by Cassandra Balentine
Digital dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing serves a range of applications from apparel to décor. It continues to take off as more designers and retailers begin to understand the potential of using the technology to produce items like custom draperies, wallcoverings, upholstery, and bedding.
There are many advantages to digital dye-sub printing compared to analog fabric decorating methods for household décor, including lower inventory costs and a clean and sustainable process. Additionally, dye-sub textiles tend to offer high color vibrancy, excellent rub resistance, and washability.
Driven by Digital Dye-Sub
Digital dye-sub printing allows for customizable, one-off production, both of which are experiencing increased demand in textile printing. These benefits are driving a change in décor markets.
As a relatively new option for interior design, Randy Peters, president/CEO, The Mosaica Group, feels that this market is taking off in major industries such as architecture, hospitality, and healthcare, along with corporate environments. “It’s now easier than ever for hotels to feature interior décor that represents their local communities with customized wallcoverings and upholstery. Consumers are jumping on board to get their photos printed on keepsakes such as blankets and pillows.”
Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson, points out that there is a higher customer value for products that are unique and/or personalized. “Products can be tailored for a region or even an individual customer. That has much greater appeal than a mass-produced product. As we spend more time at home, we want our places to reflect who we are and updating décor is a great way to do so.”
“The pandemic has people at home more than normal, evaluating the environment in which they now spend increased time in. The ability and ease at which custom printing is now available to the masses allows more people to redesign their home environments in much the same fashion that businesses have branded with custom printing,” offers Randy Anderson, product market manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Jeremy Pilcher, solutions architect, HP Inc., agrees, adding that with the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are working and attending school from home. “Virtual experiences mean one’s home is now on display. Not going out to dinner, bars, or entertainment means money saved. As a result, people want their homes to look good and now have the means to make it happen. Home renewal and renovation have become popular, and with online ordering, it is easy to select and order standard or customized products quickly and all without human face-to-face contact.”
Digital dye-sub printers are available at many different production levels, allowing manufacturers to comfortably add technology. “This is changing the industry as these companies can offer short or ultra-short print runs for personalized applications,” says Mike Syverson, textile manager, North America, Durst Image Technology US, LLC. The biggest driver of this is ecommerce.
The simplicity of the process, as well as the ability to manufacture in demand is also a huge draw of digital dye-sub.
The dye-sub process is simple and allows suppliers, manufacturers, and brands to move from sample into production within the same day, versus traditional printing methods that may take up to three months for the final sample to be manufactured and approved. “By printing on demand, there is no commitment to maintaining large stock quantities and selling is quickly supported as sales increase. Dye-sub digital printing allows businesses to offer a more diverse range of trend-driven supply without having the risk involved with unsold inventory stock,” notes Victoria Nelson Harris, senior textile segment specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc.
“Since a lot of retail outlets are cutting down on holding costly inventory stock, many manufacturers utilize just-in-time manufacturing to address this,” comments Lily Hunter, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.
Check also credits increased supply chain efficiencies as a benefit of digital dye-sub printing. “Digital production offers a simplified supply chain with product being produced closer to markets and in quantities needed. While printing costs are higher than mass production methods, there is a great reduction in tied up capital, warehousing costs, and surplus product that overall can result in faster time to market and lower overall costs.”
Further, it offers environmentally conscious production. “Products produced digitally can be done so in smaller quantities, reducing the surplus production and waste. In addition, digital dye-sub printing is water-free and many of the fabrics used include recycled materials,” says Check.
Hunter adds that since the dye-sub process employs heat to fix the inks onto the fabrics it is a cleaner, more sustainable process than washing or steaming, which uses up and potentially pollutes water resources.
Technology advancements also play a part in dye-sub’s rise in use. “This drive is fueled by advancements in engine and ink technology. For example, 3.2-meter wide engines eliminate the need to stitch panels as was traditionally done when producing curtains. Also, advancements in engine technology offer solid media transport and adjustable printhead gaps, which opens opportunities for printing carpets,” explains Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, Agfa.
Suited for Home Use
Several aspects of the dye-sub process make it well suited for printing household textiles. With dye-sub, inks permeate the material though the sublimation process, making for a product that offers washability and longevity. The method is also forgiving and provides high-quality results.
Syverson explains that dye-sub for home textiles is a “dry” process.
“Traditionally, transfer paper—or fabric in some cases—is printed and heat transferred, or sublimated, into a donor fabric, creating the printed graphic. It is then ready for cut, sew, and ship. Other processes may require steaming and washing to fixate dye into the fabric and require specialized pretreatments for the fabric to optimize the output.
“In the dye-sub printing process, dyes permeate or embed the fabric, resulting in permanent colors and graphics,” offers Peters. “Transfer printing produces bright, vibrant colors and crisp details. Coatings on transfer papers are designed to keep the ink droplet on the surface of the paper, allowing for less ink to be used during the transfer process, thus saving customers money in the amount of ink needed to get their desired results,” he continues.
“A benefit of transfer sublimation is that the printed transfers can be applied to virtually any polyester-based fabric without a significant impact to print quality. Soft fleece blankets, poly-linen pillow covers, and velvety suede upholstery fabrics are just a few applications where digital dye-sub is used,” suggests Check.
“The biggest driving strength of dye-sub is its low-cost, sustainable nature, and amazing print quality,” adheres Sohil Singh, VP, StratoJet USA. Further, the development of new spot color inks yield permanent color, which is embedded in the substrate or fabric rather than printed on the surface.
Dye-sub fabric does not fade or crack even after several washes, and images do not chip, peel, or scratch. “These features combined with on demand print capability not only reduces the wastage problem, but also helps the user make more money by increasing its application to almost double with dye-sub technology, making this the perfect process for printing textiles.”
Harris points out that household textiles commonly require coating finishes, such as stain and soil release or antimicrobial. These coatings work well with dye-sub transfer printing because the polyesters can be uncoated and do not interact with the finish. She explains that printing with pigment inks is very common for household textiles because they feature increased UV light resistance, however, pretreatment coatings—when printing with pigment inks—are common to increase durability and color development. “Unfortunately, these pretreatment coatings can cause undesirable interaction with the overall textile finish and appearance.
Basically, the coating will cover up the finish and weaken or diminish its attributes,” she adds.
Dye-sub is a stabilized application. “Long past are the days in which dye-sub was a bleeding-edge technology only suited for the techie enabled or struggling entrepreneurs. Virtually anyone can buy a dye-sub printer and press and create consistent, quality home décor with relative ease,” states Anderson.
The fabric used for dye-sub is imperative to the success of the graphic. A wide selection of fabrics are suited for digital dye-sub printing, including different weaves and knits. Fabrics ideal for household textiles are polyester based and usually fire and wrinkle resistant. Polyester, nylon, rayon, and spandex are popular for interior décor due to their weight, strength, and durability.
“Polyester fabrics naturally present good wrinkle, stain, and water repellant properties, and depending on the manufacturer can also include flame retardant and moisture management,” shares Check.
Hutcheson notes that “polyester textiles are so diverse and made in so many different ways, that you can’t even imagine that it is not a sort of super fine material. On the other hand, they can also be very durable and recycled, thus meeting societal demands for increased sustainability. For household textiles, a fire retardant coating is easily applied in the polyester production line.”
Additionally, new polyester fabrics that imitate natural fabrics is a noteworthy development. These products are designed to compete with cotton, linen, and silk in look and feel.
“For me, it is the fabrics that are the cornerstone to this whole opportunity,” says Anderson. “We now have a variety of polyester fabrics that mimic natural fabrics in feel and appearance and exceed natural fabrics in performance. This allows people to design with the look and feel that they are accustom to, adding new polyester components to existing natural fabric environments seamlessly, and innovating new applications and products based on new polyester textile properties.”
Syverson agrees, noting that developments in the textile market allow manufacturers to create dye-sub fabrics similar to natural fabrics but without the disadvantages. “Most of these textiles can be laundered at home versus dry cleaning without damaging the product.”
Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation, recognizes big potential in household textiles and technical textiles, party due to the fact that there are already a variety of interesting synthetic polyester-based fabrics that can replace natural fabrics.
The majority of dye-sub fabrics are also easy to maintain. “They can be easily washed or steamed. Also, materials printed with the dye-sub process present images that are distinctly superior to inkjet or other printing methods,” says Peters.
Inks are another essential part of the digital dye-sub printing process.
“The dyes in dye-sub inks penetrate the polyester fabric to color the material while leaving no perceivable change to the feel of the fabrics,” explains Check. Therefore, the dye-sub transfer process preserves the texture of the fabric as well as maintains the performance of the fabric as the manufacturer intended.
Harris points out that dye-sub transfer inks produce great print quality, including fine lines and details. They also offer a wide color gamut, making them ideal for household textiles that are viewed up close. Further, they feature very good abrasion and wash resistance, which is ideal for applications such as table throws or upholstery goods.
For household products like curtains, digital dye-sub inks do not crack or fade, even after multiple washes. Issues with ink chipping, scratching, or peeling from the surface are not prevalent either. Singh says new water-based characteristics provide a fume- and odor-free solution. “Dye-sub processing has significantly helped curtain manufacturers in increasing the demand for printing textiles for household use.”
Peters points out that improvements to inkjet technology in recent years have contributed to the growth in printing household textiles. “It is best practice to use reactive or digital pigment inks that are designed specifically for textile printing,” he adds.
Future of Home Décor
Many factors drive continued interest in the use of digital dye-sub printing for home décor.
“Digitally printed household textiles is the new paradigm,” states Anderson. Analog printers are converting to the process. “On demand printing for large producers reduces inventory to blank white fabric that can be printed with any image, in virtually any quantity, while custom printing brings in high margins for entrepreneurs and smaller operations with lower startup costs.”
“One positive thing that came out of 2020 is an accelerated adoption of ecommerce and on demand print, especially for the home décor market,” shares Syverson. “Many companies that serve this market have seen exponential growth in 2020. As more consumers discover the possibilities of personalized and mass-customized products, the digital print market will keep growing. This also drives larger print producers in the traditional analog markets to more rapidly adopt digital solutions as their demands for long print runs continue to decrease in a similar fashion as seen in other print markets.”
With the availability of online ordering for standard or customizable products—duvet covers, blankets, decorative pillows, pillow shams, upholstery, carpet—one can carry a unified décor scheme throughout the house, comments Pilcher.
Kim believes easy pretreatment and post-processing will be a game changer in the future for wide application of various textiles including household and fashion. “Inline processing of spray jet pretreatment, direct digital printing, and heat fixation needs to be equipped in compact size.
Technically machines are ready for this, but it is not easy to find commercially attractive solutions in the market yet,” he offers.
The digital dye-sub printing market is poised for expansion. As technology becomes easier to adopt and new iterations of polyester fabrics are introduced, the potential is limitless.
“I believe the trends with household textiles will continue to see digital production methods being a driving factor to growth because of the increased personalization, reduced environmental waste, and efficient supply chains,” notes Check. IPM
Apr2021, Industrial Print Magazine