Optimization of textile print production
By controlling processes and understanding the requirements and economics of a workflow, it is possible to produce innovative textile alternatives to conventional printed products with higher quality, higher margins and higher uptime. Based on sound advice and expertise, using bespoke equipment specifically built for the purpose of digital textile printing, it’s easier to focus on customer demand, instead of losing time on working around the problems imposed by suppliers.
Optimizing artwork handling and color management before starting to print, results to better output on textile media. Better yet, it limits waste and it saves time and money.
It’s not the first time that an article is written about improving print quality and it will surely not be the last. But what is often forgotten to mention, is that it’s not just about improving color reproduction as to increase output quality, it is also about extending profit by cutting waste and managing resources. With digital textile printing, it is even more so an issue, as there are more steps in the process and critical parameters to mind than in many other production flows. With the right methodology however, it is possible to retain excellent output on fabrics while increasing margin and decreasing misprints at the same time; all because of prepress optimization.
There is a tendency to regard digital textile printing simply as a variant of digital inkjet printing among all other wide format sign and banner production possibilities. In many cases, digital textile printing is regarded as just another form of printing, very similar to other inkjet based output. And with that assumption, using printing equipment that was converted to something that may also be able to handle textiles, there seems to be little attention for the specific requirements of the entire textile production flow. In most cases, the same type of software, the same color management strategies, the same file handling and the same characterization of production processes are applied.
However, of all digital inkjet printing processes, textile print production is one of the more difficult around. As an example, characteristics of the media are very different from other processes and within the textile media range there are very different types of material. Woven media, knitted media; open structured, closed structured; stretchy, rigid; thick, thin. An open structured 110 grams flag fabric is very different from a closed structured 220 grams decostyle fabric. Yet, they are both textile media used in the same production environment.
Since the printing process is only one part of the whole – digital textile print production includes printing, fixation (or: sublimation), washing, cutting and finishing – focussing solely on getting the ink onto the media will result in neglecting other vital parameters in the entire production process. And this is where a print service provider can make a difference.
Processes and Challenges
Every single part of the entire print production flow has its own specific challenges. An often heard complaint concerns the artwork coming in for printing.
The predominant textile media used in visual communication is a polyester based fabric. In the USA, nylon is often used for flags. In northern Europe, polyspun material has been the choice of fabric for traditional flag printing. In today’s market, a woven or knitted polyester is the de facto standard. This differs from the predominant coated vinyl or PVC media used in the sign industry.
The production process needs to fit requirements for the type of ink: high energy sublimation (or: disperse direct), low energy sublimation (dye-sub), acid, reactive and pigment. In turn, the type of ink chemistry needs to fit requirements for the media (such as polyester, nylon, cotton, silk). Based on the media and ink combination, the choice comes for infra-red fixation, heat-press sublimation or steaming. The structure of the fabric also needs attention, for example whether it is woven, non-woven or knitted. Every choice has its pros and cons.
Polyester fabric is printed mostly with dye-sub or disperse direct ink, although UV, latex and solvent inks can also be used. The great benefit of sublimation ink is the fact that the colorants will bond with the fiber during sublimation or fixation. The colors are ‘inside’ the media and don’t stay within the coating and on top of the media, as it is the case with UV-curable formulations. Even latex inks on porous textiles can suffer from abrasion or ‘rub-off’. Low energy sublimation ink is easier to print with, but has the disadvantage of colors fading faster; its UV resistance, or light-fastness, is less resistant than equivalents using high energy disperse direct ink. Dye-sub can also suffer from a ‘halo’ effect which results in less sharp images. The disperse direct ink is a ‘stronger’ ink than the dye-sub kind, and this is very important for outdoor use, such as for fence fabric, flags and banners: artwork will last longer.
Another benefit of aqueous-based sublimation ink is the absence of hazardous components as found in UV-curable, solvent and, even, in latex inks. When executed properly, direct to media printing with disperse ink is achievable on uncoated fabrics and offers maximum print-through; this is essential in applications viewed from both sides, such as with flag printing. As such, products can be sold at a higher margin, with a ‘green’ label and with a higher quality.
