by Cassandra Balentine
Digital printing, whether it is for décor, apparel, or signage, is an attractive solution for textiles. Dye-sublimation (dye-sub), digital dye-sub, transfer dye-sub, and direct digital printing are all methods for printing to fabrics.
Above: Select Mimaki printers support fluorescent inks to create activewear and swimwear applications.
Similar to any print segment, performance and activewear apparel printers are looking to increase production efficiency, ensure consistency and quality, and add features that set them apart from the competition.
Manufacturers in this space are up to the challenge of meeting these demands by offering enhanced color management and increased printer performance.
Digital print presents capabilities like customization and faster time to market. As on demand fashion gains ground, the requirements of print providers serving these markets continue to evolve.
Performance, speed, and versatility are all factors for performance and activewear segments. “Companies want an industrial designed printer with high-quality output capable of production speeds and versatile enough to handle a number of ink sets for many products,” shares Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, textile and dye-sub, Mutoh America, Inc.
Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson, notes that activewear and performance apparel print companies look to increase production efficiency, maintain consistent and repeatable quality, and offer unique features that provide an advantage over the competition—such as fluorescent inks.
A variety of digital textile printing processes serve the performance and activewear market, each offering advantages.
Many sports teams and recreational organizations want to include features like custom names, numbers, and logos on activewear apparel.
“Traditionally, there are not many options for printing to polyester; dye-sub, screenprint, and heat transfer require multiple steps,” admits Celine Tezartes Strauss, director of consumables and specialty systems, Kornit Digital. “Dye-sub handles more complicated designs on white polyester, but digital textile printing systems can do more.”
Digital dye-sub printers shorten the turnaround time from design to proofing to approval and production of printed textile output. “More designers print locally and make changes quickly before going into production. The ability to respond fast, edit, and conduct shorter custom runs are attractive features for digital textile printing,” says Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles, ecommerce and supplies, Roland DGA Corporation.
Dye-sub transfer inks are well suited for producing textiles for performance and activewear. “These garments are nearly always made of polyester materials and feature a simple workflow process. The inks are printed on dye-sub paper and then transferred to the polyester fabric through the application of heat. The process does not require pre-treated fabrics, post-process steaming, or washing, which keeps cost and resource usage to a minimum. Dye-sub transfer printing produces imagery with sharp edges and highly defined details, which is of high importance for products in the sportswear sector,” adds Hunter.
Specialty Ink Sets
Performance and activewear clothing benefit from specialty inks, which offer attention-generating visibility for practical purposes and a competitive edge.
Fluorescent in Demand
Fluorescent inks are available for digital textile printing. Used as spot colors, the inks are also involved in unique color mixes not typically available in a CMYK configuration. “This additional gamut gives those with fluorescent inks a market advantage over those who do not,” suggests Anderson.
“We see increased interest in fluorescent colors because they are very noticeable; they pop, offering self-expression with bold colors,” adds Tezartes Strauss.
Check adds that bold fluorescents increase visual awareness, which helps keep runners safe while exercising, and skiers easier to locate should they end up off trail. Additionally, these inks enable spectators to easily follow athletes wearing bright uniforms.
Victoria Harris, textile specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc., sees increased interest in dye-sub transfer fluorescent inks, not just for sportswear—but for swimwear as well. “Many designers are looking for highly vibrant colors for swim and activewear garments and show interest in the ability to print with fluorescent colors.”
Hunter notes that while there is some increased interest in these inks, it is not from all customers. “In most cases, the type of customer utilizing them has a specific printer just for fluorescent inks to meet brands’ and designers’ requirements. However, most dye-sub inks are capable of producing vibrant colors that really pop—and for some end users, standard dye-sub inks are sufficient for their specific needs,” she offers.
Dave Conrad, partner business manager, HP Inc., sees fluorescent inks as more of a novelty solution, mostly used for club sports like soccer and cycling. However, there is a definite market for them. “Some shops have good business to support the investment, but, overall, it is not a very large segment with regard to the market as a whole. Good ink chemistry can produce amazing color. The color gamut that can be achieved with CMYK can be strikingly close to and created to appear neon or fluorescent, so the advantages of running fluorescent ink in the printer are minimal, unless that is all you print. Also, typically, when you run fluorescent ink you sacrifice printer speed,” he admits.
