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Treading Softly

Should you get involved in textile print and will iT boost business? Here’s what some already involved in the process have to say about its impact on their operations.

Given that we’ve all been talking about the imminent explosion in textile printing within the large-format inkjet print community for some time now, and having seen a raft of new direct-to-textile printers hit the market over recent months, you might ask “why has it still not happened in the UK?” But look around, and you’ll see plenty of companies gearing up to deliver increased levels of such output, and across myriad markets.
Here’s a view from grassroots players of what getting involved entails …


Best Digital
Best Digital is constantly addressing market requirements, both here and abroad. Accordingly joint owners, Geoff Rawlings and Danny Colegate, have bought an ATP 3.2m wide dye-sublimation fabric printer. Installed at the company’s Welwyn Garden City unit at the beginning of August, it’s a piece of kit both believe will net them a great return on investment.


Explaining why this purchase is important for Best Digital’s development, Colegate says: “Textile printing is very big on the Continent - far bigger than over here [in the UK]. I think Britain certainly would have been quicker on the uptake if it wasn’t for the recession hitting when it did. We see it as a natural progression for our market. Output is big and fast and we're confident we have a marketplace for it.


“Digital textile printing is 100% green – totally eco-friendly with water-based inks and biodegradable fabrics. Not only that, but the total overall benefit to the environment incorporates the huge savings on transporting the textiles themselves – from manufacturer to supplier to print provider and finally end customer. There are savings in transport costs at each stage of the journey in fuel, storage and logistics as fabrics weigh so much less than their traditional PVC equivalent.”


Colegate adds that fitting fabric banners as opposed to PVC has a positive affect on health and safety for fitters due to the ease of manipulation and installation. He continues: “It has to be the natural progression; fabric is easier to handle, produce, finish and install and when you’re finished, it biodegrades in a couple of years or can be recycled again and again. We offer a recycling scheme for all our fabric prints that go out. When a customer is finished with the piece, they can simply post it back to us and we’ll send it off with our other fabric recycling at no additional cost to them.”


The only bottleneck Rawlings Colegate and Rawlings anticipated when buying the ATP textile printer was on the finishing side. Many fabric printing companies outsource stitching which can add days to complete a job. This prompted the pair to investigate an alternative and decided that they would go with the recommendation of their supplier, Atech, and buy a Cronos V industrial sewing machine from Matic. This allows the company to keep strict control of the quality of the work leaving the factory. “We have always finished our prints in-house and we saw every reason to finish our textile jobs to the same high standard,” adds Colegate.


Originally Best Digital ordered the 2.6m wide version of the ATP textile printer but after some market research decided to plump for the larger unit to allow it to print 3.2m wide to virtually any length of roll – thus gaining the ability to approach more markets than originally anticipated.


The margins on textile print, Colgate agrees, are attractive at the moment: “It’s there to start with now but this may change as the technology is more widely adopted. The key for us was to get on board early, learn what we need to learn and have everything in-house so we can control the quality and know that every piece that leaves us will last and be of the highest standard. With the Olympics only round the corner we anticipate that quick turnaround fully-finished fabric graphics will be in big demand and we are in a great position now to deliver this service when the call comes.”

Cestrian
Cestrian, which began life as a sign company in the early 1990’s, has been known for many years a pioneer in the wide-format digital and screenprint sector. Its aim now is to become a 100% digital print company offering a variety of products under one roof, and that includes an increasing amount of digitally printed fabric print.


According to operation director Phill Reynolds, “one of the biggest changes in focus for Cestrian has been the development of the dye-sublimation textile print division.”


He adds: “Having achieved ISO 14001, we are conscious of what Cestrian produces and its environmental responsibilities. The textile division has been set up incorporating the most environmentally friendly methods, such as using water-based inks instead of solvent-based inks and all the dye-sub textile materials are polyester and 100% recyclable. We try to offer our customers environmentally friendly alternatives using textiles and other print methods wherever possible.”


Cestrian’s textile department includes two 3m wide Mimaki JV5’s, a 3m wide Monte heat press and a 15m x 3m laser cutting table. The Mimaki’s print using water-based ink. The Monte heat press then seals the ink to the fabric ready for cutting, and it’s this process that produces what Reynold’s believes to be the best quality print and finish possible.


“Although we have mastered the dye-sub process now, printing fabrics isn’t for the faint hearted. More and more print manufacturers are building industrial dye-sub printers, making the entry into the market easier. However, the ability to produce high quality output is in the process not the hardware.


“The skill involved in textile printing is remarkable - a complete shift from traditional UV printing onto paper and plastics. The finishing alone requires highly skilled staff,” stresses Reynolds, adding: “Cestrian’s mainstream production subsidised the development for a long time while we perfected the technique. Many rolls of expensive fabrics and inks and countless hours were spent colour collaborating, learning how to handle, and understand the nature of fabric and fine-tuning the finishing process.


