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Archive for the ‘Fabric Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Update on Dye-Sublimation Technology

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I came upon an outstanding article about dye-sub fabric printing yesterday. It’s called “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” written by Richard Romano and published on 03/14/16 on WhatTheyThink.com. I encourage you to Google it. It’s a great primer on this commercial printing technology.

Ever since my last trip to the beach, when I saw some of the new bikinis, I’ve been intrigued by the bright colors and intricate details printed on these bathing suits. Since they were for the most part polyester blends, it was clear to me that I was looking at the new generation of dye-sublimation fabric printing.

Romano’s Primer on Dye-Sublimation

In his article, Romano explains that sublimation is a process whereby a solid changes directly into a gas without first going through the intermediate liquid state. Dry ice would fit into this category, since a block of this substance turns into a cloud of gas rather than a puddle of liquid. Dye-sub commercial printing would be another example.

In dye-sub printing, solid particles of dye in a liquid suspension are jetted onto a receiver paper that has been specially treated to accept the solid dye particles and then to release them onto a substrate (in this case fabric). Since there is an intermediate step, the image printed on the paper transfer sheet is reversed, so it will print “right-reading” onto the fabric.

The next step is to “fix” or “outgas” the dyes onto the fabric. According to Romano, either a rotary or flatbed heat press is used for this step. Due to the heat (375 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pressure, the dye particles change from a solid state (on the transfer paper) to a gas. The gas then permeates the fibers of the fabric.

When they solidify, the dye particles bond with the fibers in the fabric. In fact, the heat actually melts the fabric slightly, “just enough to open up tiny gaps in the polyester fibers,” according to Romano’s article. When the fabric cools, the dye particles are strongly enmeshed in the fabric. This makes the resulting printed images durable, lightfast, and wash-resistant.

Why Use Dye-Sub for Polyester Fabrics?

Prior to reading “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” I had always wondered why this technology was best suited to either 100 percent polyester fabrics or fabrics with a high polyester content. Apparently, the high heat of the rotary and flatbed heat presses would burn cotton fabrics, but they only slightly melt polyester fabrics, allowing the dye to deeply penetrate the fibers.

Another question I had (which Romano answered) was how printers keep the transfer sheet in adequate contact with some of the new polyester fabrics, which are particularly stretchy. Apparently the transfer sheets can be fabricated with a slight tackiness, so they will hold firmly to the polyester substrate, keeping the material from shifting and preventing blurry images or ghosting.

Also a Good Choice for Rigid Substrates

In “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” Romano notes that dye-sublimation transfer sheets need not be confined to transferring images onto fabric. An additional use with wide appeal is to transfer images onto ceramic tile, wood, plastic, glass, or metal. This can be done as long as the material can first be treated with a polyester coating. This option opens up numerous industrial printing and interior design applications, from printing on wall coverings and drapes to printing on glass and flooring (albeit in some cases with an additional coating for protection).

In addition, dye-sub printing can be a useful technology for transferring images to mugs and other small novelty products (although for mugs, a special dye-sub press is necessary, which grips the cylindrical mug and applies both heat and pressure to transfer the image). Fortunately, these cost less than $300.

The Future of Dye-Sublimation Fabric Printing

Richard Romano describes the future direction of dye-sublimation fabric printing, noting that the trend is away from transfer paper and toward direct-to-fabric printing. However, in this case the dyes would still need to be sublimated in order to adequately bond with the fibers of the fabric.

What We Can Learn from Romano’s Article

  1. The first thing I see is explosive growth in the decoration of everything from garments to wall coverings, sheets, linens, and other useful and aesthetic fabric items. Furthermore, I see this spurring interior designers to create personalized environments for their clients, with no end to the vibrant coloration and intricate detail, as well as the unique, fully customizable presentation of the graphics.
  2. Client interest in fabric printing has spurred increased sophistication within the technology, which is creating a virtuous circle with manufacturers developing new dye-sub capabilities and thus further increasing consumer interest.
  3. Using a transfer-sheet-based workflow allows vendors to stock fewer items (for instance a stack of transfer sheets that can be applied to individual t-shirts as the client chooses a particular size and cut) instead of needing to stock multiple shirt colors in multiple sizes with the same printed images. This approach can reduce the need for both inventory and storage space.
  4. Any such growth in custom printing is exciting to see, particularly when it touches so many world economies.

