How Digital Textile Printing Got Here
First, there is the pandemic. At one time or another, people were locked into their homes for an extended period of time and realized that if they’re going to spend time working from home, a fresh makeover was needed. Companies are now doing something similar in preparation for employees’ return to the office.
Second, there is the aging of both the millennial and Gen Z individual. Millennials, being in the 24-40 age group, are buying homes and starting families. The Gen Z group trails the millennials, and at the high end of this age group, they are just starting to make their way in the world. Both generations are recognized for their desire to stand out, to be unique, and to make a statement as to who they are. It’s all about the experience and their desire to be seen.
Third, being locked indoors has driven most to consume more TV shows and streaming content. In general, home makeover shows have exploded in popularity, and have lent themselves to driving many to see homes as a personal and unique palette. Companies, too, are taking a similar approach and looking to redesign offices for a new, unique, and personal experience for their employees.
Fourth, with the government pumping money into the pandemic economy and home values rapidly rising, cash and pent-up demand for makeovers was readily available.
Fifth, retailers were and are having a hard time fulfilling orders due to the supply chain bottlenecks that are getting worse by the day. This has forced a radical change in thinking regarding inventory and inventory management: Instead of a long supply chain with inventory pockets across the entire chain, can we move to a shorter supply chain with on-demand printing of a variety of designs, rather than just a few?
In short, the economy ended up with strong demand for all sorts of décor — paint (which in some parts of the country ran short), wallcoverings, upholstery, curtains, pillows, lampshades, blankets, etc. However, the supply could not keep up with the demand. Retailers and entrepreneurs stepped in and began seeking or starting up onshoring operations.
Opportunities for digital dye-sublimation printing have grown substantially with growth estimates of a 13% compound annual growth rate, through at least 2025. While gravure printing is the biggest process in decorative printing with almost an 84% share, inkjet is by far the fastest-growing process. It is projected to increase from 4.1% of the print value in 2013 to 13.8% by 2023.1 Clearly, the opportunity for print providers is enormous with the potential of inkjet — principally in short-run and variable data printing. It is changing printer business models, disrupting established supply chains, and creating new value-add options. Those who were the early adopters of décor digital printing are seeing significant returns on investment and purchasing more dye-sublimation equipment to help meet the demand.
For the future, it appears that this trend is not going away any time soon, and the hot markets for digital décor include, or are looking to include:
1. Customized pillows with names, images, and/or personal graphics on them
2. Customized blankets
3. Window coverings
4. Upholstery, especially in the reupholstery market
As a fun fact, and a clear contributor to these top markets, 71% of consumers are willing to pay more for personalization.
Digital Printing’s Role in the Décor Market
As mentioned, retailers were in the business of supplying a few designs and carrying large inventories in order to provide quick response times for delivery. With the advent of supply chain bottlenecks, retailers struggled and continue to struggle with keeping items in stock. Analog printing is great when large quantities of the same item are needed. However, short runs with analog printers are disastrous when it comes to costs and pricing. Enter digital printing.
The beauty of digital is the low cost of short runs and the ability to provide variety and uniqueness to the customer without lots of inventory, if any at all. Digital print unlocks creativity in a multitude of forms by removing constraints and limitations of patterns, colors, and substrates. There is another advantage that the market is starting to see with Amazon — the microfactory. Given that the capital needed to set up a digital microfactory is much less than that needed to set up an analog factory, multiple digital microfactories can be set up, strategically near customers, to service them faster with little to no inventory. It’s printing on demand for just about whatever the customer wants, and it’s done here in North America. No long lead times to get items from overseas along with potentially lower costs for something that is unique.
So, for those who were not early adopters, now is the ideal time for printers to get into décor and make their mark.
What to Know About Processes and Equipment
There are a number of things to consider when one enters the décor market since there are a number of applications available. Doing as many as reasonably possible is a good approach.
