Last updateThu, 02 Apr 2020 8pm

Digital printing: tailor-made innovations for the textile industry

The textile transformation

For many decades, digital printing in fashion, décor, industry and graphics was limited to the production of prototypes and short runs. Innovative inkjet processes can now be used to respond to important concerns - more environmentally friendly production processes, novel designs, leaner supply chains. This article examines the latest trends in the textile industry. It also looks at the digital dynamics that have gripped the industry's huge supply chains, design innovations and the digitalisation of printing, cutting and sewing processes.
Like many other industries, textile printing has adapted to a new generation of consumers and brand owners through innovative technologies. This vast industry, with annual sales of more than $1.5 trillion in apparel and accessories, is in a state of transition.

Brands must appeal to a new generation of consumers who are shopping both stationary and online. The digital age is now an economic reality. Many of the changes that the industry is responding to have been made possible by the introduction of high-speed digital textile production solutions over the past decade (1). This has had a huge impact in several key areas.

In textile printing, any fabric length or quantity of garments can now be produced on demand ("just in time"). Cylinders or stencils are a thing of the past. Cleverly automated workflows ensure efficient implementation of designs, so that collections reach the market faster. In addition, innovations in design and color management already accelerate the creative process - from months to weeks or even days.

Increased productivity and simplified design also encourage creativity. Thanks to the possibility of small-scale production, young, as yet unknown designers can be given a chance for success and recognition at low risk. Nowadays, it is quite common to order a quarter of a metre of fabric from traditional textile factories or novel on-demand suppliers for mass customisation.

Environmental sustainability is also becoming increasingly important for service providers. Studies have repeatedly shown that younger generations - especially Generation Z - are focusing on sustainability when selecting products. In many cases, this age group is prepared to pay more for products developed with sustainability in mind. Given that 20% (2) of all waste water comes from textile factories, this increased environmental awareness among consumers is a challenge for the industry.

Optimisation of the supply chain
After describing textile change and its driving factors in detail, we can explain in more detail how a cumulative annual growth rate of 19 % of digital textile printing volume will affect the textile market (around 4 billion square metres will be reached by 2022 (3 ). Given the productivity and creativity trends that are forcing companies to become more flexible with greater product diversity, it is not surprising that the improvements will also reach the supply chain.

Integration with Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)
When brands plan for the next season, they usually use a product lifecycle management (PLM) system. These tools or collaborative platforms contain all the components, i.e. functions and processes, that are required - from the management of resources (ERP), design components, collections and ensembles to samples and product photography. They are used jointly by all those involved who ultimately bring the products to the shelf or ship them as packages.

Just-in-time manufacturing
Just-in-time manufacturing (JIT) has been an established concept since the 1960s, but its applicability has increased, especially in recent decades. With JIT manufacturing, new companies can bring their product lines to market in days or weeks instead of months. Larger companies can thus react more quickly to the seasonal demand of the fashion industry. Textile companies are able to better satisfy their customers by having seasonal special collections on the shelves on time.
Digital printing: Less overcapacity and reduced stock
The switch to digital printing can also lead to improved inventory planning and, accordingly, to less overcapacity and lower inventory requirements. Textile service providers are turning away from larger print runs and moving towards varied and targeted short runs. This enables them to better adapt their products to customer needs.
Clothing can now be made on demand rather than in bulk, reducing the need for companies to spend less on inventory that may become a big seller or slow seller. These capabilities have created a whole new type of textile supplier - on-demand manufacturers. These companies are based on a Purchase Activated Manufacturing business model where production does not begin until an order is received and paid for in advance. There are no finished goods in the warehouse, only the bare raw materials.
The trend towards on-demand textile production (individualized mass production)
With the shortening of the supply chain thanks to innovative printing technology and the continuous improvement of work processes, new players have joined the market in recent years. They use simple online tools that make it easier to sell tailor-made clothing commercially. This trend fits in with the increasing use of e-commerce throughout the apparel industry. According to a market forecast by Statista in 2018, sales will grow to an estimated 145 billion US dollars by 2023.
Several providers are already successfully capitalizing on this trend. They show how important individualization is for the industry and address the needs of the masses on a larger scale with various customized products.

Spoonflower is active in the USA (North Carolina) and in Europe (Berlin) and has been supplying the creative industry and hobbyists for many years. The company has created a community for pattern designers who are connected to customers on the company's multi-faceted platform. They can customise fabrics, wall coverings and packaging on the spoonflower site and at the same time change the decorative elements on the Roostery website.
The company uses digital printing technology for cotton and artificial materials that require little water to process, namely pigment inks for cotton and sublimation inks for plastics.
A key to Spoonflower's success is continuous investment in research and development, for example in printing and workflow solutions. The company also attaches great importance to maintaining and improving its IT infrastructure, which is capable of handling hundreds of thousands of jobs per year - from small squares in 8 x 8 inch format to several metres depending on customer requirements. In the world of individualised mass production, a "Purchase Activated Manufacturing" business model requires a strong focus on shop management and production tracking - after all, a fault-free product must be guaranteed and the error rate kept low.