Options in Screen Printing

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

My fiancee and I went mattress shopping today as one of the final shopping trips of a year-long hiatus from our home due to last year’s house fire. At one point in the trek through the main part of the furniture store and the clearance section, my fiancee noted the difference in the clothing worn by the sales reps in the two parts of the store. Her comments addressed both the image and branding attributes of the various “uniforms,” and the technical, commercial printing aspects of the clothing design.

Clothing Image Differences Between the Outer Store Sales Reps and the Clearance Sales Reps

Wherever you go there are hierarchies. In this particular store, the sales representatives responsible for the new merchandise wore suits and ties. In fact, the sales reps in the clearance center referred to the other reps by their dress, as “the reps with the suits.”

In contrast, sales representatives in the clearance portion of the store (the same store, separated only by the clearance sign) wore brightly-colored polo shirts emblazoned with the company’s logo. Some also wore hats with the same color scheme and logo identification.

Ironically, the sales reps in the clearance center, who were presented as “warehouse staff,” were in some ways more identifiable by their branded clothing (more of a consistent uniform than the various colored suits and ties of the outer sales staff). In addition, they were more knowledgeable regarding the composition, features, and benefits of the merchandise.

In fact, the first sales rep we spoke to (dressed in a suit and tie) sold us one of the highest priced discontinued items without really understanding our needs. After a sleepless night on the overly firm mattress, we returned the item and spoke with a woman in the clearance center who explained the composition of the mattress and fit the proper firmness to our needs. We also lay down on the mattresses and tested the merchandise.

What This Means to a Designer

Image creates a powerful impression, even on those who have studied marketing and can identify its subtle messages. In this case, we initially assumed that the more slick and polished sales reps, who wore suits, would identify superior products that would meet our needs. Instead, the more casually dressed warehouse staff with their red polo shirts and company branding did a far better job.

A savvy designer of corporate identity clothing, be it branded hats and shirts, or any other item of clothing, can structure an overall look for a sales staff that makes representatives look professional and knowledgeable, worthy of your attention. This is artifice. However, in some cases there is true knowledge and sensitivity within the people wearing the branded clothing, but this is distinct from the corporate “look,” which is based on colors, fabrics, and fashion design.

Another thing a knowledgeable fashion designer must keep in mind is the prejudices of the potential clients. For instance, the sales reps in polo shirts were presented as being less sophisticated and knowledgeable than those in suits, but in reality the opposite was true. Think about the appearance of the sales staff in an upscale clothing store, for instance, or a store that sells jewelry or cosmetics. Here the colors, fabrics, and fashion design specifically attract those with large amounts of disposable income and a sense of luxury.

The Furniture Store Polo Shirts and Hats

I asked my fiancee how the shirts and hats she saw had been printed. (I had been more interested in the mattresses and free ice cream than the branding on this particular buying trip.) She said they had been sewn.

For the fashion designers and students of custom printing, I wanted to identify the various options, which are in the process of expanding as the field of digital commercial printing develops and matures.

Logos on these particular shirts and hats had been sewn rather than printed. Based on my cursory awareness of automated, digital sewing machines that can produce intricate images based on computer data, I would say that the hand-sewn garments with corporate identity markers are gone, replaced with unattended, computer-driven sewing programs.

What these particular branded items offer is the raised imagery of the sewn logo, which has an even more tactile sensibility than custom screen printing. In another store, the design manager might have opted for the thicker ink of screen printed fabric decoration, although given the large amount of make-ready work, this would have been cost effective only for a longer run of branded shirts and hats.

