Tue, Nov

Fabric print futures

Catherine Cresswell, industry analyst at InfoTrends, provides stats and commentary on the opportunities for graphic arts PSPs within the burgeoning textile print markets.

Digital textile printing is now firmly on the path to strong double-digit growth - in excess of 30%. This is evidenced by a record number of exhibitors at textile print shows worldwide, and InfoTrends is also hearing stories of growth from printing companies on a global basis in graphics communications as well as fabric manufacturing (denoted here as ‘decorative textile printing’).

Textile printing for décor, apparel, and industrial applications exceeded 800 million M2 in 2014. However, adding digital textile manufacturing capabilities is not straightforward for PSPs; it requires investment in strategic development as well as capital equipment. But there is certainly opportunity for graphic arts PSPs looking to augment their services with roll-to-roll digital textile printing technologies. For such companies, adding sublimation printing for textile sign and display applications is a natural progression, whilst adding garment and décor printing represents emerging markets that necessitates a new business strategy as well as an increased set of production skills (eg. wet fixation, cut-and-sew, media transport systems).

Despite the apparent challenges, a number of PSPs have indicated that textile printing for garments is their top growth application as a percentage of their wide format business. The 2015 Fespa Print Census provided this insight based on interviews with over 1,200 respondents worldwide. Indeed, textile printing for garment, décor, and soft signage accounted for three of the ten top growth applications.

The three sectors were in the top seven listed by UK PSPs responding to the Image Reports’ Widthwise Survey 2015 as ‘markets you will move into over the next two years’. (Widthwise can be downloaded free at: http://www.imagereportsmag.co.uk/research/widthwise-2015-survey)


This trend is also reflected in InfoTrends’ 2013-2018 Digital Textile Forecast, where the number of machine placements across digital soft signage as well as decorative textile applications indicates that roll-to-roll digital textile equipment placements are growing.

Figure 2 shows that these placements are dominated by machines aimed at soft signage applications. Digital printing systems for decorative textile manufacturing include three main sectors, namely garment, (fashion/apparel), home décor, and the highly fragmented industrial output (automotive upholstery or screen, tarps, garden furniture, etc.). In this case, the number of digital machines installed on a global basis is a lot smaller than that of soft signage, but these machines are typically targeted toward higher-volume environments.


Graphic arts PSPs that typically offer soft signage applications see growth in opportunities in the garment and to some extent home décor sectors. This growth is based on using familiar and readily available sublimation technology, whether paper transfer or direct-to-fabric printing. This technology is based on the relatively simple process of heat fixation.

The attraction to apparel and decor applications is evident in the graph below, where InfoTrends’ research highlights the print volume balance between these application categories. Although the universe of systems in apparel, décor, and industrial environments is clearly a lot smaller, these systems are outputting the majority of print. Furthermore, much of the output shown here is done using wet-fixation, which represents a large opportunity for digital. However, it is clear from machine vendor strategy and ink manufacturer feedback that the move to digital with sublimation technology is widespread among traditional graphics arts wide-format machine vendors as well as production digital printing vendors. These developments are satisfying a requirement for digital technology at a lower capital cost than other digital/conventional technologies as well as the developments in usage of polyester-based materials in apparel, fashion, and home textiles.


Figure 4 illustrates the complexity of textile printing based on the need to print on a range of materials, including man-made and natural fabrics. This complexity stems from different ink types that are used to meet the quality and permanency requirements for the range of fabrics used in textile printing, where sublimation inks are typically used for polyester fabrics and reactive inks for natural fabrics like cotton. At the same time, however, the growing use of man-made materials as well as material developments in new inks (eg. pigment inks) represents an opportunity for PSPs to offer a broader range of textile printing applications.

Herein lays the opportunity for graphic arts PSPs that are looking to grow their business using readily available high-end printing solutions that print on a range of materials (eg. polyester, cotton). These solutions open up opportunities for a breadth of applications, including fashion, sports apparel, home décor, and industrial.


One of the key enablers for graphic arts PSPs hoping to enter into textile printing applications is fabric fixation. In traditional fabric printing, the ink is typically fixated with steam. This process requires a subsequent washing and drying process, necessitating an investment in finishing equipment. This often becomes a barrier to entry due to cost, resources, and complexity. However, digital solutions using sublimation or pigment inks provide ink fixation that does not require steaming or washing, rather heat fixation. This makes those systems very attractive for businesses such as traditional wide-format graphic arts producers because they will not need to make the high capital investment required for traditional fabric finishing.

Many examples of these systems were on display at recent trade shows (Heimtextil, Fespa 2015 and Shanghai Textile) including several pigment ink solutions, indicating that vendors and ink suppliers are making headway with some of the technical difficulties associated with pigment inks, paving the way for more widespread use in the coming years.

A few vendors have however, created wet-fixation turnkey-type solutions that are tuned for digital production environments. These are significantly less expensive than those used in high-volume rotary printing environments. This lowers the barrier to entry for the full range of fabric textile production on a complete range of fabrics and thereby offers another opportunity to companies serious about entering the digital textile printing sector.

Workflow also plays a significant part in enabling new opportunities for business growth. Web-to-print software, Cloud computing, and other front-end workflow solutions drive these opportunities in creation and fulfilment. In turn, existing and new markets (such as the popular hobbyist market) are growing strongly in some parts of the world.

Further investments might enable PSPs to develop their garment businesses if they invest in or partner with companies that provide complete solutions with cut and sew operators or other solutions for the plethora of accessories associated with garment and décor applications (eg. Spoonflower.com).

As is the case with many other industries, the textile production market is being impacted by a number of industry trends - especially the migration from mass production to mass customisation. This trend is driving demand for local production as print runs are shorter and turnaround times become even more critical. These environments are typically vertically integrated and provide a complete solution that promotes the move to digital printing.

InfoTrends is currently forecasting that the retail value of the digital decorative textile printing market - which is valued at $8 billion - will experience more than 30% year-over-year growth.

Meanwhile, soft signage is also moving, and seeing increased technological developments with latex and UV inks. These factors will contribute to increased growth potential and new opportunities for profitability among graphic arts PSPs.

To gain entrance into the high volume digital textile printing markets of garments and décor, however, it is evident that a clear strategy and value proposition is needed before making any significant capital investments.

Upcoming Events