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Technology Helps To Customize

Digital printing technology creates new market opportunities in the textile industry

While the conventional textile industry continues to place analog restrictions on digital printing, a growing number of graphic artists, fine artists, interior designers, custom clothiers, photographers and sign makers dont see the restrictions, but instead see the new market opportunities. For these people, the only limits on digital printing technology are their imaginations.The conventional textile industry has slowly been reaping the rewards of digital printing for sampling and presentation, which provides both a tremendous cost savings and reduction in time to market. The industry has been resistant to look at digital printing for production, as most of the industry has a mass production business model that cant support the slower speeds and higher costs of digital printing. The post-processing requirements for steaming and washing of digitally printed fabrics have also created a barrier to entry, as have fear and lack of experience with the technology.As the textile industry tries to ascertain the future of this emerging technology, a growing number of creative entrepreneurs are discovering and developing entirely new products and markets to which they can sell short-run customized products. There are the movie studios that need printed fabric for duplicate garments and backdrops, the entertainment industry with its insatiable need for unique costumes, the sports apparel markets need for custom team uniforms, the artists who see clothes as a new canvas for their work and interior designers who can express themselves on upholstery as well as wall, floor and window coverings.While the flag and banner business has been deploying this technology for a number of years, this market is still in its infancy. The ad specialty business is another market well poised to exploit the opportunities.As these market demands bring about a convergence of graphic arts, printing and textile industries, there is a growing number of companies satisfying the growing demand for fabrics that are custom treated for use on ink-jet printers. Ink-Jet PrintingThe new generation of ink-jet printers can accommodate virtually any fabric that doesnt leave lint that might clog the print heads. However, getting the fabric to feed through the printer; getting the ink to stay on the fabric; getting the colors to pop; and getting the finished product to withstand washing, sunlight, and for some applications, pollutants, acid rain, intense heat and other environmental pressures, has become a science created from the marriage of technology, art and chemistry. This science has created new products and market opportunities for several ink-jet fabric companies.There are two primary methods used for stabilizing and feeding fabric through an ink-jet printer. One is a paper backing, and the other is a feed and take-up system. While many of the OEMs have developed feed and take-up systems that eliminate the need for backing on rolled goods, experts advise users to work closely with their equipment supplier and to test all fabrics to be used for either sampling or production.Most fabrics used in ink-jet printing will require a pre-treated coating in order to prevent the ink colors from bleeding on the fabric.While some natural fiber fabrics do not require pre-treating, the colors produced on non-treated fabrics will end up very faded. The only way to obtain vibrant colors is by pre-coating the fabric, and for many applications it will also require a post-process step of steaming and washing of the fabric after printing. Ink ChemistryOne of the greatest challenges for this new market has proven to be that of ink chemistry. The wide-format ink-jet printing vendors, which are now looking to expand into the textile industry, have been using pigmented process color inks for output to paper. The textile market wants to use its conventional spot color inks, which include reactive, acid and dispersed dyes.While several ink companies are developing and delivering inks for the textile market, the chemistry requires the finished fabric printed with reactive, acid and dispersed dyes to be steamed and washed if it is to be applied to an end use other than presentation, sampling or signage. Steaming will fix and enhance the color, and the post-washing will get rid of excess ink that can adversely affect the finished hand.DuPont claims that its pigmented inks only require heat-setting for production use on textiles.The ink chemistry issue is magnified when combined with the various chemical compositions of the different fabric coatings from the growing number of ink-jet fabric vendors. Each of the vendors we spoke to has its own unique formula for defining what inks will and wont work, as well as its own methods for finishing and testing printed textiles for commercial use.Lee Newsom, a 10-year veteran of Colorspan and a partner in Jet