Digital vs Analogue: Textile printing and the future

Worth an estimated US$750 billion, the global textile and apparel industry is huge – and growing. Hand in hand with this growth, technological developments are driving innovation in the textiles sector and bringing fabric design into the 21st century.

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 6.56.51 PM

Most textile printing is produced using traditional analogue methods, especially in sectors requiring a high volume of printing. However, with customers asking for a greater variety of colour and design there’s a growing demand for digital printing.

Currently the global share of digitally printed textiles is around 5%, but James Lim, Head of Professional Printing at Epson, expects at least 15% of textile printing to be done digitally by 2020.

“Digital printing is inevitable. Right now the entire industry is going through digitisation,” says James. “It will continue to evolve and replace the analogue processes. Analogue printing will gradually be phased out because of the need for expensive or hard to get spare parts and other environmental issues it poses.”

So, what are the benefits of digital textile printing compared to traditional printing methods?

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 6.17.57 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-08 at 6.20.28 PM

Efficiency and simplicity
Analogue textile printing is generally done using silk screens, where the master image or pattern is directly printed on to the item. Another method is wide format printing or roll-to-roll.

Typically, analogue printing is not efficient as it requires large print runs in order to be profitable. Digital printing is a direct-to-garment printing method that is preferred by a smaller, but growing, number of producers.

“Essentially digital printing is like printing on paper with a printer, except on a larger scale, with ink made for fabric,” explains James. “That’s how simple digital fabric printing is. You have the soft copy, you click print, and you go to the printer and collect the print.”

For textiles, the primary benefit of digital printing is modern ink technology with its multiple colour palettes. That is allowing people to recreate virtually anything, making textile printing more efficient.

“Designers can reproduce a print really fast and the final output can be seen shortly afterwards. Whereas analogue printing takes days before the first print is reproduced,” says James.

Cost effective
Digital printing is also cost efficient, especially for volumes of less than 1,000 square metres, eliminating screen costs in sampling and short-run production. The method requires minimum setup and clean-up costs and also gives customers personalisation options. Less ink and other resources are wasted.

“If the designer makes a mistake – for example in choosing a colour – in analogue printing, the mistake is irreversible. It means all the screens must be replaced. But with digital printing, every little mistake can be corrected on the spot,” says James.

“If there was a mistake, you would have to recreate the entire screen, which can take another three to four days until the first print. In the digital environment, once spotted the mistake can be corrected quickly.”

Colour options
Another advantage of digital printing is the ability to print different colours easily and cost effectively.
“In the digital arena, colour is consistent and repeatable. It allows the customer to do unsupervised printing. That means nobody is needed to keep an eye on the machine. You just need to send the print job and have it run overnight,” says James.

While analogue printing might still be useful for large quantities above 1,000 square metres, a digital printer can produce just one copy of several patterns in just a few minutes, using multiple colour combinations.

The future
Epson’s proprietary technologies set it apart from competitors as it manufactures its own inks. Its advanced ink technology and halftone algorithms with more colour combinations ensure high print quality and increased durability.

Another feature that sets Epson’s technology apart from other inkjet printing technologies is one of its core technologies, PrecisionCore printing technology, one of the fastest inkjet delivery technologies in the world. PrecisionCore printheads essentially emit droplets of ink using mechanical pressure, created when piezoelectric elements in the print heads contract in response to the voltage. This avoids the degradation from heat seen in some thermal printheads and provides reliable long-term operation. Each print nozzle produces dots of up to 50,000 times a second, with ultra-precise control of droplet dot size, shape and placement to deliver fine details.

To meet the growing demand in the digital textile market, last year Epson acquired textile printer manufacturing company, Robustelli to strengthen its product line up and manufacturing expertise. Leveraging Robustelli’s digital inkjet textile printers, Epson is working on even more cost-effective machines, enabling customers to print between 20,000 and 30,000 square metre, mid-sized runs.