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The soft option

The soft option

If you want someone to provide an overview of the latest developments in digital textile printing, the best person to ask is none other than Magnus Mighall, a partner at RA Smart, the specialist digital textile print supplier and someone who knows practically everything there is to know about the topic. Val Hirst persuades him to review this year’s advances and to share his predictions for 2014

According to Magnus Mighall,RA Smart has enjoyed another record year in terms of sales of digital textile printing systems, which would seem to indicate that the market for textile-based applications is thriving. He confirms: “With a new crop of digital systems and growth in the soft signage sector, as well as investment from the traditional textile markets of fashion, apparel, education, home furnishing and sportswear, we have seen the steady growth in digitally printed textiles that we anticipated.”

He adds that the demand has also been fuelled by the interest in specific new trends, such as all over dye sublimation printing onto T- shirts saying:  “Despite a slow start, things picked up considerably following Sign & Digital UK at the end of April, which saw the launch of new printers from both Mimaki and our new OEM partner, Epson. The fact that FESPA was held in London this year was also a real bonus for us.  We shared a stand with our heat press partners Transmatic, and were able to showcase our range of printers and heat press options to a wide audience from a variety of market sectors.”

Magnus admits a particular fondness for Mimaki’s new TS500 – 1800D dye sublimation printer, saying enthusiastically:  “It offers speeds of up to 150 sq.m/hr, thus providing users with true high speed production capabilities and significantly reduced consumable costs. The TS500 print engine is now also available in the TX500 direct to textile version for printing directly onto fabrics, such as polyesters, silks and cottons and I am sure it will find favour with many of our existing customers who are looking for increased production capacity.”

In fact, RA Smart has recently installed the UK’s first Miamki TS500 for an established user of dye sublimation systems in the apparel sector that needed additional production capacity. 

B-Loony, the supplier of advertising balloons, invested in the new Epson SC F6000 dye sublimation printer in the summer, following its requirement for increased capacity for its digitally printed promotional product range. Production Director, James Clephan commented: “The F6000 was the ideal solution to meet our production demands and we have since invested in a second unit, complementing our existing plant, to further increase our production capabilities.”

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Another machine that has proved itself to be very popular, offering as it does an entry level option into digital textile printing is the Epson F Series dye sublimation system that made its debut at Sign  & Digital UK.  Magnus reveals that RA Smart has already installed several systems for companies producing a broad range of dye sublimation applications.  Uniquely, the F7000 (64”) and F6000 (44”) printer are the world’s first dye sublimation machines where every major component, including the printer chassis, printheads and ink, emanate from the same manufacturer.

He says: The F6000 44” printer, which is partnered with the Wasatch RIP, has proved to be a particularly popular choice, largely due to its excellent price/performance ratio, which cannot be matched. It’s the ideal solution for customers who want an affordable system without having to compromise on quality or reliability.

One of RA Smart’s most important markets is the education sector, which has continued to invest in digital textile technology. Magnus says: “Educational establishments are an extremely important part of our customer base and we have worked with universities and colleges throughout the UK for over 25 years. Most establishments now have some form of digital textile printing facility if they offer any textile printing courses within their curriculum and many of our education customers now have multiple installations, with the Mimaki TX2 remaining the machine of choice, due to the high quality results and the versatility of the range of textiles that can be used.” He also notes that, increasingly, as well as using their printers as a teaching aid, RA Smart’s education sector customers are now also using them to offer a bureau service to local businesses too, in order to generate extra income.

The production of printed sportswear using dye sublimation printing methods remains an important market, especially as there is now such a wide choice of systems offering various levels of productivity. Magnus reports: “We have seen customers invest in the Epson F- Series, Mimaki JV33, Mimaki JV34, Mimaki JV5 and Mimaki TS5 all for use in sportswear applications. The development of the dye sublimation papers is also extremely important and we are now seeing the introduction of lighter papers, which also means cheaper papers that can handle the heavier ink loading required.”

He agrees, though, that it’s probably the soft signage sector that has seen the highest level of new investment, with it seems, the majority of customers, who are coming into the textile sector from the solvent/UV direction, feeling more comfortable with the idea of printing directly onto polyester.  But Magnus cautions that whilst this may be ideal for the flag and banner market, where it is the norm to achieve a good show through on the reverse side of the flag, a system that enables printing both direct to textile and via dye sublimation is certainly likely to open up more opportunities and provide greater versatility.  He says:  “Such machines really help to broaden both the range of items that can be produced and the potential for profit. However, it is a bigger investment, as, in addition to the printer, another prerequisite is a rotary heat press, rather than just the infra-red fixation unit required for direct to textile printing.”