The biggest advantage of direct to media printing is drastically reduced waste. This method doesn’t need printing on transfer paper first before calendering (or heat-pressing) it onto the media. Waste is both an economical and an ecological factor in print production. Print speed doesn’t account for much if a large portion is being thrown away as waste due to incompatibility of media, ink, treatment or lack of know-how.
The qualities of the printed end-product should fit the needs of the application. Longevity, fastness and hand properties are important. Post-processing is something to think about: is the printed material easily processed, applied or handled. Should it be washed or does it need a finish (e.g. fire retardant, water repellent). A washed textile no longer has coating or ink residues and will, therefore, have a better feel. Moreover, it will be less prone to stains and it will last longer.
As well as material concerns and application issues, economics come into play. Where the traditional textile print industry is accustomed to mass production with long-runs, the digital inkjet business mostly produces short-run non-textile products. This approach to digital textile printing is very different, and so is the expectation. Where sign-makers are familiar with a single process system, traditional textile printing is accustomed to several production steps. In the balance of the economics behind production needs, it is important to understand the entire production flow. An example lies with the choice of fixation equipment and the subsequent implication of energy and resource cost; for example, a steamer needs water and energy, and a calender needs to heat up and uses lots of energy plus considerable amounts of paper.
Additionally, the impact on business by legislation and requests from customers with regard to environmentally friendly products, are increasingly becoming a factor.
How does this all reflect on the awareness of possibilities for brand owners, marketeers and print service providers?
Stated simply, by controlling processes and understanding the requirements and economics, it is possible to produce innovative textile alternatives to conventional printed products with higher quality, higher margins and higher uptime. Based on sound advice and expertise, using bespoke equipment specifically built for the purpose of digital textile printing, it’s easier to focus on customer demand, instead of losing time on working around the problems imposed by suppliers.
Industry survey figures show growth in textile printing of 25-30%. Printers increasingly are exploring new ways of making use of fabrics to replace their traditional printed output. Manufacturers are developing technologies and equipment for textile printing. End-users are starting to understand the benefits of using textiles, such as easy mounting and installation, easier logistics such as light-weight transport, and more eco-friendly production, to name just a few of the advantages. There’s a market for sampling or proofing, a market for outdoor advertising, a market for in-store and in-house decoration, plus endless opportunities for exhibition design and dedicated application for automotive and clothing. It is no wonder that so many wish to enter this industry.
Yet, all too often, a manufacturer that solely focuses on converting an existing printer into something that can also print on textile, ‘forgets’ to take all the afore-mentioned considerations into account. And, just as frequently, a standard is set – not because of possibilities, but from the limitations, leaving the marketeer, the brand owner, the designer and the print company with a misunderstanding of the practical possibilities.
It’s not an easy task to filter the marketing stories from the realistic production figures. Well-known manufacturers might not have the right product but produce convincing marketing ‘spin’, while lesser known manufacturers could have the perfect product but do not have the right exposure.
An expert cooperation such as LMNS, together with their clients, media manufacturers, technology partners and industry organizations, has come up with a perspective and way of working that should serve to change the situation for the better. Instead of focusing on sales of equipment only, it concentrates on putting together the pieces of the puzzle, to raise awareness of textile application opportunities and to research, educate and demonstrate sound solutions. The overall goal is to prove the benefits of these advanced technologies and combine them with practical application examples which will appeal to brand owners, marketeers and print service providers.
This article was written by Roland Biemans, founder/owner of LMNS. With an international background of research, development and marketing of software, hardware and supplies in the inkjet printing industry, Roland played an important role at different companies adapting and transforming technology for the development of innovative practical solutions. Among these solutions were the first refill sets and bulk ink systems for large format inkjet printers, edible ink, media winding systems, the first ever double-sided digital textile printer, software for controlling engravers, routers and cutters and an award winning contract proofing software. Most of his time was dedicated to the development and sales of software for color correction, color separation, proofing, photo editing and driving inkjet printers in the sign, banner and color reproduction industry.
Roland initiated the digital textile print competence center in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Early 2013, he became board member of the European Specialist Printing Manufacturers Association (ESMA), and continues to support the association as Technology Partner. The Specialist Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) awarded Roland with the outstanding service award in recognition of his effort in advancing the industry and its association.
More information about Roland can be found at his LinkedIn page at: linkedin.com/in/rolandbiemans/