By Cassandra Balentine
Digital printing technologies make it possible for manufacturers and retailers to deliver custom products faster. As these processes continue to improve, traditional textile manufacturers look at the benefits digital brings to the table, including shorter runs, customization, improved design, workflow efficiencies, and cost reduction.
As with other markets, e-commerce, customization, and sustainability are growing trends in home furnishings. Sharon Donovich, regional product marketing manager, Kornit Digital, predicts that digital print may take a bit longer to penetrate the furnishings market but it will get there soon enough. She says digital printing and market needs like holding less inventory and reducing waste to proximity production, eco-friendly processes and inks, and customized designs favor digital.
Above: The Mimaki Tx300P-1800 is engineered exclusively for direct-to-fabric printing, it includes new printheads with a high gap setting that enable printing on thick or thin textiles, plus woven patterns or raised fiber surfaces, while maintaining accurate ink droplet placement.
Advantages & Market Appeal
Digital brings many advantages, the most important being the ability to cost effectively produce short runs.
The home furnishings market is a growing segment of digital textile printing and manufacturing. “Mass customization and personalization have driven the market to start adopting digital solutions as print runs are typically much shorter with larger varieties in imagery,” says Mike Syverson, textile manager, North America, Durst Image Technology US LLC.
With digital, there are no screens or minimum yardages related to setup. “The cost to print ten different patterns on ten yards each is the same as printing 100 yards of a single pattern. This allows for customization and personalization—no two home items need to have the same image or design. So customers can order coordinated products to decorate their home or they can actually design their own,” offers Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation, notes that designs for home furnishings are unlimited through the power of digital. “This gives a freedom to fashion designers without being limited to existing textile patterns.”
Digital printing also offers a flexible business model, giving users the ability to produce printed textiles in shorter runs and reduce unsold inventory. Victoria Nelson Harris, textile specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc., says the ability to customize a solution for any target market is extremely valuable. For example, hospitality and real estate are beginning to take advantage of the ability to offer unique experiences for customers through short-run digital printing applications.
Adele Genoni, SVP/GM, EFI Reggiani, points out that a shift in consumer behavior is influencing décor trends. With urbanization and a rise of middle class, she observes increased attention to home furnishings and care. This is reflected in a different approach to home textiles—consumers are willing to renovate frequently. “This attention to the aesthetic is likely a drive to an increasing personalization trend, similar to what we are observing with the apparel industry. The empowered consumer is really the architect of his or her life in any detail, so personalization and customization are the directions taken by early adopters today that we expect will be progressively followed by a wider portion of customers. In this context, digital printing is the answer.”
Environmental considerations also present an advantage. “Digital printing represents the answer to one of the great questions of our time,” says Marco Girola, marketing and communications manager, JK Group & MS Printing Solutions. The competitiveness of the textile industry will soon largely depend on a process’ sustainability and the ability to cost effectively meet quality demands.
“The market is rewarding not only productive efficiency, but also sustainability,” agrees Genoni. “Emerging economies now demand productive plants with lower environmental impact.”
Digital printing enables sustainable manufacturing, including reduced water consumption and waste as well as responsible consumption. Girola explains that by replacing traditional cylinder machines with digital, single-pass printing equipment, water savings may reach almost 90 percent. Further, an on demand print model allows for faster time to market, reducing inventory obsolescence.
As a fast and growing part of the global direct-to-textile market, home décor enjoys several specific benefits of digital direct-to-fabric printing.
“With many new companies entering the segment, direct to textile has gotten competitive,” shares Sohil Singh, VP, StratoJet USA. He says the ease of technology on textiles is fascinating—including the speed and manner in which a fabric is printed and cured simultaneously with amazing bright colors.
The benefits of digital printing for home furnishings are in the enhanced uptime and minimum setup time needed to ensure better, richer, wider color gamut reproduction and smooth transitions, as well as richer and more detailed designs, adds Genoni.
