Q&A: Digital Textile Inks & Printing

Dr. Simon Daplyn, Marketing Manager, Sensient Imaging Technologies, answers the biggest questions about the future of digital printing in the textiles industry.

1. How has the demand for digital inks for textile applications changes in recent years?

We’ve seen a significant growth in demand for digital inks as the volume of printed textiles continues to increase, along with the need for high-quality, reliable and flexible solutions that meet the demands of the modern textiles manufacturing. Despite a small industry-wide slowdown at the start of 2019, the market has recovered quickly and is showing no signs of slowing down.

As the benefits of digital printing are realized beyond fashion applications, such as industrial and interior textiles, we expect to see further growth for digital inks and we are already working in partnership with customers across these applications to implement innovative print solutions that bring their designs to life in a more cost-effective and sustainable way.

2. What markets have seen the greatest inroads by digitally printing?

The textiles industry has well established processes and can take time to adopt new technologies, so while some markets have been slower to adopt digital printing; other markets have embraced it rapidly. For example, soft signage and display applications, are typically dominated by dye sublimation transfer printing are now using digital printing technology. Fashion is another market that has seen significant adoption of digital printing, particularly in fast fashion, which relies on short runs, flexibility and short lead times for designs with higher complexity of color and detail. For these particular requirements, digital printing offers clear advantages in comparison with traditional print methods.

3. Where do you see digital printing moving next?

Sportswear is a market that has the potential to benefit greatly from digital printing. With digital inks, sportswear manufacturers can achieve intricate, vibrant designs on both polyester and polyamide, while using more environmentally responsible inks. Vibrancy and functionality are key when it comes to printing interior fabrics, furnishings and flooring and home textiles is another area that is starting to benefit from digital printing.

4. In spite of the growth, digital printing of textiles remains a small portion of the overall textile industry. What needs to occur to drive more growth in digital printing of textiles?

Whilst a small proportion of the overall industry, digital printing accounted for around 2.5 billion square meters of output in 2018, almost double that of 2015 and shows a CAGR of around 20%.  Currently, close to half of all textiles are printed by pigment inks. However, the relative proportion of digital printing with pigment is very low. In order for this market to grow more rapidly, digital pigment inks need to deliver either better color and fastness performance compared to what is available today.

The other key driver of growth is likely to come from the sustainability benefits that digital printing delivers. The textiles industry is under pressure to clean up its act and the latest advances in digital inkjet technology supports reduction in water, waste and energy consumption, which appeals to brands and manufacturers looking for more environmentally responsible solutions.

As many large textile mills have invested heavily in traditional equipment for printing and processing, the ROI for digital must be compelling enough to drive the change of technology, and we work closely with customers to demonstrate how digital inks can deliver value for their business beyond color.

5. Are you seeing more interest in using digital printing technology by designers?

Digital printing removes a number of constraints for designers, by allowing a broader range of color and design possibilities without the limitation of a screen colorway. Digital printing allows for sharp, precise detail, graduated or feathered coloring and photographic imagery, which are all extremely difficult to achieve with conventional printing. We’re also seeing the emergence of ‘design for digital’ concepts, training courses and even exhibitions designed to promote the possibilities of digital printing for designers. There will always remain however a market for simple designs and there, the flexibility and responsiveness of digital printing, especially in short runs, may be key to digital adoption.   

6. How does Sensient support customers looking for solutions for digital textile printing?

With our expert understanding of the chemistry of color and experience in the textiles industry, we are continually evolving our digital inkjet technology to meet customer and market demands. Some of our recent developments focus on sustainable solutions for textile printing, aimed at reducing or eliminating the need for water and chemicals in production. By removing the need to wash fabrics after printing, and with our unique dispersion technology that allows you to print directly to the substrate, we’re empowering our customers to achieve an unrivalled visual impact while reducing water, ink and substrate usage. 

We have also developed market-leading sublimation inks that are simple to use and maintain, and also allow the use of lower weight and uncoated papers without compromising on quality. Our digital inkjet technology has been developed to ensure precise, intricate detail and color uniformity from every batch of ink, providing our customers with color they can trust.

Through R&D-backed innovation and collaboration with our customers and OEM partners, we’re able to deliver solutions that meet the needs of tomorrow’s textile industry today.

7. What is your outlook for inkjet printing of textiles in the near and long-term?

We expect market growth to stabilize, but with investment in new technologies to continue. We predict that higher speed printers will be increasingly adopted across Asia and emerging regions in South America, leading to augmented output in these regions. Furthermore, as smaller producers try to keep up with market demand and supply chain pressures, we’re expecting to see a consolidation of the market through acquisitions – a trend that has been seen a lot in recent years.

Ultimately, digital textile printing will see longer term growth, with more suppliers focusing on new technologies to enable greater efficiency in production and improved sustainability across the textiles supply chain. We’re committed to supporting textile brands and providing manufacturers with the innovative digital inkjet technology solutions that drive standards in quality, sustainability and compliance.