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Taking the Direct Approach

Exploring direct printing on fabrics.

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By Peggy Middendorf

The demand for digitally printed fabrics is on the rise. In a recent report, Boston-based I.T. Strategies estimates that there were 2300 dedicated digital textile printers producing more than 900 million sq ft of digitally printed textiles in 2005. By 2010, the consultant group predicts, the number of printers will increase to 5000 and produce more than 2.1 billion sq ft of textiles.

And if you’ve been thinking that the textile market only revolves around a very narrow niche of applications, you might want to reconsider that assumption: Yes, banners and flags certainly comprise a large slice of the textile pie, but print providers also are generating textile output for tradeshow graphics, P-O-P, automotive and boating products, tents, and much more.

Certainly one factor that has helped push the increased use of fabrics has been the appearance of technology allowing the print provider to print directly onto the fabric itself. For years, the standard when it comes to digitally printing onto fabrics has been traditional dye sublimation-a two-step process that involves printing onto transfer paper and then sublimating the inks to the fabrics. But with their turnaround times shrinking, and more and more pressure to reduce costs, print providers could easily rationalize why not to take on fabric jobs.

Today, however, those obstacles are falling away as print providers can now take advantage of direct printing as well as a hybrid option or two. In basic geometry, the shortest, most direct path from point A to point B is a straight line. Well, when it comes to printing on fabrics, the shortest path to successful and profitable output may also be direct-as in direct printing.

The direct options
While most rollfed printers-and many flatbed printers-now count fabric as a substrate they can image onto, more and more textile-specific, direct-fabric printers are being introduced. These newer technologies are catching on because of the benefits they provide-including factors such as typically decreased expenses, increased speed, and production of a quality product at a lower price point. Today’s direct-print systems encompass a variety of technologies, including: