Market trends in dye sublimation printing

In this article we summarise some of the key drivers for the future development of the dye sublimation printing market, based on Smithers Pira’s exclusive research.

The Future of Dye Sublimation Printing to 2021 forecasts that an estimated total of around 384 million m2 of fabric were printed digitally via dye sublimation in the year to January 2016, having grown by just under 18.4% during 2015. This is set to rise to 892 million m2 by January 2021.

Digital textile printing began for design purposes and with high fashion one-offs, and then went on with signage and display materials. It has since extended into fabric for apparel, household design and technical products. New concepts developed in the early 2000s ushered in digital textile printing for apparel and household segments. DuPont introduced the Artistri concept in 2001, and Ciba Geigy, Reggiani and Scitex introduced the DReAM concept in 2003. Inkjet printing has now become an important textile production printing technology.

Digital dye sublimation printing output by end-use segment, 2011–2021 (‘000m2)

Ink chemistry innovations

Ink chemistry is an area where value can be brought to the printer clients, since these innovations can be directed towards the goal of high reliability and unattended additional shift work for digital machines at high utilisation. There is much research into reducing the nozzle failure rate among printhead providers, which involves ink suppliers. Some of the work involves dealing with both dyes and pigments to improve their consistency, dispersions and distributions of suspended solids, as well as the reduction in particle size – sometimes referred to as nanocolour. In conjunction with the chemical treatments that media substrate suppliers are developing for specialised digital media fabrics, improvements could be made for direct dye sublimation printing.

Equipment innovation

There is market demand for better, new equipment for dye sublimation. In visual communications, the number of requested applications of dye sublimation products is growing, but the technology is not developing fast enough to accommodate all client requirements. If one asks the machine suppliers, not unnaturally, they will often be focused on what they can change, such as improving the construction, transport system or component quality of their machines. If they listen very carefully to their customers’ feedback, it may shift their focus somewhat, towards more complicated and less comfortable requirements for change that will involve partnerships with other technology providers and indeed service providers.

High productivity and reliability in digital

There were seven single-pass machines launched at ITMA 2015, five years after the first such machines came to market. These are the industrial high-end machines that use a large number of printheads and ink. Promising sales of such top-end machines so far are indicative of an expectation of the volumes printed digitally to move into the higher print runs in more quantities. This is consistent with an expected increase in the levels of reactive inks required and in the increased marketing efforts of high-end printhead manufacturers, such as Kyocera and Konica Minolta; the latter is focused very much on the topic of downtime – highlighting the issue of reliability in some of its competitors. Kyocera and Ricoh have innovated with a recirculating head, following Xaar’s innovation some years ago. This is positioned to reduce clogging and nozzle failure, a principal component of downtime and a key barrier to the evolution of mass-production digital textiles printing.

Handling complex workflow, job decision making and increased utilisation

Other areas where innovation will follow are in software for workflow, for job allocation and for connecting the printer with its customer. Modern systems like this will further increase the ability of printers to fulfil complex ordering requirements to fast and secure turnaround times and at the same time to increase the utilisation of their digital machines. This leads to higher profitability so long as the consumables costs do not rise sharply at the same time.

Equipment and inks costs

Dye sublimation machines for transfer at entry level are already reasonably priced – under a few thousand euros – and accessible to most people wishing to start up a small print service business. For the machines at the industrial level, capital expenditure is not the most important criterion in the buying decision. What is required is very high reliability at good print quality, and productivity in terms not only of line speed but also of overall turnaround time to customer delivery. For these reasons, the pressure on equipment costs is not as great as that of consumables costs at this time. Competition from pigment and reactive may put slight pressure on capital costs.

The transition to digital print from conventional

Technology and innovation are continuing to push dye sublimation and other digital platforms towards longer print jobs. As this happens, new factors become more important – for example, if the printing line speed is much faster than its finishing and handling equipment, a bottleneck is created that cannot be addressed just by the press builder focusing on their equipment’s print speed. More and more jobs demanded of print service providers (PSPs) by market customers are shorter length runs. At the same time, inkjet sublimation machines on offer are becoming more productive and reliable. Ultimately, in order for digital printing to continue to take more share from traditional printing, it needs to design services that continue to solve problems that traditional printing cannot. These services involve quick turnarounds of the entire printing and finishing process – much quicker than with analogue methods – and this means looking at the overall productivity of the machines used at acceptable print quality – including not only line speed or print m2/hr, but also set-up and changeover times, reliability, finishing stages and even delivery.

What is driving the market, in very basic terms, is the increasing demand for rapid customisation to create beautiful, unique clothing or household products. This is more and more made possible by digital printing technology. In turn, printers must turn around the production and delivery of dye sublimation products ever more quickly to meet this demand.

