The wide-format digital textiles market is largely a four-cornered fight between different technologies: dye sublimation, UV, direct-to-textile, and Latex. Each is suited for different market spaces — so if you’re looking to invest, figure out what you’re going to use them for, reports Jake Nelson.
Wide-format digital textiles are generally used for three types of application: soft signage, home décor, and apparel – and each is expanding. According to Russell Cavenagh, general manager at Mutoh, soft signage is becoming more appealing due to environmental and cost concerns.
“Digital soft signage is a growing sector because it has some environmental benefits – it’s easy to ship because you can just fold it up and put it in a bag, then stretch it out onto a frame and it still looks good. It can be backlit as well for a lot more visual impact,” he says.
Digitally-printed textiles for décor and apparel are also growing in two ways, says Cavenagh: finished products, and customised fabrics.
“Let’s say you’re doing your own fashion and you want different fabric – you can upload your images to different companies, and they’ll print it and send you the fabric so you have a fabric that’s customised to you. We’re seeing a lot of growth in that area,” he says.
Matt Ashman, sales manager at Durst distributor Photo Electronic Services (PES), says digital technology is reinventing mass production for décor and apparel.
“The interesting thing with printing digitally for home furnishings and apparel is that you can produce a square metre of fabric rather than ten kilometres. You can do testing and prototypes, change the design, and have new fabric in hours rather than months.
“Traditionally companies would decide two years ahead what they would be making, because the lead times on getting the fabric produced would be around that long. The volume they would need to order would be in the region of around ten kilometres minimum. With digital technology, these guys can still order ten kilometres if they need it, but the lead time is a couple of weeks,” he says.
There are four main technologies used for wide-format digital textile production: dye sublimation, UV, direct-to-textile, and Latex. Each is geared to different market spaces.
One of the better-known technologies for wide-format digital textile printing is dye sublimation, represented by companies such as Epson with its SureColor F7200 and F9360; Roland DG’s Texart range (both of the above being available via supplier GJS); EFI’s Vutek FabriVu and Reggiani series; Mutoh’s ValueJet 1948WX; Durst’s Rhotex range; and several Mimaki printers.
Dye sublimation is designed for artificial and synthetic fibres like polyester and polyester-coated surfaces, as Ryan Warby, national business development manager for sign and display at Epson explains.
“You print to a paper carrier first, then employ a process using heat and pressure to transfer that pigment into the polyester material,” he says. “This is traditionally done on a roll-to-roll, and this roll is then cut down and made into a final product, be it furnishing, garments, or soft signage. The advantage of this process is that it’s a durable and vibrant result.”
According to Michael Davies of solutions supplier GJS, most dye sublimation machines the company has installed are for sporting apparel, with printers wanting to offer local services to their customers.
“Typically with the garment industry a lot of sport apparel has been produced offshore due to cost, but we have seen a lot of that come back due to lead times and quality issues: simple things like imperfect colour matching and misspellings,” he says. “Local means shorter lead times, as well as control over quality. You can get a sample in a couple of days – it’s not like that when you order from China.”
The technology is also popular in soft signage and décor, says David Lindsay of EFI, with its FabriVu printers, distributed in Australia both directly and through Starleaton, leaning more towards soft signage and Reggiani – including the new single-pass Reggiani Bolt – towards décor and apparel.
“Our customers in general, when they see the demand for soft signage growing, start discussing dye sublimation like the FabriVu. This is really one of the fastest growing parts of the fabric market – the increase in demand for soft signage is tremendous. The signs are reusable, whereas vinyl and other traditional substrates usually can’t be stored and reused. Soft signage is inexpensive, and easy to ship and store as well.”
Direct-to-textile printing is similar to direct-to-garment printing, but on a wider scale.