Ink Jet Inks Make Gains in Textiles

By Mike Agosta, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.09.05

Traditionally, textile printing has been the realm of screen printing, but ink

It may not occur to many people outside the industry that ink plays a role in fashion. Though the size of the market is often dependent on fashion trends, textile printing is expected to grow by 3.3 percent during the next 10 years.

Some estimates place the size of the textile market at 25 billion square meters annually, which makes it a sizable market for the ink industry. Ten percent of the total ink printing market is currently devoted to textile printing, according to Dr. Juergen Weiser, head of BASF global business management for ink jet inks.

According to BASF, printing is unique among textile methods as it gives designers unlimited opportunities for creating colored textiles. A textile printer has a greater range of potential patterns and styles at their disposal than is possible with other methods of coloring fabric.

Traditionally, textile printing has been the realm of screen printing, but ink jet technology has shown a great deal of potential in this market.

“There will always be a place for conventional screen printing because of longer production runs, but there has been a change toward runs becoming shorter,” said Dr. Andrew Barton, research analyst, specialty chemicals at Frost & Sullivan. “Where textile manufacturers used to order 10,000 meters per design, that has now become much smaller due to a demand for greater choice and a more individual outlook in fashion.”

“In the textile market, rotary screen, flat bed and table are the major application methods,” said Dr. Mickael Mheidle, head of new business applications, textile effects segment at Ciba Specialty Chemicals. “Ink jet printing is an emerging technology with fast growth and strong market penetration.”

Brightly colored prints with specially designed inks from Ciba Specialty Chemicals. (Photo courtesy of Ciba Specialty Chemicals)

Making Gains in the Marketplace
Though it accounts for only approximately 1 percent of the total textile printing market, ink jet is finding its niche in the market and is starting to make gains.

“There are two sides to ink jet in textiles,” said Dr. Barton. “The first is the apparel and home furnishings side, which is dominated by BASF, Ciba and DuPont. There is also soft signage, such as exhibition displays hanging from the ceilings.

“Textile banners for retail and conferences offer a fantastic opportunity for ink jet because each event or promotion will require only a small number of customized prints to be displayed over a relatively small period of time,” Dr. Barton added. “This type of end-use application demonstrates the unique value of ink jet because such a job would not be undertaken by traditional screen printers.

“By adopting ink jet, traditional textile printers have expanded their portfolio by picking up shorter runs that were too expensive considering the time and cost to run conventional screen presses,” Dr. Barton added.

“Since 1998, with the introduction of textile plotters, samples, catalogs and short runs, dedicated designs were basically produced with ink jet technology,” Dr. Mheidle said. “Textile inks are being used on all fibers for all sectors, e.g. fashion, flags, automotive and home furnishing. Small ink jet textile production shops were able to produce limited yardages especially for the fashion and event industry.”

“Currently, producers of high-quality designer goods, such as silk ties and scarves, are major buyers of textile ink jet inks,” Dr. Mheidle said. “As ink jet textile printing is also suitable for large designs, customers include flag producers. The introduction of the new Reggiani high-speed printer now allows medium-length production.”

At present, the major role for ink jet in the textile industry is in proofing.

“Digital textile printing has over the last five years generated a lot of interest and success for proofing what I’d call the proofing equivalent of graphic arts,” said John Kane, new business development manager, DuPont. “One of the challenges of process color ink jet printing right now is to replicate the look of screen printing. Many people want to use ink jet to provide sampling without making screens, and then later produce the actual finished product with a screen. As a result, ink jet has to mimic the rotary screen look as best it can.”

Creating a screen can cost up to e400 per color, which becomes expensive for elaborate proofs.

Ink jet prints can be can produced at speeds up to 150 square meters per hour with the Reggiani DReAM.

“With very little set-up costs, the value of this digital process can be quantified against the alternative, screen printing, where a high quality furnishings design with 16 colors would require 16 screens to be developed at great economic and time expense,” Dr. Barton said.

Dr. Weiser sees the potential for fast growth for ink jet in the textile field.

“Due to the limitation of the classical screen printing technique, ink jet printing will be adopted in textile printing faster than in other industrial printing segments,” said Dr. Weiser. “Due to it
s unlimited design possibilities, ink jet technology is being adopted by numerous new print shops right now and will be adopted by more consumer-oriented entities to print new motives, actual pictures, on textile.”

