Digital Textile Printing's Vibrant Future
The digital textile printing market is growing fast with many options available to consider. In the post COVID-19 era, print service providers (PSPS) are really starting to understand—and appreciate—the benefits of digital textile printing over conventional printing methods, especially when it comes to discussions of growth opportunities. Digital printing offers several benefits over traditional printing such as efficient setup, speed, cost-effectiveness, shorter lead times, improved design aesthetics, customization options, workflow efficiencies, cost reduction, and flexibility.
According to a recent report by Research and Markets, “Digital Textile Printing - Global Market Trajectory & Analytics” report,” the global market for digital textile printing is projected to reach a revised $3 billion by the year 2027 after a $230 million erosion in market value in the year 2020.
The prevalent technology in the digital textile printing space in the U.S. is dye-sublimation—whether it’s paper transfer or direct-to-textile. However, there are exciting advancements that are worth consideration depending on the application you are considering.
One of those advancements is the Kornit Presto direct-to-fabric printer. The Kornit Presto offers printing, softening, and drying on any fabric you want to print. The Presto uses a pigmented ink for better wash and rub durability. The binder is applied with the printer, which then prints with the pigmented inks, and finally the fabric is dried in-line for a finished fabric at the end of printing. The Kornit Presto can print up to 70.8" using cyan, magenta, yellow, black, red, and green inks. Print speed is up to 184 yards per hour with the Presto, and 325 yards per hour with the Presto S. Theses printers are suitable for fashion and home décor printing.
Randy Anderson, product marketing manager at Mutoh America, notes that Mutoh has chosen its dye-sub ink based on performance and speed, using transferability, color rendition, and versatility as its guidelines. Since individual colors can sublimate at different levels under the same conditions, it is important to balance each color’s ingredients for optimal performance, especially black, since black is a mixture of colors. The original goal in developing its DH21 ink was to meet a transfer time of 18 seconds for a fashion/sportswear customer. This meant optimizing the cyan content of the black for quick release to match the magenta transfer properties. In this process, they were further able to optimize black for this quick transfer, while reducing the metamerism and improving drying, making it compatible with the wide range of paper thicknesses available in the market.
On the equipment side, Mutoh has focused on paper transfer and making printers easier to use. For papers, Mutoh developed multi-stage media rollers that can be used to individually decrease pressure on the paper or disabled to eliminate pressure in particular areas. This is in addition to a dual-stage media lever that controls all the individual rollers. The newest dye-sub printers have automatic bi-directional alignments and page feed adjustments to allow the user to maintain their output in a calibrated mode with little effort. Mutoh also developed a direct-to-textile printer to allow customers to print on a wide range of fabrics, using dye-sub, reactive, acids, and pigments. The 1938TX can direct print dye-sublimation for flags, light boxes, etc., which need a trough for fabric printing.
Dave Conrad, large-format partner business manager, HP Inc., notes that the HP family of printers consists of three models: the entry level S300 64", the production model S500 64", and the industrial 10-ft. S1000. What’s really unique is all three are capable of printing to transfer paper or direct-to-fabric using the same ink set. It’s a “one printer, multiple applications” concept. STITCH was created specifically for the dye-sub market.
Through patented “technology assets” that HP developed for STITCH, they’ve been able to accomplish several things to address some of the main pain points in the dye-sub printing process.
Through the use of user replaceable thermal inkjet printheads with 4x nozzles when compared to a typical piezo printhead, there is tremendous redundancy. With STITCH, users can lose up to 30% of the nozzles on the S500 and not have anomalies or lost print speed. Plus, the printheads are user replaceable, allowing the user to make a printhead swap in less than 20 mins. There’s less waste—ink is dried in the print zone with a drop and dry print zone dryer. There is no cockling of the paper when transfer paper is used.