Two more options for shorter fabric printing runs (or variable data imagery) would have been inkjet and dye sublimation printing. For polyester hats and shirts, the dye sublimation process would have yielded a better result, and for cotton fabrics, the inkjet process would have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, in either case, the printed fabric would have had less of a sculptural feel in the logo and name of the company. Neither ink nor dye would have adhered to the surface of the fabric as well as the custom screen printing inks (which have the consistency of thick paint) or the even more tactile sewn images.

What This Means to a Designer

The savvy designer might also apply this awareness to other fabric printed items such as canvas messenger bags, or even the back panels of canvas director’s chairs or folding lawn chairs. The two most effective and dramatic options for imaging the fabric (sewing and screen printing) are unfortunately also the most expensive, but in some cases it’s worth the cost to reinforce certain brand attributes in the attire of the sales staff.

Large Format Printing: Kornit and Mimaki Garment Presses

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Ever since I saw the complexity and the stunning color of the new fabric-printed beachwear during my recent summer trips to the Eastern Shore, I have been a student of fabric printing. The advances in this technology are intriguing as well as beautiful.

So when I recently saw two articles about new large format printing equipment for fabric, I thought I’d share them with you.

Printer #1: Kornit Avalanche Hexa Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printer

The first article, “Top Promotions Installs Kornit Avalanche Hexa DTG Printer” (10/25/13, www fibre2fashion.com) describes Kornit’s new printing equipment, which offers the following features and benefits:

  1. The Kornit Avalanche includes a six-color, plus white, inkset. This expands the color gamut by 30 percent, allowing the Avalanche to match a multitude of spot colors for logos and other branded graphics.
  2. The white ink feature allows users to print on dark fabrics without compromising the intensity of the ink colors.
  3. The Avalanche uses NeoPigment inks, which offer the benefits of pigmented inks without the liabilities. Specifically, these inks are manufactured to meet rigorous environmental standards while being more efficient than dye-based inks. The inks also allow for shorter production times since they do not necessitate pre-treating the fabric, and this increased efficiency shows up in lower production costs.
  4. The NeoPigment inks are also durable, and they stand up to repeated washings without degrading.
  5. The Kornit Avalanche can print on multiple types of fabric while maintaining a soft hand (that is, the feel of the printed fabric is still soft and supple).

Printer #2: Mimaki Tx500-1800B Digital Textile Printer

The second article, “Mimaki Adds to Digital Textile Range with Tx500-1800B Launch” (10/25/13, www.printweek.com, by Simon Nias), showcases Mimaki’s offerings in the same general arena as the Kornit Avalanche (i.e., direct-to-fabric digital textile printing).

Here are some of the features and benefits of Mimaki’s printer:

  1. The Tx500-1800B “can print reactive dye, sublimation dye, acid dye, and pigment inks, making it compatible with a range of pre-treated fabrics, including: cotton; silk, nylon and wool; polyester or transfer paper.” (www.printweek.com). This provides huge breadth, both in terms of inks and substrates.
  2. The Tx500-1800B is 1.5 times as fast as its predecessor (the Mimaki Tx400). Faster speeds with this “eight pass bi-directional printing” (www.printweek.com) yield lower production costs. At 600 x 1200 dpi resolution, the Tx500 will print up to 45 square meters per hour (in 4-color) or 22 square meters per hour (in 8-color).
  3. The printer incorporates a conveyor belt to feed the fabric substrate without tension, allowing the use of elastic fabrics.
  4. The Tx500 includes a “variable dot function” that provides “rich gradation without banding” and “accurate printing of fine lines.” (www.printweek.com)
  5. When compared to other fabric custom printing methods, the Tx500 requires less ink and water. This reduces both the cost of the process and its environmental impact.

