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Why digital printing offers new hope to traditional textile printers

With thanks to Gavin Thatcher, Standfast and Barracks, who takes a look at the “New Manufacturing” of Printed Textiles in the United Kingdom.

Textile print sampling and the emergence of digital printing

Digital printing was introduced to the textile industry in the late 1990s as an alternative to sampling for bulk production which had very high waste costs.

In practice, of course, the digitally printed sample could never quite match the “analogue” traditionally printed version and whilst the introduction of digitally printed samples definitely improved the times taken in the preproduction process, it never completely replaced the traditional methods of sampling.

However, the technique earned its place in the development stage of the production process and the seed had been planted for a bulk digital textile printing machine.

sdc6The current position

Dr John Provost recently stated that the total production of textile printing production is showing an average growth rate of 3% year on year with the total volume almost at 27 billion square mts. Clearly the leading technology is rotary printing and it is primarily this method of printing that has migrated from Europe to the East as it offers the highest print speeds to cope with the volumes.

Convergence of events and opportunities

Factors influencing this change are as a result of China and India facing the challenges of a growing/emerging economy:

  • Higher expectations from workers demanding better working conditions and better pay.
  • Increased living standards leading to increased domestic demand therefore neglecting Western brands leading to longer lead times.
  • Rise in transport and logistic costs.

Convergences of events have presented a unique and potentially lucrative opportunity for sustainable competitive advantage in the textile industry. These events include:

  • The consumers growing desire to buy British;
  • the unexpected economic forces that cause brands and retailers to want to source locally due to higher costs, reject rates and the potential risk of losing control of intellectual property rights through sourcing from lower labour cost countries;
  • the maturing of the development of the digital ink jet printer and
  • the resilience of those traditional textile printers that have survived the dark days of watching the textile industry disappear before their eyes.

sdc14Interestingly, the growth and appearance of the BRICS economies has also led to increased demand for luxury goods produced in the United Kingdom. “British manufactured” has a perceived value which is undeniable.

The modern ink jet printer and the application of “new manufacturing” in textile prints

sdc7Modern digital print machines are fast approaching the same printing speeds of conventional/traditional print machines. Machine builders, print head manufacturers and dye suppliers have co-operated to the current position where the use of a digital machine to print fabric as a commercial opportunity has become reality and a viable alternative.

Digital textile printing machines have now reached the point of offering an all in one solution to the textile print producer that enables low cost design capability, quick response sampling, and sample to bulk accuracy at print speeds that are comparable to traditional textile print machines at an acceptable standard.

Whilst it is still more expensive to print digitally, the overall package of savings including overheads, screens, engraving costs, and proofing costs etc outweigh the physical print production process costs.

Digital textile printing shortens and simplifies the process stream and eliminates the uncertainties at the beginning of the product development cycle. Essentially, because the process has been digitized:

  • It enables quicker transfer of design information between the manufacturer and the customer.
  • The simplified process through the use of advanced manufacturing systems, enable reproducible print to be submitted to the customer without screen making. Time saving alone could be three to six weeks and raw material costs and overhead costs are therefore significantly reduced.
  • More modern customers that are “purely digital” in other words, those that do not follow a traditional route in design creation could have fabric delivered within two weeks of receipt of the design files on a compact disk or even a memory stick.

Conclusion

sdc16Whilst digital textile printing currently only occupies around 1.5% of the world textile printing market, the technology is showing growth which has been unprecedented in recent textile history.

The technology, in a way, diminishes the art and skill of the traditional printer by enabling all printers in the world to push a button to print using the same technology. It will however, never enable all printers to produce products of equal beauty and value, as traditional low volume printers have become experts in maximising value and quality by servicing high end niche markets through design and product quality. High volume printers will always chase volume – often forsaking quality, they have grown their businesses on volume and will continue to ignore high value, high risk niche markets demanding higher quality.

IMG_9515Surviving European printers have a highly regarded reputation amongst customers worldwide. The skills these businesses offer to the high value market outweigh the ever reducing perceived cost differences offered by cheaper suppliers. The ability to “turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse” has value. Digital printing enhances these abilities by enabling the designer to delight the customer with improved interpretation of ideas and quicker turnaround times on product.

It is obvious that digital textile printing will revolutionise traditional textile printing. The rate of growth is impressive and the capital investment costs of mid-range machinery are not restrictive. The technology will enable European printers to retain a competitive advantage by combining the best of both worlds. Continued careful management of investment strategies, waste management, ongoing skill protection and the targeting of challenging high value, high risk and low volume sectors which are highly profitable, will enable continued profitability and potentially growth. The criteria to manufacture in this market form an important barrier to entry for most.

The opportunities presented by the textile sector experiencing an accelerating rate of change as a result of China and India facing the challenges of a growing/emerging economy should be seized upon. Potential customers will be returning from these manufacturing sites disillusioned with quality, communication and decreasing service levels. They will be looking for something that adds value to their product. Failure to invest, will undoubtedly force existing niche market customers to other printers who can offer the advantages of this new technology.

?????????????With thanks to Gavin Thatcher. The original version of this article was first published on LinkedIn on June 24 2015.  With thanks to Standfast and Barracks for use of the images in this blog.

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