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Form and Function: Digitally Decorated Textiles

(April 2013) posted on Wed Apr 24, 2013

A variety of unique and lucrative applications await those who print digitally onto fabrics.

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By Dan Naumovich

Spoonflower offers its customers a choice of several different fabrics for their work, from a basic combed cotton to a silk crepe de chine. Their entire line is all-natural, with the most popular being a cotton fabric called Kona, that is targeted to quilters.

With their on-demand model, Spoonflower has definitely found a sweet spot in the current capabilities of digital textile printing. But as the true innovators that they are―the company was recently recognized by North Carolina State’s Emerging Issues Institute for leading a renaissance in North Carolina’s manufacturing sector.

Affordable and scalable
“The big trick with digital manufacturing is making it affordable and also creating a process that scales. The general theory is that with digital there’s no minimum order, but on the other hand, a unit doesn’t become cheaper just because you produce more of it. So there’s no economy of scale,” Fraser says.

“Mass-producing things, however, is the opposite. There’s a big set-up cost and thus a large minimum order, but on the other hand, the per-item cost shrinks as the quantity goes up. The big opportunity for digital printers like us is to reduce the price difference between mass-produced items―the equivalent in our industry is rotary screen-printed fabric―and digitally produced items. If you can create a process where the cost gap between the two is not absurd—and digital printing is capable of producing large quantities very quickly—then you have an industrial product that will appeal to many markets and is no longer just a novelty,” he explains.

Short-run digital printing as it stands today can still be important for larger industrial users because it allows them to print actual samples and prototypes in-house. Previously, this testing may have needed to be outsourced or produced on paper, resulting in prints that are inconsistent with the look of the final project.

“Direct digital printing works great for home and fashion purposes because the alternative involves a much longer process. It allows us to prototype with the same machine that is used for production with just a click of the mouse. The advantages are huge,” says Rafa Jorda, a textile designer and digital printing consultant working in Spain.


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