Is the textile world ready for digital printing?

The short answer is, probably not, but it’s a little more complicated than that so you’ll have to read on for the longer version.

Earlier this month I visited the Heimtextil show in Frankfurt, which bills itself as the world’s biggest textile show and this year pulled in some 70,000 visitors from 135 countries, including a lot of Indian and Asian visitors alongside the Europeans. The show filled the entire Frankfurt Messe, no mean feat given that this is one of the larger European venues.

There was a hall set aside for digital printing and companies such as Kornit and Mimaki made an effort but even so there was a lot of unused space in Hall 6.

Then again, just about everyone that I spoke to was keen to point out that Heimtextil isn’t really a digital printing show. Michele Riva, sales and marketing director for EFI Reggiani, summed up the approach of many of the digital exhibitors: “Our expectation of this show is not to sell machinery. We are here just to support our customers. I think it’s more important to participate in this kind of exhibition so that end users can see our customers that are here and show our products to their customers. This is why we decided not to show equipment because we don’t think this is an environment for equipment.”

This is a far cry from previous years when Durst launched its Alpha and Konica Minolta showed its SP1. Neither of these companies even turned up this year.

Axel Stuhlreiter, Manager pre-sales application for Kornit Digital.

However, some vendors did bring textile printers with them. Kornit even demonstrated a complete production set-up with a Zund cutter and a lady with a sewing machine finishing garments. Kornit showed off its Allegro printer, a relatively large roll to roll printer that uses water-based NeoPigment inks complete with a pretreatment fluid so that it can print to a wide range of fabrics. This machine was fitted with neon pink and yellow which is a relatively recent addition. Axel Stuhlreiter, Kornit’s manager for pre-sales application, says that it’s mainly targeted at micro runs that can be sold through a web to print portal. He points out: “People want short cycles because the fashion cycles change quickly. People don’t want to have inventory in stock.”

Mutoh showed off a couple of its 1.9m wide dye sub printers – the 1948WX and 1938TX – both launched early last year. Muthoh also teamed up with the Japanese company Matsui Color, which has developed a new ink that includes micro capsules. The micro capsules break down under heat – around 150° for three minutes – and replace the binder in the ink. The company’s president, Masahiko Matsui, explains: “There’s no binder in the ink so the colour is brighter and the ink is softer.” It will work with any fabric and is reasonably stretchable. It should also work with any printer using Epson heads.

Paolo Crespi, Commercial director for Epson For.Tex.

Epson itself showed off a number of textile printers, including the 1.8m wide Monna Lisa Evo Tre.  Paolo Crespi, Commercial director for Espon For.Tex, says that this printer is mainly focussed on the home textile market where it can print direct to a wide range of fabrics including heavy cottons and linens as well as cotton blends thanks to its pigment inks.

Epson produces its own pigment inks as well as the pretreatment chemicals that will be necessary for use with most materials. Crespi adds: “Also the ink will react during the steaming and washing and that needs the right chemicals and we have the experience and knowledge to support customers through this.”

Crespi adds: “Light fastness is very important and to achieve the best performance reactive inks are not enough so we use pigment ink.”

He points out that the Monna Lisa can be used for many different market segments, noting: “At first we focussed on high quality which means more garment and accessories like ties and scarves.”

However, he says that digital printing is now replacing screen printing, pointing out: “Digital printing gives us the best performance in terms of design and number of colours. You don’t have to engrave or separate the design to many different colours and can manage everything in a short time.”

Depending on who you ask, digital printing accounts for between 1 and 4 percent of the overall worldwide textile market which sounds as if there’s a huge market potential. But wandering around the other halls it was clear that there’s a lot more to the textile market. There were a lot of really fascinating fabrics, with soft, sensuous textures, multiple layers and a real feeling of luxury. There were many instances were different fabrics had been combined to create interesting textures and patterns as well as patterns that relied more on shape than on printed elements. My overall impression was that there is a hard limit as to just how much of this could be printed and by extension, that the opportunity for digital printing is much smaller than the size of the overall textile market would otherwise suggest.

The other interesting take-away from Heimtextil is that Fespa has adapted and is now seen by many of the vendors as the main European show for selling digital textile printing equipment for both the home furnishing and garment market as well as soft signage.

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