By Dr. Lisa P. Chapman, Technical Editor; and Kerry McGuire King
ITMA 2023, aptly named “Transforming the World of Textiles”, focused on sustainability achieved in three innovation areas that are directly related to digital printing — Advanced Material, Artificial Intelligence and Automation. This year was the largest iteration of the show with more than 111,000 attendees from 143 countries (2019: 105,000) 1,709 exhibitors from 47 countries (2019: 1,717), and 200,000 square meters of exhibition space (2019: 114,500 square meters). Digital printing was again heavily featured at ITMA 2023, with an entire hall devoted to this technology. The digital print market grew substantially since the last ITMA. There was a slowdown during the pandemic, but now there is a return to a growth market.
ITMA 2015 saw a transformative breakthrough with the development of single pass printers, capable of printing at speeds up to 70 meters per minute (m/min). Surprisingly, these high-speed printers were not featured as prominently at ITMA 2023. Rather, the emphasis was on the optimization and maturation of scan type printers with a focus on sustainability, as well as optimization of the printing process to improve quality and reduce colorants, chemicals and time. Scan type printers, while still not as fast as single pass printers, are now much faster than what was shown at ITMA 2019, reaching speeds of 15 to 20 linear yards per minute. The increased speed of scan type printers is achieved by stacking print heads. Although slower, scan type printers also offer greater flexibility, and in some instances higher quality. The high speed of single pass printers means approximately 20 percent of designs cannot be achieved, particularly those prints where more saturated, larger solid print areas are required. Scan type printers are cheaper and take up less floor space and so it’s possible to have several on the factory floor printing using different colorants on a variety of substrates. Scanning technologies offer manufacturing flexibility and redundancy, which is critical for print on demand environments where ultra-short run printing includes quick turns across a variety of materials and product types.
Scanning solutions offer the ability to scale manufacturing over time through the addition of machines and the ability to “step up” to the next machine level. This is a strategy offered by a number of vendors.
At ITMA, Japan-based Epson showcased the Monna Lisa series —widely considered to be one of the premium technologies for the high-est resolution and highest-quality prints — including the ML 8000, 16000, 32000 and 64000 machines for which the model number corresponds to the number of printheads and therefore throughput capability. Models and capabilities include:
- ML 8000, which prints with a set of reactive and acid dyes, called REACID, for fiber blended substrates, or for more flexibility if for example, a customer wanted to print substrates compatible with acid for one print run and reactive for another.
- ML 13000, which offers inline pre- and post-treatments with pigment inks. The pretreatment liquid, ejected through one of the print-heads, jets a surfactant agent to pull the ink to the surface of the fabric, which helps to make the print more colorful. Another print-head jets a binder for increased fastness properties, while another printhead jets a softener to improve the hand of the fabric.
- ML 16000 hybrid, which combines piezo-electric printheads with microvalves. The printheads jet pigment colorant and the microvalves are able to jet paste for effects such as metallic and white pigmented color.
- ML 3200, which has a printable width of 340 centimeters and 32 printheads. This printer can be configured to print two pieces of fabric simultaneously, thus increasing productivity and reducing energy and resource consumption.
Italy-based EFI Reggiani showed the opportunity to step up in machine width with its Hyper model available as a 1.8-, 2.4-, or 3.4-meter-wide machine. Equipped with 72 printheads and ink recirculation up to the nozzle plate, it can print two pass, production quality at speeds up to 13 linear m/min on a 1.5-meter-wide roll. The widest machine also offers dual-roll capability to print two different, narrower substrates at once at throughput speeds of up to 20 m/minute. This is an interesting concept, shown by Italy-based Durst at the last ITMA show, which requires special machine and software engineering.
Italy-based Dover Industries Italy (DII) (MS Printing Solutions & JK Group brands), also featured scaling opportunities within its scanning line. At the top end, the Mini Lario has been upgraded and now has eight rows with up to eight heads per row and can print at a speed of 1,000 meters per hour. This is one of the fastest scan type printers on the market. DII (MS & JK brands) reports that the Mini Lario can be precisely color matched to production on the Lario to enable longer production runs of the same design and colorway should the need arise.
In addition, DII (MS & JK brands) showed the reengineered JP7 machine and system that significantly improves the sustainability of the entire printing process. The center of this optimized, sustainable printing system is Digistar Pigment 4K, a patent pending colorant set that eliminates pretreatment, thereby reducing chemical and water usage, as well as time and cost. The printer also includes a new zero-wastewater recirculation system that reduces up to 90 percent of water waste typically generated in a 40-hour working cycle. To further optimize a sustainable printing process, a new ink recirculation system from DII (MS & JK brands) prevents nozzle blocking, which is a primary cause of print fabric defects that leads to fabric and colorant wastage. Gradus, its in-line drying system, ensures minimal energy consumption; and because the modular system allows curing and drying all in one, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.
