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Form and Function: Digitally Decorated Textiles

A variety of unique and lucrative applications await those who print digitally onto fabrics.

Offshore production is a contentious subject in the U.S., especially when the economy is down and unemployment is high. Revitalizing a diminished manufacturing base is most often seen as a political endeavor, but to Ann Sawchak of Expand Systems, and others, the problem can also be addressed entrepreneurially (Figures 1A-1E). Given the right equipment and know-how, it only makes sense to keep direct digital textile printing within the U.S.

Made in the USA
Together with her husband, Mark, Sawchak created the Rosewell, GA-based company Expand Systems to educate the domestic market on the benefits and opportunities associated with digital textile printing, not just on polyester, but on natural fibers as well. Along with championing the process, Expand also ventured into the equipment and supplies side of the market.

“As the economy goes down, the interest [in digital textile printing] goes up because of several factors. Number one, everybody wants American-made. So if they can make something here, they want to make it here. Another factor is that a lot of people were getting things out of China, and China now has its own middle class to support. So they’ve raised minimums, raised lead times. They don’t care as much about meeting our needs,” Sawchak says.

With China no longer providing cheap labor on the same scale it had in the past, a door has opened for domestic printers to fill the void. Sawchak said that for the market to take off, designers need to be made aware that they no longer need to think in terms of one screen per color, and that producing short runs or samples doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive. She recalls meeting a dealer at an Atlanta trade show who was selling wall hangings and pillows, and she was able to convince him that he could handle some of the printing himself.

“He bought a printer, and within six months he bought a second one. He said that being able to print his short runs and his samples himself saved $12,000,” she says.

Another major factor that is driving digital textile printing in this country is its ability to create a more efficient supply chain and a more cost-effective inventory management system.

“With this economy, the cash register should drive a sell and digital allows for that because you don’t have to order 30,000 prints. You can get one, or as many as you want,” she says.

Education is a key component of Expand’s business. Sawchak says determining needs and advising on selection of materials and inks is an important part of helping people embrace printing on textiles.
“With no understanding of what they’ll be making, they’re going to get a bad taste in their mouth about textiles, and that’s not how you’re going to get textile printing back to the United States,” she says. “Every ink has its strengths and weaknesses. If someone is printing fabric for a chair that is going to be sat in all of the time, we tell them to use a reactive dye if it’s a natural blend. So reactive and acid dyes are used with a pre-coated fabric, and after the process you have to steam wash and dry. It’s more tedious and expensive, but on the other end you’re getting more durability.”

Expand’s commitment to education extends beyond the marketplace and into traditional schools. The company has worked with North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles. Sawchak says Expand loves teaching the students the right way to do things.

Custom fabrics
On-demand digital printing has been the cornerstone of success for Spoonflower, an Internet-based, custom-fabric-printing company located in Durham, NC. Founded in 2008, Spoonflower was created for individuals who want to design and sell their own custom-printed fabrics. Today, the company has more than one million registered users whose orders keep its 30 printers humming along.

“The advantages of digital printing are the essence of Spoonflower―no minimum, infinite variety, a manufacturing process that’s plugged directly into the Internet, allowing anyone to access our printers and to use them to create something completely new,” says Stephen Fraser, co-founder of Spoonflower.

The majority of the company’s customers are individuals who use the printed fabric to create dolls, blankets, clothing, or home decor products, for either personal use or to sell at craft malls or on sites such as Etsy.com. In addition to having their custom designs printed, customers can also make their designs available for purchase in Spoonflower’s online marketplace. (Think of it as self-publishing, except for designers instead of authors.)

Spoonflower offers its customers a choice of several different fabrics for their work, from a basic combed cotton to a silk crepe de chine. Their entire line is all-natural, with the most popular being a cotton fabric called Kona, that is targeted to quilters.

With their on-demand model, Spoonflower has definitely found a sweet spot in the current capabilities of digital textile printing. But as the true innovators that they are―the company was recently recognized by North Carolina State’s Emerging Issues Institute for leading a renaissance in North Carolina’s manufacturing sector.

Affordable and scalable
“The big trick with digital manufacturing is making it affordable and also creating a process that scales. The general theory is that with digital there’s no minimum order, but on the other hand, a unit doesn’t become cheaper just because you produce more of it. So there’s no economy of scale,” Fraser says.

“Mass-producing things, however, is the opposite. There’s a big set-up cost and thus a large minimum order, but on the other hand, the per-item cost shrinks as the quantity goes up. The big opportunity for digital printers like us is to reduce the price difference between mass-produced items―the equivalent in our industry is rotary screen-printed fabric―and digitally produced items. If you can create a process where the cost gap between the two is not absurd—and digital printing is capable of producing large quantities very quickly—then you have an industrial product that will appeal to many markets and is no longer just a novelty,” he explains.

Short-run digital printing as it stands today can still be important for larger industrial users because it allows them to print actual samples and prototypes in-house. Previously, this testing may have needed to be outsourced or produced on paper, resulting in prints that are inconsistent with the look of the final project.

