Four Lessons Learned from Print on Demand
As a digital printing enthusiast, I am very excited to see digital textile printing invade the New York Fashion Week. As the fashion, footwear and home goods manufacturers embrace this technology, what are lessons that can be learned from the commercial print industry? And more importantly, how can this technology open doors for the industry and deliver new products using local-to-local production?
For more than 20 years, I have been working with color. First as a graphic designer, then in pre-press and digital print. During this time, I experienced the color challenges the commercial print industry faced in regards to adopting digital printing technology. I have also seen how digital technology helped create a robust on-demand print industry.
Here are four lessons the apparel industry can learn from commercial printing.
Lesson 1 — Are you using industry standards and processes?
Apple, Adobe and Quark were leaders in the desktop publishing revolution. However, the 1990s were the wild west of technology, with no rules to help guide designers and printers. Without color management processes, getting color right in commercial print became an art form and varied from printer to printer. The formation of the International Color Consortium (ICC) helped address this by creating a framework and processes to standardize color management systems.
Today, commercial printers follow recommended processes that build on
International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards. For example, the latest ISO. 15339, leverages processes and G7 help deliver repeatable color across the different print technologies with distinctly different color gamats (for more information on that, see lesson 3). ISO and industry metrics are continuously being refined based on new technology advancements such as textile printing and industry wide agreement on workflow.
The printing industry also created a digital language for communicating color. Color Exchange Format (CxF) is an ISO standard used by many manufactures of hardware and software in the print world to communicate color across devices and software, providing brands and suppliers the tools to consistently measure and monitor color. This type of data communication is still evolving in textile.
Many textile manufacturers know QTX files, however X-Rite has released the Appearance Exchange Format (AxF), a new format that includes color (CxF) and appearance characteristics of a measured material. AxF is supported by a number of PLM and rendering software tools for integration into fashion and footwear production workflows. AxF files can be shared across systems with metadata tags. By having a single file format, brands can share internally and externally a large range of communication channels. An e-commerce site can have the color tags such as UltraViolet12, cotton and size 7, or even a code for supplier or warehouse. That metadata will then follow to suppliers or consumers shopping carts. This type of metadata can be used for anything from inventory management to market intelligence.
Lesson 2 — Are your devices color calibrated and characterized?
When the industry moved from analog workflows to digital design, production files and digital print, many of the traditional process checks were eliminated. This shaved days off of the total project time but it also created confusion.
Designers and printers started relying on monitors and the concept of ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG) for decision making. But monitors were rarely calibrated appropriately and were not very stable over time. This resulted in differences between what operators saw on the screen and what was actually printed. While monitor calibration technology may have been complicated and expensive in the early days of print, today the apparel industry can benefit from affordable and easy-to-use calibration tools to profile monitors, printers, phones and presentation projectors.
It’s important to remember that calibration isn’t just for monitors — printing equipment also needs to be calibrated to determine the device’s color reproduction characteristics. For example, identical devices built on the same day from the same manufacturer will have slight variations in color. Characterization will optimize the settings for the best image reproduction on that particular device and substrate. For digital textile printing, this can be done by printing a test chart with anywhere from a few to thousands of color samples and measure them with the color measurement device.
Calibration and characterization are important, especially as the apparel industry begins to scale digital printing; estimates for today’s textiles printed digitally range from three to ten percent. I anticipate that this will quickly change as more suppliers embrace the technology. As the printing industry learned, especially with package print suppliers — you need your output to be consistent across devices and suppliers.
If a supplier has ten printers and one of them is not characterized and calibrated, then the material produced on that one device is scrapped. Now, imagine using multiple regional suppliers each with multiple devices printing fabric, each one using a different type of print technology, Digital Front End (DFE) and QA device. This could create significant waste and inconsistency. Proper color management processes, calibration, characterization along with detailed production specifications will help ensure that the material produces appears the same regardless of where the fabric is printed.
Lesson 3 — Can the intended color be achieved in production?
For the commercial print industry, digital technology opened up a larger gamut of available colors to designers. Prior to that they had used CMYK, and now can provide files in RGB color space. Today’s inkjet printers can work with expanded gamut which are consistent with CMYK with the addition of green, orange and violet. This allows fashion designers to incorporate an even broader range of colors and patterns.
As the commercial industry learned, getting color right in digital printing (as with other manufacturing processes) depends on the printing method, inks and base material. It’s the interaction between the three that determines if a color can be achieved in production.
