What We Learned From The Digital Textile Printing Conference
On Dec. 9 and 10, the PRINTING United Alliance and American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) hosted the annual Digital Textile Printing Conference, two days packed with speakers taking a closer look at technical details and considerations for this segment of the market.
The conference’s moderators — Ray Weiss, Director of Digital Print Programs, PRINTING United Alliance, and Kerry King, senior VP, Research and Development, Spoonflower, and current AATCC president — started the day thanking the event’s steering committee, sponsors, and attendees while providing brief presentations on each association’s offerings. Here is a look at some of the highlights from the rest of the conference, and the takeaways that printers and apparel decorators can learn from them.
The Big Picture
Andy Paparozzi, chief economist for the PRINTING United Alliance, gave an overview of the current state of the industry, and there is no denying that it has been a “brutal year,” he said. On average, his research has found that apparel decorators, in particular, have had an average loss of nearly 17% of sales when comparing the first three quarters of 2019 to 2020.
That said, there have been some bright spots. He noted that for 17% of this segment of the industry, sales have grown for the year an average of 25.7%. They aren’t “companies of a particular size,” he said, but rather those who are “aware, entrepreneurial, and agile.” They captured opportunities by shifting production to products and services such as PPE and social distancing signage, and pivoted to industries seeing the most boost in a pandemic, such as healthcare and home education.
Further, he noted, those who have done the best in 2020 excelled at market analysis and execution, quickly looking for new opportunities, and then not hesitating to jump in and capture them. Those types of skills, he stressed, will be just as important in the recovery ahead as they were to surviving the recession.
Another interesting statistic Paparozzi shared is that while the industry is starting to see “movement off bottom,” with overall sales increasing 0.6% in November compared to losses of 4.7% in July/August, 30.2% in May/June, and 53.7% in March/April, the latest survey period also showed a decreasing amount of confidence in that recovery. Only 30.9% expect busines to improve overall in December, compared to 45.2% who expected improvements when asked the same question in July/August. This, Paparozzi noted, is due to a number of factors, including concern about the second wave of infections and the lockdowns that have already started, as well as the fact that we don’t yet have answers to some critical questions such as when will restrictions on in-person events be eased, when will clients be able to operate at full capacity, and when will schools fully re-open.
Heading into 2021, that uncertainty about how COVID-19 2will continue to impact business remains the number one concern of business owners across the board. Alongside that, most are concerned with maintaining sales and profitability as the economy continues to face troubled times.
Finishing First: Advances in Postpress
Frank Henderson, CEO, Henderson Sewing Machine Co., a third-generation business owner, spoke to the replacement of the “traditional linear supply chain,” — with 6-9-month timeframes for developing, planning, sourcing, making and delivering — with a digital supply chain, requiring manufacturers to be adaptive and agile. Adding to the need for automation, efficiency, and a sustainable supply chain, he said, are the industry’s workforce development difficulties and COVID.
Automation is achieved through what Henderson referred to as the digital connected factory, a system in which a wired or wireless motor controller is connected into a database where staff can monitor what machines are doing in real-time, from production reporting to maintenance issues.
Henderson then presented videos showcasing the latest innovations in finishing automation, noting how today’s technology allows manufacturers to use camera-based systems, and robots — sometimes cobots — to become the eyes and arms a sewing operator needs. From four-side sewing automation for bed sheets and towels, to seat belt pin insertions, Henderson emphasized among the many advancements how there are affordable options that cost less than what a traditional sewing operator would. He also noted that staff don’t automatically have to be programmers and can be trained on the technology.
But with these innovations becoming a closer reality for making U.S. businesses more competitive, Henderson said inserting automation technology into a facility today is product specific, meaning “we have to build that automation around what you want your product to be,” he said.
Continuing the finishing conversation was Andy Arkin, strategic account manager, Industrial Applications, Zund America. In addition to delving into the considerations of choosing between rotary blade and laser cutting for textiles based on type (cotton, nylon, etc.), construction type (knit vs. woven), application, and finishing process, Arkin mapped out key factors for businesses thinking of transitioning to a digital cutting workflow. This includes the application/product and volume of business to the total benefit/ROI and current method and costs to produce. For example, he said, “when we outsource something, we lose complete control and we’re on somebody else’s timeline.”