Most printers will first identify the applications they want to produce, and second, determine what the process is to produce each of them. This usually involves everything from software to capturing orders (estimating, producing, finishing, and shipping the job), to printing equipment, to finishing equipment (cutters, cutting tables, sewing machines, etc.), and to the workflow path. With this in mind, they will determine if any of their existing software and equipment can be used to produce the designated applications. This helps them preserve capital and allows them to maximize the productivity of existing software and equipment. The key is that they identify everything that is needed to make the process workflow easy, quick, repeatable, and reliable.
Printing the job is one of the most complex parts of the décor process as end customers are looking for high quality and excellent color to create their personal look and feel. Dye-sublimation — printing onto transfer paper and applying it to fabric with a heat press — is the dominant textile printing technology with nearly 50% of the market. This process is best suited for interior décor applications because unlike top layer ink technologies, dye-sublimation actually dyes the fibers of the material, making it far more resistant to washing, cracking, and fading. It also uses much less water and energy than processes with acid and reactive inks.
Material flexibility is another key differentiator for dye-sublimation. Being able to print onto inexpensive transfer paper enables transfer of designs and images onto unique materials that would otherwise be impossible to print directly onto, including pillows, blankets, rugs, furniture, drapes, window coverings, and lampshades. In most cases, there is no need to pretreat or post-treat the fabric. All of these factors add up to ease of use and quick response times for end customers.
There are several dye-sublimation printer manufacturers in the market, but when it comes to selecting the right technology for their business, there are some key elements that experienced printers look for:
1. A machine that can do both direct-to-fabric and transfer printing. This gives the maximum flexibility when it comes to output and, ultimately, applications.
2. Color-matching software. Matching colors can take time, so those that have color-matching software are able to get the color they need quickly.
3. An onboard spectrophotometer. Since color is critical, hardware that helps the operator manage the color while printing not only helps to ensure consistent color, but helps to keep waste from color drift to a minimum.
4. Nozzle compensation hardware and software to keep color consistent. Heads that drop out during production can wreak havoc on the final product. Reruns, waste, and lost time and productivity are results when heads drop out.
5. Banding control. With digital printing, banding is something that can destroy the beauty of a print. Software and hardware that can monitor and control this pays for itself in both short and long runs.
6. Cockle control in the dye-sublimation transfer process to avoid wrinkles or ripples in areas of high ink coverage. Th is helps to avoid imperfections in the final product.
7. Native 1,200 dpi printheads to provide the crispest image.
8. Smart printers that not only are self-maintaining with auto-maintenance, but also alert the operator to needed regular maintenance. This is key to keeping the unit in tiptop condition while keeping productivity high. Operator-replaceable printheads are another element that enables ease of use and greater uptime; there is no need to call a maintenance tech to replace one of these.
9. Sustainability benefits, such as recyclable consumables and media. Digital printing has the potential to bring significant advantages against analog alternatives with less waste and use of chemicals and materials. Many décor providers and manufacturers
are “going green” due to the rising awareness among consumers about the effects of toxic finishes in the air inside homes and the ill effects of deforestation on the climate.
10. Apps that support unattended printing by sending regular printer updates and alerts to the operator’s cell phone should something be amiss.
As with printing equipment, there are a number of finishing equipment and software manufacturers in the market to consider.
In much the same way as Zoom and other technologies have changed the way people work, digital printing is teaching people that they can have the unique décor they want for a reasonable price. With the improvements in color matching, an interior design cannot only be a unique design carried throughout the room or office, but one where all the colors match, too. This truly supports the concept of having a space that reflects one’s taste and unique personality.
Joe Dawson is HP’s North America business development manager for textiles. With more than 20 years of experience in the graphic communications industry, Dawson is helping lead HP into the rapidly growing and dynamic digital textile printing market, including through its HP STITCH solutions that are helping businesses say “yes” to more customers.
Tom Wittenberg is the HP large-format industry relations and events manager for North America. He has been in the printing industry for nearly 36 years, with 20 years managing worldwide companies in the retail/apparel tag, label, and point-of-purchase printing industries prior to joining the HP marketing team.