Inkjet and leather

There’s been a lot written in recent years about printing to various fabrics but very little so far about printing to leather. However, Agfa has developed an inkjet solution, called Alussa, for decorating high-quality genuine leathers as used by the fashion, upholstery, automotive, aviation and nautical industries. Alussa can create unique and durable digital prints on footwear, handbags, clothing, furniture and more.

Agfa’s Alussa is an inkjet system for decorating leather products, from fashion to home and automotive use.

Dieter Jancart, Business Development Manager for the Alussa project, explains: “There are different advantages for using inkjet. The obvious reasons are the same that digital brings to the typical graphical industry: short start-up times, short or long print runs and personalization. But it also creates the opportunity for the tanning industry to vertically integrate the printing step in a simple way. Starting with, for example, screen printing is much more challenging to them than adding an inkjet printer to their production process. For another example, against transfers, is that inkjet allows you to print on the full hide and not only on rectangular transfers, which creates up to 40 percent of leather waste since the parts outside the transfers are not decorated.”

He adds: “The main targeted market is the tanneries but it also targets specialized print shops, focussing on leather decoration.” However, he says that it’s harder for established graphical print shops to get into this market as some expertise in leather and the leather tanning process is required since it also involves coating layers.

Leather processing

Initially, Agfa focussed on top grain, bovine leathers but has also had good results with lamb and goat skins. Jancart adds: “The main limitation today is linked to the difficulty of the irregular shapes of leather. Today, we can handle all different sizes of rectangular or squared panels. Handling full size skins or sides is something that we are working on and we are planning to introduce a full solution in 2021.” 

There are several steps involved in tanning leather. This includes crusted leather, which is an intermediate product in the tanning process. It is the product that the tanner reaches after the wet stages and drying. 
This product has an open surface that is very absorbent and not finished. Typically, there are still a lot of artefacts in the leather surface such as growth marks and insect bites.

In the finishing step of tanning, the tanner will add different coating layers to the crusted leather to reach a finished leather. Typical examples of these layers are adhesive layers, filling layers, pigmented layers and PU layers to reach a good end product. Consequently, there’s no need for any priming before printing because the leather has already gone through these stages by the time it reaches the Alussa printer. Jancart adds: “The chemical interaction between these layers and the ink layer is the core of our Alussa technology. That is why, we always refer to it as being the synergy between leather and ink.”

Agfa Alussa

The full solution includes the Alussa eTU25 industrial inkjet printer, Alussa iUL10 ink sets, Asanti workflow and colour management tools. 

There is also a coating formulation, developed in collaboration with TFL, which has developed a number of products for the treatment of leather. Agfa entered into a strategic partnership with TFL at the beginning of the year in order to help it develop the Alussa solution. Tom Cloots, director of industrial inkjet at Agfa, explains: “You have to learn how the market works and to get inside knowledge on the quality requirements of the users. We look into partnerships so we have people who know the applications and the end users.”

Agfa has adapted thisJeti Tauro H2500 hybrid printer for use with leather to create the eTU25 printer.

The Alussa iUL10 inkset consists of CMYK plus light cyan and light magenta as well as white. The ink flexes up to 100,000 times dry or 10,000 times wet. Jancart says: “The first challenge was the chemical interaction of the ink with the different coating layers. Therefore Agfa developed a dedicated ink set that is in sync with those coatings. On the printer, this new ink set brought new settings and parameters to optimize jetting behaviour.” 
The Alussa eTU25 printer is based on Agfa’s existing Jeti Tauro H2500 LED large format printer. Jancart explains: “The reason why we developed the Alussa technology on the Tauro platform has to do with being able to offer productivity for longer runs. By allowing tanneries to integrate this solution in their production flow it will save them from needing to send the leather back and forth to a third party print supplier.”

Agfa has made some changes to the Jeti Tauro to cope with the leather. Jancart says: “Another challenge was caused by the porosity and the fibre structure of the leather. A normal vacuum system is not sufficient to keep leather down to the table. Therefore we researched different possible set-ups and came up with a patented twin belt set-up that enhances the vacuum spread to the leather, resulting in a very good grip.” This involves adding a felt belt to the normal Tauro resulting in a better vacuum behaviour. Otherwise the Alussa eTU 25 has the same Ricoh print heads as the Tauro series. It runs at 80 sqm/hr for colour or 40 sqm/hr with white and colour.

Once the leather has been printed, a coating is sprayed on top of the ink. This part is supplied by TFL, which works with each customer to formulate the coating for the look and feel of the leather that any given customer requires. So, for example, the top coating for automotive leathers will be different from that required for shoes or bags. 

The coating itself is a water-based mix of polyurethanes with additives that define a matt or gloss finish. The coating is typically dried in a drying tunnel, which is a part of the coating line. 

Agfa will sell the Alussa as a complete solution, including the printer, inks and software. The coatings are sold by TFL. Jancart says that Agfa concentrates on the graphical side of the process, adding: “Since every tannery has their own formulations and products, they can count on the advise of TFL concerning the coating mix and fine tuning this to the end product they want to reach.”

Agfa has so far installed the first Alussa system at the French company La Maison Demeure, based in Roubaix on the outskirts of Lille. The company was set up in 2012 by artistic director Charlotte Cazal, originally in Berlin, but moved to Roubaix in 2013 when it won a prize from the Maisons de Mode project that aims to attract slow fashion to the Hauts de France region. La Maison Demeure has used the Alussa to offer a service of high definition printing to leather samples. 

There are two more installations planned, which have been delayed by the pandemic but are due to go in shortly. In the meantime, you can find more information on the Alussa system at agfa.com, where there are also a number of videos that explain the applications and process.


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