Amazon (Merch)
Another powerful new tool is Amazon Merch. As one of the largest online retailers in the world, Amazon recognized the potential of digital printing many years ago when it began printing books on demand. Today, Amazon is investing in companies like Kornit, which supplies Amazon with direct textile printing machines that enable Amazon Merch to offer "Print per Buy" processes. No inventory, no risk of slow-moving items!
Amazon offers its front-end infrastructure to creative entrepreneurs and then gives them the opportunity to turn those ideas into reality using Amazon's back-end infrastructure. Amazon's offerings support independent designers as well as major brand owners such as Disney and Marvel.
Amazon Merch users can also take advantage of Prime Shipping, one of the leading shipping services in the U.S., which provides free shipping within two business days (or one business day). However, Amazon Merch requires sellers to share their profits with Amazon and only earn one license fee on each sale.

The Color Soup
Finally, we present a traditional but highly innovative textile factory - the Miroglio Group from Italy. The company operates several industrial sites, is active in 22 countries, offers materials and owns vertically integrated fashion brands. The company has relied on single-pass inkjet printing since its inception in 2011 and is also a pioneer in environmental protection and design innovation. In 2015, the Miroglio Group founded "The Color Soup" as an online portal for creating and ordering high-quality fashion fabrics for anyone with a browser and Internet access.
Technical innovation
Many of these innovative solutions would not be possible without the tireless innovations in printing technology and materials science. The latter is driving the use of the different types of inks required to achieve the best results on a range of materials: From reactive dyes for natural fibres, to high-energy and low-energy sublimation inks, to special inks for silk and nylon (acid) printing, as well as a new generation of pigment inks that can print on most fabrics without intensive use of water. These innovations have opened up completely new design and colour possibilities. In the early 1980s, digital printing was used exclusively for proofing. Today, single-pass printers reach speeds of up to 90 metres per minute. Due to new textile-specific transport systems as well as improved print head reliability and cost reduction, production systems with a size of 1.8 to 3.2 meters and beyond are now possible.
According to Keypoint Intelligence's annual forecast for digital printing applications in the textile printing sector for the period 2017-2022, approximately 12,000 digital printing machines will be used to produce clothing, decorative and industrial fabrics by 2022. The institute assumes a cumulative print volume of about 4 billion square meters of printed textiles.
There are various product groups in the textile printing industry, including scan head technology, single-pass and hybrid systems. Most common systems are those with scan heads similar to those used in the graphics segment for signs and displays. In the textile industry, however, these systems set completely new standards and sometimes include up to 12 color channels and more than 64 print heads to enable high throughput of thousands of square meters per hour. Many of them also use a sticky belt to transport the fabric evenly through the printer.
In a single-pass system, as the name suggests, all colors are printed in one pass. Since the early introduction of Single-Pass technology in 2011 by Italian company MS Printing, now part of Dover Corp. Following the premiere of this technology, a number of suppliers have also introduced other Single-Pass technologies. Today, it can print at speeds of over 90 linear meters per minute (4). Manufacturers of these systems are currently working tirelessly on multi-intensity system configurations, in-line quality control and other links to industry 4.0 standards.
Hybrid systems are a combination of analog and digital systems. First introduced in China (5), they use analog rotary screen printing in synchronism with the digital single-pass engine, thus benefiting from the advantages of both technologies. Recently, solutions have also been introduced that combine flat analog screen printing frames with a scan head printer, forming a tight integration between the latest inkjet processes and the legacy analog process.

The future of textile printing
The biggest hurdle for many companies, however, is the final phase of the process, the processing of fabrics into garments. The cutting, sewing and finishing of finished garments is still labour-intensive and takes place mainly in low-wage countries in South East Asia and Latin America. This current workflow requires a certain geographical proximity between textile factories and sewing operations.
Just as automation is affecting industries and workforces worldwide, the textile industry will have to undergo further development. For some time now, the US government, for example, has been funding (via the Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA)) Projects to automate the sewing steps using a multi-stage sewing assembly line with intelligent sewing machines and sensors. These systems are - despite additional steps - capable of exceeding human production capacities, as they can theoretically be operated without interruption. In the future, sewing threads for sewing pieces together during the process can be digitally dyed. The Israeli company Twine already offers a corresponding digital technology and works together with the clothing manufacturer Delta Galil.
The forecasts of InfoTrends
After several decades of development, digital textile printing now accounts for a 6% share of textile production and double-digit growth rates. As with many other segments in the printing industry, this industry segment is part of an extensive supply chain with many players including raw material suppliers, brand owners, designers, manufacturers, tailors and logistics service providers. Current developments such as minimizing environmental impact and delivering customized products do not stop at this huge industry.
Digital printing technology is currently being used by both established manufacturers and start-ups that are beginning to use an IoT infrastructure to produce individualized mass products on demand. Major brands are taking note of this development and are looking for solutions that will enable them to achieve important business objectives. These include consistently high quality in product creation, waste and inventory reduction, and satisfying customer demand for design innovation and personalization.
Many of the insights gained in the graphic arts industry in terms of production consistency and workflow automation are now being adopted by textile printing equipment suppliers. However, to have a significant impact, digital printing must go beyond high-quality short-run production. Suppliers are increasingly integrating 2D and 3D designs that can be printed directly onto garment samples. In the future, automation will also move into the areas of cutting, sewing and integration into vertical manufacturing platforms. This will enable the creation of on-site microfabrication plants that can quickly produce customized products that no longer require outsourcing. When this happens, there is likely to be a massive realignment of the supply chain. However, it will certainly take some time before this change is fully implemented.



Related articles

  • Latest Post

  • Most Read

  • Twitter

Who's Online

We have 2932 guests and no members online

Cookies make it easier for us to provide you with our services. With the usage of our services you permit us to use cookies.