“Our Textile division is now extremely streamlined; this allows Cestrian to offer customers a quick turnaround on large-volume jobs and at almost traditional printing costs. Mark Ward and Tony Kempton from Coral, which specialises in fabric sales, have been our barometer for quality. They buy and see printed textiles from various providers and have told us are quality standards are the best they have seen. In the very near future we hope to continue our close relationship with Coral by building a joint facility in the Midlands.”


Going forward, textile is expected to become a bigger percentage of Cestrian’s digital print offering. “Outdoor events, exhibitions and retail are all seeing the benefits of using textiles over traditional print,” a trend that is key to that shift in focus according to Reynolds.


“Continuing our aim to be 100% digital and offering the latest products we’ve recently invested in a Durst Rho 500 which prints white inline, allowing for high quality window manifestations. The Rho 500 also allows us to offer printing onto 5m wide textile, which is excellent quality, and although not quite matched to dye-sublimation quality, it is an excellent alternative on 5m wide fabric.”


The Wild Group
“Generally, if it's big and easy we outsource it as we don't have the manpower in-house, and anyway, it's cheaper to outsource. Anything complicated or high-value we do in-house due to the risk and margin.” So says Matt Straker of The Wild Group, whose strapline ‘Creatively Different’ is core to its growth and its involvement in digital large-format textile printing.


The company was founded as a leisure branding specialist in Hamble, Southampton in 1995 right by The Solent, a Mecca for sailors from around the world. Initially it offered the production and application of name tags for boat hulls. After a year or so, demand prompted the purchase of new premises, and called for an extra pair of hands. In 1997 round-the-world yachtswoman Tracy Edwards commissioned the company to livery her 92ft catamaran and recognition of her and her team members as the first all-female crew to circumnavigate the world non-stop opened the floodgates for boat wrapping. This is still core to The Wild Group’s business, but it has led to sail branding – and printing onto textiles.


“Our biggest achievement was being asked to be sole supplier of all hull and sail branding for the 2004 Olympic Games,” says Straker, who points out that having bought a solvent wide-format printer – used for printing standard media but also flag material and its own special textile – Wild Group quickly worked out that it wasn’t really the machine for the job.


“At this point we started outsourcing all our large-format textile print. Back then we were turning over well over £40k in flags alone, but our main market, event corporate sponsorship, meant this turnover slipped as sponsorship dived in the marine world. As we have got bigger and our throughput increased we didn't increased our head count or plant list, instead we decided to print manage. So much of the textile print we supply we sub out to carefully selected trade print suppliers and then bring it in house to finish and install.


“But, the marine industry is very specialist and we were continually being asked to brand sails both on a permanent and temporary basis. For the permanent option we'd cut stencils and paint the sails by hand using Sericol inks for screenprinting. This is how we branded the Volvo Ocean Race sails.


“For the temporary method we have sourced a sail making fabric with a high adhesive backing and we put it through our own printer. As you'd expect, a textile with no print receptive coatings bleeds horribly and so we could only use that via screenprint or ordering it in block colour and cutting it to shape. Colour was limited to green, green, blue, white, black. So, as time went on we decided we had to develop a material and get a print receptive coating applied so we could print it digitally. Fortunately this didn't prove to be such an issue and we haven't looked back. We now use this textile media daily. Everytime we're asked for something unique it's ‘I know we'll use xxxx’.”

Taking a step away from textiles
Borney UK is diversifying – away from digitally printing textiles! Why? Because so many more print companies are getting into it.


Richard Beary and Andre Severs, working closely with Borney head office in France, established Borney UK in 1993. By 2003 it had moved into in-house digital print, having seen a 60% rise turnover during the ten-year interim. Due to rapid expansion and plans to grow further the company invested in custom-built premises in Huntingdon – and bought top of the range textile and inkjet printers, making it a stalwart in digital textile print production. But Beary believes the most profitable times have past.


“Since our expansion into the new premises we have invested heavily in high spec. new machinery (inkjet, textile, calendar heat process) and became one of the first companies within the UK to use direct-to-textile printers,” enthuses Beary.


“We have seen the machines rapidly develop in output from six years ago, from our very first machines which were churning out five flags an hour to present day where current machines handle 45 units per hour. Textile machine have also become more intelligent, combining printing and heat processing steps as one unit.”
However, Beary adds: “The issues involved in taking on new kit include trying to set the machines to the best of their ability. Profiling the machines is one of the most time consuming jobs and there are many factors to think about - i.e setting up colour profiles, materials, testing the inks on durability, light and colourfastness. All this needs to be taken into account if you’re to achieve the highest standards for your customer base.


“Perseverance and patience are key – the time involved in getting the machines to run to their maximum capability involves a lot of trial and error and hard work. It all takes time, and thus costs. And, over time, margins have decreased due to more and more companies getting into soft signage and offering this as part of their portfolio of products.


“Thus, we’re expanding our product portfolio outside textiles – and getting involved in other signage projects which we think will swell our customer base as well as provide new products to our existing clients. Where our core business before was predominantly flags, banners, flagpoles, we have now into vehicle graphics, internal and external hard signage, exhibition equipment and promotional graphics.”

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