Digital print tech lifts fabric creatives to new levels

By Jon Severs, Monday 25 September 2017

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Chris Childs is a convert. The managing director and founder of Contrado, a fabric printer that also operates the Bags Of Love online business, believes digital fabric printing isn’t just transforming the lower-run, bespoke end of the fabric market, but will encroach on more and more of the fabric printing sector, which is still largely wedded to screen printing.


“We see digital fabric printing taking a great share of traditional fabric markets,” he says. “More and more consumers are wanting environmentally and ethically friendly production, while maintaining an insatiable desire for something different. We’re also seeing a return to local manufacturing and a demand for high-quality goods that can be personalised so customers can make products their own.” 

In some respects, the statistics support such a view. The fabric printing market as a whole, according to the Smithers Pira report The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2021, will more than double in value by 2021, from $1.3bn (£950m) in 2016 to reach $2.6bn. Key in that growth, according to John Nelson, commissioning editor, Smithers Pira, will be an increase in digital fabric printing. 

“Mean annual growth for digital processes is 17.5% per annum, whereas for analogue process it is only around 3%,” he explains. 

However, for digital, that’s 17.5% of not very much. “It is still only around 2%-3% of the global printed textile trade, which is dominated by screen,” says Nelson. 

So digital still has a lot of catching up to do. But Childs is right, digital is certainly on the march and technology is rapidly advancing to facilitate that shift so that more and more of the fabric printing market is in reach. 

So where do the benefits of digital lie, what are the digital technologies best placed to capitalise on the market, and are things moving quickly enough? 

As with most sectors, the appeal of digital is the ability to produce short-run and complex work, fast and at a competitive price and that is increasingly the demand of the customer. 

“In terms of creativity, as in other print segments, digital frees designers’ hands to produce and proof short-run fabric products economically, and enables late customisation of conventionally printed fabrics,” says Nelson. “The availability of digital aligns with demands in the apparel trade for lower stock holding and multiple mini-seasons of fashion. And designs themselves can be distributed easily via web-to-print platforms.”

Digital is necessary

Childs echoes this and says digital is not an option but a requirement now in the creative garment sector. 

“We can produce between one metre and 50 metres of bespoke printed textiles for our customers in one or two days,” he explains. “The level of testing and sampling is second to none due to our production process being geared for speed and efficiency with no loss of quality. There’s virtually no limit to how small a job we do, so users can really test their creative ideas; they can get something unique in a few days. They have fewer limitations and more control.”

Did the tech create the market for this or did the market create the tech? Certainly digital has been there as a proofing option for years but there was a symbiotic rise in quality on the tech side and demand on the consumer side. As the tech grew capable, the market seized the opportunity and access to garments became more mainstream, pushing the tech further. 

“Digital printers mean that small print runs are possible,” says Janet Warren, owner of Print Me Pretty. “That means anyone can get their design printed onto fabric. Instead of a minimum print run in the hundreds or thousands of metres, I can print from 20cm square.”

Everything from tshirt printing to sports kit to bespoke furnishings and bags are now common consumer items, with printers like Contrado and Print Me Pretty selling direct and major brands like Not On The High Street selling from multiple suppliers. And there is a vibrant trade market, too, with bespoke window displays, event banners and retail dressings. 

But what kit and print process do you need to thrive in this market? Well it depends on the product. 

In the trade market for event and retail furnishings, Stephen Arthur, operations director at MediaCo, says the latest tech producing the widest products is essential – among his kit is an EFI Vutek FabriVu. 

“The development of fabric printing technology has progressed significantly in recent years, in terms of print speed and apparent definition, colour gamut, contrast, range of materials and end applications. The most recent development is the introduction of 5m-wide printers. This opens the opportunity for wider seamless graphics, which were previously restricted to 3.2m,” he explains. 

He believes dye-sublimation is the must-have method for this market. 

