At the beginning of the year Araco presented the reactive print, a real innovation in the customising sector. On-site at Enschede in the Netherlands, the company demonstrated the production process and the impressive results.
A T-shirt with a photo print that reproduces the smallest of details in razor-sharp quality. A shirt each single part of which has been individually colour coordinated – from the collar to the shoulders, back and sleeve, through to the cuffs. A terry cloth towel that shines out in polychrome colour diversity: The first products that Araco presented made using its new printing process at the start of the year impress across the board. Reactive printing – the technical term for the process – is a method that allows photorealistic motifs to be attached to cotton textiles in high resolutions, while at the same time achieving a brilliant colour reproduction and filigree gradients – fast, individually and for extremely small order quantities. Photorealistic motifs on textiles are nothing new per se – very good results can also be achieved using sublimation print methods. However, reactive printing offers a host of advantages: “One of the weaknesses of sublimation printing is the fact that it can only be implemented on textiles with a corresponding polyester coating,” explained Key Account Manager, Nikolas Hanft. “We use textiles made of 100% cotton for the reactive printing process. Furthermore, sublimation prints fade in time, something that is hardly possible with reactive prints because the dye penetrates deep into the fibre.”
The “Reactive Print” project was initiated and realised over the past two years by the Araco founder and CEO, Henk Greftenhuis. “The printing process is frequently used in the retail sector, but it is hardly known in the promotional products industry, because it is very expensive and elaborate,” explained Senior Key Account Manager, Stefan Rölver. “Initially, we only planned to offer the customising technology for terry cloth products, but we were then so impressed by the first results that we decided to extend it to include other textiles.” So, in addition to towelling items, Araco now also offers its new printing process for fabric draw-string bags, T-shirts, shirts and blouses.
Over one year of preparation was necessary. “The reacting printing method is not a secret, but it requires high investments – in the corresponding machines and in the development work,” explained Hanft. “One can’t simply start printing straight away, a lot of time has to first be spent experimenting, optimising and adjusting.” In contrast to the conventional printing techniques that are used to embellish finished textiles, the reactive print is applied to the raw materials – i.e. on the rolls of fabric. The rolls are cut into T-shirts, shirts, bags or towels after being printed. The printing job runs through a production line that spans around 90 m and seven work steps, before the printing process is completed. “We need at least 90 m of fabric to start the printing process, but of course several orders are printed on one length of fabric and the batches are planned accordingly,” stated Hanft. “That is why the minimum order quantity is basically one piece.” “Strictly speaking, reactive printing isn’t a printing method, but actually a dyeing process, because the motif is soaked into the fibre as with dyeing processes,” explained the Production Manager, Willem Ekkelkamp. “That is why the fabric has to be pre-treated. Before being printed, the rolls of fabric are freed from dust and soaked in alginate, a thickening agent. This is necessary so that the dye doesn’t ‘bleed’ into the cotton fibre. This enables us to print in a resolution of up to 1,200 dpi and precisely reproduce the finest lines from half a millimetre upwards.”
The pre-treated length of fabric is attached to a plastic conveyor belt as flatly as possible using thermoplastic adhesive, before running through the printer at a speed of 1.5 m per minute. “The printing process is digital, the machine is comparable with a plotter. The more even and the flatter the fabric lies, the more precise the printing result,” reported Ekkelkamp. “Here in Enschede we can print rolls up to a width of 260 cm.” After being printed, the key element of the reactive printing process takes place: The fabric runs into the so-called “steamer”. “Measuring 13 m, our machine from the Austrian manufacturer Zimmer is the biggest steamer the company has ever built to-date,” reported Ekkelkamp proudly. “The steaming is just as important for the process as the printing.” In the steamer the fabric is steamed at the exact temperature of 103.4°C. This “extracts” the dye because it reacts with the steam – this is where the name “reactive printing” derives from. Whereas the print appears to be pale before the steaming process, subsequently its full colour intensity shines out. A thorough cleaning process follows, during which the surplus dye and fixing agent are removed in a special cleaning machine under vacuum, before the length of fabric is dried. Finally, it is pulled straight again in a straightening plant, stretched and rolled together for the onward transport.
Whereas terry cloth goods are cut to size and chained directly on-site, the remaining goods are cut in the sewing factories. “We will soon be putting a camera-controlled cutting table into operation in Enschede, which allows high-precision cuts and enables clothes sizes to be adjusted and altered at the push of a button,” announced Hanft. The items are subsequently sewn together in Moldova, at the Araco subsidiary in Cluj (Romania) or – in the case of shirts – in the Netherlands. “Extreme care has to be taken when sewing the shirts, after all the individual parts of the print image have to be precisely placed together in the case of full-surface prints,” explained Hanft. Anyone, who now believes that such a solution must be unaffordable, will be positively surprised. “Of course we don’t offer any lowbudget products with reactive prints,” stated Rölver, “but the textiles aren’t more expensive than conventionally customised quality goods. The method is especially worthwhile for the corporate wear sector, where the order volumes are manageably sized – particularly since it offers great personalisation options.”
The customers definitely receive an absolute eye-catcher that stands out from the masses. The first reactive print collections could already be admired at industry events shortly after the product launch and it can be taken for granted that the process will soon find many new fans.
// Till Barth
photos: Araco (1); Till Barth, © WA Media (3)