How the Pandemic was a Catalyst for Digital Transformation in Textile Printing
While the volume of digitally printed textiles has been growing because of their lighter weight and higher recycle/repurpose-ability, in some ways the digital transformation of textile printing has been accelerated due to the COVID-19 crisis. Innovations on the supply side, including higher speeds, new ink formulations, in-line fixation, and improved finishing processes further “even the playing field” between analog and digital textile printing.
Recently we spoke with some of the market-leading equipment manufacturers: Mike Syverson, Textile Manager, Durst North America; Micol Gamba from EFI-Reggiani; and Joe Dawson North America Business Development, Textiles at HP to get their views on the dynamics that are driving the acceleration of digital textile printing.
In what ways has the pandemic impacted digital textile printing?
Dawson: We saw demand for certain applications such as room dividers, personal protective equipment, pillows, blankets, and other textile gifts increase as a result of the pandemic and people in lockdowns using the internet to shop for products for their homes.
Gamba: The pandemic has severely impacted the digital textile printing market. We also see consumers as more empowered to personalize any aspect of their homes and lives. Digital printing has really strengthened that dynamic.
Syverson: PSP’s were affected in different ways depending on the segment of the industry they serve. Display graphics companies, for example, were hit hard through the pandemic, and are only now starting to come out of it as tradeshows, events, and retail rollouts were all put on hold. Several companies pivoted to manufacturing PPE (masks) for the short term. Textile printers in the e-commerce space were another story. Most of them grew at exponential rates through 2020 and into 2021, due to most people being home and shopping online for home décor products, crafting projects, and apparel.
Are PSPs changing levels of demand for equipment? Are there different demands for equipment?
Dawson: Yes, we have been looking at dye-sub and the way it has been in the past, it has been high support and a need for a lot of manual maintenance. This is a big part of the HP-Stitch value proposition, we wanted to make the whole thing easier. Our Stitch printers do automatic print head maintenance, which is a big time-saver compared to the old days when users had to go wipe the print heads manually. Also, Stitch printers are configured with tools such as an internal spectrophotometer to help automate color management, which has historically been another challenge compared to dye-sub transfer printers. We’re also responding to demand for the ability to produce after hours in unattended operations with larger ink containers and dual-rolls.
Gamba: Now, we’re seeing a recovery in demand and increasing demand for smart, short-run, and green processes available because of some of our technology. Print service providers do want to automate, but they also just want to remove steps from the textile printing process such as washing and steaming. This is possible with our in-line pigment printing systems such as our BLAZE printer. This is an entry-level pigment printer that really lowers the barrier to enter the market.
Syverson: We have certainly seen a growing demand for automation and increased efficiencies. We’ve seen this over the past 4-5 years, and have created new products and tools specifically to address these areas. As PSP’s return to normal levels of business, these efficiencies become even more important as they will want to do more with fewer touches on a job. Features such as unattended print operation, automatic job processing, online ordering, paperless job tickets, and more, all become key components to a PSP’s long-term success. Durst’s suite of software solutions, such as LiftERP, Smart Shop, Workflow, and Analytics have all been designed with this in mind.
Are brands seeking more sustainable production methods?
Syverson: Absolutely. Digital textile printing, both in the traditional space and display graphics, are constantly looking for more sustainable approaches to production. Dye sublimation in the display graphics industry has helped companies become more sustainable, as they can print with water-based dye sub inks directly to fabric with no heat press required, such as on our P5 TEX iSUB system. This eliminates transfer paper and tissue paper for most display graphics applications. In the traditional textile market, reducing resource usage is key to its continued long-term growth. By utilizing new technologies such as our water-based Greentex-P ink, companies can dramatically reduce water usage over reactive processes and have finished, printed graphics in a fraction of the time with lower impact on the environment.
Dawson: Sustainability is very important and becoming even more so. We see brand owners moving over to fabric for sustainability reasons.
Gamba: Brands have committed to sustainable production much more in the last five years. As we see it, there are three stakeholders impacting that. The first is government regulations on pollution and energy consumption. We’re seeing those kinds of regulations in China and all across Europe. The second is the brands, they have been thinking about sustainability and recycling even before the pandemic in some cases, but they are thinking about it a lot more now. The challenge is that there have been cost limitations. However now there can be a direct cost benefit of digital versus screen or analog printing. Finally, we think Gen Z will have a big influence. Generation Z will make sustainability a true lifestyle choice, and they will be a big demand driver of digital textile printing in the future,
Customer demands are changing, which creates new requirements for large-format print service providers. The latest generations of textile printing equipment can help meet customer needs through advanced speed and automation features that simply were not available until recently. The advantages of today’s technology combined with the mega trends create a dynamic opportunity for print service providers.
Tim Greene is a Research Director within IDC's Hardcopy Solutions group. Greene is responsible for coverage of the large format printing, 3D printing, and digital signage markets.