Effects Inkjet Textiles, feels that the time has come for the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) to establish testing standards for the emerging ink-jet textile market. The Ink-Jet MarketplaceMany of the printing equipment vendors have developed strategic partnerships with ink-jet fabric suppliers with whom they have conducted a wealth of research on the chemistry mixes of fabric, coating, inks and washing. While end users will save a tremendous amount of time and money in working with these proven formulas, they should be aware that there are a growing number of new fabric options on the market.Los Angeles-based DigiFab was one of the first companies to offer ink-jet textile fabrics to the market. The companys patented coating process has been applied to its stock line of sheeting, twill, rayon challis, silk, polyester crepe, cotton jersey, 1X1 rib, cotton Lycra® and interlock, which is put up in bolts of 10 or 25 yards. All fabrics are available with or without paper backing. DigiFab also offers custom coating for companies that prefer to use their own fabric or want to coat fabrics DigiFab does not stock such as voile, velour, corduroy and sheers.DigiFab Systems, the companys newly formed software division, offers software products and services to support the textile design process for companies developing prints for both rotary screen and digital printing. They also offer support to Foresight® Design software and provide custom software development specializing in custom drivers for ink-jet printers.3P InkJet Textiles, Germany, has been marketing its line of coated fabrics for more than two years. In addition to a large selection of interior/fashion textiles including cottons, wool and silk, the company also features a line of flame-retardant textiles for which it is working on global certification.As owner Thomas Potz points out, when using textiles for printing flags or banners, it is important that they be fire retardant not just in the country of origin, but in any country where the finished product will be shipped. 3P claims its flame-retardant textiles require no special textile inks.While 3P does not offer custom coating, it does offer a licensing contract under which it will ship coating to mills to allow them to do their own coating. They also offer an office-size fabric steamer that will hold up to 23 yards of 62-inch-wide fabric. Complete SolutionsJacquard Inkjet Fabrics, Healdsburg, Calif., is a division of Rupert, Gibbon and Spider, a company with more than 18 years of experience supplying the fine arts industry. The company manufactures its own inks and coatings and offers a complete solution from design through production for ink-jet-printed textiles through alliances with mills, software vendors and printer manufacturers and the development of a short-run steamer that holds up to 50 yards of 60-inch goods.We dont just offer solutions, we offer know-how. We have been training people for 18 years on how to color fabric, said Mark Trimble, principle, Jacquard.Jacquard has leveraged this experience to create several consumer products that demonstrate a few of the many new market opportunities. Kits offered by Jacquard feature everything including fabric, solution and instructions that allow the home craftsperson with an ink-jet printer to create doll pin kits, ties and handkerchiefs, silk scarves and quilts.While early commercial adopters of Jacquard Inkjets systems have been in the flag and banner markets, the company is expanding its focus to high-end goods where traditional dyestuffs will apply. It offers 75 fabrics including silk, cotton, wool, linen, rayon and nylon and knits. All stock fabrics are available with and with-out paper backing. Custom coating with a 50-linear-foot minimum is also available. Jacquard is the only company selling its goods by the square foot, a convention derived from the digital printing market.  From Diapering To DyeingKimberly Clark Printing Technology, Roswell, Ga., is a division of the Kimberly-Clark Corp., best known for consumer products such as Kleenex and Huggies. The company leveraged its surface science technologies in 1998 with the acquisition of FormuLabs, a company with experience in ink technology. The new business unit is focused on developing solutions for digital printing applications, one of which is textiles.Its initial product launch included fabrics and inks for textile design sample printing, as well as its EPIC brand products for signs and banners. Product Manager Laura Cochran has been working closely with the mills to source a broad range of fabrics with consistent white point throughout the line.Design products are formulated for color and hand, while the companys sign and banner products are focused on durability. The base fabric line for use in sampling includes cotton, silk charmeuse, crepe-de-chine, polyester georgette, polyester chiffon and nylon Lycra. The company will soon be launching the second generation of fabrics, designed to work with reactive