There are also certain expectations of a business with digital cutting, he noted, which includes web to finished for custom personalized products and the ability to cut and print any volume, including one-offs. This is happening across applications from soft signage to apparel with fit technology, “where you’re no longer making larges, mediums, smalls, you now have an avatar or specific size just for you, said Arkin. “It's extremely popular but definitely something that would be cutting on a one-off.”
While COVID-19 has disrupted the supply chain and industry, such as with trade show signage and apparel as people work remotely, Arkin said it has also fast tracked where digital cutting was headed in terms of robotics and automation, manufacturing near the end user, and customization.
Arkin and Henderson were then joined by Meagan Tyler, product merchandising manager, Colloseum Athletics, for a Q&A session. While Tyler said she has noticed domestic manufacturers moving more into automation and asking questions about it, she noted what is piquing brand owner interest is the speed to market and sustainability. “Once it’s up and running, there is a lot of sustainability, less room for error, fewer mistakes, and less waste,” she said, also noting the benefits of customization and print on demand.
When asked about pain points of adding automation, Arkin said “the discovering process,” or ensuring the technology is compatible with a business’s existing system.
Touching on domestic implementation of the microfactory, on-demand, model, Henderson said the biggest hindrance for factories today is maintaining the status quo, and that if they look the same as they did 5, 10, or 20 years ago, they’re not able to compete. “Do you drive the same car you did 10 or 20 years ago?” he asked.
The Color Story
Dan Gillespie, the director of technical services at Alder Technology, led a session taking a closer look at spot colors. One key point he stressed for those moving into digital textile printing is that not all spot colors can be achieved using CMYK process technologies. Just because you see a color in a design or on a screen, he said, doesn’t mean that color can be used in the final product, and the final match is heavily dependent not only on the printer, but on the ink and substrate combination as well.
To help solve the problem between what is seen on a screen, and what is achievable on a printer, he noted that good communication is critical. There are a number of ways to specify spot colors, and a number of ways to access and share those libraries, but Gillespie is hoping to see a broader adoption of one in particular, the Color Exchange Format (CxF), which is a non-proprietary way to exchange the spectral data of the color, rather than rely on libraries such as Adobe or Pantone, which can be limited to those who pay for a service or library. By using a spectral method, which today isn’t widely supported, he noted that, “Once the spectral data for each color is defined the CxFdata can be embedded in PDFs, much like fonts or ICC profiles. So, now, instead of trying to visually communicate the spot color, or simply refer to the color by name, the actual digital definition can be included with the artwork file. This can be used from design, thru ink formulation, prepress, print production, and quality control throughout the entire supply chain.”
Building on the color story, Ron Ciccone, director of digital services, Roysons Corp., walked attendees through one specific type of application and everything that goes into getting the perfect color match: fine art reproduction.
Beyond a great system for defining and using color, he noted that one of the most important elements to the process is having a very tightly calibrated system, where each piece of the puzzle, from the screen to the printer, to the final product, are all “speaking” the same language and using data the same way, to ensure that what you see is what you actually get, cutting down on repeat work.
To get a perfectly calibrated system, he noted that a good spectrophotometer is an important tool to have on hand to verify that color is repeatable and remaining on target, along with visual aids that can be printed each day, before each project, or even as spot checks to ensure the integrity of the system. He uses a printer test file he got from a manufacturer years ago that has a full range of colors, including skin tones, along with a color bar, allowing him to precisely measure the same data every day, as well as compare the visual pieces to make sure it matches to the eye, and not just in the numbers.
“Rule number one: always trust your spectro to calibrate and verify your workflow,” said Ciccone. “Rule number two: never trust your spectro to verify that your client’s image looks ‘right’.” He later noted, “Having some kind of visual thing is important to keep your eyes dialed in. You’re selling a visual product, you have to get your eyes involved.”
Ciccone and Gillespie were joined by NIKES’s Kimmy Schenter, global color operations, Design, for a Q&A session at the end of Day One. When it comes to getting the right color on items like shoes or atheletic wear, she noted, “That’s a ‘special sauce.’ It is constantly evolving, and continues to adapt to new ways of doing work, and new applications. Right now we don’t have a refined process, but we do a lot of sampling, and we use a calibrated Epson printer and a spectrophotometer to manage the [files].”
