bp default image

Taking the Direct Approach

Exploring direct printing on fabrics.

The demand for digitally printed fabrics is on the rise. In a recent report, Boston-based I.T. Strategies estimates that there were 2300 dedicated digital textile printers producing more than 900 million sq ft of digitally printed textiles in 2005. By 2010, the consultant group predicts, the number of printers will increase to 5000 and produce more than 2.1 billion sq ft of textiles.

And if you’ve been thinking that the textile market only revolves around a very narrow niche of applications, you might want to reconsider that assumption: Yes, banners and flags certainly comprise a large slice of the textile pie, but print providers also are generating textile output for tradeshow graphics, P-O-P, automotive and boating products, tents, and much more.

Certainly one factor that has helped push the increased use of fabrics has been the appearance of technology allowing the print provider to print directly onto the fabric itself. For years, the standard when it comes to digitally printing onto fabrics has been traditional dye sublimation-a two-step process that involves printing onto transfer paper and then sublimating the inks to the fabrics. But with their turnaround times shrinking, and more and more pressure to reduce costs, print providers could easily rationalize why not to take on fabric jobs.

Today, however, those obstacles are falling away as print providers can now take advantage of direct printing as well as a hybrid option or two. In basic geometry, the shortest, most direct path from point A to point B is a straight line. Well, when it comes to printing on fabrics, the shortest path to successful and profitable output may also be direct-as in direct printing.

The direct options
While most rollfed printers-and many flatbed printers-now count fabric as a substrate they can image onto, more and more textile-specific, direct-fabric printers are being introduced. These newer technologies are catching on because of the benefits they provide-including factors such as typically decreased expenses, increased speed, and production of a quality product at a lower price point. Today’s direct-print systems encompass a variety of technologies, including:

* Direct dye-sub printers: Many of the direct-print machines for fabrics that are being introduced still require the heat-set component. The advantage these machines offer is the elimination of the transfer-paper step. By directly imaging onto the fabric, print speed is ramped up, without giving up the dye-sub quality. Examples of new direct-print dye-sub printers include: L&P DirectUV, which uses UV-curable inks to "freeze" the UV-dye inks onto the uncoated textiles, eliminating wicking issues; the 10-ft. DuPont Artistri 3320, which supports acid, reactive, and disperse dyes as well as pigment and SolarBrite inks; Gandinnovations’ Jeti 3312 and 3324 DS, both traditional dye-sub (imaging onto transfer paper) and direct-print (imaging onto fabric) machines; and the Keundo SupraQ 3300-Pro, a solvent-based machine that allows the user to switch to Hilord dye-sub inks.

* Combo dye-sub machines with onboard heat presses: The latest contenders in the fabric-printing market are the matched direct-printer and heat-fixation units. These print-heat combos may provide the best of both worlds-the speed and ease of direct print onto fabrics with dye-sub inks, then immediate sublimation with the attached heat-press component. No fuss, no muss-resulting in a high-quality dye-sub product produced at a higher speed, with less-costly materials, and no need to purchase a separate heat-set unit. Examples of some of the newer printer/heat-set units include: d-gen Teleios printers, equipped with a cylinder media-feeding system to prevent fabrics from twisting or curling; the JNS TexPress DSS-1800 II, which prints directly onto untreated (or treated) polyester and features a built-in heat cutter; and the Graphics One Viper TX Direct-to-fabric system, which comprises a Mutoh Viper TX printer with a tension roller system to hold thinner fabrics, a GO Sublimator, and GO Tango dye-sub inks.

* Other direct-print technologies/machines: Last but not least, keep in mind that although most new aqueous, solvent, mild-solvent, and UV-curable printers don’t refer to themselves as "direct print," these can indeed image directly onto coated (or uncoated) fabrics without the heat-set process on the back end-producing print-and-go fabric jobs.

By definition, direct imaging onto fabric is a one-step process, making it faster than dye-sub’s two-step process. Too, wide-format inkjets come in sizes up to 16-ft wide, allowing more fabric to be printed in one swath; traditional dye-sub printers are limited by the width of transfer paper-typically ranging up to 60-in. wide. "The practicality of going direct is important. Labor and materials saving are significant," says Richard Codos, L&P’s executive director of North American development. Direct-print systems require only the printer, ink, and fabric-no transfer paper, no labor to move to the heat press, and, for some printers, no heat-press at all.

And because many new printers are built to accommodate fabrics-via roller systems designed to feed all fabrics, including thin or stretchy ones-directly printing onto fabric may be no more complex than imaging onto vinyl or foamboard. Printer OEMs also have addressed the issue of ink leaking through mesh fabrics by integrating troughs or other ink-catching systems-now available as standard or optional equipment on many new printers.

As far as print quality goes, some feel that direct-to-textile printing has achieved the same quality as traditional dye-sub systems. "Direct printing onto textiles has become very strong recently because printers can now provide the same image quality [as dye sublimation] with direct printing onto fabrics," says Guillaume Massard of Dickson Coatings. "Manufacturers of textiles have improved their coatings. The image quality-resolution and vivid colors-is the same as dye-sub printing."

