Color and Sustainability Dominate the Conversation at the Digital Textile Summit
At the Digital Textile Printing Conference 4.0, held in Durham, N.C., this past week, representatives from print shops, brands, and manufacturers all came together to learn more about the current state of digital textile printing — and discuss where it is headed next. With 17 sessions that spanned the entire process from start to finish, there was something for everyone.
The event was co-sponsored by two associations: AATCC and SGIA. While many wide-format, signage, and graphics printers are no doubt familiar with SGIA and its mission, many in this industry likely won’t be as familiar with AATCC, which stands for the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. It specifically serves the textile, apparel, and materials industries, making it a good choice for this event, and helping bring in such a diverse attendee list.
Ron Gilboa, group director production services for Keypoint Intelligence, set the stage for the event with a look at some of the factors and trends driving the space today. At several points throughout the event, the statistic tossed around was that only 6% of all textile production today is done digitally. Gilboa noted that textiles used for garments and apparel alone were worth $1.6 trillion in 2019, with those for home décor estimated to be worth as much as $131 billion by 2020. Digital printing might still be a very small portion of these revenues, but there is no denying the potential opportunity, especially for print shops looking to grow in the coming year.
The Color Conundrum
On the first day of the two-day event, color was the hot topic, with both presenters and attendees coming back to it repeatedly throughout many of the sessions. In an early panel session, Kerry King, senior vice president of Research & Development at Spoonflower, an online brand that specializes in producing digital textiles for a wide range of applications, noted that one of the barriers she sees to more widespread adoption of digital printing in the wider textile space is that brands — and print buyers — are looking for perfection, when “I like to think perfection shouldn’t be a barrier to progress,” she said. “If we wait for all the colors to be perfect, we’ll be waiting too long.” Her point was that consumers won’t necessarily be as focused on the exact shade of a color as brands might think, whereas the industry is hyper-focused on getting the exact shade down.
She was immediately countered by several audience members, who noted that the color experience for the brand, the printer, and the consumer are all very different, but that while that might be true in some circumstances, the reality is that if a consumer buys a product from a specific brand, they expect it to be right. And further, if a consumer purchases a product from a store one day, and then from another store a month later, the brand colors need to match when those products are side-by-side.
King agreed, and noted that she wasn’t attempting to say color wasn’t important, merely that, in her opinion, “the pendulum has been too far on one side of the spectrum, and there is some room for movement. And we have to keep in mind that progress is continuous,” she continued. “Investing in technology early lets us solve some problems and continue to work on others.” Color matching is one of those issues that she noted will be good enough where it is today for a wide range of applications that still aren’t being produced digitally, while giving the entire supply chain — from the press and ink manufacturers, to the brands, to the consumers — a chance to experiment and work out the kinks for those applications that are more color critical.
One way to solve the issue, noted Mike Scrutton, Director - Print Technology and Strategy for Adobe, in another session on day one, is that as an industry, textile printing needs to find a better color language that bridges the gap between what a designer or brand is expecting and what a printer can provide. His fellow presenter, Tim Williams, marketing manager, Color Solutions International, noted that whether the industry comes together to establish a general color library of colors and substrates to demonstrate what should be possible across various technologies, or whether printers, brands, and designers create custom color libraries with their specific substrates, using specific ink sets and printers, the key is getting everyone on the same page.
“I took away from our discussion this morning that there are no good standards,” he said, referring back to the debate from the earlier panel, which ended up taking up a large part of the allotted time. “There is a lot of variation.”
Color management was addressed by Julian Mussi as well. The vice president business solutions at DeSL noted that he believes color management should be a more wholistic process, with a single “hub” with the definitions for the color that can be achieved then going out to the “spokes” — the designers, brands, and even website teams to ensure everyone is speaking the same color language.
A good specification, he said, is, “product requirements, clearly understood by the intended recipient and containing all necessary information to produce and to validate conformance to the requirements.” In short, a good specification — especially for color in the digital textile space — is short, specific, and complete, without leaving room for interpretation. Further, simply saying “blue” isn’t enough; even saying “RGB: 128,104,68 isn’t good enough — what RGB color space is the person using? “Color specifications should be defined digitally, with appropriate detail,” said Mussi.
The conversations didn’t end there, with color and how to achieve it — and when is good enough actually good enough — flowing in and out of the sessions for the rest of the day. At the end, while everyone agrees that color is still a major barrier to adoption, the reality is that it is still an evolving issue, and no one solution could be offered — and perhaps no one solution will ever fit every brand’s needs. But as digital textile printing continues to grow and capture more of the market, it is an issue that will need to be addressed more concretely sooner, rather than later.
The Second Major Topic of Discussion…
While color dominated the conversations on day one, day two of the event brought a shift to another, just as relevant and important topic: sustainability.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” noted Jason Fannin, account manager for Sensient, in his presentation taking a hard look at the current textile industry, and how digital printing can help.
Fannin noted that up to 3,500 different chemical substances are used to turn raw materials into textiles, and approximately 10% of those are hazardous to either human health or the environment. The textile industry, he noted, is the second largest polluter of fresh water worldwide.
However, noted Gilboa in his early presentation, digital printing might not solve every single environmental concern around textiles, but it does solve quite a few of them. A few statistics he highlighted:
- Digital printing uses 90% less water, from 43 liters per square meter to just three.
- There is a 35% reduction in overall energy consumption for digital versus analog textile printing.
- CO2 emissions are reduced by 25% with digital printing over traditional methods.
So, asked Fannin, “how am I supposed to save the world and make money at the same time?” The answer, he said, is that every single link in the entire textile supply chain has a role to play, and each one will make a difference. “There is no sustainability ‘destination’,” he said. “Your goal should be continuous improvement.”
Fannin had additional sustainability statistics to share on how digital textiles can have a positive impact on the environment versus their analog counterparts, including:
- 57% less electric energy used
- 97% fewer chemicals
- 85% less waste
But while it is tempting to just say that digital solves all of textiles environmental problems, several in the audience also pointed out in later discussions that issues such as what happens to digital print heads at their end of life when they need to be replaced, and how is excess ink recycled are questions that brands are beginning to ask — and right now there aren’t many answers. While the process of digital produces fewer hazardous side effects, as brands are becoming more environmentally conscious, they want to know about the entire supply chain.
Digital textile producers need to get better at telling the story, and giving concrete environmental ROI statistics, rather than pointing to just the gains made in the print process alone if they want to truly position themselves as a “greener” alternative, was the general consensus from attendees and speakers alike.
These are just two of the topics the Digital Textile Printing Conference touched on this year. While these two were certainly major points that threaded throughout multiple sessions — showing just how top-of-mind these issues are for everyone in the digital textile space — the event also had a wide range of education about everything from how the digital process actually works, to how and why pre- and post-treatments for fabrics are important, and even a look forward at the concept of the micro-factory, where the entire supply chain melds into a seamless end-to-end process that could very well be the way brands, especially those in the apparel space, operate in the future.
For printers, the key takeaway is that digital textile printing is still very, very young for every segment except soft signage, and the brands, marketers, and print buyers in segments such as apparel and home décor are starting to get interested. Printers who have not only the technology, but who take the time to position themselves as the ones with answers to some of the questions, are the ones who will ride the wave of growth forward when that 6% becomes 10%, then 20%, and beyond. It might be a cliché, but the sky truly is the limit for printers willing to invest in the equipment and take the time to start educating themselves now.