Several factors drive the demand for fluorescents in performance and activewear.
Performance and activewear—particularly in team sports—is ever changing and often require fast response with customization availability. “Dye-sub transfer is a process that can be employed at all levels, from entry-level printers to high-end production models, enabling a range of manufacturers to offer additional goods to their customer base,” explains Harris.
End users demand fashionable, high-visibility apparel, advises Check. Fluorescent inks offer increased visibility and let designers push creative limits. “With improvements in ink stability and increased printer performance, we expect more print providers to add fluorescent printing capability over the next several years.”
Anderson says the acceptance of fluorescent inks is driven by the ability to print colors outside the normal CMYK gamut. “These tend to be bright and unique colors,” he shares.
The Fluorescent Color Wheel
When it comes to fluorescents, yellow and pink iterations are the most popular.
Check believes this is because they are easily able to blend with CMYK to create a range of fluorescent colors including oranges, greens, and blues.
Josef Osl, GM marketing, Zimmer Austria, explains some of the science behind popular fluorescent colorants, rhodamine and flavin. Rhodamine is a reddish shade that is fluorescent active. “As it lays outside the standard color gamut between red and magenta, it is not only preferred due to its fluorescent properties but also to widen the color gamut. Same with flavin, which is located between yellow and cyan, but is quite a bit brighter than yellow. It is fluorescent and located well outside the usual yellow/cyan gamut line. Accordingly, it supports an enhanced color gamut especially with yellow and green shades.”
He says both rhodamine and flavin have one thing in common, due to the fluorescent properties they exhibit poor UV light resistance.
“Rhodamine and flavin are increasingly preferred as supplementary inks by manufacturers due to widening the color gamut. On the other hand, consumers favor the bright colors blended from these two additional shades with other process colors. The brightness and color yield can’t be achieved with regular red or yellow,” adds Osl.
Cost and Maintenance
While innovative solutions bring value, they often come with an increased price tag and added maintenance.
Fluorescent dye-sub ink does cost more per liter than traditional CMYK, however the fluorescent inks are very bold and can be used sparingly. “The ink cost difference to producing a cycling jersey with fluorescent inks versus CMYK inks may only be a few pennies,” states Check.
Anderson says fluorescent inks typically do have an initial higher cost than CMYK inks, but even at a 20 percent cost increase that cost is minimal per print depending on how much fluorescent is actually used.
“Most of the time, fluorescent inks are a little higher in cost than traditional CMYK inks,” agrees Hunter. “For example, Roland Texart SBL3 fluorescent inks are priced at $119 per liter, while our standard colors are sold at $99 per liter.”
Check adds that the production cost difference between using CMYK and CMYK and fluorescent inks is related to the printing hardware. He notes that, specifically the print speeds of fluorescent printers are 50 percent slower regardless of the inks used. To combat this issue, the Epson SureColor F9470H printer offers fluorescent inks on demand so the printer operates at full speed when only CMYK inks are used, and slows slightly when using CMYK and fluorescent inks.
Maintenance is another consideration when utilizing fluorescent inks.
Check warns that existing fluorescent dye-sub inks work best when they are fresh. Over time, the colorant particles settle and exposure to air can cause ink clumping, which may lead to printhead clogging issues.
Epson developed its new UltraChrome DS6 inks to prevent the clogging issues so that inks are stable for consistent quality production. The only maintenance required is to agitate the ink weekly, which takes approximately 30 seconds to complete.
Tezartes Strauss believes there is no difference in maintenance procedures for these inks relative to Kornit’s other inks.
Harris advises manufacturers to follow typical dye-sub ink guidelines from the printer manufacturer—keep inks out of direct contact with UV light and store them in a temperature and humidity control environment. Normal and weekly machine maintenance is also recommended.