The fabric factor
Of course, the success of direct-print hardware relies on the availability of direct-print fabrics. While dye-sub systems can take advantage of a plethora of uncoated fabrics, direct-print systems utilizing solvent or UV technologies may need ink-specific coatings to hold the ink drops. Coatings have improved since they were first introduced several years ago. Many fabric producers now offer coated fabrics-typically more expensive than uncoated-that can be imaged using one or more inkjet technologies.

The new treated or coated fabrics work well with direct-print printers and open the door to new applications. "Digitally printable coated fabrics allow end-users to get high-quality print results and enable lower print runs, allowing for customization," says Lance Hutt, digital global product manager, Avery Dennison Graphics & Reflective Division. "With the introduction of coated fabrics, end users can now produce fabric graphics that feature brilliant, crisp images and colors that really pop, versus the faded images of early-generation inkjet printers."

With the advancements in coated textiles, says Eric Tischer, director of sales for Neschen Americas, "solvent inks offer great, crisp imaging and color pop. UV ink, by its very nature, can print onto uncoated substrates and offers the same image quality as solvent ink-and sometimes better. Water-based inks traditionally don’t have the bite that solvent, UV, or dye-sublimation inks have, and this often can be seen in the finished print quality. Coated substrates are vital and very important to the best possible image quality for water-based and solvent ink technology."

According to Melissa Ackerman, marketing communications coordinator for NuSign Supply (US distributors for d-Gen printers), "Direct printing onto textiles means brighter colors are possible because no ink is lost in the transfer process, and there is less risk of waste due to failures or mistakes during the transfer process (paper getting wrinkled or the image skewed). Direct-printed textiles are more durable outdoors (fastness and resistance to fading) than dye sub because the ink used for direct print has a heavier molecular weight."

The main advantage for direct printing over traditional dye sub is the color penetration to the back side of the fabric, says Jeffrey Cheatham, director of sales for Fisher Textiles. "On lightweight fabrics and flag mesh, you can achieve up to 90% color on the back of the fabric, where only 70% was possible with traditional paper transfer."

Hot applications
No matter which technology you opt for, the bottom line is to understand the benefits that printed fabrics can provide to your customers. Such as: Textiles are easily folded for storage, allowing for less-expensive shipping and less chance of damage in route; textiles feel good to the touch; there is no glare on illuminated textiles; textiles can be made into something dimensional; and customers may perceive that printed textiles indicate quality.

In addition, textiles can open up new products and applications for existing or new customers, and print providers can generally earn a higher profit margin on printed textiles. Fabric applications can be organized into four basic categories: event, retail, decor, and fashion:

* Event graphics: Comprising sports graphics, inside and outside stadiums, and arenas, as well as TV, movie, and theatrical backdrops. Also keep in mind that inflatables and promotional balloons need the flexibility and lightweight properties of fabrics; and many tradeshow graphics imaged onto textiles are morphed into 3-D shapes and forms using metal "skeletons." Too, fabric mesh works well for airflow with building wraps.

* Retail graphics: Here, fabric signage is counted on to provide an upscale appearance, and it allows stores the flexibility to layer graphics and colors for a unique look. Retail graphics comprise weekly and seasonal banners, flags, and in-store displays; and umbrellas, awnings, and tents for permanent or temporary use. "The visual aspect of the images being able to be seen-and seen through-is desirable in the retail marketplace," says Cheatham of Fisher Textiles.

* Decor applications: These run the gamut-from corporate headquarters decorated with the company’s logo to customized home furnishings for consumers. Specific application include: textured wallcoverings, which are printed in strips and applied just like regular wallpaper; room dividers, bedding, and drapes; carpets; and the gaming felt that covers casino tables and pool tables (all of which can be highly customized).

* Fashion: Applications here begin with prototypes, garment strike-offs, and multiple color versions of designer textiles, and go all the way to swimwear, sportswear, fashion accessories (such as shoes and purses), and limited-edition runs for designers. The direct-textile printer d-gen Heracle is being used to produce bags, canvas shoes, bedding, curtains, swimsuits, and umbrellas, reports Ackerman from NuSign.

"We are open to the whole world where the huge fabric markets are, such as home furnishings and apparel, direct to carpets for shows, printing upholstery, garments for strike offs, and more," says Codos of L&P.

Examining market demand
This rise in popularity of printed fabrics is good news for print shops that have already invested in fabric production or are now exploring their fabric options. Opening new markets-furnishings, decorative products, and apparel-can prove to be both exciting and profitable.

Depending on your current mix of wide-format printers, your shop may be able to image directly onto fabrics using the machines you already own. If the market demand is there, however, and you find yourself considering the purchase of new technologies, carefully examine the options available to find what fits best within your operation.

"Fabrics can help set your shop apart from your competition because they enable unique solutions that will gain repeat business from customers," says Avery’s Hutt. "And they enable you to add value to your customers’ signage, which will result in higher profits for your business."

Peggy Middendorf is managing editor of The Big Picture.