Austria-based Zimmer Austria Inc. — a producer of machines for textile and carpet finishing including digital printing systems, flat and rotary screen printing, coating systems, steaming, washing and drying — showcased the Colaris3 high-performance pretreatment, digital printing and colorant systems for applications that require colorant penetration through the substrate such as carpeting, towels, and plush or heavy automotive and home décor fabrics. The Colaris series of printers can be used with a variety of colorants such as reactive, disperse, acid, pigment and vat. Inline pre-and post-treatment systems can be added to improve print quality and increase ink penetration. The Colaris printer has 16 printheads for a larger color gamut, increased speed, or flexibility to run multiple types of colorants. Zimmer has added a vision camera detection system to its Colaris digital printers. The Colaris-vision I – Match Print to Cut includes individual piece goods recognition and outline masking with automated computation of the print mask positioning for design customization.
Zimmer’s Colaris-vision II – Match to Print is a roll-to-roll print process with seamless detection of a pre-imagined fabric followed by a registered print. The system has an automated distortion compensation that ensures the print is fitted precisely into the given structure on a web. The design can be fitted exactly onto the substrate despite of any weft misalignment or shrinkage from fabric preparation in the pre-print process.
As part of the textile industry’s cur-rent focus on sustainability, vendors continue to ramp up investment in the development of solutions that reduce water, chemical and material waste. Digital dyeing, inline pretreatment, and pigment printing all have the potential to improve sustainability. In particular, pigment colorant was featured by a large number of vendors. As pigment technology matures, com-petition is increasing in a way that is leading to improvements in print quality and innovations in chemistry and application. Further adoption of ink recirculation strategies is a contributing factor to the success of pigments and this idea was highlighted by EFI Reggiani in its Hyper system. Ink recirculation was also mentioned by DII (MS & JK brands) in regard to its redesigned JP7 technology in combination with the Digistar Pigment 4K.
Integrated softening and pretreatment innovations from multiple solution providers is paving the way for greater acceptance of pigment printed fabric. Japan-based Kyocera Corp., a key supplier of industrial printhead technology to textile developers, has joined the mix with the introduction of Forearth technology, and highlighted the ability to print on a broad range of fabrics.
Other advanced material innovations included China-based Atexco’s double-sided printing technology and reactive colorant that does not require a post treatment for cotton substrates.
Overall, vendors illustrated the compatibility of digital printing with tricky-to-manage substrates including knits and lightweight apparel fabrics. This was particularly evident in the pigment printing area that had previously demonstrated poor fabric hand and color quality. New pigment technologies are opening-up the possibility for pigment printed fabric adoption in a broader range of product areas and markets.
Advances in pigment technology also are enabling special effect printing. During the show, Israel-based Kornit Digital Ltd. demonstrated a white pigment capability that enables imaging on colored grounds and when combined with its Xdi technology, creates a unique, raised, textural look.
Epson has taken this theme one step further with the introduction of the ML 16000 Hybrid machine that combines piezo-electric printheads with microvalves. The printheads jet pigment colorant while the microvalves jet paste to create effects including metallic and white pigmented color. Epson’s Genesta water-based inks guarantee color accuracy and fastness properties, while the special pastes — developed and produced by Italy-based Epson Como Printing Technologies S.r.l.— create the special effects.
Digital Dyeing And Finishing
Although pigments offer a sustainability advantage over dye-based colorants for digital printing, digital application methods for solid colors offer the potential for a much greater reduction in environmental footprint. Toward that end, England-based Alchemie Technology’s Endeavour™ digital dyeing technology applies liquid colorants to fabrics using a unique non-contact high-energy jetting of nano-droplets, delivering exceptionally homogeneous color throughout the fabric. This breakthrough waterless, low-carbon, digital dyeing technology, supports dye houses in reducing costs — dramatically cutting energy and carbon dioxide emissions by 85 percent, water use by 95 percent, and also eliminates wastewater pollution in the dyeing process.
Alchemie’s Novara™ digital textile finishing technology delivers sustainability with precision digital application of functional finishes to textiles. Novara is a non-contact, low energy, low chemistry, digital finishing solution that enables textile finishing houses to dramatically reduce their carbon and chemical footprint and reduce costs, using 85-percent less energy and up to 50-percent less chemistry compared to traditional methods, according to Alchemie. Novara delivers precisely defined digitally controlled finishes only where needed. It also enables product innovations including single-side finishing, 2D finish to shape, and allows multiple finishes to be applied to one fabric in a way that is not possible using traditional methods of immersing the entire fabric in a chemical bath. In addition, Alchemie also offers Discovery, a laboratory system that replicates production machines, and may be used for recipe development, color matching and new material process development.
