements need to be met. “Some challenges experienced in adopting digital print technology for fabrics are associated with creating new business models and/or adjusting current ones to take advantage of the agile-ability of digital printing,” he explains.
Another challenge is workflow. Larry D’Amico, director of sales, large format, Durst Image Technology US, LLC, believes that manufacturers must adopt a front end workflow that allows them to capitalize on the unique capability of digital printers. “The flow of data from the web to the printer must be streamlined in order to fully realize the benefit,” he recommends.
Users should be aware that substrate and environment variables affect garments’ end results. Variables range from fabric thread variations to environmental factors like humidity and temperature. “While there are factors to learn and variables involved, the process and technology are fairly straightforward,” admits Hunter.
Before implementing digital print technology into the manufacturing process, garment manufacturers should clearly define what applications they intend to produce including what fabrics and materials are required.
To determine what applications to offer, Angel suggests manufacturers consider their business model, channel expansion, and needed logistics. Unlike traditional print processes, it’s important to remember that digital printing generally requires less staff involved with the production process.
Manufacturers should also ensure their staff is aware of the benefits of digital printing as well as the learning curve. “They should start out with the mindset that this technology will provide new advantages, including the ability to handle shorter runs, faster turnaround times, and increased productivity and profitability,” shares Hunter.
Once the intended applications are considered, manufacturers can then determine which material and ink is required for intended output. For example, if the application is flags for outdoor use, nylon fabrics and acid dye ink is the best combination. For upholstery, cotton fabric and textile pigment ink or reactive dye is best. “It is important to understand that no one machine can print on all fabric types,” recommends Martin.
Determining the fabric’s texture and stretchability is also important. Stretch fabrics generally require a transport handling system that stabilizes the fabric to minimize movement and stretching during printing.
The type of fabric and finishing process the manufacturer intends to use determines the ink and printing process for digital textile printing. The two primary printing methods for digital fabric printing include transfer and direct dye-sublimation (dye-sub).
“With dye-sub, the process of fixing the inks into the fabrics involves heat, so water usage and waste are minimal,” explains Hunter.
The dye-sub transfer process involves printing sublimation inks to transfer paper, which are transferred to the fabric using a heat press. Transfer dye-sub printing is limited to 100 percent polyester-based or coated material and is often used in active sportswear and exhibit graphics.
Currier believes dye-sub transfer printing is more widely used than direct because it allows for a faster printing process and printing top paper allows more jobs to be printed without material changes. “Printing to one known material that is calibrated and then transferring it to a variety of fabrics makes for a very optimal workflow,” he adds.
Direct dye-sub printing uses different inks than transfer printing. The application determines the ink type—direct dye-sub, reactive dye, acid dye, disperse dye, and textile pigments.
According to Martin, direct dye-sub inks yield vibrant colors on 100 percent polyester fabric and are ideal for flag applications. “For direct to fabric printing, polyester fabrics must be pretreated to avoid bleeding. Printed fabric is processed via roll to roll through a calendar press or heat fixation unit,” he explains.
Reactive dye is used for natural fabrics like cotton, hemp, tencel, and silk. It requires a pretreated fabric for printing and a steaming and washing process to set the dyes, shares Martin. Pretreated polyester and pretreated nylon is also processed via steaming and washing, however, it is compatible with disperse dye.
Textile pigment is used for cotton and doesn’t require pretreatment. However, pretreating brightens colors and offers higher fastness. “A binder and a binding agent contained in the ink fixes the color to the fibers when heated. If pretreated, textile pigment ink can be printed on synthetic or blended fabric,” advises Martin.
Fabric Printing Advancements
Hardware innovators advance digital printing technology to offer garment manufacturers more variety, faster turnaround time, and simpler production.
This includes expanding the color gamut to produce custom colors for brands and marketing. Currier says gamut-extending colors help applications like sportswear and other high-value products differentiate from the competition. “Inks improve all the time while the market applies pressure for lower costs,” he explains. Additionally, the number of available fabrics also continues to expand to meet the needs of all sectors in manufacturing.
At Durst, D’Amico points to the company’s new pigment ink technology. “The benefit of no steaming or washing is significant, especially since there is little trade off in quality and durability. The ink maintains an excellent color gamut along with good crocking and fade characteristics.”
EFI’s Reggiani ReNOIR FLEXY is equipped with a sticky belt Dynaplast system to optimize fabric adhesion with adjustable temperature and pressure. The newest direct to fabric printer in the portfolio, it can print to knitted and woven to low- and high-stretch materials.
Epson offers a wealth of resources for garment manufacturers looking to include digital printing. For hardware, its SureColor F9370 dye-sub transfer device and Robustelli Monna Lisa Evo Tre are both ideal for industrial-level printing. The company recently launched a new microsite—Epson Brings Technology and Fashion Together—dedicated to connecting digital fabric printing technology and solutions to fashion designers and entrepreneurs.
Kornit uses a patented, two-step process during printing to eliminate pretreatment. The printers apply a fixation solution prior to applying ink during the printing process. While traditional methods for printing fabric involve a pretreatment before printing, Kornit printers eliminate the pretreatment production time. “It allows both organic and synthetic substrates to be printed. This is an industry-changing advancement,” adheres Angel.
Currently, Martin says Mimaki monitors new and/or improved equipment, jettable technologies, fabrics for direct to fabric printing, and current market acquisitions, which help guide product development and sales and marketing teams.
Roland’s Texart RT-640 and XT-640 dye-sub printers incorporate advancements to maximize sublimation output and keep operating costs to a minimum. These advancements allow for high-quality prints, vibrant colors, and a wider color gamut. Additionally, Roland recently introduced its Texart SBL3 fluorescent dye-sub inks to create new design opportunities for users.
The Next Ten Years
With advancements in digital textile printing underway, there isn’t any sign of slowing down as modern digital technologies are implemented into production settings.
Martin cites Smithers Pira, a market research, consulting, and testing firm, which forecasts the digital textile printing market volume to increase at a rate of 17.5 percent from 2016 to 2021, consuming nearly 1.95B square meters in that year and to reach a market value of $2.66B.
Catering to the demand for faster delivery, D’Amico sees digital printing playing an integral role in textile manufacturing returning to North America. “Much of the North American textile market has moved to overseas locations due to labor cost. It is not feasible to print and finish custom clothing in locations that may require many days to deliver these products.”
Digital printing technologies allow the garment industry to complete shorter runs with added customization. As a result, manufacturers print on demand, achieve faster turnaround time, and reduce costs on inventory-related expenses.
Apr2018, Industrial Print Magazine