He adds, that RA Smart has introduced the new Transmatic HF range of fixation units, which can be run either ‘in-line’ with the printer, or ‘off-line’, so that one fixation unit can service multiple printers, thus relieving the higher cost of printers with integrated fixation units.

RA smart has worked with the highly innovative tent manufacturer, Field Candy to help it bring its digital production in-house, following which its use of Mimaki printing hardware has enabled it to supply high end, bespoke tents to companies around the globe.

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UV printing technology is also being used by a handful of RA Smart’s customers for special textile applications, where the handle of the fabric is not so important and/or for very technical fabrics that are being used for particular niche markets. Magnus observes: “Whilst UV printing would never be suitable for the fashion, apparel or home furnishing sectors and has limited appeal for the ‘soft signage’ market, we have certainly seen UV being used to achieve extremely successful results where traditional textile ink chemistries have failed.”

When ruminating on the future development of digital textile printing, Magnus feels that manufacturers would be wise to note customers’ true needs. He says: “Whilst the industry demands faster systems to meet the ever increasing requirements of end users, and there will always be a proportion of companies who will require these high production units, it is vital that manufacturers don’t lose sight of the fact that there are a very significant number of companies, including the majority of our customers, whose businesses simply don’t need the biggest, fastest, most productive machines, but who do require systems that offer the right price/performance ratio in order to fulfil the demands of their client base.”

He continues: ‘For example, we had a client who was very interested in the new Mimaki TS500 and was extremely impressed with the capabilities and results achieved from all the print trials we ran. However, in the end, he decided to purchase the equally impressive, but significantly less productive Mimaki TS5. This wasn’t a decision based on price, but on the fact that this particular customer felt that the TS500’s higher productivity didn’t really fit into his business model and would also necessitate an investment in additional equipment and manpower in order to keep it running. He sensibly concluded that it would be more cost effective to leave the larger production runs to suppliers in the Far East.

Magnus adds that companies printing onto cottons and silks for the fashion and apparel sectors face a similar predicament.  He explains: “The range of ‘industrial’ digital systems now available facilitates the production of some very significant metreage, but due to the technical requirement of printing with reactive and acid dyes and the fact they have to be steamed and washed after printing, means that the investment required is quite substantial, which could well be the reason why no one in the UK, other than a few well-established sreenprinters, is showing much interest in the larger industrial systems.”

He goes on to say that in his view, the next big thing is likely to be the development of textile pigment inks. He reveals: “I am sure it is no coincidence that we have seen a significant rise in the number of customers investing in digital systems using textile pigment ink technology. In fact, we have installed several Mimaki TX2 and JV5 belt systems specifically for use with textile pigment ink technology over the past six months.

“One of the main advantages of textile pigments is the ease of finishing required; all that’s needed is for the binder element of the ink to be fixed, which is done by dry heat, rather than via steaming and washing. Up until now, the problem with pigments has been the lack of colour gamut and the wash fastness of the final print, which is due to the amount of binder and colourant that can be passed through the digital printhead without causing issues with run-ability.  Over the past couple of years though, we have seen significant improvements in both the textile pigment inks and the pre- treatments of the fabrics, which helps to enhance the colours and this, in turn, has lead to more and more customers realising that this technology is a viable one.”

Currently, RA Smart is due to install the UK’s first industrial textile digital printer using textile pigment inks for the home furnishing sector. But Magnus thinks that for sign and display companies, the most relevant fact about pigments is the results than can potentially be achieved on polyester.  He opines: “This will indirectly open up more opportunities for companies who want to get involved with printed textiles for soft signage applications, by enabling them to also to print onto cottons (and silks) with the same machine and inks that they use for polyesters.”

Magnus reveals that RA Smart is just about to take delivery of the new Epson F2000 DTG (direct to garment) printer for use in its demonstration showroom. He says: “I am particularly excited about this system, as there is an obvious market potential for a sensibly priced, reliable solution for printing onto both white and light garments and dark coloured garments that has hitherto been missing. Epson has introduced the F2000 in two models, the four colour (2 x C,M,Y,K) for white and light colour garments and the five colour ( C,M,Y,K plus white) for use on dark colour garments. Both options are available for the same price and Epson’s own inks will be available in both 250ml or 600ml cartridges, with the pre-treatment required for printing white available in 20ltres, which is enough to print approximately 3,000 T-shirts!”

So that leaves us with one last question, namely, “Is now the right time to invest in digital textile printing?”  No surprise for guessing that Magnus’s answer is an unequivocal “Yes!”

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