In today’s post, Madelaine Thomas, Industry Digitalization Editor for the World Textile Information Network (WTiN) discusses the evolution of printing – from screen to digital and beyond. WTiN provides information and insight into the global textile manufacturing industry.
Regarding printing for the fashion industry, screen printing has been the main method of production. With the ability to print in vivid colors in a precise and controlled manner, screen printing – whose origins date back to AD 960-1279 in China – was not commercially popularized for the fashion industry until the 1960s. .
During this decade, the first rotary, multi-color clothing screen printing machine was developed in the United States to enable logo printing on bowling uniforms. Subsequently, screen printing became the technology of choice for the rapid fashion movement, especially as production shifted to countries where labor is cheaper like China and China. India.
However, in addition to the high screen costs and screen storage, many designers were limited by the limitations of the technology. Obstacles to the development of the print design included the labor-intensive labor required to apply the ink on the screen to the clothes, the high water consumption resulting from washing screens and the inability to design complex images with mesh screens.
A new, innovative printing technology was needed to provide a solution to these problems. The industry, and in particular the fashion and clothing consumer market, has a growing need for flexibility and the only way to achieve this and eliminate old problems is digital textile printing, according to many analysts.
Although screen printing remains a thriving industry, as many end consumers are attached to simple, low-resolution, vivid color prints on their clothing, digital can reduce the environmental footprint, allow greater flexibility, personalization and a gave fashion designers the flexibility to experiment with their styles by breaking the boundaries of design.
The introduction of inkjet technologies for fashion and apparel applications over the years has made high-resolution pattern and image prints increasingly popular in the fashion industry – from intricate floral and animal prints to detailed photorealistic visuals and intricate, repetitive brand designs.
However, in addition to changing the way and what a designer creates, inkjet has also had a wider impact on fashion seasons, business models, and the supply chain.
Roll-to-roll digital textile printers for the fashion industry appeared in the mid-90s, but it can be argued that they only reached industrial level in the last decade. The first machine was the Stork Fashion Jet, designed solely as a demonstrator and developed in collaboration with a trio of partners – German printer KBC, UK Dyestuff, inkjet maker Zeneca and German paper coater Schoeller. It used a continuous inkjet head, designed and manufactured by Stork itself, and printed a 1.5 meter wide roll of fabric at a speed of up to 4 linear meters / hour with a resolution of 250 dpi.
High-speed digital printers for the fashion industry came later and now, with single-pass machines, digital has reached 90 meters per minute in high resolution, following the launch of the single-pass printer. Passage EFI Reggiani BOLT in November 2018 – the first of the OEM one-pass solution.
According to WTiN Intelligence: Digital Textiles, in 2018, 2.57 billion m² of fabric were digitally printed worldwide; 2.2 billion m² of this production was intended for clothing, fashion and home textile applications. As in previous years, China, Italy, India, Turkey and the United States continued to dominate the digital textile printing market. And, despite a growing middle class in China, coupled with Beijing’s strict environmental regulations, the country continues to dominate the fast fashion scene. In contrast, Italy still dominates the world of luxury fashion.
Digital textile printing is also transforming the usual two-season fashion cycle, with companies like Zara – a subsidiary of Inditex – now using the technology to produce collections year round. With inkjet technology, samples and designs can now also be tested and edited on-site by the designer or print shop, helping to reduce turnaround times.
Moreover, the growing trend of global consumers towards personalization can only be alleviated by using inkjet technology. “Lot size one” is now possible thanks to digitalization, which gives power back to the individual. Previously, low minimums – not to mention one-time prints – weren’t cost effective through traditional printing methods. Textile inkjet printing is considered to have created a fashion and clothing industry with more variation and individuality.
Direct-to-garment printing (DTG) is also influencing the trend towards personalization. DTG printing is mainly used for printing directly onto T-shirts, but is increasingly used for other garments such as dresses and jeans. OEMs, like Israel-based Kornit Digital, are also promoting the role of DTG printing in the home textiles sector.
In this way, roll-to-roll digital textile printing and DTG allow new business models to emerge and flourish throughout the textile printing industry, such as demand (POD) and web2print. In these models, orders are placed (online for web2print) and then the garment is created. Sometimes the garment is personalized online by the consumer and then created locally by the manufacturer before delivery. On-demand manufacturing, with bespoke production runs, eliminates a number of pressing problems in the fashion and apparel industry. For example, it eliminates overstocks and risks, reduces inventory costs and reduces lead times.
It also means that fewer items are returned. Indeed, if an item is created and personalized for the individual, the idea is that the consumer is more likely to be satisfied with it. Research has also shown that consumers will keep their personalized clothing for longer, which will lengthen the life cycle of clothing and reduce the number of textiles ending their life in landfills, which is currently tragically high.
The success of these new business models is being driven by SMEs, but big fashion houses and brands are expected to start manufacturing similarly in the near future. The sportswear and athleisure markets are already starting to do this. For example, Nike’s “Nike By You” program, which allows consumers to create their own personalized sneakers that are then created on demand. There is no reason why this process cannot be adopted by clothing manufacturers using digital printing technology. The adoption of these models by brands could potentially revolutionize the industry in the future. But for it to really succeed, consumers have to demand it; the likelihood of which increases as consumer awareness and concern for the environment increases. One of the greatest strengths of digital textile printing, compared to traditional alternatives, is that it is much more sustainable, although there is room for improvement in this area.
Additionally, in 2017, Amazon obtained a patent for a fully automated on-demand clothing manufacturing line, which incorporates the use of digital textile printers.
These new business models, made possible by digital textile printers, are assisting re- and nearshoring movements aimed at bringing clothing manufacturing back to the consumer market. This is because the trend towards customization and flexibility can only be satisfied if the manufacturing is done locally. In addition, digitized technologies, such as inkjet printers, reduce manufacturing costs and environmental pressure from brands and consumers also acts as a catalyst for relocation. When it comes to nearshoring, Mexico and the rest of Central and South America are becoming popular areas for clothing design, as labor remains cheap, but they are close to the US consumer market. . The increasingly digital textile-oriented Polish market is developing for the same reasons in Europe.
As digital textile printing continues to proliferate in the global fashion and apparel industry, taking a greater share of the global market by volume of printed fabrics, business models and designs will continue to evolve. With digital textile printing, the fashion and apparel markets continue to break down barriers and open up new possibilities, but there are still challenges ahead such as metallic or glitter inks and the next big goal – how to connect the supply chain in the fourth industrial revolution.
Streamlining workflows, connecting digital textile printers with upstream and downstream siled processes – such as die-cutting process with machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and data mining technology – will enable reduce the cost of printed fashion and clothing items to the end consumer. Proximity to the end consumer will also decrease (increased flexibility and personalization), lead times will improve and clothes will only be created once ordered.
Digital textile printing marked the start of digital transformation in the fashion and apparel supply chain. And although it will never completely replace screen printing, as mass market products will always be needed in the global market, digital printing will continue to transform the industry in terms of production, rebalancing power in the industry. (more for the consumer and the designer) and increase durability in the garment printing space.
I can’t wait to see that future.