Digital Printing of Textiles Makes Gains in Europe

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 10.13.09

Digital printing processes, mainly based on inkjet systems, are making inroads into the textile printing sector

Digital printing processes, mainly based on inkjet systems, are making inroads into the textile printing sector.

However, a number of technological challenges need to be overcome before digital technologies reach their full potential in the textile printing market.

This need for more technological improvements could provide opportunities for new entrants into the textile printing inks market, which at present is dominated by long-established dye makers. They have been quick to extend their expertise into dye-based ink formulations for inkjet processes for printing of fabrics.

Screen printing continues to retain a strong grip on textile printing, particularly in the big volume garment production centers of Asia. In countries like China, India, Thailand and Vietnam, textile manufacturers rely on the competitive advantages coming from the low costs which can be achieved from the long runs characteristic of rotary and flatbed screen printing machines.

Nonetheless, some experts believe that digital technologies, especially inkjet, have been advancing so quickly in recent years, particularly in terms of print speed and color quality, that they will eventually account for the majority of the textile print market.

If more simplified processes could be developed for the preparation and pre-treatment of fabrics before printing and for the finishing work after it, the digital takeover of the textiles market could happen even faster.

The expansion will result partly from digital printing creating a wide range of markets for added-value printed fabrics, coming mainly from more attractive and sophisticated designs and graphics.

Furthermore, the growth of digital printing in textiles will accelerate a shift of some textile printing work back to Europe from Asia because low production costs will no longer be a key competitive factor.

“We are not involved in the textile sector at the moment but we are keeping a close eye on it,” said a marketing manager at one European-based producer of inkjet inks. “It used to be a sector which was dominated by low-cost high volume screen printing in Asia with highly competitive pricing. But we’re now seeing a lot of innovation in digital textile printing in segments where the margins are much more promising and the printing is being done in Europe.”

The major advantage of digital printing is that its short runs allow for customized, individual designs. But to capitalize fully on this benefit, the printing needs to be done as close as possible to the end-use market.

“Europe definitely has a future as a location for textile printing because of application of digital printing,” said Josef Osl, sales manager at Zimmer of Austria, a leading manufacturer of digital printing equipment for the textiles market. “Flexibility is now very important in textiles so that suppliers are able to respond quickly to changes in the market. The only way that can be done is through digital printing.

“This is particularly the case in the fashion sector because of the short runs possible with digital printing,” he continued. “This is an area in which Asia cannot compete because the supply chain is too long. It can take 40 days to ship products from Asia to Europe. In the high fashion market it is impossible to compete with that sort of time scale. So we’re now seeing textile printing houses in Europe concentrating more and more on digital printing.”

Textile printers in Italy, who have traditionally been front-runners in apparel printing because of their creativity and expertise with fabrics, are now able to compete more strongly against their Asian rivals.

“Italian textile companies have switched from conventional processes to digital and are now among the leading textile printing houses in the world in terms of both quality and quantity,” said Markus Dorner, global business development manager at DyStar, the German-based manufacturer of dyes and inkjet inks for textile printing.

Being close to the market is also a benefit to printers in other segments besides apparel.

In sectors like automobiles, for example, where the interior designs are being matched more specifically to the tastes of different groups of buyers, particularly in the higher end of the market, more localized printing of textiles will be a bonus.

However, the biggest share of the Europe digital printing market is held by the wide format market, where fabrics have always tended to be printed locally, especially for signage.

“Availability and speed of response is critical in the wide format digital market,” said Marcus Timson, sales and marketing director at the Federation of European Screen Printers Associations (FESPA), which now also represents digital printers. “Digital printing of fabrics has been the fastest growth area in the whole wide format sector, and once the recession is over, it will be the most buoyant again.

“One big growth area at the moment in wide format textiles is soft signage, which, with the help of digital printing is revolutionizing the signage and display fabrics sector,” he added. “It is more environmentally positive than other types of signage because of its light weight, use of low amounts of material and potential for reuse.”

