Over the last three to five years the launch of robust hardware solutions that are designed to withstand the rigors of a production operation has been the primary goal among a number of digital textile print technology providers. The adoption of digital sublimation printing for soft signage has been a significant driver for technology development. The broader textile industry is benefitting from this effort and today, equipment is specifically engineered for textile requirements. Machines for direct printing on fabric now incorporate the use of tacky belt or cylinder feed mechanisms to advance the fabric. Machines are also equipped with bulk ink capabilities to support greater throughput. Ink developers work closely with printer manufacturers to formulate colorants for a variety of fiber types that support reliable jetting as well as optimized color gamut and fastness characteristics.
Printhead technologies are also advancing and primary areas for development have included increasing the number of inkjet nozzles per printhead and in some cases, the density of the nozzles. Benefits include improvements in print speed, print resolution, and consistent quality output. It’s also becoming possible to bank printheads together to form arrays that traverse across the width of the fabric covering larger areas of the cloth in a single pass of the print carriage. The ultimate goal has been the creation of fixed array technology in which machines are engineered so that printheads span the width of the fabric, remaining stationary while the fabric is transported beneath. This method is sometimes referred to as single pass, continuous printing.
Machines with Epson printhead technologies have dominated the market to date and a number of vendors have used wide format print engines from Mimaki, Mutoh or Roland as the foundation for printer development. In this case vendors act as technology integrators, mounting the engines on fabric feed systems for the textile printing market. For printing of roll goods, Epson based solutions have been offered by vendors including ATPColor, Costruzione Macchine Speciali, La Meccanica, MS Macchine, Robustelli, SPG Prints (Stork Prints), and Yuhan-Kimberly (now through Expand Systems). Mimaki and Mutoh also offer their own textile printing equipment and within the garment printing area, modified desktop technologies from Epson are also used.
Recently, developers have looked to more industrial printhead technologies to pave the way for greater production capabilities. These technology solutions are available from a variety of vendors. Here is a list of printer vendors organized by printhead manufacturer. Direct-to-garment (DTG) systems have been noted:
- Brother (Brother DTG printer)
- Fujifilm Dimatix (Agfa, Durst and Kornit Digital DTG Printer)
- Konica Minolta (Konica Minolta’s Nassenger series)
- Kyocera (Aeoon DTG printer, MS Macchine, SPG Prints and Reggiani)
- Markem Imaje (Osiris)
- Ricoh (Mimaki)
- and Seiko Printek (d·gen, Hollanders, Zimmer)
Among the vendors listed, Kyocera has been gaining considerable attention of late in regard to the KJ4B printhead. According to the Kyocera website, this device is capable of pulsing at a very high rate. It contains 2, 656 ink nozzles per head and offers a 4.25 inch print width. MS Macchine, SPG Prints and Reggiani have adopted this technology and the related systems support print speeds over a hundred linear yards per hour. In the case of the MS-JPK and SPG’s Sphene printer, it’s possible to purchase multi-carriage configurations that support print speeds of several hundred yards per hour at the top end.
In addition to the JP6 and JPK models, MS Macchine recently introduced the LaRio printer. This machine makes use of a single pass, continuous strategy and is equipped with up to 8 stationary print bars. Kyocera printheads span the machine width and each print bar is dedicated to the delivery of a single color. In this arrangement the machine is capable of printing up to 70 meters per minute. It is also possible to install a second set of printheads on the back of each print bar for operation of a second ink set in support of multi-fiber printing. MS indicates that the first machine is currently being installed in Italy and should be running production by mid-July. A second machine is scheduled for installation at a Brazilian site during the month of September.
The Isis machine by Osiris Digital is another example of a single pass, continuous printing system. The Markem Imaje printheads used in this system are of the continuous inkjet variety, rather than the drop-on-demand systems that currently dominate technologies for textile applications. As the respective labels suggest, continuous inkjet systems are constantly pulsing and forming ink droplets, while drop-on-demand systems form drops as required by the image data. Continuous inkjet has generally been viewed as an approach that supports faster drop formation for higher speed printing. In the case of the Isis machine, print rates of up to 30 linear meters per minute are possible. The machine supports a modest print resolution, but thought to be comparable to the screen print method in terms of image detail possible.
In early June, Osiris announced that their assets had been acquired by Ten Cate with a plan to continue sales and support of the Isis machine under Ten Cate’s Xennia division. Ten Cate is also currently engaged with Reggiani with respect to a printer described as employing “diagonal, multi-pass” technology. Elimination of banding associated with nozzle failure is among the benefits described for this system. This development follows the completion of the Digitex project, which was coordinated by Ten Cate and executed in conjunction with a number of European companies and universities. The Digitex project involved research into digital application of functional finishing chemistry and culminated in a conference held in late 2010 that showcased the results of the 4 year development effort.
In addition to the hardware described thus far, a new printer is anticipated to be introduced by Konica Minolta and Durst recently announced the development of the Kappa 180 printer to support production level printing within the broader textile market. This equipment is scheduled to be shown at ITMA Barcelona. Currently available textile technology from Durst is designed for printing of soft signage materials using sublimation chemistry. Durst joins vendors including Agfa, ATPColor, d·gen and Hollanders in a growing list of technology providers offering superwide format technology for printing of very large scale graphics.
While this post has been focused on technology development for digital print hardware, I’ve only provided mention of systems for direct-to-garment printing. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, DTG printing is of great relevance to the cotton product industry. With that in mind, I will be providing greater detail on this application going forward. My next post will address color & ink chemistry for digital printing with a focus on advancements of relevance to the cotton industry.