Digital textile printers: which to buyThere’s been a surge of new machines this year, but who’s going to buy what? Sophie Matthews-Paul comments.
Digital textile printers now cover the entire gamut of investment paths. Key introductions thus far have concentrated mainly on dye-sublimation, although there are other options coming on line, but for the purposes of the display sector, this remains the most popular process.
Much of the shift into digital is the result of the desire to move away from restrictions with screenprinting in terms of chemicals and run lengths. Certainly, for sampling, moving away from analogue has encouraged greater flexibility, and this has extended into other short run opportunities.
It is interesting to note, too, that systems’ integrators and printhead developments were both noticeable at Fespa Digital, with companies incorporating textile production into their plans for the future whilst still establishing the levels of interest.
In the midst of the textile printer offering there are some that stand out by being a bit different. One notable unit is Mimaki’s Tx400-1800D which comes with three ink options so can be used for furnishing and fashion on natural and man-made fabrics as well as in its disperse mode, most commonly seen in the display sector. Familiarity with Mimaki’s solvent-based ranges has also led to popularity for its JV33 and JV5 series, as well as its specialist textile units.
Roland, too, has joined the fray with its low-cost VersaArt RS-640S that comes in a dye-sublimation version, whilst Mutoh’s efforts have been concentrated strongly on digital textile production with a fleet of machines covering this sector. In amongst these leading names there are alternatives, of course, some of which are based on someone else’s existing chassis; they look familiar in appearance even when they’ve been converted into fabric printing units and have another company’s name on the front. Others have taken their own route, with the likes of Dgen being joined by units for specific market sectors, such as Kornit’s digital direct-to-garment printer, but all have the common aim of superseding screen-printing and making short runs for soft signs, sampling and specials easy to produce on fabrics.
Although Epson printheads have worked well with many textile printers and conversions, the desire for higher speeds has seen other products enter the arena. For example, La Meccanica’s former Mimaki conversions have now been added to with the Qualijet K which incorporates Kyocera KJ4B printheads that have already proved themselves in the jetting of inks for the narrow-format market. This is the result of a new project between La Meccanica, Urgnano (BG) and Bontex, with the resulting machine joining the ranks of those offered in the UK by Sabur Ink Systems.
The Qualijet K comes with a choice of speed options, ranging between 140 to 300m2/hour with its version that has eight heads, and throughput at between 250 and 500m2/hour in the model with 16 heads. It prints in eight colours and is currently available in a 1.8m width, with larger models coming online later in the year. Any ink certified by Kyocera can be used.
Stork is also moving further into the digital sector with Sphene, a 1.8m wide system that incorporates the Kyocera KJ4B series printheads. Depending on the numbers of heads and rows in the selected machine, speeds vary from a maximum of 255m2/hour to 555m2 /hour, with configurations ranging from one or two rows with six or eight printheads and six or eight colours.
The drive to address the 1.8m market with a machine that can work with different types of textile dyes is also being taken up to Durst, whose Kappa 180 (see Machine Matters) is making its first public appearance at ITMA in Barcelona in September.
EFI has also entered, or perhaps returned, to the digital textile market having introduced its Vutek TX3250r which has evolved in concept from its original FabriVu 3.2m machine that the company says was the first industrial inkjet solution for this market. Able to work at speeds of up to 100m2/hour this printer can be used either direct or via two-step transfer paper and incorporates sublimation dyes from Hilord. This one is targeted at the soft sign and display sectors.
Agfa Graphics has also stepped sideways from its commitment to UV-curable systems with its inheritance of the Jeti 3324 Aquajet, which uses its AquaPro inks and is another 3.2m unit. An inline infra-red fixation unit enables display producers to print and fix jobs in a single operation. It has an integrated rewind system also means that it’s suitable for unattended printing, and its maximum speed of 60m2/hour is complemented by six-colour output.
The upper echelons of digital texting printing is also the province of Hollanders (HPS) whose turnkey systems include options specifically for the display market as well as for the more industrial sector. All marketed under the ColorBooster moniker, and intended to be stand-alone options which include fixation, washing and cutting as well as printing, this company places particular emphasis on producing a system which runs in its own sealed environment. This makes it controllable in terms of temperature and dust, with remote monitoring built-in, making 24/7 production possible.
It is interesting, and no less intriguing, to throw a curveball into discussions about digital textile printing, and ask manufacturers to differentiate the markets by determining who really wants to produce what. Quantified on productivity when compared with screen, it’s obvious a user needs to install a veritable behemoth to take on high volume and speed. Compare these requirements with the chap who wants to start producing banners and flags onto polyester cloth, and it’s a very different market.
Machine manufacturers will argue that users moving into the more industrial area for the digital textile demands have acknowledged that there is sufficient necessity for them to provide good throughput on fabric. And, as volume in digital doesn’t need to relate to repeatability but, rather, to overall output comprising many different jobs, then if the order book can be profitable with the addition of a specialist investment into a solution for working with fabrics, so it should be considered.
The types of machines we’ve seen making their way to market this year have been geared towards the upper rankings in the volume scales, but this doesn’t take away the versatility of the printers in inkjet terms. Nor does it necessarily preclude the use of a printer destined for the production of bed linen being used to produce generous runs of lightweight banner and barrier applications, the latter of which can literally cover miles rather than metres.
Forecasts continue to show that digital textile printing is certain to swell in popularity. Whilst for industrial jobs, such as sampling, it now accounts for a reasonable share of the market, for soft signs, interiors and furnishings this growth hasn’t yet happened. As lower end machines aren’t expensive, even though they need an accompanying calender or heat press, the reasons there haven’t been stampedes of display producers flocking to by machines must lie elsewhere. Criticisms regarding difficulties encountered with colour matching and durability are levelled, as are the restrictions imposed by dye sublimation and the need for a high polyester content.
Users are certainly using other ink formulations for specialist textile applications, even though the result isn’t going to provide the same relationship as that of dye to fabric as engendered when using a dedicated machine and fixation process. There has been success with HP Scitex’s LX duo of latex printers, there are materials which are well suited to eco-solvent and solvent-based formulations, and UV-curable engines have also found a market in their ability to print direct to a range of fabrics.
Companies investing in a digital textile solution usually spend a considerable amount of time assessing their precise market needs as, for many, they are not merely taking on a revised version of an existing technology. The greener element presented by textile production is an added bonus but, while square metre prices still dominate the mainstream display arena, the players within it might be more willing to participate in textile production when margins become more generous. This is a shame as the potential is huge, the learning curve not particularly frightening and the results can be innovative and stunning.