Digital Printing of Textiles: A Growth Opportunity

World Textile Information Network (WTIN) has released its latest data regarding worldwide digital printing of textiles and we recap some of that information here.

September 16, 2019
Textile Printer1

Information provider World Textile Information Network (WTIN) has been tracking the growth of digital printing in the textiles industry for some time, and recently released new data. While it demonstrates that their growth projections have been on track, we still have a long way to go in the industry’s analog-to-digital transformation, with just 6% of the world’s printed textiles produced digitally.

According to the company’s data, 2018 saw only a small percentage of fabric printed—although that small percentage amounted to 36 billion square meters excluding signage. And only 6% of that was produced digitally. Still, that was 2.57 billion square meters of printed fabric. But that is up from only 3.3% as of ITMA 2015, nearly doubling its share. There was an installed base of nearly 50,000 digital textile printers in 2018, up from about 27,000 in 2015. This is impressive growth when considering that the overall textiles market is growing at about 2%, according to Euler Hermes.

MS Printing Solutions and EFI Reggiani accounted for 36% of digitally printed fabric in 2018.

The majority of digital textile printers are installed in Europe and Asia (76%), with only 10% of total installs in North America. We can expect to see the North American installed base continue to grow, especially in today’s trade war environment, another encouragement for reshoring of the industry, although clearly the bulk of production will still continue to be produced offshore for the foreseeable future. Unit growth is primarily seen in the sub-20-square-meter-per-hour printers, and the printers that can produce in excess of 650 square meters per hour—with the latter category accounting for 47% of production in 2018. At ITMA, we saw several new printers that produce in the 800-square-meter-per-hour range. And of course, there is the workhorse EFI Reggiani BOLT that, at 90 linear meters per minute, can produce more than 8,000 square meters of high-quality printed fabric per hour. At the show, the company reported that four units had already been ordered—three in Pakistan and one in Italy—with a robust order pipeline. It remains to be seen how printers like this will ultimately affect the analog-to-digital transformation in textiles.

We’ve written a great deal about the benefits of digital printing, including economic and environmental. With the textiles industry being the world’s second largest polluter, the environmental benefits go without saying. And of course, there are many economic benefits to being able to produce any product, including textile-based products, on demand. As has happened in many other industries, digital technologies have the ability to upend conventional supply chain practices, but most experts that we have spoken to believe we won’t see the industry getting close to any kind of digital critical mass for a decade or more.

Pigment inks hold a great deal of promise for moving production to digital because they typically can print on just about any fabric type, often with no need for post-processing, significantly reducing environmental impact. And there are pigment transfer paper solutions coming to market as well. WTIN reports that pigment accounts for only 2% to 3% of digitally printed product today, a percentage that will grow to about 5% within a couple of years, with a CAGR of 15% to 20% over the next five years.

China, which has been a major world polluter, is starting to try to put in place better controls, not just in textiles, but for manufacturing across the board. The good news is that more than 80,000 factories have been punished for violating the country’s stricter environmental regulations. The bad news is that this is also restricting many of the chemical ingredients used by the textiles and other industries, with digital disperse dye inks being the most affected. This includes rare earth minerals which are used in the development of colorants as well as raw materials that are crucial for other high-tech manufacturing.

While according to an article in The Verge, rare earth minerals are not really that rare. The process of extracting the necessary components from mined earth is a “messy, dangerous business,” involving acid baths and unhealthy doses of radiation, one reason why production has been relatively isolated to China.

However, if export of rare earth minerals from China is banned, which could happen in today’s volatile trade war environment, it may force other countries to pick up the slack, and would likely cause at least a temporary supply chain disruption that could affect production of dyes and inks for textiles—although surely dye and ink manufacturers are already looking for alternative sources.

“Even though a ban on rare earth exports is just speculation at this point, companies have begun to preempt any new Chinese restrictions," according to The Verge. "American chemical firm Blue Line Corp and Australian rare earth miner Lynas have already proposed new production facilities in the U.S., and rare earth stocks around the world have surged in response to the threat.”

All of this can add up to increased ink prices, which WTIN expects to see beginning in 2020. Yet, there are so many cost benefits to a migration to on-demand or just-in-time manufacturing that are enabled by digital printing, that in the end, the ink price might not be the biggest deciding factor when brands look at how best to manufacture apparel, home goods and more. The key is to change the way brands think about their purchase process—with a greater focus on lifecycle costs than on current unit costs, a shift that will take some time to take hold.

Like any of the other analog-to-digital transformations we have seen across various industries, it is often the nonconventional competitors that swoop in and disrupt things. Especially in North America, as brands look increasingly toward reshoring and streamlining supply chains, this presents significant opportunity for entrepreneurs who are approaching the business from a digital native perspective.

Stay tuned to WhatTheyThink’s textile section as we discover and cover these emerging companies that have the potential to accelerate the industry’s transformation.