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Encarna Luque, Senior Product Manager Inks and Textil Roland DG EMEA

The textile printing sector is undergoing a change in its business model as a result of the current environment, new consumer habits and the greater presence of digital printing systems vis-à-vis traditional ones. In addition, the increase in local production through small production centres, partly due to the higher transport and fuel costs, is a clear trend. We analyse the present and future of textile printing with Encarna Luque, Senior Product Manager Inks and Textile at Roland DG EMEA.

Where we come from

Textile printing, known in its early days as screen printing, was based on analogue systems, traditional systems based on screen printing and rotary cylinder screen printing. These systems were designed to produce a large number of runs of the same print so that the fixed costs of the screens or cylinders were spread over all the samples or prints to be made, as a result of which these costs had barely any impact on the final price.

Conversely, analogue systems entail high fixed costs for short print runs, as they have a greater impact on each unit. They also consume a great deal of water and electricity (the screens and cylinders have to be washed) and they require storage. However, the traditional systems that are still active bring a number of benefits: they remain the most economical systems for long runs and, in terms of durability, textile printing is the kind with the greatest durability in its resistance to washing, rubbing, continuous use and so on.

Technological changes are coming to textile printing

Technology and the new digital systems have been key to the changes in the printing process. The digitisation of the production processes with textile printing, by means of both thermal transfer and direct printing onto the fabric or garment, leads to a significant fall in water consumption. Moreover, in these cases there are no fixed costs to be charged each time we make a design, so we’re not obliged to undertake a large print run. We can do short print runs and minimise the fixed costs with the digital system. The durability needs to be improved, although there’s a system known as sublimation which increases it during the washing.

Digital printing systems

There are three main categories of direct digital printing systems:

  • Direct to Garment (DTG), in which the garment has already been put together.
  • Direct to Textile (DTT): this is used when we add a piece of fabric that hasn’t been put together.
  • Direct to Film (DTF): this is a mixed system involving the two previous ones that’s been widely used of late; one part is the direct printing onto a film, but it then has to be transferred to the fabric.

When we talk of direct printing in the digital world we largely refer to pigmented ink, because it’s the ink that’s most compatible with the different types of fabric, although the fabric has to be treated beforehand. Depending on the percentage of cotton in the garment, one type of treatment or another will be applied.

Each type of fabric has its own ink in the traditional system. Pigmented is the kind that’s generally used for everything. But if we want to print on cotton, the best ink is the reactive kind, although this requires a number of expensive washes.

As for the digital transfer printing systems, we can also classify them into three categories:

  • Sublimation: this is the best-known technique. We make the print on paper; we apply it to the garment and we apply pressure and heat at a temperature of about 200 degrees. The ink is vaporised and impregnated into the garment. For this to occur, the fabric must be made of polyester or contain a high percentage of polyester.
  • Transfer vinyls: vinyls that we can print or print and cut out, some of which have special effects, glitter and holographic designs. Once printed or cut out, we stick them onto the fabric by means of pressure and heat.
  • DTF (Direct to Film): this is the second part of this technique. To apply it to the fabric, we add glue to the image printed on the film and cut out the image from the desired fabric by means of heat and pressure. As it’s glue, it can be stuck to any fabric.

There is no single technology that’s best, as it depends on the use, which is why you have to ask yourself what your aims are, how much you have to invest and what kind of premises you have.

Textile printing looks towards sustainability

In recent years consumers have changed their consumption habits. These changes, associated with more frequent and impulsive purchases, the increase in e-commerce and the demand for greater personalisation, have also modified the processes of the manufacturers, who have had to increase their short runs in an attempt to reduce costs and remain competitive. We’ve also witnessed a shift from large production areas focused on certain parts of the world to micro-factories, because mass production is no longer necessary.

Digital printing in what’s known as the low-cost and fast fashion format is an optimal system, given that there are no fixed costs to be charged.

But what are the consequences of this business model? It’s cheaper and more diverse, but the garments are generally of lower quality and tonnes of textile waste are generated. Although digital printing is on the rise, it currently only accounts for 7%-8% of the sector and the rest is still analogue. There’s still a long way to go.

Apart from the high degree of textile waste, there’s a lot of energy expenditure (water and light) involved in traditional printing. For example, 2,700 litres of water are used to produce one cotton T-shirt. This will give you an idea of the energy and water consumption in the textile industry.

There are a number of targets to be met in terms of textile production by 2030 and a circular economy is expected to be truly implemented within the sector by 2050.

To summarise:
Consumers want to feel unique and personalisation and immediacy are increasing in importance.

Producers want to reduce costs and optimise the workflow.

The regulations are seeking to protect the planet’s resources and promote the circular economy.

This is leading to new digital platforms and business models.

From paper and scissors to smart garments

We’ve moved on from an analogue and traditional world, in which the pattern designer did everything by hand and made to measure, to a digital and automated world. This evolution has brought us a wide range of potential uses, with its so-called functional and smart fabrics. For example, materials with temperature sensors have been developed to indicate when someone has a temperature, along with fabrics with internal circuits, a combination of screen printing and sublimation, that change colour when they come into contact with water, T-shirts for pregnant women with sensors controlling the state of the foetus that can be remotely connected to the medical centre to monitor pregnancies at risk, foot insoles with sensors designed for the elderly to warn them of the risk of falling and T-shirts that can detect a wound and create a tourniquet.

Digital textile printing has before it a future with never-ending possibilities. Things always seem impossible until they occur.

Cristina Benavides, Graphispag contributor