Digital Textile Printing: A New Opportunity
For in-plant operations, the concept of digital textile printing applications may seem a bit “far out” compared to the work they traditionally do. And that’s OK. The product mix you currently offer your parent organization is part of an ongoing, morphing continuum.
Think back, for instance, to when wide-format inkjet was not really something in-plants did. Now 77% of in-plants provide wide-format printing, according to IPI research. Digital textile printing may follow the same path.
“Many printers have in place what they need to get started,” says digital textile expert Joseph Terramagra of Rexframe. “They just don’t know it. For many companies, it’s a gradual move into the market. Companies start small and work their way up to the big stuff.”
The breadth of digital textile printing is quite wide, ranging from soft signage, to printed apparel, to upholstery. For this article, we will focus on four applications that are achievable for most of those equipped with the right technologies: soft signage/posters, pole signs, exhibit elements, and silicone-edge graphics (SEG).
Systems and Substrates
Ink systems for dispersed dyes (including dye-sublimation inks), solvent inks, UV curable, and latex inkjet inks can all be used for textile printing. The capabilities of each, and the reasons to use each, are deep in detail.
That said, according to Terramagra, many of the companies working in digital textile printing today are using either latex or dye-sublimation inks. If your operation is looking to get into digital textile printing, first define the products you hope to produce, and for what purpose, and then contact your equipment manufacturer.
The materials for digital textile range from thin, filmy, silk-like material to heavy, rigid canvas. Different weaves and finishes are available. This includes many polyester-based materials for dye-sublimation. Surely, the best strategy for getting the right materials for your projects is to work with a knowledgeable vendor. Make sure that the material you source is also compatible with your printer’s ink system.
Soft signage, in its simplest terms, is a sign printed onto fabric. Numerous finishing options, including hemming and pocketing, are common. It can also be as simple as trimming the edges with a hot knife, thus creating a fabric poster.
Roderick Squier, manager of the Amherst College Campus Print and Mail Center, says his Amherst, Mass., printing operation has had success using fabric to print presentation posters, which are easier to ship to conferences or symposia.
“They can be shipped in a suitcase, hit with an iron to smooth it out, and hung on a wall,” he says.
An increasing amount of soft signage is being stretched onto rigid frames. These frame elements can be purchased in pre-cut lengths or purchased in bulk and cut to size. These frames can be easily re-used by adding updated, printed fabric.
Pole signs are increasingly common on campuses and in public spaces and can consist of printed textile banners hung from posts on light poles or other structures. They can also include so-called “teardrop signs” — textile prints that are hung on vertical structures, allowing them to wave in the wind. These items are often seen advertising special events, sales, or other attractions.
Digital textile printing has drastically changed the landscape for exhibit displays, and has allowed for low-cost event-specific elements such as table drapes and backdrops. The relative low cost of these elements has made them “must haves” for most events — and customizing them to match themes, locations, or topics makes marketing messages pop.
While SEG can be seen as a direct extension of soft signage, there is one unique difference: these types of graphics are printed on a stretchy textile substrate. After printing is complete, strips of silicone are sewn along the edge of the graphic. Then, the graphic is installed and held in place by pushing the silicone strips into special channels in the metal framing. SEG has become quite popular in recent years, and provides a neat, attractive look. The frame systems can also be equipped with lights to create a backlit display.
One of the realities of wide-format printing is that, despite the laser focus on presses, print speeds, and color, the finishing processes are what convert the print into a product. Without finishing, the applications addressed in this article are simply printed pieces of fabric.
Depending on the application produced, a digital textile-equipped facility will need sewing or seaming equipment, based on the expectations of the job. While seaming equipment can be used for some basic operations, sewing can be used for nearly all, including the application of silicone strips for SEG. Sewing is an essential skill in this space — the better the sewing, the better the fit.
Companies using dye-sublimation printing will need a heat press to transfer the print from paper to the textile substrate. Given the size requirements of most wide-format-based dye-sublimation, a calendared heat press at least as wide as your printing device will give you the broadest range of capabilities.
Don Reid, Supervisor of Printing Services at American River College, in Sacramento, Calif., is now producing digital textile applications with his in-plant’s new 60˝ HP Latex 570 roll-fed printer. With that system, and an industrial-grade Juki sewing machine, he is able to produce display backdrops, soft signage, and large banners to adorn the school’s sports fields.
Reid has undertaken a project to produce and hang fabric location signs on light poles in the school’s many parking lots. Before putting the new system in place, American River College was forced to go outside for all of its textile-based printing. Now, with these systems in-house, he expects to see a rise in the number of textile-focused projects, along with new opportunities for additional revenue.
Operations looking for a new opportunity and a new way to serve their parent organization may want to consider offering digital textile products. Ask your customers, “If we could do this, would you be interested?” If the possibilities for revenue justify the investment in technology, you may be well-positioned to take your first steps into this growing application area.