“Direct digital printing works great for home and fashion purposes because the alternative involves a much longer process. It allows us to prototype with the same machine that is used for production with just a click of the mouse. The advantages are huge,” says Rafa Jorda, a textile designer and digital printing consultant working in Spain.

Due to a general lack of know-how related to digital direct-to-fabric printing, Jorda has been serving as a go-between for customers and printing companies to promote the process.
Printers and ink are just two parts of the equation in direct digital textile printing. Fabric also involves several variables that must be considered to maximize results.

Choosing the right fabric
“The first hurdle to cross is making sure you have chosen the right fabric for your print technology and application. For example, choosing a coated fabric for latex, solvent, or UV-curable printing can result in better image quality than choosing an uncoated fabric. If one is employing transfer sublimation technology, then pretty much any uncoated polyester fabric can work. However, if direct-print sublimation is being used, then a pre-treated polyester fabric is often required. Matching the right fabric to the print technology is paramount,” explains Mike Richardson, director of sales and marketing, print media for Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, an Illinois-based textile-processing company.

Print quality is not the only consideration to take into account. Wear-and-tear, exposure to sunlight, and the location where the printed fabric will be used are also important factors.

“Take for example a trade-show backdrop, you would want to use an FR (fire retardant) treated knit fabric. The FR is required by many, if not all, exhibit halls, and the knit will release wrinkles when under tension. Some fabrics are treated with a WR (water resistant) for outdoor use, and still others are coated for art or portrait printing,” Richardson says.

Over the years, treatment processes have advanced to improve the feel, or hand, of the fabric. Today’s customers are favoring a fabric with a softer look and feel that will still produce sharp image quality through digital printing.

Fabric is making significant inroads into the trade-show and exhibit markets for such things as banners, tablecloths, and point-of-sale signage. Richardson says that textiles have an advantage over vinyl for these applications because they can be rolled up, resulting in cheaper shipping costs and reducing the chance that the print will be damaged. From an aesthetic perspective, they create a more upscale look and could even influence consumer behavior.

“On an emotional and physical level, fabrics make a person feel warmer in a way that PVC scrim banner can’t. In retail advertising, so much of the buying decision is based on emotions, and fabrics can help sway the buyer,” he says.

Niche markets for fabrics
At m2 displays in California, most of the printed fabric ends up in the retail environment in the form of window displays. They also do a lot of roll-up stands and flags. President Bryan Mehr says that fabric printing hasn’t been a major focus of the company over the years, but they have found a niche with some out-of-the-ordinary applications that are opening up new markets for them.

“Recently, we took an old army canvas supplied by our client and printed it for a display. In that same display we took another old blanket and cut letters out of it to mount it on the army canvas. We also recently did a print on fine silk that a client brought to us for an art project. Currently, we are working on a large banner run that prints latex on raw denim. The results are excellent,” Mehr says.

“Direct sub requires the fabric to be coated. We use ours mostly for flags because it has such a good show-through. The latex printer will print just about anything we can get through it. We struggle with the ink scratching on some fabrics, and it doesn’t do very well with material that has a stretch to it. Latex is relatively new to us, and we are learning as we go. We are very pleased with what we are getting off of it.”

Problems with fabric
There are challenges and inefficiencies to printing directly to fabric as well. Andy Graven, president of Custom Printed Fabrics in Charlotte, NC, lists fabric consistency and color control as two of the issues they face when printing for design-house clientele.

“Digital files do not always represent the printed color accurately to the customer. So once we RIP the file for printing, the color varies from what the customer sees on the computer screen. Variation in the fabric itself also affects color,” Graven says.

Grand Image, Inc., based in Hudson, MA, also serves the event and trade-show market. The company specializes in grand-format printing. In addition to banners and backdrops, Grand Image prints fabric for use in wrapping structures. Tamir Luria, director of business development at Grand Image, says that the costs and physical properties of fabric can both result in challenges.

“Mistakes that occur while printing direct to fabric are more expensive since the fabric waste is much more expensive than the paper waste for the dye-sub-transfer process. Loading different materials is more time consuming for printing direct, as opposed to keeping a paper roll on the machine for the dye sub process,” Luria explains.

Expand’s Sawchak says that direct digital textile printing had previously gotten a bad name in this country because the speed and ink costs weren’t competitive with other processes. Advancements have changed all of that and she speaks about the opportunities that await.

“The main thing is educating people about the customer base. People need to understand that here’s a much larger market out there than just the traditional sign industry. We’re excited to see the interest and that they can keep things onshore,” she says.

Dan Naumovich is a freelance journalist and a copywriter. He contributes stories to newspapers and trade publications, and also provides marketing copy to business organizations. Before embarking on a career as a writer, Naumovich spent ten years working in a family-owned screen-printing shop. He can be reached at dan@naumo.com.

 

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