A  recent study, a joint effort between consultancy Pira International and FESPA, anticipates an increase in digital textile printing between 2009 and 2014 from €114.6 million to just under €1 billion. 

In 2014, the report expects the total installed base of digital textile printers to be 52,800 – a CAGR of 23.1%.  And research in 2006 by IT Strategies into a specific market segment – garment decoration – estimated that the retail value of digitally-printed garments would be $12 billion this year, fuelled largely by the wider adoption of direct-to-garment (DTG) inkjet printers.

Digital technology has already transformed the wider “ink-on-paper” printing industry, and now promises to do the same to textile printing.  Digital is perfect for the short runs and fast turnarounds that underpin today’s “Just-In-Time” supply chains.  It also slashes manufacturers’ time-to-market and, by making it easier to test market new ideas, encourages creativity.  And it meets consumers’ growing expectations of being able to personalize products and get them quickly over the Internet.

Meanwhile, flags and banners – the fastest-growing sector for digital textiles – increasingly offer corporate marketers significant aesthetic, environmental and practical advantages.  More and more fabrics are being developed for digital printing;  they can be recycled;  and they are easier and cheaper to transport.

Not surprisingly, this promise is already tempting new players to explore the potential for turning a profit from new business models.  IT Strategies’ research into garment decoration, for example, sees three types of companies investing in direct-to-garment inkjet:  screen printers and embroiderers who are already in the direct-to-garment business;  T-shirt printers currently using thermal transfer or colour laser printers and copiers, and companies that are totally new to the market, such as internet retailers and photographers.  Other potential new entrants include “bricks-and-mortar” retailers, who might consider in-store kiosks.

At first sight, these predictions suggest digital technology will sweep swiftly and irresistibly through textile printing.  However  there are significant differences between the “ink on paper” industry and the world of textiles.  For one thing, the digital textile sector includes two further, very different sectors.  On the one hand, there are businesses supplying banners, graphics and (sometimes) garments for use in a myriad of environments, from commercial premises, through exhibitions and museums, to concert-halls and theatres.  On the other, there are printers serving consumer markets for fashion and decorative fabrics, providing clients with the specialist expertise needed to meet demanding retail standards for wash-, light and rub-fastness.

The textile printing sector further differs from the wider printing industry in the variety of processes used, each of which offers a balance of pros and cons.  Traditional (analogue) screen printing remains the choice for printing premium-quality items in high volumes but make ready and set-up procedures make it less suitable for short runs (the estimated break-even for a screen-printed run is between 48 and 72 items).

Dye sublimation, the digital process that dominates the display market, delivers both high quality and short runs, but generally works best with fabrics with a high polyester content and requires translucent inks that suit it best to white or light clothing.

Inkjet-based digital direct-to-garment printers, meanwhile, produce good results on 100% and 50/50% cotton, so fashion textile printers can print on cheaper garments and compete with screen printing on higher-volume work, especially as the speed gap between inkjet and screen is narrowing.  Other attractions include the ability to print silks, blends and other fabrics, and, thanks to the recent availability of white ink, to print on dark fabrics.

With applications for digital textiles growing in line with advances in production technology, and new entrants eyeing the sector keenly, it is imperative that textile printers keep abreast of developments.  FESPA 2010 provided a good opportunity to do just that.  This year’s event reflected the growing influence of digital across all sectors with three halls devoted to digital exhibitors.  This year’s exhibition also included, for the first time, FESPA Fabric, a comprehensive “show within a show” devoted exclusively to garment decoration.