Fast fashion and custom-made: Why textile industry goes digital

For a long time, new technologies in the fashion market only served to enrich the retail segment – smart mirrors, 3D shoe fitting and even virtual shop assistants no longer sound like science fiction. Now innovation has penetrated the very heart of the textile industry, with digital printing confidently replacing conventional manufacturing processes such as rotary screen printing. Participants of the All About Fashiontech creative industries conference at the Kalibr technology park in Moscow have discussed the key trends on the global market for digital printing on textiles as well as the digital prospects of the Russian fabrics market.

Digital technology penetration

Digital printing on fabrics is poised for rapid growth around the world – mainly roll printing (hereinafter WTiN Analytics data). Whereas in 2018, 2.57 bln sq.m. of textiles were produced using the new technology, by 2023, this figure will increase to 6.4 bln sq.m., their share expanding from 6% to 15% of the market. This market has been growing at a fast pace for some time – on average, around 17-20% annually, industry representatives estimate.

At the same time, not only the share of ‘digital’ fabrics is growing – the overall global production of textiles is on the rise, including those printed with the traditional screen-printing method. By 2023, total textiles output will increase to 42 bln sq.m., from about 38 bln sq.m. in 2018. The volumes of digital printing for finished products, including T-shirts and hoodies, will also grow from 750 mio digitally printed T-shirts in 2018 to 2.3 bln in 2023.

Blaming fast fashion

One of the driving forces for digital textile printing is the high demand for ‘fast fashion’. Digital printing reduces the time required for launching a collection in the market (among other, thanks to the proximity of printing equipment to a point of sale). According to a digital printing expert, co-founder of the Digital Textile magazine Mikhail Shpilkin, several years ago the launch period was around 12 months. It has been reduced since then although it still remains too long.

Collection launch may be expedited to several weeks, claims Maxim Maksimov, Head of Digital Textile Printing at Konica Minolta. However, garment manufacturers also prefer digital printing because the technology helps to make production more economical – that is, to print and sew a specific number of items for sale. Thus there will be fewer leftovers in storage facilities, which remains a serious problem for both mass market and luxury clothing companies. The amount of textile in storage will also reduce, sometimes down to one variety suitable for digital printing. Of course, the technology allows changing business processes in the industry. For example, a company would be able to sell an image of an item first, receive the money and then produce a tailored product.

Textile on demand

Digital printing already allows customizing textiles and tailor-made clothes, which only encourages conquering the textile market by the digital technology. The industry is only following the path of the retail market where personalization is a key to success (for example, 71% customers do not want to deal with a company after an unsatisfying experience, which results in hundreds of billions of dollars in losses). Customers prefer custom made outfits rather than mass production garments, and only digital printing can provide that (digital printers can print several meters of customized fabric, unlike the traditional equipment). For instance, Russia’s Solstudio Textile Group can produce customized textiles with unique design. The company’s digital printing facilities are located in the Kalibr Technopark.

According to Solstudio Industry general director Yelena Lyalina, the digital equipment can provide digital textile printing for almost all industries: from clothing for the fashion industry and mass market to the military sector and medicine, while using both synthetic and natural fabrics (the latter is a rarity for Russia).

Eco-friendly fabrics

The new technology can also deal with environmental concerns. The traditional textile industry remains one of the most pollutants releasing industries in the world, especially in developing countries. Water pollution is the main issue when it comes to the textile industry, which produces highly polluted discharge water in large amounts, Maxim Maksimov says. For instance, a textile facility in Italy produces some 40 mio sq.m. of fabric per year and consumes some 2 mio liters of water daily. Maksimov also notes that these amounts are even higher in developing countries, and they also do not purify the discharge water. In addition, the industry requires copious amounts of electricity. Unlike traditional techniques, digital printing is by times more eco-friendly, including due to the absence of unsold fabrics in the company storage.

What about Russia?

Digital printing has been gradually carving out its niche in the Russian textile industry, albeit very slowly, which is due to high-cost equipment to be purchased abroad (for instance, in Italy), as well as a lack of skilled workers qualified for this job.

“We have experienced the effects of the shortage of professional personnel; we are lacking certified specialists in digital printing,” Yelena Lyalina says.

In Russia, digital printing for finished products, particularly T-shirts, is a service that has evolved the most in this field. According to Mikhail Shpilkin’s estimates, there is at least one thousand items of related equipment available.

“This service is accessible and popular, with shops operating in St. Petersburg and Moscow, such as Levi’s и Uniqlo, where you can order printing your designs on a white T-shirt upon buying it,” Shpilkin says.

The situation with printing on synthetic fabrics is good as well. Meanwhile, Russia actually has no equipment that allows printing 1.5m or 10m of natural fabrics, with only a few such machines available. As regards industrial digital textile printing machines, which allow good quality printing of at least 100 sq.m. of fabrics per hour, the situation is no better. The expert says that as of early 2019, Russia had only 31 such printers, including six that can print on natural fabrics and only one able to print on pieces 2.4m in width, the size required for producing bed linen.

“The question of the availability of digital printing services is very relevant in Russia, and there are no decisive answers to it,” Mikhail Shpilkin says.

According to the expert, digital printing services should have been launched in Russia a while back. Anyway, better late than never, Shpilkin concludes.   

By Olga Blinova

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