Fespa pt3: DtF and textile printing

The Fespa trade show is becoming increasingly synonymous with textile printing, particularly for apparel. This was very apparent at this year’s Fespa show, which also doubled as a preview for some of the trends in textile printing that we are likely to see showcased at this month’s Drupa event.

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of direct-to-film or DtF printers being demonstrated. But there were also signs that the DtF market is evolving. The early DtF offerings were all low cost, no frills approaches but now we are seeing increasing demand for higher productivity. 

Ricoh, for example, demonstrated a prototype DtF solution called the D1600, which gets around the issue of low productivity with DtF solutions by using a much wider 1.6m printer. Consequently it can produce 20 sqm/hr.

That size of course also meant that Ricoh had to design a finishing unit to go with it, which was built by an unnamed European partner. 

This Ricoh Pro D1600 is a 1.6m wide DtF solution.

The printer uses three Ricoh Gen5 printheads, arranged in a staggered configuration, with two heads for the CMYK inks followed by one for the white. Tomohiro Ikeda, general manager at Ricoh’s textile business centre, says that there’s no plan to add more heads yet but that Ricoh is considering this to improve the speed, noting that the powder unit can cope with up to 30sqm/hr. He adds that potentially it could run faster, up to 50sqm/hr, but that Ricoh has not tested it for that speed yet.

As with most DtF machines, the ink is partially cured from the platen on the printer so that the ink becomes quite tacky, allowing the powder to stick to it. The unused powder is automatically collected at the bottom of the unit and then reused. Naturally it comes with a ColorGate RIP.

Ricoh also demonstrated its Ri4000 DtG printer for printing direct to polyester, which I covered when it was shown last year as a prototype.

Polyjet brought along an automated DtF machine, the FilmJet, which costs around €45,000. It’s 60cm wide and can run at up to 24sqm/hr with two passes which drops to 16 sqm/hr with four passes.

It features a large powder dispenser on the top combined with automated powder regulation which means that it just needs to be filled in the morning and can then be left to run automatically through the day. It will work with any standard powder. 

The printer unit has been adapted from one of PolyJet’s existing printers and uses four Epson I3200 printheads. These are staggered in two groups of two, for the white and the CMYK inks. This arrangement means the heads overlap to eliminate any risk of banding or issues from missing nozzles. The drier unit features variable temperature, which is automatically controlled, for the most optimal curing.

Inktec has developed two different DtF solutions. The first of these is a fairly standard approach, using Inktec’s own water-based pigment inks. For Fespa, Inktec showed the 60cm version, the DtF 60, but there is also a 30cm wide machine, the DtF 30. Both printers are made by the Chinese company TexTek and use Epson printheads. However, the DtF 60 uses two I3200 heads and runs at 13.7 sqm/hr, while the smaller DtF 30 uses two F1080 heads and produces 4.5 sqm/hr.

This Inktec DtF printer uses UV inks for decorating objects.

Inktec also sells a more interesting DtF solution that uses UV rather than aqueous inks and is aimed at decorating objects rather than textiles. 

It prints CMYK first and then lays down white ink on top of this where required. The printer then partly cures the ink to make it tacky. After this, the print is fed into the powder shaker with the powder sticking to the ink.

It uses two Epson I3200 printheads with the ink coming from Inktec, which is primarily an ink manufacturer. Inktec also supplies the film though customers can use media from other suppliers but this may void the warranty. Carl Jackman of Inktec Europe says: “For us it’s the biggest selling point because it’s our ink and film so that’s good for the customer as we have to get it right.”

The unused powder is continuously recycled within the machine. There’s a choice of configurations, with either three heads using CMYK plus white and varnish, or four heads with gloss, white and CMYK plus varnish. This produces up to 5sqm/hr. The varnish gives a very textured finish, which can be varied depending on how much varnish is laid down. Inktec showed off a very highly textured glass but does recommend hand washing. 

There is also a 30cm wide version of the UV DtF machine, which again uses two Epson F1080 heads, and prints CMYK plus white and varnish. This runs at 3sqm/hr. Again, the hardware for both of these comes from TexTek.

Kornit has improved the productivity of its DtG platform with this new Atlas Max Plus.

Kornit announced its Atlas Max Plus, which sees a further tweak to the Atlas platform, taking this from the 125 garments per hour of the Max to 150 garments per hour with the new Plus Variant. The extra speed is mainly down to improved curing of the inks, plus better productivity which includes automated calibration and a new pallet system that allows for easy adjustments to the correct size for the garment. There’s also a new RIP engine for better colour matching. Better still, customers who have the existing Atlas Max can upgrade their machines to the new Plus specification.

Kornit has also jumped on the DtF bandwagon with its Max Transfer feature, which allows customers to print to film on their existing Atlas Max DtG printers for transfer to a garment later. This can print up to 500 impressions per hour so it’s significantly more productive than some other DtF options. The results have a more natural hand feel than the powder-based DtF solutions, which tend to have a more plasticky texture. Ronen Samuel, Kornit’s CEO noted: “With this technology you don’t need to use powder anymore so we are taking out the sustainability issue in this process”. He added: “We are not here to replace direct to film, that’s not who we are. We are in a different league.”

Kornit also showed off another variant on the Atlas platform with the Max Poly, which can print directly to polyester t-shirts without the need for dye sublimation. Essentially, Kornit has adapted the inkset and binders to its existing platform.