Ink Jet Enters the Medium-Run Market
While ink jet has mostly been used in proofing and short runs, opportunities are beginning to emerge in medium-run segments as ink jet equipment becomes faster and demand for a wider selection of textiles increases.

Economics are the main driver of ink jet for textiles, according to BASF. The costs per meter for ink jet are lower for short-run lengths than in traditional screen printing. The industry is currently seeking shorter production times and lower production costs, while the fashion industry is more concerned with quicker responses to fashion trends and greater ability for customization. All of this can be achieved through ink jet printing technology.

“There are many different markets in textile printing,” said Mr. Kane. “Most are long-run standard design printings, but the industry is focusing more and more on short-run, high-end niche markets. This represents a smaller percent of the market, but the profit is greater.

“The average run length has shrunk in half over the last five to 10 years as well, so the trends favor ink jet,” Mr. Kane continued. “Runs are shorter, turnaround is faster and people don’t want to pay for screens. They want more color and innovation. One of the markets DuPont is looking at is swimwear and anything where the run length generally isn’t long and there is a high demand for customization and variation in use. There isn’t a lot of printed material necessarily in these markets, but they are sold at a high price point. This is where ink jet will be successful.”

“Traditional textile mills use ink jet technology to cut costs for short runs,” said Dr. Weiser. “Ink jet printing is designed for individualized exclusive print runs. It is therefore now and in the future a small production lot business. The environment is more for the non-industrial area. New players to the market will be more likely to use ink jet than will the classical textile mills who are bound to their screen printing equipment.”

“Ink jet textile printing is highly cost-effective, since it minimizes the cost of short and medium runs, which are now much in demand in the market, as they allow exclusivity of design,” Dr. Mheidle said. “Furthermore, increasing the number of colors in a design does not increase the cost. There is no waste of ink or of textile, and no time is lost in cleaning equipment between runs. Designs can be sent round the world by computer, thus avoiding postage costs and saving time.”

According to Mr. Kane, Western textile manufacturers are facing stiff competition from Asia, and the economy has not helped. While the U.S. and much of Europe lies in recession, countries like China continue to exhibit strong growth. Mr. Kane believes that ink jet technology may help to stem the gains made by Asia.

“It’s a global industry, probably second oldest to food,” he said. “It’s established and competitive, but new technology can give you an edge. There are companies that don’t have the means to invest in ink jet, but new business models are starting to emerge. Screen engravers who are in competition with ink jet are using digital processes to make samples now. They realize they can’t stop the technology, so they are getting into a sort of digital service and extending their business abilities rather than being threatened.”

Currently, he said, Europe has a bit of a lead over other areas in ink jet, but U.S. manufacturers are starting to get into it as well.

“I think the major textile regions are growing the fastest for ink jet,” Mr. Kane said. “I think you’ll see it spread around world. As ink jet becomes mainstream, work will be done as close to the cut and sew manufacturing as possible.”

The growth rate of ink jet is still dependent on the quality of the finished product that can be produced with it. As such, ink jet makers are working to enhance the quality of the new technology.

“In screen printing, rollers and screens have to be made and the inks are premixed so there are spot colors. Ink jet is processed color,” said Mr. Kane. “Ink jet for textile has come to the conclusion that you need at least eight colors in a process set. Anything less than that makes it tough to get a wide gamut of colors. Because you’re dealing with substrates that require more ink per unit area because of spreading, absorption and scattering, there is more surface area.”

The 2020 printer from DuPont
and Ichinose is a short-run digital
ink jet textile printer.

New Products for the Textile Ink Jet Market
Because it’s a new and developing technology, companies involved with ink jet for textile are constantly working on R&D. A number of new products have come out recently for the textile market. In particular, the printer and printhead field has led to critical innovations.

DReAM, a new high-speed digital textile printer, was developed by Reggiani Macchine S.p.A., Aprion Digital and Ciba Specialty Chemicals. It increases printing speed more than 10-fold from 10 to 20 square meters to a maximum of 150 square meters per hour. It meets the growing need in the fashion industry for medium runs and faster times to market. It utilizes Aprion’s six-color ink jet heads and is designed for fabrics of up to 1.6 meters in width.

“There has been a dramatic change in the global trends of textile manufacture over the past decade,” Dr. Ambrogio Caccia Dominioni, CEO of Reggiani Macchine, said. “Average production runs have been reduced to 1,000 square meters per design and less. The DReAM provides the required speed, flexibility, accuracy and consistency for high-quality medium production runs at acceptable cost. Until now, digital printing of fabrics has been confined to extremely short runs of 10 to 20 square meters, producing strike-offs and samples of new designs, and occasionally small production runs of up to 50 square meters. The DReAM is ideal for medium runs, ensuring the high-quality and cost-effective production demanded by the market.”

