Specialty imagers find, once again, that the question of analog versus digital isn’t a black-and-white one. What could be the impact on garment decoration if we leverage the best of both worlds?
Does inkjet technology complement screen printing? Or is inkjet destined to ultimately displace its analog cousin?
We first pondered this question in the signage and display market. These are the applications from which screen printing itself emerged more than a century ago, and are also where wide-format inkjet first gained serious traction. From a traditionalist’s point of view, the test case must be considered cautionary. Inkjet eventually overtook screen printing in segments like retail graphics and outdoor advertising, and that’s no longer an opinion, but a fact.
Inkjet developers have long had their sights on what they believe to be bigger game in the textile industry. To this point, the results have been far less conclusive. Most studies estimate that inkjet’s share in textile printing, including garment decoration, is in the neighborhood of 4 percent today. However, many of the same market forces that worked in inkjet’s favor in the signage and graphics industry – shrinking run sizes, growing demand for customization, and increasing pressure on time to market, to name just a few – are every bit as relevant in garment decoration. And technology developers are beginning to respond with direct-to-garment (DTG) systems designed for significantly higher throughput.
Yet, just as higher-productivity DTG units are emerging, we’re also seeing a flurry of new hybrid machines that combine inkjet and screen printing in integrated production lines. This isn’t a new idea; the first hybrid machine, the Paradigm from Kornit, hit the market five years ago. Yet at the FESPA 2017 exhibition in Hamburg, Germany, six hybrid lines were shown, three of them for the first time. It’s difficult to ignore so much activity in such a short span of time.
Whether hybrid printing leads to a different end game than the one we’ve witnessed in commercial graphics remains to be seen. But looking more closely at how DTG printing has developed in comparison with wide-format inkjet reveals a few clues.
DTG inkjet technology emerged at the turn of the century, about a decade after it first appeared for commercial graphics. In both segments, the early inkjet devices initially met almost universal derision. Substrate options were limited. The inks were very expensive and didn’t meet all of the performance requirements of the finished product. And the units were painfully, almost comically pokey. No one took them seriously as production equipment, and in hindsight it’s not difficult to see why.
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