In terms of getting the right color every time, Gillespie advised attendees to learn better ways of communicating colors. For brands, he noted, “don’t come in and say ‘this needs to be punchier.’ You need to talk in terms of math and science.” This holds true for PSPs working with brands as well — choose a standard way of communicating color, and then make sure all clients are educated on that standard, how to use it, and how to work within that color space to get the final results they are looking for.
That is, admittedly, easier said than done, said Schenter. “This is the daily plight of someone in color — it is again a special sauce. Not necessarily any one particular special sauce,” but one where the same color language and definitions are being used from the specification, to design, and through the final output.
The Right Treatment
David Clark, business development manager, Inks, Huntsman Textile Effects, covered the process traditionally known as “fabric preparation.” He discussed coatings used in pretreatment of fabric for digital printing, effects that can be added to textiles with chemistry, and how coatings are applied.
“Pretty much all fabrics, with few exceptions, can benefit from some sort of cleaning of the goods before you print, or before you dye, for that matter,” he said. He noted how oftentimes cotton has to be bleached to white and then dyed to the desired color to have a consistent, natural-looking substrate and reasonable fastness in the background. He also shared how mercerizing cotton makes it more receptive to dye, contributing to depth of shade and 20-30% more brightness in color, equating to saving that percentage in ink. He also emphasized the importance of rinsing to remove leftover soap, which can counteract the effect of antimigrants.
Among the many factors that necessitate pretreatment, Clark shared, are ink fixation rate and ink consumption, preventing ink penetration, maintaining quality and sharpness of images, and the impact on the final fastness properties.
When it comes to understanding fabric finishing there are different considerations including expected performance, testing methods, cost, and durability. Among the effects that can be imparted with finishing are stain/water repellency, sun protection, flame retardancy, freshness/antimicrobials, and crease resistance.
Later, as part of a panel discussion, Clark spoke more on the use of softeners in pigment printing along with Lewis Shuler, Sr. Manager Fabric R&D / Print - Old Navy, who agreed with the concerns of hydrophilic softener pretreatments that can cause wicking and blur images.
"The bleeding can be a real concern," said Schuler. "There are also some softeners that create a barrier so adhesion becomes an issue, and that’s not only related to pigment printing, but that can be related to ink that you’re bonding or that you’re transferring to the fabric."
Shuler also addressed the advanced manufacturing side, where he said there are opportunities to do this inline. "There are a few companies that have some really great technologies out there that have the ability to jet anything. So whether that is some sort of pretreatment that is different than traditional pretreatment today, or whether that’s a softener or finish, such as [durable water repellent], I think that’s a big area for growth in this whole microfactory setup."
The panel continued to delve into sustainability, with the insights of Chad Bolick, the Global VP Brand Sales Central American Business Development for Unifi Manufacturing, which produces REPREVE, a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles and PET. With increasing public demand for sustainable products, Bolick noted designing with sustainability is not a matter of "if" anymore, it's "when."
Continuing on the sustainable conversation, the question was asked of how color interacts with recycled versus virgin fiber. Bolick said when looking head to head, recycled polyester will typically have a slightly yellower cast than virgin polyester, depending on how it's processed and manufactured.
"We have had success in achieving some of the more difficult pastel colors, even whites, going into athletic wear using recycled polyester." he continued. "A lot of times, as far as consistency, for our side, it’s all about a continuous process. You can't run this as a batch system. If you [do], you could potentially still have run-to-run shade differences. You have to run very continuous, very consistent"
He also noted the importance of knowing where producers' waste streams are coming from, and how they're handling those streams, as these can impact the color of the output.
Trends for the Future
In another Q&A session, Paparozzi was joined by Jaime Herand, VP, Graphics Operations, Orbus Exhibit and Display Group; Luke Harris, VP of Manufacturing, Solid Stone Fabrics; Raylene Marasco, founder, DYE-NAMIX; and Will Duncan, CEO, WDA & executive director, SEAMS Association, to discuss a range of issues facing the apparel decoration and digital textile printing space.
