Simplifying the Digital Textile Print Process: Does Wet-On-Wet Print Technology Offer a Gateway to One Step Digital Textile Printing?

The latest developments in digital textile printing vastly reduce the factory footprint for technology while also reducing (if not removing altogether) the need for ancillary machinery. Wet-on-wet printing is widely recognized as one of the main facilitators in this simplification. WhatTheyThink contributor Debbie McKeegan takes a deep dive into wet-on-wet, one-step textile printing solutions.

As digital textile technology moves inexorably to offer ever simpler workflow solutions, with each iteration the industry is further rationalizing the steps of print to offer a simplified, unified, one-step-solution.

The latest developments vastly reduce the factory footprint for technology while also reducing (if not removing altogether) the need for ancillary machinery. Wet-on-wet printing is widely recognized as one of the main facilitators in this simplification.

Typically, in digital textile printing, the ink is printed onto a pre-coated fabric—this is known as wet-on-dry printing. Wet-on-wet—a term carried over from rotary textile printing—is a technique used in the digital textile industry to apply ink or dye onto fabric in a continuous process.

In this method, the fabric is pre-coated inline and remains wet or moist throughout the printing process, allowing for better ink penetration and color blending. This technique is also known as direct-to-fabric printing, as it allows for the direct application of ink onto the textile surface without the need for additional steps like pre-treatment or post-treatment.

In a global printed textile market—analog and digital—that is predicted to exceed $260 billion by 2025 (Grand View Research), pigment printing, at 57% of the total, is the largest individual ink component, overshadowing any other ink type, be it acid, reactive, disperse, or dye sublimation.

You might ask: why this figure—57%—is not reflected in digital textile printing sector?

The digital sublimation ink segment continued to dominate the market in 2022 and is expected to expand its market share to more than 53% by 2030. (Research&Markets) The adoption of digital pigments has historically been slowed by issues with color vibrancy and fastness, and technical challenges with speed. However, recent technical developments, innovations, and applications for pigment may well improve these figures in the short term. 

Digitally printing onto non-coated fabrics in a one-step process remains a priority for many machinery manufacturers, and may well turn the tide to increase adoption.

Recently in this sector, companies such as JK Inks, with their 4k Pigment ink offering, have made substantial progress, providing excellent wash and rub fastnesses along with decent lightfastness. However, the inks are currently only suitable for Kyocera heads, and all present test results are on cotton and not on other fibers and blends.

Ink formulations alone are unable to provide the complete solution. And while wet-on-wet simplifies the print process and workflow, its technical execution is far from simple and presents the industry with a challenge to be overcome by machine engineers and chemists. It’s from the heart of these elusive R&D departments that the latest innovations will emerge. To be continued…

Kornit Digital, whether direct-to-garment or direct-to-fabric, were early innovators of the wet-on-wet printing system. The launch of their Presto system in 2019 marked a significant shift for their technology, which continues to evolve with impressive results.

“When we first unveiled our industry-leading Presto MAX in 2021, the intent was to change the world of fashion and textiles forever, tapping into the power of on-demand digital decoration to set new standards for sustainability and creative fulfilment,” said Ronen Samuel, CEO at Kornit Digital. “We’re proud to highlight how Kornit anticipates the needs of an industry facing new opportunities sparked by digital transformation, while addressing mandates to cut waste and overproduction. Continuous innovation across our production systems, as well as supporting automation technologies, software, and partnerships, ensure customers achieve the highest possible return on investment, receive best-in-class support for their operational and business needs, and prepare to capitalize on trends shaping fashion and textiles for years to come.”

Unsurprisingly, Kornit has protected their work over the years, and a fair percentage of their 130+ patents deal with issues of wet-on-wet processing such as chemical compositions, methods, and printing systems.

The digital wet-on-wet process offers the pigment printing industry a transformative opportunity. Key market shifts have ensured that all stakeholders in the digital technology sector look to on-demand production as the future of print. To facilitate this, technology needs to go beyond rotary, to build a seamless architecture that supports multiple textile industries of varying scales.

The printed textile industry is colossal and offers a dynamic, global marketplace with a rich heritage. It’s also a market that must adapt if it is to meet its environmental responsibilities and obligations—and it’s primed for disruption.

2023 has brought many new developments to the pigment arena: Optimum Digital, Kyocera, MS Printing Solutions, D.Gen, Aleph, Atexco, and EFI Reggiani have all invested in one-step technology.

At Kyocera, the recently launched FOREARTH digital textile printer uses a continuous cycle to discharge their unique blend of proprietary pigment ink, pre-treatment liquid, and finishing agent in one pass. The result is a system that can print onto a wide range of fabrics including cotton, silk, polyester, nylon, and blended fabrics.

And at EFI Reggiani, ecoTERRA is also an all-in-one solution for water-based pigment printing that requires no ancillary equipment for pre- and post-treatment. Thanks to the enhanced polymerization and finishing unit, EFI Reggiani ecoTERRA is said to provide an enhanced tactile experience and fabric softness.

Finally, at MS Printing Solutions, the Lario Compact, presently in development, uses a total of nine printheads, two for pre-treatment, six for color, and one for a binder to provide a printing machine capable of over 75 meters per minute in a single pass.

The bottom line of all this activity has been to bring digital pigment printing from its current discontinuous process to a new method, more akin to its rotary competition, where, in one step, fabric is printed, cured, and softened, producing a final product that is ready for cutting and sewing.

As print technology accelerates, it is now possible to envision a future where the greater proportion of pigment printing, with all its advantages of multi-fiber and blend printing, reaches new heights of adoption in the digital textile sector, a sector currently dominated by dye sublimation and reactive printing.