The garment market was very much the content focus of the recent Fespa Digital Textile Conference. But that’s not to say you should dismiss it. Lesley Simpson flags up some of the key takeaways from the day.
It’s easy to see why in recent years Fespa has been putting a greater onus on textile printing within its exhibitions, and why it put together a day-long seminar at the recent Fespa Digital 2016 - quite simply, report upon report has indicated massive opportunity for digital textile printing - and inkjet printer vendors, having seen massive potential to sell more machines, have duly developed myriad offerings and now want to get them in front of all interested parties. The thing is, much of the focus when it comes to digitally printed textiles, is on the garment market - the market of least interest to wide-format PSPs here in the UK. That’s not just gut feeling, it is one of the findings in this year’s Image Reports’ Widthwise Survey (see the summarised key findings on pX – the full report will appear with the May issue). But that’s by no means any reason to dismiss what’s happening there.
Ron Gilboa, director of consultancy Infotrends, started his address of the 70ish delegates at the Fespa Digital Textile Conference by pointing out that “the movement from mass production to automation [in fashion] is one of the key trends driving the digital printing of textiles” and that “the development of technologies is subsequently enabling the growth of textile printing in other areas, such as décor etc.” He added: “Innovation in inkjet is democratising fabric printing for small to large producers.”
Gilboa followed up that key message by pointing out that time to market, order sizes, personalisation capability, environmental issues are all behind the move from analogue to digital when it comes to fashion fabric printing, arguments that work just as well for other sectors where textile print is becoming increasingly visible.
“Printers tell us they are going to invest in textile printers across garment, décor and industrial sectors,” said Gilboa, alluding to figures that did not include the market most targeted by PSPs - soft signage. Our own Widthwise 2016 figures show that while almost half of respondents said they would buy a new digital large-format printer in the next two years, under 8% of those said it would be in a ‘textile printer’ per se, but printed textiles are certainly on everyone’s radar.
The environmental argument is one that is perhaps likely to have an increasing impact going forward, largely because, as Gilboa stated, “brand owners want greener products, and that affects the whole supply chain, including print.”
He was keen to point out that buying a digital printer is just the start when it comes to greening the supply chain, offering up examples of what the likes of fashion chain Zara is doing to that end.
Asked about technological developments that are likely to impact smaller textile print producers where issues like finishing is a real issue, Gilboa flagged up various trends. “A lot of what is possible today has to do with cost,” he started, “but more pre- and post- print treatments for instance could possibly be dealt with in-line on the printers. We are seeing steaming and washing in-line in single systems and post-print options will follow.”
As technological R&D continues apace it will no doubt drive business opportunities, and Gilboa referenced key developments like MEMS printheads, single pass printing, inks and fabric coatings, workflow and automation as areas making impact - but as we all well know, getting into textile printing isn’t just about the technology. It’s about forming and retaining relationships, particularly if you’re looking at new niche markets with new customer-bases.
Alberto Masserdotti, president of the Masserdotti Company which has been digitally printing fabric since the 1990’s, explained to the delegates how it has managed to grow its position as a supplier of digitally printed textiles to the interiors and signage sectors. “We work only with the end user, as a partner in visual solutions,” he said. And that means pushing the boundaries of what is expected and of what is possible - requiring the company to work closely not only with the customer, but with other suppliers. For instance, Masserdotti had to source a zip manufacturer to develop a solution that meant it could put together the huge print strips that would make up the pitch covering for the opening ceremony of the Champion’s League final in Berlin last year.
Pushing boundaries by relationship building is also key for Alan Shaw, manager of the Centre for Advanced Textiles (CAT) at the Glasgow School of Art. The operation, established in 2000 “to explore the commercial and artistic potential of advanced digital print production” bought the world’s first digital production textile printer (a Stork Trucolor) with the intention of providing designers with the short runs/samples not otherwise available to them. Now it has Mimaki printers (and ancillary pre-post treatment facilities), four members of staff and “prints fabric from 10cm to hundreds of metres for whoever wants it - students, designers, commercial, business - and ships all around the world within 10-15 days.”
But Shaw is adamant that “we don’t want to be just a print output operation. We work with people on customised projects”. That approach is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with digitally printed textiles. For example, CAT is working with Suzanne Martin and Bute Fabrics to print wool for upholstery fabrics, and it’s working with Linn Products to produce high-end bespoke fabric printed sound systems. Then of course it produces off-the-wall pieces for the Glasgow School of Art’s student population, many of who do placements within CAT so that they understand what’s possible.
“It’s important to us that we continue to push boundaries and that means working hand in hand with weavers, designers, commercial outfits of all descriptions, to bring something new to the table,” says Shaw.
That remit to push boundaries is also held by David Schmelzeisen, an academic at the Institut fur Textiltechnik der RWTH Aachen, where work on smart textiles is something worth following. As he explained to the conference delegates, ‘smart textile’ is about “putting functionality into a fabric-based products so that they sense, react or interact with their environment.”
“We work with partners of all types, from creatives to technical developers all over the world, to help close the gap between what is imagined and what can be delivered,” said Schmelzeisen. “We are working on projects that may be 20 years from market, but we’re also working on prototypes that might be in the market within five years.” It’s heady stuff.
While large-format PSPs might not diversify so far as to be printing smart textiles for body-sensitive trauma stretchers anytime soon, the point is there is a real commitment to, and buzz about, what can be achieved with digitally printed fabrics. It’s not just about technological development - though we’re in for still plenty of that - it’s about working in partnership to find a profitable path for your own business.
The Fespa conference wrapped up as it started, with a focus on fashion. The final speakers were designers Bruno Basso and Christopher Brooke (Basso and Brooke) talking about how they made a name for themselves with a 100% digitally printed collection that won them the Fashion Fringe Award. What they had to say about they way they work resonates beyond the world of fashion however. A couple of comments made by Basso stood out: “Don’t strive for what your customers want. Strive for what they don’t even realise they want yet,” and “Human relations are more important than machines. Work together and you’ll find a solutions together.” When it comes to digitally printed textile, perhaps this is a fashion guru worth listening to.