It’s worth noting that Kornit has also developed a high volume DtG machine, the Apollo, which was not at the show but can produce up to 400 t-shirts per hour with a single operator, largely due to a high level of automation. This will also print to hoodies but the speed drops because the automated loading and unloading system can’t yet handle these.

A number of other vendors have also talked about developing DtG solutions for producing high volumes. Brother, for example, showed a model of its Automated print factory that is based around four of its GTX600 DtG machines that have been ganged together with a single pretreatment and a drying point. It’s set up in a loop so that one operator can load blank garments, which then go around the process and return back for the same operator to unload the finished garment. The whole thing is arranged in a line that’s around 20 metres long. For now, Brother only sells this in the US, but has sold 19 since introducing it last April.

This Roq now may look like a screen printer but is a digital DtG machine.

Roq, which is better known for making screen printing machines, showed off a number of digital solutions. This included the Roq Now, which is arranged in a carousel with 16 garment stations so that it looks a lot like the screen printing machines that Ron is better known for. The operator loads the blank garment, which goes first through a pretreatment stage, and then onto drying. From here there is a print unit for white ink that uses 18 Dimatix Starfire heads. Then the white ink is dried, and the garments rotate through to the next print station, which also has up to 18 Starfire heads, and delivers six colours – CMYK plus orange and green – though you can order it with just the CMYK colours. Then there’s another drying stage before the garments return to the operator for unloading. A single operator can produce up to 180 garments per hour. The machine itself can run at up to 200 garments per hour but this requires a second operator so most customers use it with a single operator. It’s not new, having been first introduced in 2019, and costs around. €600,000 to €700,000. 

Romeu Ribeiro, digital engineering manager for Roq, says that roughly 85 percent of Roq’s revenue comes from screen printing, with the rest from digital. He says: “We sell a lot of machines to India, China, Turkey and Bangladesh and these markets are using a lot of screen printing. But I think this trend to digital will be the future because of the minimal use of water and the sustainability.”

Roq also hosted on its stand an interesting company called PrintBox, which uses an AI system to create designs for garments in real time. The idea is that you describe what you want – the more abstract the better – and the AI system creates the image from there. Ribeiro says that people typically start with one word and then refine the results from there. The image is then rendered on a server in Poland and sent to the Roq print queue. 

Madhu Sudan Dadu, chairman of Colorjet with the Earth 32i

ColorJet flew the flag for India, using the show to launch its new Earth 32i direct to fabric printer. This is a follow-up to the Earth series that ColorJet launched at last year’s ITMA show. There are three models in the Earth series – Earth 8, 16 and 32 – with the names denoting the number of heads used. 

So the new Earth 32i comes with 32 Konica Minolta KM1024i, the same heads as the existing models although with a different waveform and small drop size of 6 picolitre rather than 13pL. The main difference is that the existing versions use reactive inks while the new 32i comes with pigment ink. 

Madhu Sudan Dada, chairman of Colorjet, says that this makes for a more sustainable solution, noting: “Less water and less energy and less chemicals. This is more suitable for the European market. India is more into reactive inks because they produce high volumes and the running costs is very important. In India it’s more about the productivity and the price.”

He pointed out that Fespa is equally split between textiles and display graphics so ColorJet brought a selection of graphics printers. He says that the small Verve Mini flatbed is one of ColorJet’s most popular machines in Europe with over 200 installed.

The Chinese vendor Atexco had a number of textile printers on its stand, including its largest model, the Vega X1, which has just become available in Europe now that it has all the necessary certifications. Enrico Ciotti, president of ECD SRL, is responsible for the installations, servicing and ink supplies in Europe. He says there are already three installed in Italy. 

Atexco showed off this Vega X1 textile printer.

The basic configuration for the X1 starts from €200,000. It uses Kyocera heads with 600 dpi resolution. There’s a choice between eight or 16 heads and it can be configured with up to eight colour channels. The machine at the show was running pigment inks but it can be set up with reactive, acid or disperse inks and customers can choose which colours, or even to double up on CMYK for faster speeds. Ciotti says that Atexco will supply whatever ink the customers ask for, noting that most customers use inks from SPG Prints, and mainly use acid, reactive and sublimation inks.

There’s an optional Vision system for accurate registration of prints from front to back. He explains: “Most people print a cross and the camera identifies the cross to move the substrate to the right place. But this one adjusts the file. There is a camera that checks the graphic and then they position the file from the graphic.” The advantage of this approach is that it can take account of characteristics of the material such as some degree of stretchability.

Ciotti notes: “We have to change completely our understanding of the Chinese attitudes. The machines are pretty reliable.” He adds that when you look inside all the electronics come from established suppliers such as Siemens and Schneider. 

This echoes the sentiments that I’ve already touched upon in the first part of my report from Fespa – that the Chinese manufacturers have matured to the point that they can now compete directly against more established players. I expect that we will see more of this theme at Drupa.

And indeed, for myself and many readers, the next stop will be Drupa, which also has its own Textile Touchpoint this year. Drupa generally attracts bigger equipment with more of an emphasis on productivity though textile printing has not traditionally been a focus for Drupa. Nonetheless, I would expect that we will see some further innovations in Dusseldorf. 

I’ve also written a number of other stories from this year’s Fespa show, including Fespa pt1: Look to the East and Fespa pt2: a maturing market; Brother shows powerless DtF; Mimaki shows Trapis textile prints; and Ricoh offers valve jet heads.



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