Commercial printers will tell you that if you print the same yellow color on white carton board and brown kraft, the result will be two different colors that don’t match. Designers and their printing partners need to work together to understand if color intent is achievable in production based on specified inks, materials and printing methods. As Sharon Donovich, Product Marketing Manager at Kornit Digital, stated, “color matching and color challenges are critical and important in textile and the digital textile printing is now starting to embrace the technologies of commercial printing and adapt them to textile.”
One way to help avoid the back-and-forth that goes on between designer and production is to begin the process with achievable colors. This requires greater collaboration between designers, material teams and suppliers to align on color, material, costs and expectations. It also reveals the pros and cons of certain colors and materials upfront, allowing designers to systematically design within their specifications, and do it quickly.
For example, if Pantone Ultra Violet is the primary color in a design, that color will change depending on whether it is produced on leather, cotton, nylon or an engineered mesh. Compromises are best done up-front, in advance, before any physical samples are printed. This does not limit the designer’s freedom, but actually enhances it. Instead of being frustrated with drafts and samples late in design stages, a product manager can feel confident that the chosen color palette will be producible using digital textile printing. This helps speed development and shorten lead times.
Lesson 4 — Are you using spectral data?
In the early days of analog print, commercial printers used densitometers to measure and control color density. But density alone was not enough and the industry moved to colorimeters. Unfortunately, this too didn’t provide enough data for digital workflows. Today, many in the print industry have moved towards spectral data measurements becausespectral data is the complete definition of the color. Using spectral data in combination with physical color guides is recommended for fashion and footwear companies to specify color intent. Using spectrophotometers both the design team and the suppliers can measure and communicate the specific color wave length, limiting or even avoiding the sending of material fabrics back and forth to Asia.
Spectrophotometers can also be used to reduce issues associated with metamerism — a common problem in textiles. Metamerism is a phenomenon that occurs when two colors appear to match under one lighting condition, but not when that light changes. Maybe you remember the social media frenzy about #thedress: was it black or blue? That pop culture debate was the social community learning about metamerism first hand.
Designers and textile printers need to make sure they select the correct spectrophotometer geometry. While commercial printers primarily use 0°/45° devices, textile printing applications require sphere spectrophotometers that can measure for color and appearance characteristics, to manage the complexity of different surface characteristics beyond ink and paper. Both types of devices will identify metamerism. However, moving to digital one may use 0/45 or a sphere, depending on the output and processes.
What the Future Looks Like
Digital print technology has dramatically changed the commercial print industry. Advances in printing methods, process improvements and color management have enabled an on-demand business model with shorter print runs and even custom printing applications. Companies like Shutterfly, Cimpress and others have all perfected the use of digital technologies and succeeded in the new on-demand marketplace.
Even now, commercial printers are embracing new types of digital technology such as 3D printing and design virtualization, especially for packaging. Thirty years ago, a 3D product, whether it was a package, bottle or a piece of clothing was designed in 2D. Today’s tools allow designers to work in both 2D and 3D. Packaging designers and printers are using these tools to help streamline processes, reduce the number of prototypes and shorten development time.
The apparel industry has the opportunity to learn from the commercial print industry as it moves toward more digital processes and printing methods. Design virtualization technology, PLM systems and rapid prototyping companies are helping shave weeks off manufacturing times. Combine this with the benefits of digital textile printing, and fashion brands can dramatically reduce development times and waste. More importantly, digital technology helps enable custom fashion and local-to-local manufacturing.
Companies like Nike, UnderArmour and Adidas are already leading the way in on-demand shoe production. Fashion companies like Unmade and Print Aura are publishing clothing on-demand. Having a local-to-local strategy allows the fashion and footwear industry to serve their customers based on regional needs.
Textiles can also learn from the commercial print industry’s digital journey. These learnings can help the textile industry avoid many of the pitfalls and, accelerate the analog-to-digital transformation. With as much as 40% waste in the apparel supply chain, digital printing of textiles and apparel offers many advantages.
Newer innovations go beyond traditional color and material libraries and allow brand and suppliers to digitize them in order to capture material appearance characteristics like color, gloss, opacity and texture. These digital libraries help streamline design and production, as well as marketing activities and photography by digitally accurate renditions. Of course, there are different printing issues in textiles compared to printing on paper. But the underlying considerations are the same — the interaction between inks, substrates and printing technologies.
The digital textile future is bright for apparel, and innovative companies are not chasing fast fashion, but creating just in time fashion.
Originally published at https://www.whichplm.com on May 8, 2018.