In our FESPA Innovations & Trends (FIT) virtual event we brought together four printers from across the world to discuss the latest trends in digital print for interior design applications.
The host: Debbie McKeegan, FESPA’s Textile Ambassador and CEO of Texintel has spent her entire career in the textile industry working with both analogue and digital production.
Stephen Thomas, Managing Director at Standfast & Barracks, an interior décor printer based in the UK, who has moved from being a conventional rotary and flatbed printer to 60-70% of their business today being digital.
Tony Attard, CEO at Panaz a global designer and manufacturer of high-quality fabrics and wallcoverings. Tony has been involved in the textile industry for many years and started Panaz in 1987.
Denise Lang, Managing Director at Lang + Lang, an Austrian based manufacturer of high-quality prints for installation in architecture, interior design and POS (point of sale) with a focus on the hospitality sector.
Magnus Mighall, Managing Director at RA Smart, a UK company celebrating almost 50 years as a supplier of speciality textile printing equipment.
Do you plan to expand your digital production capacity in the near future and why?
Denise: We are constantly doing that. We've always been some sort of a beta test for some machine manufacturers, basically, since the '90s. We really try to stay on that track because the digital world is changing very fast. We will always want to be up-to-date with our machinery, with our equipment, with software, hardware, whatever is related to that.
Regarding production capacity, we try to improve and to make sure we meet delivery times. Of course, time is always related to costs, so whenever you can improve your capacity, then you also save costs at some point. From a technical point of view, we would like to do more in the outdoor area in the future. That's something which we are going to expand over the next couple of months, so we will bring in a product for aluminium and other substrates.
Stephen: We’ve invested in a lot of capacity. The big change is moving the product from reactive to pigment, we'll be converting our machines progressively. At the moment we have two reactive and one pigment machine and we want two pigments and I think, following the sustainability route, we will go 100% pigment in a couple of years.
Our machines are all coming to about the seven-year period and that will be our logical next investment site anyway, but it will be investing in similar technology. The key investment is in ERP to ensure we’re linking the digital print machines with our customers. I think that's the big change in our type of business in the middle market, where we've got the technology, but we need to create the customer link better in our markets. That's where we're investing at the moment – three-quarters of a million in information technology.
Magnus: Yes, we are investing in new technology because we want to increase our capacity, so we have our fourth Robustelli Monna Lisa coming to us very shortly. In essence, that will replace a couple of our less productive machines and take up the same floor space. Fundamentally, we're just going to be increasing our capacity from that perspective. We'll also be looking at new technology on the wallpaper side of things. As the other panellists have said, it's a continual cycle of investment in terms of keeping up with the technology.
I'm just very briefly wearing my other hat in terms of sales of systems. Over the past six to eight months, even during the pandemic, we have never been busier selling hardware. We are selling more digital textile systems than we have ever sold in our 25-year history. I think at one stage we had over 40 machines to install. We are really seeing across the board a lot of investment in digital technology, which is primarily pigment and dye-sublimation technology.
Tony: Basically, Panaz is quite different, well, certainly to Magnus and Steve in that we are very much B2C so, similar to Denise, we're selling directly to architects, designers and consumers in the contract sector. Of course, the big thing for us is speed. I mentioned earlier that we invested in a brand new platform called ReMake, which allows personalisation or customisation of our products to our customers. This was a massive investment for us, which took over three years to develop but we have nearly a thousand users on the platform now. Now, that doesn't sound very much, but we went from a standing start at the beginning of the pandemic to where we are now. All our salespeople were basically grounded, so we've done all that online. We've sold quite a few thousand meters of customised product that was developed on that platform and I can only see that increasing.
We've also developed wider-width formats so the new machine that we had delivered in the middle of last year was wide-width and we see that side developing. We’ve just released a wide-width collection because we invested in the technology. So, there's been some big investments as far as we're concerned, in digital platforms and digital manufacturing. We certainly see ourselves at the forefront of that and long may it continue.
Do customers demand design diversity, alongside an ever faster and speed of production? Do you plan to invest in workflow automation, to make the customer's journey easier, whether it's coming in through e-commerce, or whether it's coming in as an order into the factory?
Magnus: Yes. In terms of workflow, it's not something that we've looked at here at RA Smart. I'm certainly aware that a lot of our customers that we’ve sold systems to have heavily invested in a workflow e-commerce model. It's not something that we have done up until this point, but I'm sure it’s something that we are going to have to look at in the future to make the production process as smooth as possible. Some of the platforms out there seem extremely sophisticated and, fundamentally, the web-to-print technology is something that we're going to have to keep an eye on.
Denise: We are working with some sort of optimised workflow, with things like colour management, to make sure the colour on the computer or the colour the customer sees on the computer turns out to be right at the end. But since we are only working in a bespoke field, for us, the design is crucial and each project or each product is different all the time, so we really require personal consulting from the client.
Stephen: It's two-sided. One is to take stock out of the process, which, I think, is absolutely critical longer-term. It's a bit like the spoonflower model, but for volume manufacturing.
The other side is that we are working with customers where we can create bespoke colourways for different markets. The colourway selection of the American market, for example, will be different from the French and German markets. What you do is that you bespoke those colourways on a digital book and then offer that to them in a short lead time.
There are lots of tricks you can play with the same technology in our factory in Lancaster. That's what we're really interested in developing with our customers. The information flow from the customer is absolutely vital and you never want to touch a design when you take it from your customer into your system, the more you have to play around with it, the more it affects your fast turnaround. That's what we're working on, it will take us a while and I'm sure we’ll get most of it wrong, but the long-term objective is to take stock out of the system and offer real bespoke colourways for different markets.
Tony: Very simply, I don't see the point in investing heavily in advanced digital manufacturing, unless you're actually investing in the other side of it, which is all the information technology. We've invested hugely in that side of things and we're automating as much as we possibly can. I think what we're heading towards is actually no human hand touching the textile until it actually gets to the customer.
That's what we certainly want, in terms of customers ordering the product in the first place, directly digitally to us, processing the orders to us, manufacturing the product and for us delivering the product. I want to take out all of the human element, apart from the design situation, of course, but then there is an opportunity to maybe even look at AI in that area.
We employ some fantastic and talented designers, I wouldn't like them to get the wrong end of the idea that we're not going to continue with that. Certainly, I see that all sorts of things are going to happen over the next few years, it's very exciting.
Of course, the other thing about digital technology is the amount of data that we develop. That data can be used as well in all sorts of areas. I'm really excited by the whole thing.
You can watch the whole conversation here, and for more information on the FESPA Innovations and Trends Wide Format Graphics and Interior Décor event, visit here.
by FESPA Staff