“Compared to other fabric print methods, dye-sublimation provides the best results in terms of final image quality,” he argues. “Dye-sublimation printed material offers a little bit more stretch, compared to UV printed materials, and this small amount of stretch makes it easier to fit images to frames and pull out any creases. This means seamless full-colour graphics for wall coverings, exhibition backdrops, and the like, replacing more traditional solution of rigid boards, which require substantial structures to be built. The effect is lower distribution and installations costs, faster build and de-rig and improved health and safety by reduced weight.”

On the consumer space, Childs believes a mix of two methods means market demands can be met. 

“We use pigment and dye-sublimation in equal measure, but not reactive due to its environmental footprint,” he explains. “These two prints methods benefit from new opportunities in technology for the production and fulfilment of orders, enabling us to be very flexible and able to react and adapt quickly to demand.”

Essentially, Childs argues that being able to switch between the two methods means he can deliver the right product, at the right price, for a customer requirement, where as adopting only one of the two would reduce the flex in what he can offer. 

That said, Warren just opts for pigment. Though she admits it does not wear quite as well as other methods, it means she can deliver products at a cheaper price. The other reason she opts for it, though, is because she believes it is the most eco-friendly option. 

“Little waste ink, virtually no water, reasonable electricity and not too much fabric waste,” she says. 

Green garments

The eco angle is an important one in fabric printing – printers stress that this is something clients are still very keen on across the different fabric printing setors. 

“We feel the demand from customers and creatives alike,” says Childs. “We make everything to order so only print what we need. Our inks are water based; we use no gas or water treatments in the process; it consumes very little power and, as we are London based and many of our suppliers and customers are in the UK and EU, there is a low transport footprint.”

He says it is not just about the printing process, but the materials you can print on, too. “Some of our textiles are eco fabrics and this is a growing area we focus on,” he reveals. “We encourage the use of recycled polyesters and welcome the changes in demand from heavy environmental impact cotton production to blended or recycled materials, which we find print beautifully and introduce new textures.”

Nelson says inkjet has made major strides on eco performance. “These processes can use as little as 20 litres of water to process a kilogram of printed substrate – for cotton this can be as much as 10,000 litres per kilogram,” he says. 

And Arthur says eco concerns are key: “Our investments in technology, materials and consumables is driven by continued improvement in environmental compliance, material handling and performance.” 

But are there enough tech options out there for printers wishing to capitalise on the digitally-served fabric market? Is the tech doing what it needs to and if not, will growth ultimately stall as a result? 

Nelson sees further growth on the horizon but admits that digital is still not competitive on price for long runs – so that is an area to work on and we are likely to see the break point between digital and conventional screen printing creep up the run lengths with every iteration of the tech. 

But for now, Warren says the print quality on her Mimaki TX300 is where it needs to be and the product range she is able to produce meets the demands of users.

Childs agrees that where we are now with the tech is where the market is too, but he does say new applications are essential and he will be ready to adapt to anything the manufacturers can offer. 

“It’s essential to invest in new technologies,” he explains. “The turnover of new models, equipment and techniques is so rapid that staying on top of this is a challenge, but one that pays off. Tech is evolving rapidly, so the new ideas are flowing very quickly. Luminous, metallic, as well as wired fabrics (think lighting, fabric screens, body monitoring circuitry) are things we don’t do, but can see them in our vision for our development. As these exciting new technologies become the norm and commercial demand for them rises we’ll be able to quickly adapt our methods to produce offer these products too.”

He and others are keen to point out that it is not necessarily the manufacturers or the printers that drive this market, though, it is the customers. The limit of fabric printing should be the limit of their imaginations, says Childs. 

“Ultimately, we want to let creative people bring their imaginings to life and let them do what they do best… make and design unique creations,” he says.

That’s potentially a very difficult task to fulfil for every customers currently, but in at least attempting to reach that goal, digitally printed fabrics are already eating up larger portions of the fabric printing market, and the loftier the ambition of the customers in this sector, the larger the potential reward for the printers. 

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