Europe’s market for upper-end textile printing inks is booming even though the region, particularly Western Europe, has had large parts of its manufacturing capacity in fabrics, garments, upholstery and other textile products closed down in the face of low cost competition from Asia.
Within Europe there is an expanding market for premium, often specialty, inks for textile printing done locally to meet local and fast changing preferences. This is a market which is becoming difficult to supply from a long distance.
In addition, a major impetus behind the growth in demand in Europe for textile inks has been the availability of new print technologies that enable a quick response to trends in local markets, especially through the use of digital printers.
This is particularly the case in the fashion sector, where printed designs are having a big influence on buying decisions. These are reacting to changes in tastes of different groups of consumers, including men, which can even vary according to the seasons.
The trend to more frequent changes in printed designs has extended to the upper end of the market for textiles in interior decoration, where cost is less important than original colorful patterns and images.
Here again, digital printing can provide a design advantage over the low-cost home textiles printed with large screen printing machines in Asia, which give less opportunity for creative printing.
Commercial printers in Europe are now including textile printing machines on their premises alongside the conventional presses for printing on paper and film in order to meet local demand. One leading UK printer of business cards supplies T-shirts with printed personalized details.
“Textile printing technology has developed in much the same way as that in other printing sectors,” explained a sales director at one European textile printing inks producer.
“Because of shorter runs and faster turnaround times, printed textiles can be delivered much more quickly to customers,” he continued. “Due to changes in the market, they have to react much rapidly to what their customers want. They can’t wait for weeks for a new printed design to be shipped from Asia. They want it in days.”
Although the vast majority of textiles sold in Europe have been manufactured in Asia, particularly in China and India, the growing portion of the printing stage of the production process is moving back to Europe.
This has tended to benefit digital rather than screen printing. Digital not only encourages greater creativity, but it is able to print as rapidly as rotary screen printers, with the speed of some digital machines having increased a hundred-fold in two years.
With the crucial advantage over screen of having greater flexibility, digital printed products have been able to achieve average double-digit growth rates in textiles in Europe over the last few years.
Much of the growth in digital sales in textiles has come from the fashion sector, which by next year is forecast to account for around a quarter of digitally printed textiles compared with 10% in 2010. There is “enormous potential in the rapidly growing market for digital textiles,” said Peter Hollanders, a director of Hollanders Printing System, a Dutch digital textiles printer.
The segment for higher-volume textile printing is also beginning to expand in Europe, although not necessarily with the use of screen printers.
Miroglio Textiles of Italy recently announced the purchase of a super-fast digital printer with a capacity of 6,000 square meters an hour. But it stressed its competitiveness against Asian textile printers would not be primarily due to design capabilities but a superior environmental performance.
Producers of textile inks have been responding to the tendency for textile printing in Europe to become increasingly individualized due to trends in fashion and home textiles with the provision of highly customized inks.
They are also having to develop inks consistent with the attraction among consumer for the tactile feel of textile products as well as their visual qualities. They also have to ensure that their inks are eco friendly. This can require that they be certified by organizations certifying health, safety and environmental standards.
The emphasis on environmental qualities among end users can prompt a preference for pigment- rather than dye-based inks because of the reputation for dyes to generate polluted water effluent from printing works. Also for environmental reasons, producers of water-based textile inks promote the low solvent content of their products in comparison with solvent inks.
However, environmental values are expected to be combined with performance attributes like wash and UV and light resistance, color vibrancy and good printability.
In a partnership with Miroglio Textiles, Sensient Imaging Technologies SA, Morges, Switzerland, launched earlier this year the water-based ElvaJet Alpha ink with an emphasis on its sustainability. This was particularly due to its requirement for only dry heat fixing without any washing or other finishing steps.
At Miroglio’s new high-speed print facility in Italy, the ink helps to reduce consumption of water to one liter of water per linear meter of printed fabric, compared to 50 liters per meter with traditional processes. It also helps to lower CO2 emissions and lower energy consumption. These environmental benefits appeal to clothes and other textile retailers who are conscious of the eco awareness of their customers
However, Sensient also stressed the ink’s print quality, consistent color intensity and good resistance and wash fastness.
Marabu, Tamm, Germany, one of Europe’s leading textile ink producers, has been highlighting how much its priority is quality not quantity. This is similar to the message being conveyed by other European textile ink makers to distinguish themselves from mainstream Asian competitors.
The company is intent on “developing tailor-made answers to specific needs (and) creating made-to-measure inks,” it says. Hence its product portfolio has a variety of specialty inks, particularly in the niche segments for sublimation and pad printing.
It has launched this year a new pad printing ink for direct printing on textiles, enabling information on conventional tag labels to be printed directly onto clothing and other products. They are certified by Oeko-Tex, an auditor of environmental and health standards.
The popularity of sublimation dye inks stems from their bright colors and also their capability for personalization of textiles and other products.
Traditionally, sublimation inks have been applied to relatively small items, but they have increasingly been used on larger, usually polyester, surfaces such as T-shirts, cushions, pillowcases and umbrellas. Ergosoft AG, Altnau, Switzerland, has introduced in partnership with Epson a sublimation system for a 1.6 meter wide format machine.
The Need for Speed
A major requirement with textile inks is that they perform well on either screen or digital machines, which are operating at increasingly high speeds. With digital sublimation, speed can present problems, with the presses running at 2,000 square foot an hour.
Sawgrass Technologies, which has European offices in Switzerland, has been dealing with the challenge of speed by introducing a water-based pigment ink with a rheology modifier specifically tailored for high volume, rapid inkjet printing.
Many textile inks are tailored to the requirements of specific presses, particularly digital machines. As a result, ink makers and the OEMs can become involved in close partnerships.
Some ink specialists have been extending their activities into the manufacture or supply of machines to operate with their inks.
Israel-based Kornit Digital was founded 10 years ago by two chemists who had developed a pigment-based textile ink to avoid the limitations of dye-based formulations. Their ink was also suitable for printing on a variety of fabric types and for different end-users with small to high volumes of output.
The inks are based on a wet-to-wet principle so that the fabric has to be pre-treated. The company also provides machines with a pre-treatment facility inside so that there is no need to wait for drying after a pre-treatment process prior to printing.
With its digital presses, it deals with the problem of clogging of printheads, a tendency with pigment-based inks, by having a battery unit inside the machines that keep the inks moving when the presses are not being used.
“Our sales have been growing at an average 30% annually for the last three years,” said Oliver Luedtke, Kornit’s Germany-based marketing manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa. “We’re seeing fast growth in Central Europe, Germany and the UK, but also in southern Europe in countries like Italy and Portugal. We see big opportunities in Turkey where there is a large screen printing capacity.”
A lot of effort has to be put into formulating textile inks to ensure that they work efficiently with specific printing presses and fabrics. This has opened up opportunities in the market for dispersion producers. For example, Diamond Dispersions, Sheffield, England, a specialist in dispersions for sublimation inks for textiles, increased sales by 50% in its financial year 2012-13.
“We are enabling our customers to avoid the cost of investing in milling and other equipment needed for making dispersions,” said Sue Wright, a director at Diamond Dispersions. “They can concentrate on getting their ink formulations right, which can involve a lot of chemistry and be a long process.”
European Editor Sean Milmo is an Essex, UK-based writer specializing in coverage of the chemical industry.