Textile Printing Poised for Growth
Digital textile printing is a segment of the wide-format printing industry that is seeing significant interest, and is poised for even greater growth in the next few years. For printers, this is the time to invest in both the equipment and the people, to be poised and ready when the demand truly explodes.
But for a shop that has never printed on fabrics before, where is the best place to start?
First of all, understand which market the textiles will be printed for. On-demand garment printing is certainly one rising space, but don’t limit the prospects to that space alone. In fact, notes Kristen Dettoni, the founder of Design Pool — a company that specializes in connecting designers with print-on-demand specialists to bring their textile visions to life — one of the hottest segments of the digital textile space right now is in commercial interiors.
“These pieces touch almost every surface,” she notes, from upholstery, to carpeting, to wallcoverings, to curtains — and everything else in between. “Over the last five years, I’ve seen more people delve into [the digital textile] side of things in the commercial space.” She goes on to note that she has seen an increase in the number of designers looking to connect with and partner with printers who have experience with textile printing, those shops that experiment and offer a wide range of options beyond just basic fabrics — think faux leather, for example — are finding even greater interest from the design community.
A Starting Point
The demand is there, and today’s textile printing technologies have evolved to the point where they can provide the speed and quality that designers demand. This is all good news for shops looking for new services to expand their product offerings into new markets and new directions. However, before investing any time or resources, the true starting point is to take a hard look at the shop’s operations before choosing the best path forward, notes Victoria Harris, textile segment specialist for Mimaki.
“First as a printing company, I would look at the core identity,” Harris says. “What do you do well? What do you value most — sustainability, customer experience, a unique custom solution? Get clear on that, and then look for the best solutions to adapt to that current model.”
She continues, “One thing I find key here is that with one digital printer or technology, your ability to adapt to several markets is a possibility, so keep that in mind. If you’re going to digitally print for apparel, you aren’t limited there; you can also do hospitality, interiors, etc., while still supporting those core values. Agility and flexibility is key.”
For sign shops already producing banners or soft signage on things like vinyl, the transition is even easier. In fact, says Richard J. Hatton, president, E. L. Hatton Sales Co. / Banner Ups, while the overall digital textile market is absolutely on the brink of major growth, complimentary services like SEG signage are going to grow right alongside it. So that flexibility and agility to use the same technology and equipment to serve multiple markets is a great strategy going forward.
“[SEG signage] is a well-established, but still not broadly used category,” Hatton says. “But it is also one of the most accessible new markets for sign shops and small-to-medium sized printers. In the past, it was only accessible to the largest digital printers, but now it’s available to everyone — there are a lot of entry-level products that are democratizing the space.”
The Biggest Growth Opportunities
Dettoni notes that while digital textile printing is growing across the board, one of the single largest markets where she sees the most potential is around the health care space.
“I’ve seen around a 25% increase [in recent months] on projects printed specifically on faux leather,” she notes. “It is fairly easy to print on because it is flat, compared to a woven surface with depth and texture … and it is sustainable, easy to wipe down and doesn’t absorb fluids. So that’s where I’m seeing a point of entry,” that then expands into every other part of the health care space.
In particular, she notes the need for pieces such as two-sided privacy curtains printed with fabrics and inks optimized for easy cleaning without compromising the integrity of the image. Not only do innovations like this make it easier for a hospital or clinic to provide a welcoming space, they also tend to be easier to remove for cleaning and reinstall, making them even more attractive to busy health care staff. And because of those unique needs, Dettoni notes, health care applications are usually willing to pay a premium, which is in part why that segment is seeing the fastest growth.
“You can sell faux leather upholstery to [a health care facility] for roughly $80 per yard,” she says. “But a similar product sold into a hotel might only sell for $30-$40 per yard. Because of that, print-on-demand isn’t quite there yet for those markets unless done very specifically, but I think it’s going to get there.”
Hotels, especially boutique hotels, are one of those segments on the brink of being a lucrative market for printers offering digital textile printing. As both independent and franchise hospitality chains alike look for ways to distinguish themselves and stand out in the crowded marketplace, the ability to customize every surface, no matter what material it’s made of, will only become more appealing. Right now, one of the biggest barriers isn’t necessarily the interest, it’s that many of the designers creating these spaces don’t know about or understand how far technology has come — which is another opportunity for a savvy printer to position itself as a consultative partner, instead of just a vendor.
And while it might still be a fairly niche market, the opportunities in garment printing can’t be overlooked either.
Harris notes that she has seen apparel manufacturers, in particular, starting to take more notice of digital textile printing, especially when it comes to things like prototyping different patterns, colors, or shapes. “In the United States, that’s pretty exciting for the key players,” she says.
Harris also points to the emerging concept of “smart textiles,” with technology woven into the fabric itself. While these types of applications are still in the early stages of development, with the few products out there more along the lines of proof of concept than true mass-market garments, she is expecting growth of up to 50% CAGR in that space by 2024, with those printers who specialize in the sportswear segments in particular likely to see opportunity and growth. “It’s a unique product, a smart design,” she notes, “and incorporating print and textile printing within that gives a more customizable product, a more unique offering to the market.”
Digital textile printing isn’t a brand new space, but it is one that, thus far, has been more of an ancillary service, something on the edges of the main wide-format and signage market. But new technologies, faster speeds, and more creative applications are all driving it forward into the spotlight. This is a great time to start looking at the latest printers and substrates hitting the market, and start creating the game plan that will take the shop into the next decade of high-volume growth and high-powered success.