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Technologies meet demand for digitally printed fabric products

January 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature, Graphics, Sustainability, Technical

As the digital fabric printing industry matures, the machines are faster, the inks are more vibrant, and the most important color in the spectrum is green.

The marketing phrase “new and improved” has been slapped on every kind of product at one time or another, with—on occasion—dubious results. Sometimes “improvements” are merely superficial, and sometimes consumers don’t want their favorite product messed with (remember New Coke?). But in the case of fabric printers and inks, significant innovation continues to help the industry evolve. The latest printer and ink technologies, combined with more environmentally sound processes, are helping print shops meet a growing demand for digitally printed fabric products.

“The holy grail at the moment is direct-to-fabric [printing],” says Paul Glynn, operations manager for Portland Color in Portland, Maine. The large-format printer has invested in nine printing machines and in November was among the first five customers in the country to take delivery on an HP Designjet L65500, Hewlett-Packard’s new latex ink printer capable of printing 104 inches wide and up to 1,200 dpi resolution.

Three years ago, Portland converted from oil-based ink to dye sublimation solvent ink, but the company was still in the paper market (i.e., fine art prints on photographic paper). “We started our fabric adventure with DuPont™ Artistri®,” Glynn recounts, noting that Portland’s core market has transitioned to banners for trade shows and point-of-purchase displays. “When Roland came out with the dye sublimation 1045, we bought one of those and produced 100-inch wide, aqueous-based images.”

For the earth-friendly Designjet (low VOCs and nonhazardous ink), HP designed 14 large-format media, including five recyclable substrates. They include Tyvek® banner, heavy textile banner (smooth, woven polyester) and wrinkle-free flag (recyclable, polyester fabric with a removable liner).

“I think 10-foot-wide, direct-to-fabric printing is pretty new,” Glynn says. “We haven’t found the color gamut [to match dye sublimation], but I think it’s gaining ground rapidly.”

Industry pushes for increased printing speeds at lower costs

Patrick Foley, global product manager for DuPont Artistri, Wilmington, Del., is intimately involved in advancing the capabilities of ink.

“Five to 10 years ago, DuPont viewed digital textile printing as potentially a large market, but the route for DuPont to get to that market was not in place yet,” he says. “We worked with a third-party supplier [of direct-to-fabric printers] and helped develop their product to market in 2003 through 2007. We sold it as an integrated offering with our inks. Last year, we decided that there were enough direct-to-fabric printers out there that DuPont no longer needed to have the whole offering, so we refocused our business efforts at the ink part of the business.”

Foley says the biggest push in the marketplace now is for increased printing speeds and decreased printing costs.

“We have been working with print-head manufacturers and printer OEMs to do that and moving our established set of inks into formulations that will work in higher-speed print heads and printers. Most notably, those inks are calling for higher viscosity.” Recently, DuPont introduced a white ink to lay a base in an effort to get vibrant colors on a dark background.

“The issue with inkjet printing is that you are running it through a print head with miniscule nozzles,” Foley explains. “As you get the particle size so small, now the white is invisible.” A larger particle size, he notes, “gets heavy and sinks and is hard to keep in a solution.” DuPont has worked on minimizing those settling characteristics.

John Weingarten, president of Dazian Fabrics, Secaucus, N.J., has seen an increased use of white ink in solvent and UV-based technologies. “That has become a meaningful segment of the market,” he says. “UV inks have much more colorfastness than dye-sublimation inks … But I think, as far as brightness and clarity and registration of colors, dye sublimation is still the best, particularly in the area of blacks.

“I think the big advances have been in grand-format dye sublimation—three to five meters wide. It’s able to take advantage of uncoated fabrics, which up until now has been one of the major requirements in digital fabric printing.”

Grand format has opened up opportunities in the banner and signage market and exhibit industry, and in scenic backdrops in film and television, Weingarten says. “Another area that’s relatively new is in the architectural side of the business, in public spaces and interior markets where nightclubs, restaurants or big hotel lobbies and corporate headquarters use large-scale graphics.”

New printing technology offers variety of earth-friendly uses

Gandinnovations, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, is one of the leading grand-format printer manufacturers with cutting-edge technology.

“Our latest innovation is our new aqueous printer, the Jeti AquaJet two-in-one printer with a heat press connected to the printer,” reports Cory Brock, materials manager. “It really creates some nice, vibrant colors that print on fabrics.

“It gets better colors, especially red and magenta—the best I have ever seen. It opens up a whole other world of materials [customers] can print on. It has heat slitters that cut the material for you instead of you cutting the material by hand, and it seals the edges so you don’t have strings of thread.” With water-based ink specially developed by Gandinnovations, the printer (which won the 2008 European Digital Press Award) prints with 400 dpi resolution.

In September 2008, Roland DG Corp., Irvine, Calif., introduced the first UV inkjet printer with an integrated UV curing system, the Roland VersaUV LEC-300. According to Andrew Oransky, director of production management, the machine can print on virtually any material without special treatment. “For instance,” he says, “we can print directly to untreated polycarbonate or polyfilm or polypropylene film. What that opens up for us and for the user is the ability to take materials that they might be using in a traditional workflow and print direct to them using an inkjet process.”

Oransky is excited by the printer’s ability to print not just in four colors and white ink, but also in clear ink. “It’s very possible to add gloss ink to certain areas to create dimensionality,” he says. “You can add layers to create a tactile feel, such as lizard skin, with alternating images.”

He points out that the printer is not intended for high-volume runs, but for highly unique short runs and prototypes for presentations and approval. One of the advantages of the printer is its LED-curing capability, which requires no more than 104°F of heat versus 1,500°F used in traditional curing. “I am sure you can picture what that type of heat around certain types of fabric can do,” Oransky says of the higher temperature.

Lower temperatures also mean lower power consumption. The LEC-300 runs off a standard 120-volt outlet and consumes “probably less [energy] than the hair dryer we all have at home,” Oransky says, adding that while traditional curing lamps last 800 to 1,000 hours, the LED lamps last 10,000 hours—about the life of the printer. Another environmentally friendly aspect lies in the low-VOC, nonhazardous latex ink.

Daniel Slep, director of technology for Hilord Chemical Corp., Hauppauge, N.Y., notes that the largest response he gets at trade expos concerns environmentally friendly inks. “People realize that earth-friendly doesn’t only mean what’s happening to the ink in the printing process. It’s really the whole carbon footprint you are concerned about: where it’s made, how it’s made, if it’s made keeping the VOCs in mind, the earth in mind, recycling, and how much energy is required to make that ink.”

UV printers are “fantastic for poster boards and rigid-type substrates and are getting better for vinyl,” Slep says, though he thinks UV colors still come out muted on fabric. On the brighter side, “there’s a lot of innovation with fabrics that have been made with new coatings, even in the last year,” adding that he also sees advances in the capabilities of wide-format printers that “up to a few years ago couldn’t do solvent printing. It was always pigment printing, and the fabric was muted.”

Oransky believes that there’s a night-and-day difference between printing capabilities five years ago and now. The “maturation of technology,” he says, is resulting in “tools that work the way people need them to work.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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