Another segment in which digital printing is expanding is in fabrics for interior design in buildings like hotels and offices.

“The whole inside of a hotel can now literally be covered in printed fabrics at a cost effective price,” Mr. Timson said. “Carpets, wall coverings, curtains, bed spreads, cushions can all be digitally printed with specific, individualized designs so that each room can project a particular theme. The interiors of some small boutique hotels are already being designed in this way.”

European printers serving the signage and interior design markets are already offering their customers the choice of digital processes for printing on paper, plastics and now fabrics.

“In digital textile printing we’re seeing a big migration from screen textile printing to inkjet,” said Mr. Timson. “We’re also seeing commercial printers diversify into fabric printing and newcomers to printing entering the market.”

Ink Manufacturers
And the Textile Market

For the moment, however, there are not many ink producers trying to straddle the two sectors of printing of fabrics and the other two major substrates of paper and plastic.

Inkjet inks for textile printing in Europe are being supplied by players with a long history of dye manufacture, such as DyStar and Huntsman Textile Effects, previously the dyes business of Ciba Specialty Chemicals of Switzerland and now part of Huntsman Corporation of the U.S.

Other suppliers include DuPont and BASF. Sensient Technologies and Sawgrass Technologies, both of the U.S. and both with European head offices for inkjet inks in the UK, are suppliers of digital inks for textile and other substrates.

Producers of inks for digital textile printing require know-how in a broad range of disciplines. They need to ensure that the formulated inks, containing dyes or increasingly pigments, match the requirements of both different fabrics and printing machines, including their printheads.

“In addition, as an ink supplier, you have to know about the handling of the fabrics before and after the printing,” said Mr. Dorner. “We are also working with the whole supply chain – even keeping in touch with the needs of the retailers and brands. This is necessary as you have to know their demands like fastness properties of the prints and their ecological concerns.

“You must also be aware of possible hazards in the chemicals and inkjet inks and how to avoid possible by-products during synthesis of the dyes and auxiliaries needed for digital printing,” he added. “Furthermore, this know-how is needed to ensure the fulfilment of various ecological and toxicological requirements from eco labels.”

With the three main types of dyes – reactive for all natural fibers, acid for polyamide, wool and silk and disperse for polyester and its blends – there are also preparation, pre-treatment and finishing procedures. These can necessitate the application of auxiliary chemicals and materials.

In order to maintain the present impetus behind the growth in digital textile printing, the whole printing process needs to be simplified. There is evidence that many printers are deterred from adopting digital technologies for printing fabrics because of their apparent complexity.

Ink producers are trying to help to reduce the number of steps required for the application of digital inks. The development of pigment-based inkjet inks is an attractive alternative to reactive and acid dye inks because they need only heat for curing instead of steaming and washing.

Nanotechnology can also make printing easier because nano colorant particles can reduce the amounts of process chemicals and enable the whole printing procedure to be more eco-friendly.

Most ink makers now offer a substitute for the traditional disperse dye sublimation method of printing on polyester or polyester-cotton blends. The image is first printed on coated paper and then transferred to the fabric with a heat press. The technique is complicated, expensive and wasteful.

The other option is the printing of an inkjet ink with disperse dyes directly onto the fabric, with the dye being fixed by steam or heat and then washed to ensure adequate fastness.

“We are providing alternatives to sublimation inks with sublimation stable disperse dye inks for direct printing,” said Mr. Dorner. “These Jettex D E-0 inks have a wider color gamut, are more brilliant and intense and have higher fastness properties than the sublimation colors, e.g. fastness to light or weathering for possible outdoor use like for flags and banners.”

One drawback of direct inkjet printing of disperse dyes is that although they are less difficult and expensive to print than conventional sublimation dyes, they are not necessarily as environmentally acceptable. The fixation steaming can consume more energy and the washing much more water.

Generally, inkjet inks in textile printing have more eco benefits than screen inks. But producers of digital inks still face the dilemma of balancing the need for simplicity for printers with the even greater requirement among retailers and brand owners for sustainability.

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