and acid-dye inks. These production-quality fabrics will need steaming and washing. All fabrics are paper-backed. The company offers custom coating.In addition to its full-width fabrics, the company is offering a line of desktop fabrics designed to be used on the Epson 3000 desktop ink-jet printer. The fabric is put up in 16 1/2-inch widths by 3 yards and is designed for the production of fabric swatches. In addition to the fabrics, the company offers several ink sets for the Epson 3000 printer. This is an easy-to-use and compact solution that can fit in any design studio, Cochran said. Lab To ProductionJet Effects, Las Vegas, is the most recent entry into this emerging consumables market. Owner Lori Dvir-Djerassi operated a fine arts gallery for 15 years in the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton Hotel, where she found an increasing number of clients wanting to reproduce art on garments.The Jet Effects coating process and results are patent pending. Dvir-Djerassi expects the patent to be issued sometime this fall. Jet Effects has worked for three years to get the process from the lab to production. The company has just completed its first full-scale production runs. Jet Effects claims its coatings will accept any type of dyes or pigments including reactive, acid and even direct dyes. Its printed textiles require no steaming, and target customers are doing production applications, not strike-offs or sampling.Jet Effects commercial line of fabrics includes lightweight cottons, heavyweight cottons, twills, canvas, silk, crepe, denim, rayon, basic knits, velvets and cotton/poly blends. Custom coating is available on pfp (prepared for printing) goods with a one-bolt minimum. While the company does offer its textiles with paper backing, Dvir-Djerassi claims to have developed a manual-feed technique that can be used with nearly any printer, and will feed the fabric without either a backing or a feed and take-up system. The FutureAll of these textile pioneers are betting their businesses on the future growth of ink-jet printing for a variety of different markets and applications. A good indication of the markets potential can be found in the wide-format printing industry, a market that didnt exist prior to 1994.According to I.T. Strategies, the estimated retail output for wide-format printing in 1999 was $16.2 billion, with 2000 output estimated to be $21.3 billion. Early adopters, much like the textile industry, complained that the technology was too expensive and too slow.Just as the paper web press industry lost a portion of its market to this new digital printing market, so too will the analog textile printing industry. As the cost of the ink-jet printers falls, more and more of the market will shift from analog to digital printing. Projections on how much fabric will be digitally printed range between 12 to 15 percent and 50 percent in 10 years. It is estimated that the market will shift from 50 major textile printers to 500 smaller ones, many offering short-run customized solutions to satisfy more sophisticated customer demands.These short-run printers will create new products and new markets. Potz envisions fabric stores that carry only white goods printed on demand. He sees this as an excellent solution to seasonal/holiday merchandise, which will no longer need to be stocked or marked down after the holidays. Potz also sees seamstresses, tailors and custom clothiers offering their services with printing capabilities in alliance with traditional retailers. And he sees service bureaus with printers, steamers, washing machines and irons as playing an expanded role in the market.Trimble envisions mom-and-pop operations approaching local niche markets, supplying costumes for their kids dance groups and local teams. He also sees the service bureau operation, specializing in 100- to 500-yard lots, as playing an expanding role in this emerging market.Service bureaus will work with interior design and decorating studios. Trimble claims a third tier will offer the complete solution to include cutting and sewing finished goods. With early adopters all in agreement that sewing the finished product is the greatest challenge, many see this as a market opportunity and resurgence for the seamstress, tailor and home sewer.The bottom line is that while the technology isnt perfect, technology limitations are no excuse to avoid the future. The markets will develop and the limitations will be overcome. Early adopters will be the big winners. The question is who will these early adopters be, and how much of the emerging market share will the textile industry give up before it wakes up to the opportunity Editors Note: Teri Ross is a writer, speaker and consultant focusing on CAD/CAM technology and process improvement strategies for the sewn products industries.She is owner and president of Imagine That! Consulting Group, publishers of the award-winning techexchange.com. She can be reached at tross@techexchange.com or at (952) 593-0776.

June 2000