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The Future Of Digital Textile Printing

As an outgrowth of the traditional paper printing markets, digital printing is growing by leaps and bounds.

By Teri Ross

J ust 10 years ago digital textile printing was nothing more than a vision with many obstacles. While many of the challenges have been overcome and the current market for sampling, strike-offs and mass customization is growing rapidly, the technology has additional hurdles to climb before it can replace the speed, flexibility and accuracy of current production printing technologies such as rotary screen printing.

The Current Market

As an outgrowth of the traditional paper printing market, many digital textile printing technologies have been developed.

Some of these new innovations include Thermal Ink Jet (TIJ), Piezoelectric Ink Jet (PIJ), Continuous Ink Jet (CIJ), Thermal Transfer (TT), Electrostatic and Electrophotography. Each offer its own unique features, benefits, shortcomings and speeds (see Table 1).

As a result of recent developments in ink chemistry, almost every type of fabric can be digitally printed using ink-jet technology.

Last year’s ITMA exhibition in Paris offered more than a dozen new digital textile products presented by OEMs and integrators from around the globe. Some of these included Stork, Lectra, Zimmer, Ichinose-Toshin Kogyo Co, Mimaki, DGS, Perfecta Print AG, MS Machinery, Encad, Colorspan, Optotex Maschinen, Sophis, Nedgraphics, Manoukian-Sintesi, Dr. Wirth, Kimberly-Clark, Signtech and ZED Instruments.


Issues For The Future

There are still many digital printing technology issues that will determine the future of the market.

These include print speed, resolution/drop size and configuration, ink performance, substrate handling, color control and color matching, wash and wear fastness and fixing and curing.

Almost all digital textile printing requires pre- and post-processing of the substrate as well as manufacturing operations such as cutting and sewing.

The question is not only "how" will these processes be accomplished, but "where." While historically it has been the printing mills and finishing plants that have supplied the preliminary strike-offs (small yardage samples of the pre-production goods supplied for approval), digital strike-offs have opened the market to non-traditional players such as engravers and service bureaus.

There are also a growing number of printers from the wide format and traditional graphics markets who have set their sights on this emerging market.

War Cry: Print Speed

Of all of the technology issues to overcome, the biggest war cry heard is on the issue of print speed.

To increase speed, one can add more heads in a row, increase the firing frequency or increase the number of nozzles (array size). Increased array size is seen as the technology initiative that will eventually increase the speed of textile printers. Today’s textile printers from Encad and Mimkaki use 104 and 64 nozzles respectively. HP for paper-based applications has a 512-nozzle head, and there is talk about Xaar’s new 500-nozzle head that may be used for textile print applications.

Experts believe that since there are many 500-nozzle head designs in the works, the industry will start to see textile printers with this configuration as early as May 2000.

New Market Opportunities

Digital printing opens the door for new retailing opportunities to market high-quality one-of-a-kind short runs. While the current prices for these specialty fabrics are quite high, the market has discovered there are discerning consumers who are willing to pay for the opportunity to have not only what they want, but something that is truly unique. These solutions may be offered through traditional retail channels, or the emerging market for SOHO (small office, home office), that will allow creative textile and clothing designers to go into business for themselves.

While the use of digital textile printing for samples and strike-offs has dramatically reduced the turnaround time from the traditional six to eight weeks to just a few days, or even hours, it is in the application of mass customization where this technology holds the brightest future. Also de-fined as agile manu-facturing, mass custom-ization leverages the use of technology against a mix of pre-defined standardized components and allows the customer to build their own product. It is a strategy that has been successfully deployed with personal computers.

An established market that is well suited for this type of strategy is the home furnishings/linens market. Where mills are now forced to carry tremendous inventory of both print patterns and sewn bed products for a number of years, a mass customization business model deploying digital textile printing will allow the mills to inventory white goods only, and print, cut and sew as the market demands. A print style will conceivably never be obsolete, and the consumer will be able to order replacement pieces any time.

The growing trend towards mass customization, which supports a one-to-one marketing strategy, will increase the demand for integrated solutions that support agile manufacturing. This will increase the demand for not just digital textile printers, but printers that are integrated with single ply laser cutters and made-to-measure software, such as the solution being offered by Lectra Systems.


The Industry Challenge

While the challenges for the future of this market are many, none poses a greater threat than that of overcoming inertia. People are resistant to change. The old adage "If it ain’t broke don’t fix it" will force many companies to continue with their traditional printing technologies and business models, at least until competition begins to erode their market share.

Change is critical and essential to the future success of the textile industry. If the industry doesn’t embrace digital printing, other industries such as the screen printing industry, the graphics industry or the sign and banner industry could take over this market.

For example, a successful digital textile printing service bureaus in New York City, Showbran Photo, is not a textile mill but a photo processing lab that is located in the heart of the garment industry.

This threat can be seen in the trade show market as well. Trade shows devoted to wide format printing, screen printing and graphics have all added digital textile printing to their roster of seminars and vendor exhibits.

The future of digital printing technology is not just about replacing existing printing methods with digital printing technology, but about new products, new markets and new opportunities. Companies need to realize this is a very different value proposition and that digital printing technology is not a threat, but a tremendous opportunity.

Editor's Note: Teri Ross is a writer, speaker and consultant who focuses on CAD/CAM technology and process improvement strategies for the sewn products industries. She is owner and president of Imagine That! Consulting Group, publishers of the award winning techexchange.com. She can be reached via e-mail at tross@techexchange.com or phone at (612) 593-0776.

February 2000