Dr J D Hayward Report Author

Resolving these issues will determine how much of the printed textiles market moves over to digital in the coming five years. Dye sublimation is playing its part. Pigments will compete more with dye sublimation and reactive/acid inks in the medium term. It is therefore clear that in the medium term the market will remain a mix of all these ink types, and it is hard to predict at this time the path to market dominance for any given ink type; the likely scenario is increasing digital share of the overall market, with a range of ink types being used for different and partially overlapping applications.

A clue to the medium and longer term can be deduced for developments in other market developments, such as display graphics, where the market switched over almost entirely to digital. This transition had a five to eight year timescale as the digital flatbed solutions became effective. Some longer textiles runs may never switch over as traditional printing gets ever faster and cheaper. Even as digital inks gradually reduce in price, it is tough to predict the time when these specialist materials will be price competitive with analogue inks. However, if it becomes obsolete and undesirable to have processes that take more than a few days to turnaround, then traditional printing will lose out heavily. It is the trends towards number of variants of print, which reduces average print run and increases complexity, and the demand for shorter turnaround delivery times, which combine to usher in digital, more than the price parity of cost per job that is directly affected by relative ink pricing and usage.

In conclusion, it can be predicted that a constant erosion of market share of traditional textiles printing will happen in 2016–21 as digital dye sublimation grows at 17–19% CAGR while traditional printing grows at a rate of only a few percent.

Transition within digital printing: pigments and dyes

Pigmented textile inks last longer but are not as bright as other textile inks. There is less of a colour gamut and lesser feel of the fabric. Unlike sublimation dyes, pigmented textile inks reportedly work on most textiles, except silk. They require high levels of skill and technology to develop, such as polymer and dispersing agent technology. Pigmented textile ink does not require as much pre- and post-printing treatment. However, they generally need pre-treatment and post-press heat treatment to fix the fabric is required. For these reasons ROI or TCO (total cost of ownership) of machines is affected in a positive way, and there has been a modest shift in favour of aqueous pigment inks in the last few years, and there is R&D work to solve some of the above issues. Another advantage of pigment inks is that they can be applied to many different substrates and do not require a special pre-treatment like reactive inks. Also, they do not require wash-off.

The market sense was that pigment ink will increase its market share of digital textiles printing by volume and value, but that this is medium term rather than very short term. However, new entrants have and are developing improved pigment inks that are coming to market in 2015–6.

Competition from other ink types

There is competition for dye sublimation inks from reactive inks when approaching industrial scales.

There will also be competition from pigment inks if their suppliers can resolve quality, reliability and other issues. Pigments have greater substrate flexibility as they can be used on natural substrates, and there are fewer steps in production. If pigment printing can become industrially reliable enough, then the flexibility in substrate choice, simplicity of processing and tactility as compared with dye sublimation will enable it to grow as a function of the market for digital textiles inks, even though dye sublimation inks are themselves growing healthily across the study period.

There are issues with pigment, which are brightness, wash fastness and particularly feel (or handle) because of the surface treatment and presence of a binder to hold the pigment in situ. This is not an issue for Plastisol-type applications, or for visual communications including banners/flags/canvas where touch is not a major issue.

End-use sectors and market forecasts

The dye sublimation market, and its data and projections, are divided into several end-use sectors and further sublimation-divided into specific product segments. These are in four main end-use segments:

  • Garments (also called apparel or clothing)
  • Household (home décor)
  • Technical (specialty, industrial non-décor, includes accessories)
  • Visual communications (displays, banners, POP, event graphics etc.).

Garments are worth 75% of the market by value for 2016 and will take further share to 2021. Overall, the print output doubles or more than doubles from 2016 to 2021 in each segment, except technical, which almost doubles.

Household (home décor)

This smaller market segment is being driven by personalisation, functionality and design creativity.

Interior decorators are using customised fabrics to create new decorations. In particular there is scope for furnishings and décor to work well with new form factors for home electronics products and changing home layouts. Digital is well-positioned to provide solutions here. Good examples of this potential have been shown off in presentations at conferences on digital textiles.

Visual communications

The displays category is synonymous here with the longer phrase ‘visual communications’. It has been divided into its most important sub-categories. Key subcategories are:

  • Interior soft signage
  • Outdoor or exterior soft signage
  • Banners and flags, backdrops
  • Trade show graphics
  • Retail, POP, events and entertainments
  • Fine art, etc.

‘Soft signage’ relates to signage on fabrics or flexible woven materials. Printed digital soft signage can create a high-quality impression. Fabric is lightweight and flexible, washable, foldable and can last longer. The dominant fabrics used in the banner and flag industry are the polyamide nylon, vinyl-laminated polyester, polyester blends, acrylic, mesh, olefin and cotton.

The large-format display market developed earliest in North America, but mainly on rigid PVC and vinyl materials.

These and other important trends for the dye sublimation market are analysed and contextualised within the overall market growth in the Smithers Pira report – The Future of Dye Sublimation Printing to 2021.