There is also improved image quality—through HP’s ink chemistry, and with the onboard spectrophotometer on all three models, users get repeatable and consistent color with every job. HP has reduced the manual maintenance—everything is automatic, including the cleaning and printhead nozzle monitoring. A smaller footprint takes up less floor space—the 64" models are both front loading, and the S500 takes up 50% less floor space than other 64" printers.
HP manufactures its own ink, which is water-based, so it’s environmentally friendly and safe, even boasting Eco Passport by OEEKO-Tex certification. The ink is suitable for multiple applications like soft signage, home décor, sportswear, and fashion. Depending on the application, users can choose either a transfer or direct printing process using the same printer. No need for an ink purge, and no need for two printers with different ink types taking up valuable floor space.
Direct printing is good for things like flags and backlit signage, where you want to have heavy saturation for double-sided viewing, or for dark colors that won’t wash out in a light box. However, transfer printing might be preferred for other applications like home décor, fashion, and sportswear. The versatility of the HP ink being able to print to transfer paper or direct-to-fabric, is a big advantage for PSPs looking to expand their applications and save on space and overall costs, with a single printer solution.
All three STITCH models also have an ink collection trough. For the 64" printers, the trough fits down in the platen, and for the 10-ft. S1000, it fits over the platen. In all cases, it’s easily inserted to let users “direct print” flags, banners, or backlits, and then is just as easily removed allowing users to print to transfer paper. This is ideal for the PSP who isn’t 100% soft sign or flag driven, who may print apparel or décor but wants the ability to go direct so they can get the ultimate saturation for various soft signage applications like flags or backlit signage.
If a PSP is dedicated to soft signage, flags, backlits, or other direct print applications, the STITCH S1000 is a high production printer that features a “heat blanket” (contact heater) that provides additional heat beyond the print zone, so you don’t compromise speed to satisfy full drying on fabrics that may have higher ink saturation. The heat blanket helps prevent an anomaly known as “stamping,” where if the image is not fully dry when it reaches the take-up, it could “stamp” or transfer the image onto the backside of the material and thus, ruin the graphic.
The S1000 also has what HP calls an “extractor beam.” It’s a filter that runs the length of the carriage, and it acts as a magnet to capture loose airborne fibers or particles that could be floating in the print zone and keeps them from falling to or gathering on the printed image.
Many roll-to-roll printers on the market have a fairly standard take-up system, typically referred to as “the dancer bar,” that provides fixed tension as the material travels through the printer. The STITCH S300 has this standard type of take-up. Then there are more advanced take-ups with some enhanced features, like what you find on the STITCH S500. It has a “drop-in” take up mechanism with a smart “tension sensing winder” that not only handles heavier rolls but can automatically sense the tension throughout the entire length of the roll, so you have the same consistent tension throughout the print job, and you avoid telescoping or an uneven take-up roll after printing.
This article featured three manufacturers, and each has taken a slightly different approach to digital textile printing. From Kornit Digital and its binding agent and pigment ink in one printer to Mutoh America and its multi-pronged approach—dye sublimation, acid, reactive inks and pigments—and HP Inc. with its dye-sublimation focus for both paper transfer and direct-to-textile. Pigment inks are the future with their durability, and as more manufacturers develop the technology to jet the binder and the ink (much like latex printers jet an optimizer and then the ink), more growth will follow. Customization is the name of the game, especially as more consumers begin looking to digitally-printed home décor to get their own personalized touch for their home and/or home office.
Ray assists association members with information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees training and certification workshops at PRINTING United Alliance. Ray is project manager for both the PDAA Certification program and the PRINTING United Alliance Digital Color Professional Certification program and is an instructor for the Color Management Boot Camps as well as a G7 expert. Ray regularly contributes to the Association's Journal and won the 2016 Swormstedt Award for Best in Class writing in the Digital Printing category. Ray was inducted into the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies (ASDPT) in 2020. He also works with SkillsUSA to conduct the National Competition for Graphics Imaging Sublimation. Outside of work, Ray enjoys biking, international cuisine and spending time with his three fantastic grandkids.