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Who should invest in digital fabric printing ?

By : Kamal Kulshreshth / Market research and International Business specialist

Kamal Kulshreshth

Digital inkjet printing for textiles made its appearance at the fag end of last century. Today it is the most exciting zone in the textile value chain. Estimates vary but most would agree that the rate of growth of digital printing in the textile industry exceeds 10% year on year.


Digital inkjet printing has been a game-changer in the textile industry. It transcends existing boundaries of creativity and therefore profit margins. The benefits of digital textile inkjet printing have been gone over and over again but who should invest in digital inkjet fabric printing? The answer is far from “anybody who can afford to invest a few hundred thousand dollars”. This is why some of the biggest and most prominent textile companies in India, Nigeria, Iran, Egypt, Colombia, Brasil have still not taken the first step into digital printing.

1. Not an alternative production technique

Digital printing is not competing with conventional rotary or screen printing that may collectively be termed analogue printing systems. Digital printing cannot match the economy of scale that an analogue system affords. There are digital printers that match printing speeds of analogue systems but that’s another story that has to be looked into – not one size fits all.

Even today most of the digital inkjet printers that get sold in the world have printing speeds of less than 100 sqm/hour. The most important thing for an investor is to understand what digital printing can, analogue printing cannot.

Digital Fabric Printing
an example of digital print on the cotton fabric you can see how well the skin tones and fine printing of eye lashes have come off. This kind of photo print quality is easily possible with digital printing

Only when an investor sees value in what digital printing can, beyond the boundaries of analogue printing does it make for a successful business venture. Only those who are ready to invest in marketing and business development for an enhanced product offering will reap the real rewards of digital printing. It is not just creating value but also understanding the value and conveying the value down the sales channel right up to the person wearing a garment that is digitally printed.
So, get creative and digital printing will work for you. Spoonflower is one of the more well known digital printing success stories.

2. How much and how long

If exploiting the creativity digital printing is not your cup of tea, you can still make money by specialising in printing small lots. The value you are delivering in this model is the turn around time – from the need to print to strike-off to printing the final 10 metres. This is a different business model and it all depends on how steady the stream of orders for small lots will come your way. Here be prepared to fight price wars. You might get an early starter advantage but others will catch up. You will need to improvise to keep ahead and then you will need to get creative not just in the print designs but in business as well. Improvise continually to stay ahead.

fabric digital printing

I remember business discussions between an India exhibitor at Irantex in 2017 about how much he would deliver of single print design. The Iran buyer wanted to offer scarves in as much variety as possible and the Indian exhibitor with his digital printer in India would have liked at least 200m of a single design. Between 100 and 200 m of a single design, they found a way to work together. That’s digital printing changing the way you do business.

3. Existing process house

There is no reason why an existing fabric processing house should not invest in a digital printer. They have the setup, the know-how and the experience. All they need is to carve out an airconditioned space of 30 m2 to install a digital printer and get started. It is easy for them. A process house would already have in house facilities to prime the fabric from RFD (ready for dyeing) to an RFDP (ready for digital printing) state. They have the equipment to fix the ink on fabric after printing and they have the entire line of washing and finishing that is needed to deliver high quality printed fabric packaged the right way.

Digital Fabric Printing
This is an example of a single very large repeat, for a king-size bedsheet. Again, not possible in the analogue system

To start with they should not think of shifting but adding a tiny % to their existing print runs; ie. create a niche for which they should be able to command a higher price. Here, very often the refrain is that we have no demand for digital printing. Of course, you have no demand for digital printing! Your buyers know you cannot offer digital printing and are probably sourcing their digital prints from other sources. Those sources are enjoying the fruits of early adaptors of technology while you are stuck with a cost+profit business model.

The way is not to ask your buyers if they will pay more for digital printing. Just invest and dazzle the buyers with digital effects. The superior aesthetics or the novelty of digital designs will compel buyers to shell out a little more. However, whet the appetite of your buyers only if you can feed it. No point in whetting the appetite and then leave them to look for source it elsewhere. Then you don’t get the business. So prepare first.

Some analogue printing businesses could also benefit from digital printing for their strike-off needs. There would still be aspects of colour matching to deal with but it can be done and there is considerable scope for cost saving in sampling.

Another reason for digital printing for existing fabric process houses would be to make the digital mimic prints on dyed fabric without actually dying. Mimicking a dyed fabric with a direct to fabric digital printer and with prints on it to boot, would not only save immensely on the dyes and chemicals but also on energy and water.


4. for Newbies

If you are a starter with no background in textile printing, think again. Excitingly creative as it might sound, digital printing does not do away with the process. It still requires an understanding of textiles and textile chemistry. The best way then would be to combine forces with somebody who knows textiles and textile chemistry.

There are numerous stories in India and Bangladesh of how first time investors started off with just an investment of $ 150,000 worth of equipment to produce some 500 m of printed fabric per day and then grew their business to several thousand metres of digitally printed fabric per day.

Digital printing also spurs new business concepts. In upmarket Cairo, there is a shop that has 2 or 3 types of digital printers where anybody can walk with his t-shirt to get customised printing done within a day.

Fabric Digital Printing

5. For garment makers

Creative ideas that fashion designers have might be too nascent to be shared. With digital printing, added creativity can be brought into fashion. Cut patterns can be printed and then converted into garments so that the head of a dragon starts on the right shoulder and winds its way to the bottom left of a printed top.
Fashion designers who want to be exclusive would also find digital printers a boon. Intricate designs can be created that would be almost impossible to replicate or copy.

So who should not invest in digital printing? If you are a volumes player where nothing short of 100,000 metres of fabric will please you as an order, digital printing might not be right for you, even if you understand all there is to know about manufacturing. High volumes and digital printing are diametrically opposite. When you try to make those two ends meet, the result is always a compromise.


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