Fashion fabrics present boom opportunity for digital printers

Leveraging inkjet technology into the textile industry is presenting an increasingly compelling opportunity for mainstream print equipment and consumable suppliers.

As this happens it is creating new value-adding business opportunities for fabric printers and material suppliers, as the capabilities of the latest generation of digital textile presses dovetails with evolving priorities for end users, like fashion designers.

Thriving market

Exclusive data from the new Smithers report The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2021 shows that in 2016 only 2.9% of the overall market volume for printed textiles – 30 billion metres square – was produced on inkjet equipment.

Digital print’s share has been increasing rapidly across this decade however, with total volume rising from 461 million metres square in 2012 to 870 million metres square in 2016. This will push through the 1 billion mark in 2017, and in 2021 will constitute 1.95 billion metres square of fabric – more than four times the volume in 2012.

This rapid expansion is translating into rising revenues – from €592 million in 2012 to €1.17 billion in 2016. Smithers extensive research and analysis forecasts that this will grow at a year-on-year rate of 15.7% for the next five years, reaching €2.42 billion in 2021.

This is in contrast to the average growth for all printed textiles – which remains principally on screen presses – of around 3%.

Mergers and acquisitions

With conventional markets under threat global print firms are seeing digital textile print as an attractive location to invest in. One strategic means to do this is through the acquisition of smaller specialist technology developers. These are typically based in the Como region of Italy, which has developed this expertise to meet the demands of the fashion industry centred on nearby Milan.

For example, Dover Group now encompasses Sawgrass Industrial, one of the most significant early innovators in digital textile technology; along with Italian press builder MS Printing Solutions, bought in 2014; and two other Italian developers of ink for fabric work, Kian Digital and J-Teck3.

Epson Italia completed its acquisition of Robustelli in June 2016. The agreement aims to expand collaboration in digital textile printing, with Robustelli machines to be manufactured in Epson factories. Epson in turn, will use Robustelli’s expertise to speed the development of digital textile printers and offer a more complete portfolio of equipment.

US-based EFI made its own acquisition in July 2015, buying up Bergamo-based Reggiani. The first fruit of this – a joint-engineered printer – was shown in June at Drupa 2016. EFI-Reggiani is now also partnering with DuPont to develop a range of pigment-based textile inks.

The latest move, concluded in October 2016, saw Mimaki complete the purchase of La Meccanica.

Double digit growth across 2016-2021, is making digital textile printing one of the most exciting market opportunity in the print and textile supply sectors

Ink technology trends

Head-ink-media combinations are being developed and refined so as to enable the higher throughput, reliability and stability in digital textile printing. This can simultaneously lead to the simplification of processes allowing print service providers to increasingly tailor their offerings to the requirements of designers who want to use a variety of detailed, shaped and colourful patterns.

For machinery, these developments include recycling printheads and capping systems, individually addressable nozzles, and banding elimination technologies. Another area of focus is fabric handling with an emphasis on handling issues such as the throw distances and the gap from printhead to fabric, as well as its tension while undergoing printing.

On the consumables side, there are incremental improvements being made to formulations, dispersions and pigment particulates. Pigment, dye sublimation and toner inks continue to be developed to meet market demands around speed; cost, including via ink efficiency improvements; quality including high brightness; gamut; colour fastness; and reliability. The former is also driven by the demand for printing on multiple fabrics.

Machines at the high end with single-pass arrays of heads continue to be developed and improved, particularly again around reliability and colour matching. Two- and four-pass machines are coming to market from various manufacturers; as are more compact machines, which require less floor space, and will see more rapid adoption with local print service providers serving fashion industry in high rental costs areas, like the cities of Europe.

Fashion industry trends

As in other print segments digital’s potential is founded on its ability to produce single, short and custom runs more economically and with a much faster turnaround than conventional screen printers.

These advantages are important in signage – where digital print’s penetration is deepest – and fashion. Haute couture and high street fashion demand for digital print was worth €190 million in 2016 and will exceed €420 million in 2021. 

This is being aided by the fashion industry’s shift towards multiple mini-seasons within one traditional season. This favours digital as it translates into more new designs, and multiple repeat runs of short orders. This customisation potential is now being seen in the home décor segment with bespoke interior furnishings.

The need for quick turnaround on such orders also favours relocating textile print to areas like Europe, from lower labour cost regions like the Indian sub-continent. This so-called ‘reshoring’ trend is further helped by the current political instability in Turkey, which has developed its own regional hub feeding European demand.

Sportswear is another key segment that is growing strongly, helped by an increasing interest in high-grade athletic wear from amateur sportsmen and sportswomen, such as cyclists.

These trends are analysed, qualified and quantified in full in the Smithers Pira report The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2021. This exclusive market and business strategy publication is available for purchase now.

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