In the case of Roland Texart SBL3 fluorescent inks, Hunter says additional maintenance is required. “Performing the standard recommended maintenance routines keeps a printer running for a long time. However, fluorescent inks do have a shorter shelf life than standard inks—ours are 12 months as opposed to 18 months—so it’s best to continuously run the printers regularly to use up the inks. Storage is another factor for any type of dye-sub ink. Be sure to keep them stored in an environmentally controlled area,” she recommends.
While fluorescent inks are trending, other specialty inks provide an edge in textile printing.
Light black dye-sub transfer ink creates a smooth gradation and reproduces the nuanced tones of monochromatic photographs. “Light black ink reduces the granular appearance, color shifting, and tone jumps that occur on monochrome/grayscale prints,” offers Harris.
Anderson says dye-sub inks offer a range of applications and performance properties. “High load inks are effectively more concentrated and therefore need less ink on the paper to achieve the same output performance, there are quick transfer inks that shorten the transfer time at pressing, which can be a bottleneck for some operations, and then there are low-cost options for those situations where ink costs are more of a concern,” he explains. Expanded gamut colors like orange and violet allow unique color options in critical applications.
Several features of digital textile printing equipment are attractive for performance and activewear apparel, many surrounding quality control and printer performance.
Built-in technologies and processes designed to ensure consistent quality output are important, according to Harris. Printer features like a high printhead gap enable high-quality printing on thin transfer paper without concern for cockling, which can produce uneven results or cause a printhead strike.
Increases in ink stability are critical to produce consistent results over time, notes Check. For example, Epson created the new UltraChrome DS6 ink to ensure long-term reliability of the printers and consistent repeatable print quality over time.
Another attractive feature is waveform control. “This manufacturer-specific technology improves visible quality and dot gain to produce sharp edges and fine lines even at faster speeds and higher printhead gaps,” shares Harris.
Color matching is essential when producing activewear. “The ability to reproduce prints with matching color and having that process be simple is important for repeat orders or when clubs and teams expand their memberships and rosters,” suggests Conrad.
The HP STITCH dye-sub printers feature an on-board spectrophotometer and a color library created specifically for the RIP included with every HP STITCH printer.
Further, spot color replacement for accurate color reproduction is commonly utilized for team and league sports, and is a desirable feature for designers. “The faster the color sample or strike-offs are approved, the quicker the product can go into production and be delivered to market,” says Harris.
Anderson points out that some of the best features that lend themselves to performance and activewear applications are eight-color ink capacity and the ability to run whatever inks give each application the most advantage. “If print speed is the goal, it is hard to beat a CMYKx2 set up, especially considering a four printhead, high-speed model like Mutoh’s ValueJet 1948WX. For high-quality output, light colors like light cyan, light magenta, and light black are available. For an expanded gamut, add orange or violet to hit colors not available in a normal CMYK set up. If costs are a primary concern, then the ability to run third-party inks could help,” he shares.
Printer performance impacts the entire business model, therefore increasing the amount of sellable product produced per day directly links to increased sales and profit, says Check.
People want design variety and the ability to print multiple application types using one system. Tezartes Strauss lists features like photorealism, semi-transparencies, and the ability to prevent dye migration, which are possible with Kornit’s Avalanche Poly Pro system.
Nozzle check and recovery systems are two manufacturer-specific functions that work together to enable continuous or unattended printing by ensuring clogged nozzles do not reduce the print image quality. Nozzle check units automatically check and clean clogged nozzles. “During printing if a nozzle-out is detected and cannot be recovered, the recovery systems substitute nozzles without interrupting printing, which optimizes continuous productivity,” explains Harris.
If transfer speed is your bottleneck then a fast-release ink tied to an appropriate paper can decrease transfer speeds. Anderson points out that Mutoh’s DH-21 dye-sub ink is designed as a high-release ink with rich black capability.
Osl says textile processing and garment manufacturing are industrial manufacturing solutions and functionalization with possible combinations is complex but increasingly important. Zimmer offers solutions that combine several options within one printer.
Performance and activewear represent one fashion segment that is taking advantage of the offerings digital textile printing provides. Direct digital printing as well as direct dye-sub and transfer dye-sub are methods that support this market. The availability of fluorescent inks are especially attractive to manufacturers that contribute to this segment. IPM
Sep2020, Industrial Print Magazine