Implications of the Advances in Fabric Custom Printing Technology

I see two major implications of this new direction in direct-to-garment custom printing:

  1. The speed, quality, and reduced costs, as well as the ever increasing number of substrates available for use in direct-to-garment presses, will speed up the transition from such traditional technologies as custom screen printing to the digital alternatives.
  2. Digital custom printing of garments and fabrics will allow for short press runs and personalized printing on a multitude of fabric substrates. This will foster mass customization and prototyping, since there will be no need to spend heavily on preparation. Short runs will be as economical as longer runs.

The Future of Printed Garments

I think the future of direct-to-garment and direct-to-fabric printing will be very bright. I look forward to my trips to the beach next year. I expect to see ever-increasing complexity, high resolution, and vibrant colors in the printed fabric designs, as well as garments produced using an increasing variety of fabrics.

Custom Printing: Fabric Printing for Small Design Shops

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

In an earlier blog I mentioned that among other things my fiancee and I install displays for a major cosmetics conglomerate. What that has done for my print brokering work is open my eyes to the plethora of signage options (print and digital) as well as the variety of packaging and product design options that are out there. It also has been an education in itself in cross-media marketing, given the selection of wall and floor displays, large format print banners, walls of digital signage, and screen printed cosmetic bottles.

It has also made me more conscious of fashion design, or—more specifically—printing on fabric.

Digital technology has made inroads into what had been almost exclusively a custom screen printing venue. I just read two articles about fabric printing and learned a few things.

“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion” (El Paso Inc., 2/23/14, by Nan Napier) and “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing” (Fashion-Incubator.com, 6/24/10) extol the benefits of digital fabric printing, but they also show how the more flexible workflow and reduced set-up and manufacturing costs will allow more new fabric designers to enter the field.

Benefits of Low-Minimum Print Runs

Prior to the advent of digital printing, custom screen printing was the only option for decorating fabric. Since this required a new screen for each color, plus extended set-up and clean-up times, the print runs had to be long to justify the cost, the time, and the staff.

The implication of this financial hurdle and time constraint was that short print runs were not cost-effective. So new designers could not set up, print, and distribute their work. Also, it was not feasible to produce a short run of a design to test buyer interest. Nor was it possible to cost-effectively vary the design within the print run for aesthetic purposes (to make unique items or to satisfy niche markets). For rotary or flatbed custom screen printing presses, you had to commit to producing several thousand yards of fabric.

In contrast, digital custom printing on fabric is available starting at a yard or less of fabric. So you can test a design on a particular fabric—or on multiple fabrics. This is particularly useful, since the color and texture of the fabric change the ink colors, dulling them down or giving them sheen and making them pop. You could even gang up a number of designs and print them on the same fabric to test the results. Or, you could personalize every item. With custom screen printing, this is out of the question.

If you’re a small designer, your financial entry into digital printing is not insurmountable. Digital fabric printing equipment costs between $10,000 and $70,000 (according to “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”), plus the computer, plus the equipment for curing the ink. Once you have purchased the equipment (or have access to someone else’s equipment), you can immediately produce your fabric designs for a reasonable cost. Furthermore, electronic components quickly drop in price, so the cost of entry into the field will go down over time.

Benefits of Having No Inventory

In the days of custom screen printing, you produced a thousand or more yards of printed fabric and therefore had to maintain an inventory of unfinished and finished work. Of course, you also had to pay for storage space. Furthermore, printing the fabric and producing the garments took time, so it could take a year to bring a design to market.

In contrast, you can come up with a design and digitally print the fabric the same day. The process is far more immediate, without all of the preparation, production, and clean-up time. In addition, if a design doesn’t work, you can change it immediately and proceed with the print run. What this means is that a designer can “take advantage of current trends and even change prints or colors mid-season.” (“Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”) Instead of taking a year to bring a product to market, with digital fabric printing you can complete a run within weeks.

Flexibility in Image Color and Placement

In most custom screen printing, only a limited number of colors are used for a particular fabric design, since each color requires a separate screen. This has kept most fabric designs to six or eight colors. (Granted, some screen printers can produce full-color work using CMYK halftone screens, but in the majority of cases fabric printers have focused on a limited color palette.)

