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How Seiko Epson Is Using Digital Technology to Transform the Textile Industry

Through its cutting-edge inkjet textile-printing technology, Seiko Epson is aiming to not only transform the textile industry, but to help solve an array of social issues caused by analog printing in a range of fields.

Printing technology is essential for fashion brands. Just as printing on paper has shifted from analog to digital, textile printing in the apparel industry is about to be transformed by digital technology — driven largely in part by companies such as Seiko Epson, and its cutting-edge inkjet technology. Beyond transforming the textile industry, Epson aims to help solve an array of social issues in a range of fields.

Here, Nobuyasu Tanaka — a representative of Sun Messe Innovative Network Center (Sinc), and a representative director of Sustainable Brands™ Japan — talks with Kazumi Okuzono, general manager of Strategic Planning and IIJ Sales & Marketing for Seiko Epson’s Printing Solutions Division; and Saeko Maruyama, Planning & Design Department, Printing Solutions Division. The two are encouraging cooperation, and the importance of working in a wide array of areas in order to drive innovation.

Solutions realized with new technology

Image credit: Epson

Tanaka: I was surprised by the level of technology and quality of digital printing when I saw the textile printers at the factory.

Kazumi Okuzono: I think that we have been able to expand the design possibilities with vivid and delicate prints that can only be achieved by digital means. Thanks to ever-increasing numbers of test-printing requests from our customers, we are sensing a growth in attention in this field.

Tanaka: While Seiko Epson is pursuing inkjet innovation; aside from quality, just what types of solutions to social issues are available through digital printing?

Okuzono: In the textile-printing business, particularly in the apparel industry, there is a need to improve work environments and reduce environmental impacts. Various impacts on supply chains have been pointed out — for example, an enormous amount of manufactured apparel products is discarded.

Behind these issues are manufacturing costs. There is often no choice but to print and manufacture in large quantities in places with relatively low labor costs, such as Bangladesh and India. Moreover, it is easy to ignore the environmental impacts of traditional, analog textile printing in lands far from the locations where the goods are consumed. In addition, analog printing has a relatively large number of processes; it uses a large amount of energy and water, and the processes are long and time-consuming. This work is conducted in hot, harsh work environments, where high levels of chemicals are used.

Digital printing provides a solution to address such issues. Depending on the lots being produced, there is a break-even point to consider against analog methods; however, with digital printing, work environments can be significantly improved and manufacturing processes can be shortened. Digital systems can also be operated by relatively inexperienced personnel instead of specialists. There is almost no loss of ink or fabric, and water use can be significantly reduced compared to analog methods.

The key to the spread of digital textile printing

Tanaka: How prevalent is digital textile printing?

Saeko Maruyama: Both the analog and digital textile-printing markets are growing, and we expect them to continue to grow even more in the future. Additionally, unless a culture of not wearing clothes becomes mainstream, we believe that demand in the apparel industry will continue to grow. In fact, right now, digital printing only accounts for about 10 percent of the total textile printing industry.

Tanaka: So, 90 percent is still based on analog printing. Conversely, the digital textile-printing business has great growth potential and business opportunities. What are the challenges in terms of greater market penetration?

Okuzono: I think the key is to effectively communicate the advantages of digital printing to both the material manufacturers and brand owners. In paper printing, the transition from analog to digital printing exploded a few years ago. Similarly, environmental awareness is increasing in the textile-printing industry, and more brand owners see sustainability as a key word. In turn, the need for improvements in supply chains is increasing; and these needs are becoming even more apparent during this pandemic.

Tanaka: There is growing value in environmental impact mitigation and consideration for the entire supply chain. Understanding this value may not only be key in the textile and apparel industries; but also in society as a whole, in terms of degree of interest in sustainability.

Okuzono: Where Seiko Epson's textile-printing business has an advantage in terms of reaching customers, is in the technology and experience that it has gained in high-end printing. Since around 2015, when Fratelli Robustelli, S.r.l. and For.Tex, S.r.l. joined the Epson Group, bringing technology cultivated in the Como region of Italy — one of the world's leading textile-printing centers — the technological capabilities of Seiko Epson's textile-printing business have further improved.

Digital textile-printing technology is extraordinarily complex. As inks are used differently, depending on the fabric and material; and as quality often depends on the condition of the fabric, it is an industry that requires know-how and a range of consultation platforms. There is therefore more of a need to meet various customer requirements with our technology.

