As with any industry that has the promise of continued growth, investments are being made in R&D to improve and advance that technology further. Ultimately, this has the aim of accelerating business development and securing more customers. After the initial success of the early pioneers and innovators, it is quite normal that new players come along to take some of the market share. In a healthy industry, this pushes forward technology and solutions further which attract a much wider audience than just the early adopters. At some point, markets converge and some traditional processes are replaced with new solutions. After a period of inflated expectations, typically, the market settles and a new wave of developments follow.
Digital textile technology has moved to this point in the bell curve and is no longer in the early development/early adopter phase. In many segments within the wider industry of textile printing, inkjet printers have become common solutions for production equipment. T-Shirts, banners, dresses, flags, carpets, curtains, upholstery, swim- and sportswear: these are only a few applications that are now being printed with digital systems. However, there still is a tremendous growth opportunity.
It is assumed that approximately 1 billion square meters a year are produced through inkjet based printing processes. This accounts for less than 5% of the total amount of printed textiles worldwide. It is safe to say that there is a lot of growth potential: commonly, figures of 25% annually are used which supports the need to invest in this industry. But it will have to come from other segments of the industry, such as traditional interior decoration and fashion.
In recent months, it has become clear that the market is maturing. Proof of this can be seen with the significant amount of mergers and acquisitions. Notably, EFI invested in Reggiani, the Dover Group acquired the combination of Sawgrass Industrial, J-Teck and Kiian Digital after already having taken over MS, Epson is working with Robustelli, Sensient now owns Xennia, KonicaMinolta took over Verga and, more recently, Mimaki acquired La Meccanica. Besides the many smaller manufacturers, these parties now seem to become the giants in digital textile printing.
Moreover, the trend seems to be to invest in and develop printing systems that in itself are giants among the many types of inkjet printers currently available. At the ITMA exhibition that took place in Milan last November, SPGPrints ran its Pike single-pass printer, MS showed its LaRio and KonicaMinolta promoted its Nassenger SP1. All equipment that can be described as high volume, high speed industrial level roll to roll systems. Competitors are clearly in a race to play a major role in the traditional market of textile printing.
The economic model
Discussions about the economic model of such systems are interesting. Mainly, it concerns the cost of ownership and the return on investment. Currently only a handful of large print production companies have the market and possibility to run high volume machines profitably, so the target of print system manufacturers is to grow the install base and validate that the investments made on bringing to market a new platform can add to or even replace traditional screen printing.
Another concern is whether these new systems possess the necessary performance requirements placed upon them. Can they produce consistent high quality production without any down-time? To counter that concern, with the latest generation of technology, printheads and electronics, many promises are being made through extensive service contracts and maintenance control to warrant maximum uptime at a reasonable cost price per square meter.
On the other end of the print engine spectrum, there are a lot of manufacturers and system integrators that stick to lower cost scanning devices for lower speed production. It is comparing very different perspectives on the economics behind a printing system and it is mainly connected to the application specific production requirements. Flag and banner production, visual communication prints and samples or one-offs are not the intended markets where the giants will put up the fight. Why would they? The lucrative market seems to be higher up the value chain.
At this moment, there seems to be a huge anticipation as well as some scepticism. The question is in how far this new wave leads to a sustainable business. And another, more important question is, whether print service providers are motivated to heavily invest in new systems that promise future growth but still need to prove they’re up to the task.
There is one certainty however: both ends of the spectrum will benefit from the push forward. As with Formula 1 racing, the super fast, super specific equipment will push the boundaries and be the testing ground for technology that finds its way into regular road cars.
Technological innovation will provide value for all aspects of the digital textile market. Costs will come down and successful business case examples will give the market confidence in adopting more technology. There is no doubt inkjet will become bigger in the digital textile printing industry and a shift in supply chain is also inevitable.
The gathering of giants holds promise for the future. The question remains who will be crowned the winner.
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