Digital Textile Printing – the Next Digital Revolution?

Digital technology is starting to gain critical mass in apparel textiles, bringing major benefits to manufacturers. Across a wider range of textile applications there are still many untapped areas of benefit, meaning that the full potential of this technology in textiles is far from being exploited fully. Digital printing using inkjet technology is being adopted increasingly across the textile industry. The technology offers significant benefits, especially in the introduction of new designs where a new design can be introduced into a mill in a matter of hours instead of days or even weeks with conventional technology. This has been especially beneficial for apparel brands, allowing them to offer a constantly updating portfolio of products rather than the old model of two seasons per year. Increasingly manufacturers are also seeing the benefit of producing vibrant, detailed designs that are difficult to achieve with conventional technology.

We expect modern trends across industries to favour smart, agile manufacture using digital technology over conventional manufacture. Digital manufacturing enables the rapid introduction of new products and moves the emphasis of competition away from price and towards responsiveness, convenience and individualisation. This trend demands flexible manufacture close to the point of consumption, potentially reversing the current migration of mass manufacture to remote low cost economies.


Paradigm shift in manufacturing with digital technology

So how will this trend impact the textiles industry, what will the benefits be and what is required in order to make this happen?

Embracing Digital Technology

In an earlier blog (Link to blogwe looked at the adoption stages of key digital applications. Four key factors were identified that impede the adoption of digital technology if not addressed by the supply chain both from an operational and marketing perspective.

The first factor is market pull: if the benefits of digital technology in a particular market are compelling then adoption is encouraged as long as other factors do not impede it, but without strong market pull adoption may not be as fast as suppliers would like. Adoption will also be slowed if the performance required by the market cannot be delivered using current technology. Economics are the third potential inhibitor: global macroeconomics, industry-specific economics or individual company cash constraints may hold back adoption. Finally failure to communicate the benefits of digital adoption may be an inhibiting factor if this leads to incomplete understanding of these benefits by industry players.

Technology Barriers

The key factors required by a market for digital print are typically productivity (which includes production speed and also system availability in production), quality (including resolution, detail reproduction and colour performance) and print durability (fastness to light, washing, etc.). Ease of use can easily hold back adoption if not addressed by system manufacturers, and this has particular relevance for the software interface. Digital printing systems are highly complex in comparison with traditional printing, and users by definition have far less experience with their use.

A particular factor in the case of textiles is the need to print designs onto a range of fabric types, which all call for different dye or pigment chemistry, pre- and post-print treatments in order to give the required colour and fastness performance. The ‘holy grail’ of an ink chemistry that gives excellent colour and ‘handle’ performance on a wide variety of fabrics with a minimum of further processing is yet to be achieved, but colorant and ink developers are both working towards this goal.

Ultimately the importance of designing digital textile printing as a complete solution, rather than an ink and printer individually, is not to be underestimated. To do otherwise puts seamless adoption at risk, as problems with the application in the textile mill inevitably act to negate the promised benefits.

Transformational Benefits

For most textile applications, the initial driving market force towards digital adoption has been the ease and speed of new design introduction, but we have found that while this change is dramatic, there are other benefits from digital technology that are only now being realised as having a significant impact. A key advantage of digital apparel textile printing is the ability to print finely detailed designs with vibrant colours. An early win for digital textiles was in high end silk scarves, where the high initial cost of the technology was bearable in exchange for the breathtaking designs that could be produced. High quality digital solutions are able to reproduce a level of detail not possible with traditional techniques, and this is increasingly being used as a differentiator by brands in mainstream apparel.

Digital technology enables vibrant detailed designs for apparel fabrics

A much-discussed benefit of digital textile printing is in sustainability, and while this is often not the primary driver for adoption, the impact can be very significant. Textile mills are extensive users of water for washing and steaming fabrics, and power to dry this water from the textiles: reduction of usage can lead to major savings in factory running costs, which in a low margin industry can make all the difference.

Apparel Is Only The Start

So where else can these benefits be exploited? The home furnishing market is also ripe for the design liberation that digital technology can bring. While product lifecycles are generally much longer than in clothing, there is a trend towards more individualisation in peoples’ lives, which leads to a demand for ever more fragmented design space: something that ultimately can only be met with digital. ‘Soft signage’ where graphics are printed onto polyester fabrics rather than paper or vinyl for advertising and point of sale use is a growing market, especially as vinyl is becoming unacceptable environmentally. This is driving much greater usage of disperse dye based direct printing and transfer printing inks which we expect to continue.

Polyester fabrics are extensively used for soft signage

The technological possibilities expand even further when the combination of decoration with addition of functionality using digital technology is considered. Applications make use of the ability of inkjet printing to deposit metered quantities of functional materials precisely where needed. This is making new product possibilities a reality in technical textiles but also back into apparel, where the ability to deposit materials like anti-bacterial (for odour reduction), reinforcement (such that a garment can have different feel in different areas) and hydrophobic (selective waterproofing while maintaining feel next to the skin) have boundless potential.

The Next Digital Revolution?

The signs are clear that apparel textile production will be rapidly moving to digital over the next three years, with a slower, but still significant take-up from the other adjacent markets. We expect to see this adoption accelerate as benefits are realised in other markets, and where the required technology is developed.

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