With the exception of some window curtains, Harris points out that most interior/home furnishings fabrics are only viewed from one side of the fabric. Therefore, textiles can be digitally printed onto the surface with little concern for the ink penetration through the fiber and on to the back. “This makes furnishing fabrics suitable for pigment inks, which are bound to the surface and only require a calendar heat press to set the inks.”
Several inks—including pigment, reactive, disperse, and acid—are used for direct-to-textile digital printing for home furnishings and décor. These options allow manufacturers to print on common fabrics used in home furnishings, including cotton and other natural materials as well as synthetic fabrics like polyester.
Roland Zimmer, VP sales, North America, Zimmer Austria Inc., says quality requirements are high in the home furnishing space, specifically in terms of high light and rub fastness due to the way home furnishing textiles are used. “Special considerations in the design of the digital printer have to be made such as an ink recirculation system that constantly pumps ink through the whole ink supply and delivery system including circulation through the printhead itself.”
Syverson says the two primary processes are dye-sublimation (dye-sub) and digitally printed pigment inks. “Both are appealing as they are dry processes, meaning they do not need steaming and washing post print. The pigment process is even more interesting as the substrate range increases to natural fibers, which is a high portion of the home furnishings market. Additionally, pigment is a one-step process as printing and curing is typically done inline on the system,” he shares.
Pigment works primarily as a coating and bonds to the thread surface. Anderson says pigment can be applied to virtually any textile or fabric with a pretreatment that can withstand the ink setting temperatures, which is typically about 360 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 seconds.
Genoni says if you consider the overall textile printing market, the leading technology remains analog, and pigment is the most widely used ink. “Pigment is definitely the most used ink, especially for home furnishings,” she offers.
Harris adds that pigment inks maintain high color fastness and are resistant to UV light, making them ideal for comon interior décor where exposure to UV light is consistent.
The simplicity of the process makes digital pigment attractive for home furnishings. “Fabric prepared for print goes directly to the digital printing machine and drying and polymerization of the ink onto the textile happens simultaneously in one process,” explains Zimmer.
While pigment is popular, there are limitations. Kim says these include weak color saturation, poor touch softness and breathability, limited durability against scratch and washing, and dependence on pretreatment for optimal performance. “It is important to check the performance of your pigment on your target fabric first.” Specific pretreatment may be required for acceptable quality.
Reactive inks are another common process for the textile printing industry, especially for applications on cotton, wool, and silk. However, additional inks—including disperse and acid ink—are used to achieve good quality in direct-to-textile applications.
Reactive inks are a dye process for cottons and other natural fabrics. Anderson says these fabrics still require pretreatment as well as post processes like high-pressure steaming, washing, and drying before they are ready to use. Reactive ink adds no hand as it dyes the fabric, making it ideal for fashion.
Reactive inks are well suited for bedding, sheeting, and some table linens due to the inks’ high wash fastness. “In addition, the feel of the textile is softer due to the inks penetrating into and bonding to the fiber,” offers Harris.
Acid inks used for nylons and other man-made threads. Again, this process requires pretreatment, high-pressure steaming, washing, and drying before use.
Disperse dye inks use a dye-sub process primarily for polyesters. It requires pretreatment and heat set and may require additional washing to remove excess dyes, explains Anderson.
To achieve high-quality printed output with direct-to-fabric printing, textile selection is an important component of the overall process.
“Due to high price competition, it is common to find low-quality fabrics in the market, but upon printing, one can see the difference not just in print color quality, but also issues of proper adhesion and not being able to print due to wrinkle issues, which further effects the final output,” says Singh.
Some factors of specific fabrics make them well suited for digital printing. Anderson notes that the nature and designs of the threads themselves and the methods and tensions in which they are woven or knitted can improve how well they accept ink as well as the durability of the ink application and its wash and wear characteristics.
Genoni says textiles for home furnishings are traditionally natural fiber-based, especially cotton of different weights, lighter for bedsheets and canvas for cushions and décor. “In the last few years, we also observed the introduction of synthetic fibers as well, in particular for furnishing accessories. In printing, fabric properties are enhanced by pre- and post-treatment, especially in terms of overall printing quality, design definition, color intensity, and fastness.”
Rising trends for home furnishing textiles are related to sustainability, such as organic cotton and fibers sustainably produced from sourcing to spinning and selling, as well as the incorporation of recycled materials into fabrics. “Moreover, functional textiles are more appreciated for the furnishing of hotels and public buildings, adding properties like bi-elasticity and bacterial and stain resistance,” offers Genoni.
While the benefits of digital printing directly to textiles are clear for the home furnishing market, only a fraction of commercial décor products are currently digitally printed. As manufacturers continue to invest in digital processes, this is expected to change.
Manufacturers in the textile industry are aware of almost every application, but not every single home furnishing solution. “With different types of inks, systems, and pre- and post-procedures not every manufacturer has a solution for every element in home furnishings printing,” shares Singh. With new applications, textiles, and inks being developed, manufacturers have to remain up to date with products and maintain regular contact with textile producers, ink manufacturers, and customers. “With a demanding home furnishings industry, it is essential for every manufacturer to always stay in contact with its users to seek what can be developed or corrected—even made better,” he adds.
Harris also believes that manufacturers of home furnishings are aware of the benefits of adapting digital printing technology. “Today, most of the textile work is done overseas and in the U.S. we are going through a transitional phase. Manufacturers that see the benefits of printing in house are working to engineer the best business models to bring some of their production back to the states, if they have not already.”
The awareness of the advantages of digital printing in the home furnishings market will continue to grow due to demand from consumers. “They want customized and personalized solutions delivered the next day. Manufacturers will have to adapt to stay current and grow within the existing market,” stresses Harris.
Anderson sees growth for digital print in manufacturing; as many enter the market offering pieces of home décor alongside their other offerings, he shares.
Girola says the conversion rate from analog to digital technology is still quite low, but this is due to the type of market needs the industry historically served—large volumes and static runs. “The market has completely turned the demand around; the watchwords are personalization, freedom of expression, creativity, and sustainability. The new needs have pushed more manufacturers to consider the benefits offered by digital technology deepening various themes from eco-sustainability to printing performance.”
With a background in manufacturing, today Meno Enterprises streamlines its production process and offers design consultation, complete print and manufacturing services, and direct product distribution under one roof. The company’s primary focus is producing high-quality, digitally printed textiles to its customers.
Based in Ball Ground, GA, Meno Enterprises operates several divisions under its primary brand, including Retail Mattress Solutions, Planet Trade Show, and Catalyst Fabric Solutions. With a capacity for dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing at widths of up to 126 inches from DGI, it brings projects to life with vibrant color and detail.
Chuck Smith, president, Meno Enterprises, says the ability to digitally print to textiles in the home furnishings world provides new and unique opportunities for both suppliers and buyers. “From a supplier’s perspective, artists and designers have a new ability to share their art in various ways that provide lucrative opportunities,” he explains.
From a buyer’s perspective, digital printing provides design and color choices as well as personalized options that appeal to the person looking for something special. Direct-to-textile printing offers the ability to increase production output substantially, which allows suppliers to fulfill orders faster and cut turnaround times for buyers to receive their goods.
Smith notes an increase in color gamut with its direct-to-fabric inks, which allows for better photo-quality printing as well as the ability to match color-specific materials much easier.
In terms of fabric, when dealing with home furnishing décor applications, customers are color specific. “An increase in color gamut allows the printers to accommodate consumer interests on a higher level. In addition, the increase in productivity presents a greater opportunity to meet the high demands of busy seasons,” says Smith.
He believes the word has gotten out to home furnishing manufacturers and they understand the benefits digital print can provide. “I believe manufacturers are aware of the opportunities and are making choices based on how things feel to the touch.”
Digital print technologies present many benefits to manufacturers. Reduced waste, improved time to market, and the ability to create multiple short runs cost effectively is attractive for home furnishings.
Apr2020, Industrial Print Magazine