I am convinced that having that knowledge provides greater advantages. We can draw a lot from this knowledge and experience when giving presentations to our customers. One of our major strengths is that we not only develop inkjet heads and hardware; but we also develop ink, chemicals and software.

Tanaka: This is also an industry where the business scope can be significantly expanded through collaboration.

Okuzono: One of the points that we focus on when we approach material manufacturers is whether they can develop materials that are suitable for digital use. For example, we believe that apparel can be manufactured in cleaner environments by changing the processes at the ink and fabric development phases. We would like to bring about that innovation together through various alignments.

Taking on challenges with confidence

L-R: Nobuyasu Tanaka, Kazumi Okuzono and Saeko Maruyama; with fabrics printed using digital textile printers. | Image credit: Sustainable Brands Japan

Tanaka: Please tell us about some of the benefits that come from the process of digital textile printing.

Maruyama: The channels of sales opportunities are becoming more diversified. Inventory management becomes more complicated when sellers not only sell in-store but also, increasingly, online — often with fast delivery. Consumer customization needs are also increasing.

Shortening the supply chain by utilizing digital textile-printing technology helps to meet these types of consumer needs, while leading to business solutions for brand owners. The mitigation of environmental impacts and the improvement of working environments are all also connected, but distributed printing has become one of our keywords.

We believe that we can drive innovation in the apparel industry if, by developing Seiko Epson's technology and software, we can realize an ecosystem that allows goods to be produced closer to the areas where they are consumed. That is the goal that we have set.

Okuzono: As clothes are generally seasonal products, production usually starts about half a year before they are sold. That also places a burden on the environment and working conditions as a whole. Therefore, we also aim to flexibly respond to the demand for those that wish to sell clothes in the same season that they were made.

Tanaka: I can see now how digital textile printing can help bring further innovation through the reduction of environmental impacts, improved work environments and shortened supply chains. I also get the sense that, in Japan, digital textile printing will make inroads into previously unknown areas. Please tell us about some of the future strategies that Seiko Epson will follow.

Okuzono: Seiko Epson's corporate vision, "Epson 25," presents six value-creation stories in the following areas:

  • Responding to climate change and resource depletion

  • Heightened expectations for sustainable practices

  • Increased productivity and preservation of artisanal skills

  • Response to lifestyle diversification

  • Widening of regional disparities, and

  • Dangerous and harsh working environments.

Digital textile printing is one of the businesses that we have begun to focus on, because we believe that it can help contribute to value in these six areas. We are looking to use our inkjet technology to drive innovation in the apparel industry in collaboration with a wide range of related brands and businesses. To that end, I think it is necessary to create a range of examples.

Seiko Epson has grown mainly around a product-out type of business, focused primarily on mass production and mass sales of consumer products.

Digital textile printing is a new challenge for us — one where we believe that we can drive innovation by closely following our customers' businesses. Therefore, we believe that there is an urgent need to gain and improve our own knowledge through collaboration with our various partners. We intend to continue to contribute to society and to drive innovation.


Art director Aguri Sagimori's worldview, expressed through digital printing

A wallpaper print by renowned designer Aguri Sagimori, printed using digital textile printers. | Image credit: Seiko Epson

by Seiko Epson

At a recent product launch, we created and showcased an exhibit featuring a room decorated entirely with Aguri Sagimori designs, printed using inkjet printer technology (see main article image).

Here, we provided examples of not only clothing such as kimono and Japanese sandals; but also options in wallpaper, floor rugs, cushions and lamp shades printed using inkjet sublimation transfer printers suitable for textiles to represent one complete worldview. We are quite confident that we were able to highlight some more of the many potential opportunities available in the textile field.

Digital printing using inkjet technology can provide a range of solutions to many social issues facing the textile industry, from higher productivity to reducing waste through better color matching and more appropriate production levels. There is also the minimization of environmental impacts from not having to use water.

We believe that these benefits will not only help to further realize designers’ images at higher levels in terms of production; but will also help provide greater social value to form and express a worldview that better represents the original intent of designers and brands in general.

Due to CSR- and SDG-based trends, the digital printing possibilities available in the textile industry could have greater impact — not only on production technology, but also more specifically on brands and designs themselves.

To help further expand the textile market, Epson will continue to work with many designers, fashion brands, textile manufacturers, and others that have both design and social value.

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