Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
August 13, 1999

On the cutting edge of textile printing

by Kevin Brown
J.R. Campbell is on a mission. But it isn't impossible. If his research in digital textile printing pans out, terms such as photographic ghosting, layering and overlapping could apply, for the first time, to fabrics in the garment and upholstery industries.

Campbell, an assistant professor in textiles and clothing in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, will use a $35,000 state-of-the-art, wide-format ink jet printer to test commercial inks and dyes for consistency (predictability of color on specific fabrics) and color fastness (resistance to fading during washing or exposure to sunlight).

The impact on the industry could be dramatic, he said. As consumers become exposed to new, highly detailed or high-quality photorealistic designs printed on fabrics, new markets may arise.

"The photorealistic capabilities of this technology are exciting," Campbell said. "Detail artwork could be interspersed with photographic effects. This new niche is what is needed in the apparel industry right now. It opens the door to the potential for so many new markets."

Currently, images that are printed to fabric must be made into color separations and then printed as successive colors on fabric. This process usually is done outside the design studio by a screen printer or service bureau and costs as much as $1,000 per sample, he said. One goal of digital textile printing is to reduce product development time from approximately two months to as little as two days.

With the ink jet printer, the color separations are eliminated. Working from a computer interfaced with the printer, Campbell said a design might be digitized and printed onto the desired fabric in a matter of moments. A special head on the printer adjusts to the thickness of most fabrics.

"That same sample now could be created in two or three hours and at much less cost," Campbell said.

Studying inks
The first step is to study the inks and dyes currently available. Some manufacturers have started developing inks that will work on fabrics using ink jet technology.

"I'll be partnering with ink producers to try to test everything that is out there," he said.

Some inks have larger particles, making it impossible to pass through the high-resolution head on the printer. Ink manufacturers also are beginning to manipulate traditional fabric dyes so that they may be used with ink jet printing.

"No dye works on every type of fiber the same way," Campbell said. "Dyes are made up of much smaller particles that dissolve into solution better than normal printing inks, but a dye that is engineered to be used with cotton is probably not going to be effective on polyester fabrics."

Studying fabrics
Campbell also will study various fabrics and how they drive through the printer. Currently, he said, wide format ink jet printers, which originally were designed as a cost-effective way to print large banners, run fabric that must be backed by paper. The paper backing and fabric treatment process for ink jet printing is very expensive, he said, and few textile mills currently will do it.

"Since few producers are making the paper-backed fabrics, our research will test non-paper-backed fabrics in the printer," Campbell said.

Potential niche
Campbell said the printer has the possibility to revolutionize niche and small-run textile products -- from clothing to interior design and upholstery.

"This technology could allow for mass customization," he said. "As the technology becomes more defined and less expensive, a company would be able to supply a product tailored to the individuals needs and desires."

Campbell, who has designed several high-quality, computer-aided designs for the textile industry, said he became interested in the technology three years ago.

The textiles, interior design and apparel industries have followed the adaptation of the ink jet printer, he said. The potential for larger profits is attractive to an industry buffeted by low-cost foreign competition.

Iowa State currently is the only land-grant university and one of about a half dozen institutions nationwide with this technology, Campbell said.

"Having the printer is a means of attracting students by implementing a cutting-edge teaching tool that will make students more competitive in the textile and apparel industry," he said. "There are few people doing actual research on digitally printed textile designs right now. This technology still is too new and too expensive for many."

Campbell said the initial research will be mostly straightforward quality assurance testing. It will include ISU students who have expressed an interest in his project.

But the results of that research may be nothing less than revolutionary for an industry that is constantly craving revolution.

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