Part I – The Digital Vision
Digital textile printing technology is not new to our industry. In fact, digital inkjet systems for printing on textiles have been available for well over a decade. Despite the production flexibility offered by the digital method, the textile industry has been slow to adopt this strategy. Some of the barriers for adoption have included limitations in printable color space, variability in print quality, complexity of processing requirements and the two most significant factors – print speed and per yard print cost. For my next few blog posts I’ll be describing the current state of technology in the digital textile printing area. I’ll be approaching the topic from a systems perspective, touching on printer hardware, ink chemistry, fabrics, software and auxiliary equipment. As a preface to this information it’s useful to review some of the benefits the technology offers and consider these in terms of supply chain improvement and sustainability.
While the term digital can be used to refer to a spectrum of technologies within the field of printing, inkjet is the primary system type used for digital textile applications. In this context, the terms “digital” and “inkjet” are often used interchangeably. Within the inkjet environment, ink drops are formed from a master color set by a series of printheads. As the ink drops are ejected from the printheads, they fall to the surface of the substrate where they combine to create the color and image effect. This is sort of a “color on the fly” approach and early technology introductions were generally derived from wide format paper printers. Vendors modified these machines in minor ways to accommodate the ability to feed fabric through the printer during the printing process. Vendors also developed or partnered to introduce textile specific ink chemistries and software solutions to support color management and printing of textile repeats.
The first machines supported very modest print rates and a comparatively high per yard cost structure. At this stage of development print speeds were quoted in terms of only a few linear meters per hour with incremental improvements happening over time. The machines were predominantly used for sampling or very small quantity and customized print production. Within the production realm, technology adopters often printed for high end and niche markets and exploited the imaging capabilities offered by the digital method. Printing of highly tonal or photographic imagery or designs with many colors and/or engineered layouts has been common and when applied strategically, these features have offered additional value to the end consumer. As with production, adoption of a digital approach has been scattered in the sampling arena as well. In this context, product developers have attempted to use digital prints for early review of color, layout and print quality or to communicate the print concept to potential customers. The digital sampling strategy to date has taken place within a screen print production environment that offers broad printable color space, but that is more limited in terms of print features as compared to the digital method. This challenge has resulted in some level of resistance to adoption. However, those companies that have successfully implemented a digital sampling strategy have seen the benefits in terms of improved decision making at the design level and reduction of over-development and sampling costs.
Will digital printing become a viable solution for larger scale production?
This has been an overriding question for apparel, textile and related soft goods sectors. Where we once saw digital printing as complimentary to the screen print method, as a result of technology advancement opportunities for adoption at the production level are increasing. My colleague, Jud Early wrote an article a few years ago entitled, “Build it and will they come?” I’ll repeat the question here in my own words. Will there be a digital transition? I see this transition finally beginning to happen as companies look to state-of-the-art systems to better serve customers in terms of short run printing and innovation in product, design and/or business model. While some of the early adopters at the production level have come from outside traditional textile circles, there is ever increasing pressure on traditional supply chains with respect to reducing cycle time, improving efficiency and adoption of sustainable production methods. In addition, advancement in technology is paving the way for digital sampling to drive digital production and in this setting correlation between sampling and production becomes a less significant issue. These factors, coupled with an emphasis on design as one means of differentiating a brand’s product, create conditions that are ripe for digital printing to gain traction within our industry.
In terms of technology adoption, digital printing was once looked upon as an advancement that would help to support competitiveness of textile manufacturing in the western hemisphere. However, some of the earliest adopters were found in Japan, Korea and Western Europe (Italy specifically). Today we are also seeing growth of digital textile printing in China, India and Brazil. To date, most adoption in the U.S. has been directed toward soft signage applications. It may be that broader adoption in this region will continue to be focused on niche markets and will grow from ventures initiated by individuals or companies from both within and outside the traditional textile community – essentially entrepreneurs looking for ways to bring unique products to the market and offer value to the consumer or the customer in terms of innovation, personalization and customization.
What are some potential impacts for the cotton product supply chain?
As a highly flexible system, the digital method offers tremendous opportunity to respond rapidly to shifting product demand. It also provides an opportunity for product developers and manufacturers to gain valuable insight into the potential success of a print design early in the development cycle. Once a digital sample has been produced, the fabric can be reviewed for color, style and integration within the overall product line. The printed sample can also be shared with sales teams and potential customers for approval or potential market acceptance. Most importantly, these benefits can be achieved with limited investment in time and resources and all supply chain stakeholders will benefit from a decision making process that is more informed.
Additionally, digital printing optimizes the use of chemistry, minimizes waste streams and enables a short-cycle, on-demand scenario in which fabric is printed as required by and in response to market demand. With innovation and advancement of inkjet chemistry, a waterless approach to coloration also becomes increasingly viable. These characteristics are of broad benefit and potentially point to greater flexibility in terms of location of future production print facilities.
With this background in mind, look to my next post for insight into the current state of printer hardware. This post will be followed by additional information regarding ink chemistry and specialized applications including DTG printing – an area of great relevance to the production of cotton t-shirts. As always, we encourage readers to post questions and comments on this post and others and to review the information in the technology reference area.