And his new entity, Fabrix, aims to clean up on this trend for printed fabrics: everything from roller banners and blinds to curtains and trippy-coloured bean bags. Birch has no idea on the size of the printed textile market, but it’s getting much, much bigger, he reckons. He is not alone.
According to a 2013 Infotrends study the global digital textile printing industry is worth around £115bn and growing. The value of digitally printed textile garments, decor and industrial products is over £7bn, meanwhile digital textile printing equipment and ink sales are expected to grow by 39%.
Setting up your own textile-printing arm, and Fabrix is trading as a totally separate brand from Walsall-based Colourgraphics, can nevertheless be tricky.
“The technology has become so advanced in the last few years. Sublimation used to be something of a niche, but these days it’s more mainstream,” says Birch. “Printing on fabric is still totally different from paper, board and foamboard and there are other considerations to weigh up.”
Colourgraphics has supplied printed fabrics to customers for several years but before Fabrix came along it subbed out the work to trade suppliers at a cost of around £180,000 a year. Birch and his father Steve, who is managing director, wanted to bring the service in-house to trim costs, improve turnaround times and give more control to a business that likes to keep it in the family.
Colourgraphics started life as a copy shop when Steve and Vicki Birch ran an interiors shop and realised the potential of the new colour copiers coming onto the market in the 1990s. They bought a Canon copier and heat press to offer a fledgling transfer printing service on t-shirts. Conventional printing meanwhile developed to include posters, banners and flatbed UV solvent printing.
“We like to be self sufficient. We try to be ahead of the curve and wanted to move into textiles in a much bigger way. The market is clearly getting much bigger and more people were asking for things like pop-up stretch fabric displays. But we were spending about £15,000 a month outsourcing the work and so weren’t making any margin.”
Looking at the market, however, Birch could see it wasn’t all moving in the right direction: “A lot of people were printing onto paper and transferring it through a heat press, and we thought that was a long-winded way of doing things. We wanted technology that had in-line heating.”
Visits to Fespa and Sign & Digital UK soon revealed the technology that ticked that particular box.
The Mtex 5032 Pro is a 3.2m-wide, high-quality direct sublimation printer that delivers vivid, durable colour and boasts integrated heat fixation. The printer, from Portuguese manufacturer Mtex Solutions, runs at up to 58m2 an hour and is the second-generation version of the Mtex 5032, which proved itself a market-leading hit in direct-to-textile printing across Europe.
Choosing the right machine was just one thing, where to put it was entirely another. In the end the company leased a much larger unit adjacent to its main premises on the industrial estate in Walsall. This freed up an extra 557m2 – to nearly double the floor area across both sites.
The investment in kit totalled around £200,000, the lion’s share of which – £156,000 – went on the Mtex, but around £25,000 was spent on sewing machines and the rest on an automatic finishing table, painting, decorating and carpeting.
Colourgraphics’ staff already had bags of experience with wide-format work and understood file handling, workflow, RIPs and colour management, which they could apply to textile printing. Nevertheless, getting to grips with the textiles printing technology was a process of”trial and error” for Fabrix’s dedicated team of five people, according to Birch.
“With fabrics there is a big learning curve: each material has different characteristics in terms of shrinkage, expansion and tolerances.
“We use stretch textiles, polyester canvases, even sound insulation fabrics, and each one is very different with its own unique set of characteristics.
“We had two days of training on the new machine but the rest was based on trial and error. We soon picked it up, though, as the Mtex is like a big Mimaki solvent printer and running it has many similarities. Within a couple of days we were printing off material.”
Other learning curves were as much cultural as technical, recalls Birch. Every inch of that 557m2 unit has to be kept spotless – floors are hoovered every day and finishing tables are kept immaculate because some of the costly fabrics the company now prints on.
If you get a mark on a sheet of foamboard, explains Birch, you can easily wipe it off. That’s not so easy expensive high-end Georg & Otto Friedrich warp knitted fabrics or swishy Berger textiles for digital printing.
And the people buying these fancy fabrics sporting fancier printwork are nearly all commercial clients, with demands for wall and window coverings and lightboxes. A tiny amount of walk-in business from ‘Joe Bloggs’ includes printed samples, photographic enlargements or the occasional birthday or church banner. And 90% of the work is ordered online, says Birch.
“We haven’t had to go big on advertising; a few magazine adverts. But because we’ve offered fabric printing and shipped it out to trade for a few years we haven’t had to really shout about the transition, we just tell customers we can now do it better and quicker using the right process.”
Birch expects the fabric-printing service to make £600,000 in its first year and double that amount in the second. It won’t be long, he reckons, before a second Mtex machine is squeezed into the Walsall business unit. Fabrix, meanwhile, will put another 40% on the total turnover of the business.
“It’s a growing market and more and more people are swinging from traditional point-of-sale and interior signage to fabric versions, which fold up small but stretch out crease-free and quickly on to frames.
“The capabilities of new technology, the supporting workflow and the the introduction of new inks for printing on to a wider range fabric outside of polyester makes this a very exciting time. But it’s not all plain sailing,” he notes.
“When you print with dye-sublimation you need a set temperature – not too hot and not too cold – and some companies are struggling with it. And where the quality is all right, speed is an issue and that’s where they have to look at the technology.
“The Mtex runs comfortably at 40m2/hr and it would be good if it could run at 120m2/hr like a Vutek machine. Maybe there’s a high-end textile machine out there, but I suspect you are talking about an investment of around £1m, which is a bit pricey regardless of how promising the market is right now and how much bigger it will become in years to come.”
Location Walsall, West Midlands
Inspection host James Birch, director
Size Turnover: £1.4m; Staff: 12
Products Banner stands, roller banners and posters and small-format work such as business cards, leaflets, flyers, letterheads and booklets, PVC displays and timber wall art
Kit Mtex 5032 Pro, Novajet solvent printer, Vutek QS3 Pro UV large-format printer, two Mimaki CJV30 solvent printers, HP Z6200 aqueous printer, Canon Océ ColorWave, Konica Minolta C6000L, Duplo finishing kit
Inspection focus Setting up a textiles printing arm
Understand the technology Printers considering a move into textiles need to be up to speed on how the latest inks work with certain fabrics in terms of appeal and durability.
Get the space Wide-format textile printers are sizeable beasts and along with cutting tables and sewing kit soon swallow up space, so plan on expanding floor area.
Be patient Understanding the challenges arising from printing directly onto fabric involves skills such as a strong grasp on colour consistency and tolerances.
Gen up on the fabric industry A close partnership with suppliers helps in coming to terms with complexities such as consistency of software and colour profiling.
Keep it clean Keep your workshop spotless by hoovering floors and cleaning finishing tables: a mark on a high-end fabric cannot be wiped off as easily as a mark on foamboard.
Focus on finishing skills Finishing is a fine art for textile printing so get the right equipment and people.