In contrast, digital custom printing widens the color gamut to hundreds of colors, or more, as well as photo-realistic images and color gradations impossible to achieve on a flatbed or rotary screen press.

In addition, screen printers usually create a pattern that seamlessly repeats across the length of fabric. With digital printing, however, fashion designers have more control over the actual placement of the art, allowing them to position an element “at the waistline” or “across the shoulder” of a garment (“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion”).

In this way, digital printing technology invites new designers into the field and provides a wide latitude for creative fabric design.

Custom Printing: Options for Garment Decoration

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

In my summer travels to Ocean City, I’ve been paying close attention to improvements in fabric printing. During numerous trips to clothing stores with my fiancee in search of bathing suits, I have become aware of new developments in garment decoration. Trips to the Ocean City boardwalk have also sparked my interest in fabric printing as I have seen similar improvements in t-shirt printing.

Let me be more specific. I have seen images printed in vibrant colors on bikinis with almost continuous tone photographic quality. I have also seen thick, rubberized, single color custom screen printing on everything from t-shirts to soda can cooling sleeves.

In all cases I’ve asked myself how the effect was accomplished, and unable to answer completely, I have done some online research.

Inkjet vs. Dye Sublimation

Both inkjet and dye sublimation technologies can be used to decorate garments. The determining factor seems to be the substrate. A cotton garment would be ideally suited for direct-to-garment custom printing via inkjet technology, whereas a polyester garment would be better suited to dye sublimation custom printing.

For inkjet garment printing, the printheads of the inkjet equipment make a pass across the t-shirt (for example), which is mounted flat on a platen (a garment holder). The printheads spray the ink onto the surface of the cotton fabric. With today’s inkjet equipment, this can be done at very high resolution, hence the photographic quality images.

In contrast, for printing on polyester garments, inkjet equipment is used to print special sublimation dyes onto a carrier sheet called “dye sublimation transfer paper.” This paper is then laid over the garment, and the heat and pressure of a “heat press” cause the dyes to turn from a solid directly into a gas (skipping the interim liquid state and therefore called “sublimation”). The gas dye molecules enter the actual fabric (instead of staying on top of the fabric, as do inkjet inks). When the garment is cooled and the dye sublimation transfer paper is removed, you have a vibrant image that won’t fade or peel, and that will withstand repeated washings.

What About Blended Fabrics?

So if you have a cotton or polyester garment to work with, you know what technology to choose. But what about blended fabrics? From my research I’ve learned that both inkjet and dye sublimation will work with blended fabrics, but that the coloration may be faded or washed out. What I find interesting about this is that the images printed on the swimsuits in the Ocean City stores were blindingly bright, crisp, and fully saturated.

So What Was I looking At?

Based on my research, I would take an educated guess that the swimsuits, being a polyester product, had been decorated using dye sublimation technology. Furthermore, I would say that the intensity of the custom printing dyes support this educated guess.

Rubber Inks

The thick, single colors of ink printed on the hats, some shirts, and the foam rubber soda can cooling sleeves I saw on the boardwalk seemed to be the products of an altogether different process.

The inks were thick, solid colors. And the artwork was simple line art. My first thought was that these had been samples of custom screen printing. But the ink on the t-shirts was much more flexible than I had remembered from prior years. It seemed to be almost rubberized, much softer and more pliable than the screen printing inks I was used to. (I even checked a screen printed messenger bag I had at home, and the screen printed logo was much rougher than the screen printed ink on the products at the beach.)

I thought the inks might be latex based, but in my research I learned that latex inks are really more of an environmentally friendly alternative to solvent based inkjet printing inks. Ostensibly, these would also have more of a plastic surface than a rubberized surface.