Dr. Miki Nagler, president and CEO of Aprion Digital, added that Aprion’s six-color piezoelectric drop-on-demand ink jet print heads can print patterns or images at a resolution of true 600 dpi.

“When Reggiani’s DreAM machine came out, it increased production rates tenfold and can now run from up to 200 meters per hour, which is quite a substantial jump,” Dr. Barton said.

Dr. Barton said that the technology leap that has been made now means that the compatibility of ink with printhead is crucial. The new inks are highly sophisticated and the chemistry within them ensures stability during high speed jetting and avoidance of color spreading and nozzle clogging.

DuPont launched the 2020 printer in January this year with Ichinose, a Japanese screen and digital equipment company. “This printer is unique in that it’s truly a short-run digital ink jet textile printer,” said Mr. Kane. “And those who have seen it appreciate what it can do. Essentially it’s an abridged textile printer with digital technology on it. It includes a sticky belt or print blanket, same as with screen printing so the user can print on stretch fabric for first time. This is a textile printer built from ground up, rather than taking an existing printer and modifying it.”

As new equipment emerges into the textile market, the opportunities for ink jet inks will continue to expand in the coming years.

New Products for the Ink Jet Textile Market
To meet increasing demand, new ink jet inks are being developed for the textile market. BASF has introduced Bafixan disperse dye inks and Helizarin pigment inks and has introduced a new pretreatment system, Luprejet HD. In October, the company will unveil a new pigment ink range to come for ITMA, as well, according to Dr. Juergen Weiser, BASF’s head of global business management for ink jet inks.

Ciba Specialty Chemicals has designed a range of reactive inks, Cibacron RAC, for cellulose fabrics, chemical reaction with the fibers ensuring high application performance and bright shades. Further ink ranges for other fibers are being developed, including acid inks for high fashion and sportswear fabrics of silk and polyamide/Lycra blends, pigmented inks especially designed for home furnishing of all fibers and disperse inks for polyester. These high-tech inks must be of the right consistency to pass through the heads at very high speed and dry immediately on the fabric.

In addition, Ciba Specialty Chemicals has designed a special chemical recipe for fabric preparation suitable for Cibacron RAC inks. The system, which comprises the inks, the preparation recipe and the printer with its special printing heads, provides customers with a complete, integrated ink jet textile printing solution.

Additional Benefits for Ink Jet in Textile
For textile printers, the advantages of using ink jet are numerous.

“You can print photographic designs with ink jet with unlimited colors, large repeats not dependent on screen and roller size, one-piece runoff and multiple color layers all in same print effectively,” said John Kane, new business development manager at DuPont. “People, especially in the design area, are hoping ink jet becomes more of a production technology because it satisfies the needs for customization and gives a new look and edge to things.”

“Ink jet printing is creative – any design can be scanned in and adapted as required, and a very wide variety of effects can be achieved,” said Dr. Mickael Mheidle, Ciba Specialty Chemical’s head of new business applications, textile effects segment. “It’s clean; there’s no preparation of equipment or colors because the software controls the printing process. Equipment does not have to be cleaned between runs. There’s no contact between the printing nozzles and the fabric. And the contours are clean, too.

“It’s competitive, because it’s cost effective: there’s no time-consuming screen preparation, cleaning or machinery adjustment; fixation and fastness are high, thus minimizing the amount of ink required; fewer additives are needed and water consumption is low,” Dr. Mheidle added. “One of the great advantages of ink jet textile printing is that small batches are as cost effective as large ones. This brings a whole host of advantages, including suitability for sampling and coupons, customized and personalized goods at a competitive price. Furthermore, increasing the number of colors in a design does not increase the cost.”

Dr. Mheidle said that ink jet also saves time and waste.

“There’s no time-consuming recipe formulation - you just click on the color you want and the software does the rest,” he said. “The colors mix on the fiber. All shade requirements can be covered. A mere mouse click adjusts the equipment, so all cumbersome and time-consuming adjustment maneuvers are avoided. Production and response times are thus very rapid. There’s no lengthy paste preparation. And there’s no waste - all the color goes straight onto the fiber. Since the inks are highly fast, little water is required for washing off. Since no thickener and frequently no urea are required, the system has significant environmental benefits.”

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