Some tips and pointers before taking the first step
If you have a print services business, you are probably thinking about textiles as a potential growth area. Whether it’s because your clients are asking for it, you want to enter new markets, one of your competitors has already taken the plunge, or because of all of the above, the truth is that digital printing on textiles is a great opportunity for growth and diversification, although it does come with risks. Here are some tips and pointers that I hope will help you make the best decision.
1. What are we talking about?
Textiles is a huge and complex market. There is continuous innovation when it comes to fabrics, and each material has its own characteristics in terms of treatments, printing, and finishes. In general, we could say that there are six major markets that are adopting digital printing technologies in textiles:
- Signage & Display, a constantly evolving market that is incorporating materials such as polyester to replace PVC due to its lower carbon footprint impact, reduced weight, and easy transport and installation. There are endless options for application, from event displays to banners, frontlits, and backlits.
- Merchandising, an interesting niche market that covers a wide range of applications, many of them based on textiles (caps, T-shirts, bags, suede, mouse pads, etc.) or using a polyester treatment (cups, acrylics, etc.).
- Interior decoration, where aside from the traditional canvases and wallpapers, we find many textile applications such as cushions, curtains, bedding, sofa covers, tablecloths, etc. This is a market with great digital potential that has yet to be developed.
- Sportswear, an expanding market thanks to digital technologies and the need for customization. In addition to the major brands, there is a wide range of local manufacturers who offer customized sportswear for individuals or groups (teams, schools, etc.).
- Garments and Fashion, probably the largest market, but also the most complex and competitive. Trends such as personalization and ‘fast fashion’ have accelerated digital adoption, but price pressure, high volumes and high fashion volatility make it very difficult to compete in the sector.
- Technical textiles, used in an industrial way in segments such as the automobile, aviation, nautical and military sectors. These segments are highly regulated and are also difficult to access, although they can be very profitable.
If you are not currently printing on textiles, I would recommend you to start by exploring how textiles can be applied in your current market and considering it as a line extension, before moving to a new market.
2. What technology do I need?
One of the complex aspects of the world of textiles is that practically every type of fiber requires a different printing technology (see attached table).
Luckily, an easy way to start is with polyester. Approximately 60% of all digitally-printed square meters are polyester or blended polyester, i.e. a mixture of fibers with a composition of 60% or more of polyester. Polyester is the dominant fiber in signage, merchandising, decoration and sportswear, and is also becoming popular in garments and fashion. This is why dye sublimation or dye-sub technology is experiencing strong growth and is expected to continue growing in the next 10 years. It is not surprising therefore that HP has decided to enter textiles with the new HP Stitch S Printer Series, the first dye-sub printers to use thermal inkjet technology.
The other digital technologies (acid, reactive, etc.) are too complex to adopt and have a high environmental impact. What we expect to see in the near future, in addition to the growth of dye-sub, is a rapid evolution of pigment-based technologies (pigment inks), which have the potential to cover a wide range of materials and eliminate much of the pre- and post-processing.
3. What other investments do I need to consider?
In order to print on textiles, in addition to investing in printing, you need to factor in investments in processing, finishing, color management, and workflow management.
- Processing: varies depending on technology. For instance, sublimation technology requires subsequent calendering (applying pressure and temperature to sublimate the ink), while pigmented inks require pre-treatment (especially when using white) and post-processing (usually heat fixation). Most of the time, the same distributors who sell the printers also sell the processing solutions. My advice is not to rely on cheap solutions and to carefully choose the printer and processing equipment, as they have a huge impact on the final result.
- Finishing: almost all textiles have to be cut and sewn. There is a wide range of solutions for both, but again it is important to look for a trusted brand and proven solutions.
- Color management: this is surely the main problem faced in the industry today. Whether it’s when repeating previous jobs, spreading production across multiple machines, or trying to recover the same colors after a head change or in new materials, waste due to color problems is the main cause of headaches for any production manager. Having a color expert and the right equipment will be critical to reducing expenses and ensuring production consistency, as any variation in printing, calendering, materials or simply waiting times or environmental conditions can alter the color.
- Workflow management: printing on textiles requires a large workforce and a certain degree of specialization, so my last recommendation would also be to professionalize production, incorporate workflow management solutions, quality control, and implement production metrics to effectively manage resources and minimize waste.
- What is the minimum volume for it to be profitable?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer, since volumes will be progressive, and the return will depend very much on the investment to be made. For printing, I would recommend calculating the amortization of the printers between 6 months and a year, since there is currently a wide range available, and you could start with small equipment and increase your capacity as you grow. On the other hand, in terms of processing or finishing equipment, I would recommend investing in capacity and using longer term depreciation criteria (between one and three years), as you can increase and update your printing capacity progressively using the same processing and finishing equipment.
One last piece of advice—a good way to get started in the textile world is to take advantage of the versatility of technologies such as HP Latex; if you have an HP Latex printer, you will find a wide range of durable textiles for latex inks, which will allow you to kick off your production simply and directly (without the need for post-processing). Once your volume increases and you can justify a fully dedicated printer, it will be the perfect time to take the leap.
4. How can I develop my business?
Let’s say that you’ve already made the investment, and now you need to boost volumes... here are some tactics that could help you develop your textile business:
- Having a small showroom where you can showcase innovations and the diversity of applications
- Making small samples with different materials to give your potential clients
- Visiting specialist trade fairs to stay up to speed with equipment, materials, applications, and trends and to hunt for potential clients
- Expanding the virtual catalog on your website and investing in search engine optimization (SEO)
- Making reports of your jobs, and promoting them on your website to achieve a call effect
- Always being attentive to your competitors' offers and promotions
- Considering offering your production capacity to ‘friendly competitors’, who are in other segments but may also be interested in offering printed textiles.
In short, textile printing is a good opportunity for growth, but you must plan well and do your homework before making the leap. At HP, we will be happy to help you grow your business, and we encourage you to learn more about our HP Stitch textile solutions.