So I did some more research and found that rubber based inks do in fact exist. They are used for textile custom printing, and they give the texture of rubber, coat evenly, and are opaque. Given my findings, I would make another educated guess: that the new products in Ocean City had been screen printed with rubberized inks. (The product literature for the rubberized inks discussed types of squeegies and referenced the thickness of the ink—both items or qualities indicative of custom screen printing.)

Do I know for sure? No, since there were no commercial fabric printers on-site in the stores, but I’ll still stand by my guess.

Why You Should Care

Large format fabric printing (inkjet, dye-sub, and screen printing) seems to be growing and becoming more technologically sophisticated in an era when other types of custom printing are waning. Designers and printers may want to take note.

Large Format Printing: Printing Bikinis and Houses

Monday, February 18th, 2013

In the last PIE Printing Blog article, I discussed novel uses for 3D custom printing, including the specifications Nokia has made available to enable phone owners to 3D-print their own phone cases, and a stem-cell 3D printing firm called Modern Meadow that 3D prints hamburgers.

Tonight’s articles of note include “RELLECIGA Bomb You with the Latest Stylish Digital Print & Lace Bikinis” (Sacramento Bee, 1/28/13) and “Architect to build home using 3D printer” (CNN, Doug Gross, 1/23/13). Both articles extend the notion of custom printing just a little further.

“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”

I reviewed the lyrics for Brian Hyland’s song released in 1960 about a girl in a bikini. I didn’t see any references to inkjet printing, but it actually seems to be a good way to print this fabric, if you read RELLECIGA’s promotional material.

In prior years, fabric printing had been the domain of rotary screen presses, with each print job comprising several thousand yards of fabric. Considering the time and cost involved in preparing screens for multiple colors, custom screen printing runs have had to be long (in much the same way as time, effort, and capital must go into make-ready for an offset printing run, with unit costs dropping as the run lengths increase).

The first half of the article, “RELLECIGA Bomb You with the Latest Stylish Digital Print & Lace Bikinis,” sounds like most fashion marketing collateral, with references to the “beauty of its design, its intricate handiwork, and the dignified taste of the wearer,” but the tone quickly shifts, and RELLECIGA begins to explain the benefits of inkjet printing the bolts of bikini fabric compared to custom screen printing the fabric.

These benefits include small batch printing, customization, prototyping, and experimenting. The article also notes that “RELLECIGA Digital Fabric Printing Process can reproduce unlimited colors and shades” and that this “reflects the beautiful intricacy made possible by digital printing.” And when there are no screens to prepare for printing, you can print as little as one yard of fabric economically (rather than thousands).

Interestingly enough, as fabric custom printing technology improves (whether it be inkjet or dye sublimation), digital printing is becoming the preferred technology in many cases. With manufacturers producing inks that can maintain color contrast on various fabrics and that are formulated for each type of fiber, and with designers becoming adept at the post-press operations used to cure the ink (such as applying heat or steam, or washing and drying), inkjet printed fabrics can withstand multiple washings and day-to-day wear.

Finally, the article notes that the technology is priced within reach of the “average illustrator.” When technology is inexpensive enough, manufacturing processes can migrate from the factories back into small shops, where quality and uniqueness can prosper.

Print My House

No, really? All it takes is a large 3D printer. The CNN article “Architect to build home using 3D printer” references architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars’ “Landscape House,” comprising “one surface folded in an endless Mobius band.” Basically, when you walk through the house, you can “seamlessly merge indoors and outdoors.”

The house doesn’t come cheap. It will cost between $5 and $6 million to construct. However, there’s already a market for this architect’s work (including museums and individuals).

The crowning achievement will be to produce this house using 3D custom printing technology. Janjaap Ruijssenaars has found a huge aluminum 3D printer that uses sand, which it forms into a solid material similar to marble.

Ruijssenaars will use the 3D printer to produce solid blocks that are approximately 20 feet by 30 feet. He will add fiberglass and concrete reinforcements as he constructs the “Landscape House” from these large blocks. He plans to complete the first house in 2014.

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