Shenzhen Inkbank Graphic Technology Co. Ltd. (Inkbank), China, and Japan-based Mimaki showed direct-to-film (DTF) technologies for rapidly printing garments.
DTF printing eliminates the need for fabric selection, plate making and pretreatment as compared to the time and resource intensive processes required for silk screen, heat transfer— rubber sheet method — or direct-to-garment (DTG) printing. The DTF process is simple, and in this way, offers a sustainability advantage. First, the design is printed directly onto a special transfer film which is then sprinkled with hot-melt powder. Once heated and dried, the transfer sheet can be applied using a heat press. The one drawback is the waste created because a transfer material is used.
Mimaki offers the TXF150 for DTF. The PHT50 inks used for this printing process are heat transfer water-based pigments that are OEKO-TEX certified. The inks are safe and meet the criteria for ecologically responsible textile manufacturing, according to the company.
Artificial Intelligence And Automation
As digital textile printing technology matures and adoption of complex, high-speed printing systems grows, solution providers also are demonstrating greater investment in the creation of intelligent systems that ease technology management by enabling monitoring and optimized printer performance. Software applications are aimed at providing visibility that helps reduce machine downtime and operating cost, while minimizing waste. As customers invest in multiple print systems to scale print capacity, software strategies for automated system calibration and fleet management also are becoming increasingly relevant. Additionally, to help drive growth in adoption, technology providers are advancing digital workflow solutions designed to assist with order management and automation of repetitive file processing tasks.
A preview of the DII (MS & JK brands) System Plus Software, a new print management system, exemplifies the trend toward intelligent systems. The technology integrates calibration, printing software and ink for a robust, time saving solution. Used with DII (MS & JK brands) pigments and printers, the software system reduces calibration time by 50 percent, increases the color yield by up to 20 percent and increases the brightness of the colors by up to 15 percent. This system’s machine learning platform, the first-of-its-kind to be commercially available for digital printing, enables information to be gathered during the printing process to optimize current and future print runs. This software has the potential to eliminate print defects and reduce the amount of colorant needed.
DII (MS & JK brands) innovation is focused on a highly optimized manufacturing process. During ITMA, the company demonstrated the combined significance of advancing printer hardware and workflow in a working environment by way of organized plant visits to the Italy-based IMPRIMA printing mill.
IMPRIMA is a cluster of digital print operations with the capability to print 35 million meters of fabric annually. IMPRIMA largely serves the European luxury market, but also prints for U.S.-based brands such as Walmart, Target, Macy’s and Ralph Lauren, among other brands.
Kornit promoted its QualiSet technology, which is described as a smart, autonomous approach to calibration aimed at printhead registration, nozzle testing, compensation and color consistency. Paired with the previously introduced Konnect system for monitoring printer performance and consumables, the company now offers greater ability to manage the print operation at the fleet level. Production monitoring was also high-lighted by Epson for printers connected to the cloud-based PORT system, and by EFI Reggiani which showed the Query software solution that collects data and enables analysis and tracking of printer performance, cost and sustainability metrics such as water and energy consumption.
In addition, robust solutions for automating portions of the production process to reduce or eliminate labor are emerging in the digital printing sector. Kornit showed a fully automated DTG printing solution that reduces labor and increases production speed. Kornit’s Apollo DTG printer can print up to 400 garments per hour. Kornit’s patented wet-on-wet printing system eliminates the need for pretreatment. The Apollo, geared toward t-shirt printers who seek a near-shoring option, features in-line heat fixation, and an auto-mated loading and unloading system.
Harnessing Digital Printing Innovations
It was exciting to see the growth in digital printing technologies at ITMA 2023. Even more impressive was seeing some of these technologies successfully implemented in a production setting at IMPRIMA. Held in Milan, ITMA 2023 was located just a short distance from the Como region of Italy, long considered the luxury printing capital of the world. This region has changed from almost entirely rotary and flat screen printing to digital printing, allowing the industry to service sectors beyond the luxury market. It serves as a great example of harnessing the full capabilities of digital printing innovations.
Editor’s Note: Kerry Maguire King has more than 25 years working in the digital printing field. King played a role in the development of Spoonflower’s manufacturing platform, and currently is working as a consultant while continuing her education in the Ph.D. program at the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.