Both Herand and Harris noted that automated sewing technologies, like those discussed by Henderson, are one of the biggest developments they are focusing on for the next few years. Right now, there are quite a few solutions for automated cutting of a wide range of fabric types, use a broad range of technologies. But on the sewing side, it has remained a mostly manual process. “Sewbots are on the horizon,” said Harris. “That is one area that is rapidly advancing.
For Duncan, one of the biggest trends to watch will be the return of some manufacturing back into the country, in what is called on-shoring. “Before everything moved offshore, there were a lot of robotics, and a lot of dollars spent to create a ‘lights out’ factory,” he said. “But when everything moved offshore, those efforts died. A lot of the equipment that had been developed, [the countries where the manufacturing moved to] didn’t have the skillsets to keep it running.” But now, he stressed, as that work begins to return, brands will need to begin investing in technology and equipment again to allow domestic production to continue efficiently.
That said, Paparozzi noted that only 32% of printers surveyed plan to make any kind of capital investments in 2021, with a full 23% noting they are definitely NOT going to make any investments. With that amount of uncertainty, adoption of cutting-edge technology for digital textile printing, such as those automated sewing options, will likely be slower that it would have been if COVID-19 hadn’t been in the mix.
Another development that has gotten attention during the pandemic has been antimicrobial substrates and coatings, which Herand noted there wasn’t much interest in, surprisingly, earlier in the year. That said, he did say he is starting to see more interest as the year comes to a close, as more brands and customers are starting to move away from floor graphics, and consider what will be needed to reopen. That, he noted, will likely accelerate in late spring and early summer as — hopefully — the vaccines are more widely adopted and consumers and businesses can begin the process of rebuilding what was lost.
Marasco agreed with that outlook, noting that he saw a similar lack of response earlier in the year, but, “now that people are back up and running, [antimicrobial fabrics]] will be a hook, potentially, for their performance garments. It is something against your skin, and if you’re going out and about at the gym, or you’re going somewhere you’ll be exposed, having an antimicrobial product is an intellectual think for the consumer. They will respond more positively if you can say your fabrics are antimicrobial.”
One important thing to keep in mind, however, is to be careful what claims are made about fabrics or coatings with antimicrobial properties. Especially here in the United States, the panel stressed, there are very specific laws in place that govern what can and can’t be claimed in marketing materials. So those who offer these products as part of the digital textile printing lineup will need to be sure to carefully explain what the products can and cannot provide.
Finally, the panel touched on the ongoing issue of training programs, and finding skilled workers to operate sophisticated machinery, as more schools have ended technical education programs, and more aging workers are retiring and leaving the industry, creating a void that no one has yet found a way to easily solve.
Duncan noted that, “right now there is a huge void,” which is another reason domestic manufacturing for textiles hasn’t yet gained any momentum — there simply isn’t enough technical knowledge or skilled workers to do the jobs. He noted that right now, it’s difficult to find a sewing machine mechanic or apparel industrial engineer under the age of 70, for example. Companies are looking for them, but all of that expertise went offshore, and now brands and manufacturing facilities will have to either find ways to entice those workers to move here, or find ways to make it interesting enough to encourage the next generation to seek training and opportunities in the field.
He noted that some companies are doing more to reach out to high school, and even junior high school students, to being to educate them about a life in that environment, what is required, and what kind of career they can make out of it. He also advocates cross-training, with factories and shops that have a lot of upward mobility opportunities for younger workers to move around and learn different areas of production.
Paparozzi noted that the majority of printers, however, aren’t spending much on that side of things, not putting many dollars — if any — into training and recruitment efforts. While some are doing interesting things, he noted, most are relying solely on the OEM-provided training modules, and that isn’t sustainable long-term for making a case for the print industry in general as a career opportunity. “We have to push it ourselves,” he noted. “A few are doing it, but nowhere near critical mass.”
The next annual Digital Textile Printing Conference is scheduled for December 2021, at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham, N.C. Those interested in learning more, accessing additional resources on digital textile printing, or finding out about the other events the PRINTING United Alliance offers can visit https://www.sgia.org/communities/digital-textile