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Finishing: Pitfalls and opportunities for digitally printed fabrics

Photos courtesy MCT

By Steve Aranoff
Fabric represents the fastest-growing market segment for grand-format printing, including both commercial and industrial applications. When the time comes for finishing, however, fabric presents some special challenges, due to the material’s stretch characteristics, porosity and weight.

By way of example, a porous fabric cannot be held down on a vacuum table like vinyl can, so it is harder to keep in place when cutting it to shape with traditional mechanical knife tools. Similarly, digital vision registration systems can run into significant issues when attempting to ensure the proper portion of a printed graphic is contained within the cut area—e.g. when determining how to continue cutting banners that are longer than the finishing table, due to the extreme degree to which they stretch. Also, fabric rolls that are extremely heavy and bulky—which makes it even harder to cut the material cleanly and accurately by hand—call for motorized handling capabilities to unroll the fabric onto the table.

Production department capacity is also a major issue. Industrial and retail projects may involve many types of fabrics being printed up to 3 m (10 ft) wide, raising the question of how they are to be cut and finished accurately and economically, within an already-busy organization. Keeping both quality issues and turnaround time in mind, automated precision cutting has become a must. There are several approaches, however, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

From print to cut
Print-to-cut vision technology was invented in the late 1990s and adopted across many brands of cutters. Workflow software was developed with major raster image processor (RIP) providers so as to output ‘cut’ files and automate the process after printing.

Over the years, these capabilities provide the impetus for more digital cutters to enter the growing grand-format printing marketplace. And since 2015, entirely new methodologies have enhanced print-to-cut vision accuracy specifically for fabric, with advanced features added to cut stretchy substrates more rapidly and accurately.

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