Shade and color variation in textile printing – why it’s important and what you can do about it

Printing soft furnishings

With fewer design limitations, a faster turnaround, no minimum run length and higher margins (not to mention reduced use of power and water, and of pollution), it’s not surprising that the digitally printed textile market is growing.1 Inkjet has certainly made textile design and printing much more flexible than screen printing – and that goes for everybody involved, from the designer through the printing company, to the buyer.

But printing textiles on inkjet doesn’t come without its challenges: as a software provider focusing on print quality issues, we often hear from print service providers who can only digitally print two thirds of the jobs they receive because they would not be paid for the quality they could achieve on the others.

Shade or color variation is a common problem. It’s not new in digital printing (it’s always been an issue for screen-printed and dyed textiles as well) and is usually managed by providing a shade band, which printer operators refer to, to check allowable color variations between pieces.

But, unlike screen-printing or dyeing, the color variation on an inkjet press can be visible over a small distance, just a few centimeters, and this results in visible bands across the output. Banding describes features that tend to be 1 – 10 cm across and they’re often caused by variation of inkjet pressure or voltage differences within the head, which typically results in a frown or smile shape. We also see a certain amount of manufacturing variation between heads so that one may print lighter or darker than the head next to it in a print bar. Some types of heads can also wear in use, which can result in less regular banding that can change over time. This means that large areas which should be flat color may not be.

When such a variation occurs it can greatly complicate a lot of post-print steps, especially if you need to put more than one piece of textile together, either in sewing or use (such as a pair of curtains). If that’s the case, then a significant difference may be unacceptable and your printing rejected by your buyer. Ultimately this leads to print service providers rejecting jobs, because they know their digital press can’t handle printing those tricky flat tints or smooth tones.

What can you do about it?

The first thing many companies do to try to overcome this banding is to adjust the voltage to the inkjet head, but this is often time-consuming and expensive because it requires an expert technician. A better alternative is to make the correction in software, which is a more cost-effective and faster solution. It means it can be automated and can act at a much finer granularity, so printing is more accurate. There’s no need to mess with controls that could damage the press, and printing companies themselves can make corrections without the vendor sending a technician on-site.

Our solution at Global Graphics Software for improving banding is PrintFlat™. It corrects tonality to hide banding based on measurements from the press. It adjusts every nozzle separately and doesn’t need a specialist engineer to make press adjustments. PrintFlat can be integrated into different digital front ends, using a variety of RIPs, including Caldera and Colorgate and, not to mention, our own Harlequin RIP®.

Over the years of working with many press manufacturers we’ve discovered that many technical issues and solutions are common across different sectors, including transactional, wide-format, commercial, labels and packaging, and industrial, including ceramics, wall coverings, flooring and of course textiles. That means that we already have years of experience in correcting for banding. Using PrintFlat in your press means print service providers can now take on those jobs they would normally reject.

To learn more about how to eliminate shade and color variation when printing on an inkjet press, listen to Global Graphics Software’s CTO Martin Bailey’s talk for FESPA 2020:

“New techniques to eliminate in-lot shade variation when printing textiles with inkjet.”

Or visit the PrintFlat website: https://www.printflat.com/

Further reading:

  1. What causes banding in inkjet? (And the smart software solution to fix it.)
  2. Streaks and Banding: Measuring macro uniformity in the context of optimization processes for inkjet printing

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  1. Digitally printed textiles are estimated to be between 2% – 5% of the total printed textiles market. Estimated at $146.5 billion in 2018 by Grand View Research

What causes banding in inkjet? (And the smart software solution to fix it.)

Banding, or non-uniformity, is a common problem in inkjet printing that can often result in print production downtime and loss of revenue. In this post, I’ll discuss the challenges printer OEMs and print service providers face when trying to reduce banding and provide an insight into the work we’ve been doing at Global Graphics Software to remove banding and streaking artifacts from the print output, enhancing print quality and raising productivity.

What causes banding in inkjet?

Inkjet printheads produce variable density output both across an individual printhead (known as the inkjet ‘smile’) and when comparing output from one printhead with another. The output from a printhead can also change with time, as the printhead wears or ages. Additionally, the overlapping stitch area between printheads in a single-pass printer, or between overlapping passes in a multi-pass printer, can also cause density variations. Such variable density becomes visible in the printed output as ‘banding’ and ‘stripes’, and means that it is not possible for print providers to digitally print jobs with certain image features (such as flat areas or gradients), or that they must sell the lower quality output produced at a significant discount.

Why is uniformity in inkjet a challenge?

Fixing banding or streaking in inkjet is not without its challenges:

  1. In the printer design phase, the use of interlacing in the printing process can be effective at reducing banding and improving uniformity, but significantly impacts the speed and/or cost of the printer. This approach is especially undesirable in single-pass systems, where the only option to interlace is by doubling the quantity, and hence cost, of printheads in the printer.
  2. Currently most OEMs attempt to correct uniformity issues with hardware solutions such as drive voltage tuning, but these give only limited improvement and are slow, complex and costly to implement. Most printheads have only limited voltage adjustment for banks of many nozzles together, or even the entire printhead as a whole, and do not allow adjustment of drive voltage for individual nozzles – such adjustment does not have the granularity necessary to really eliminate banding. Additionally, adjusting drive voltage to balance output density (drop volume), is undesirable as this is likely to negatively impact drop velocity, printing reliability (jetting stability) and even printhead lifetime. As the printer performance changes over time, and when printheads are replaced, service and support engineers must spend a significant amount of time onsite re-making these complex adjustments to achieve quality that is, at best, a compromise.

A solution in software

Global Graphics Software has been working with printer OEMs and print service providers to significantly enhance the quality of their inkjet output, one such company being Ellerhold AG, a leading poster printing house and press manufacturer in Germany.

Ellerhold wanted to enhance the printing quality of it’s large-format posters. Specifically, the printheads on its digital printing machine showed variation in printed density both between the heads and across each head, which produced clearly visible bands within some types of printed output.

Together with Ellerhold we were able to enhance the quality of the printed output using our ScreenPro™ screening engine with PrintFlat™ technology. ScreenPro is a very fast and efficient multi-level screening engine that mitigates artifacts such as banding or streaking and mottling from the inkjet print process and can be used in any print workflow, including Adobe®, Caldera, Esko, EFI and Sofha, with any combination of inks, substrates, printheads and electronics. In ScreenPro every nozzle can be addressed separately on any head/electronics to achieve very fine granularity. The PrintFlat technology adjusts the density within ScreenPro to produce uniform density across a print bar, thereby optimizing print quality.

The project brought many technical challenges: As it was a multi-pass process we needed to efficiently capture repeating density variations across the entire print area in an unbiased way. We carried out tests, analyzed the scanned prints and created a PrintFlat calibration workflow for the press designed to compensate for the non-uniformity in output across the print bar. The team also used a variant of Global Graphics Software’s Advanced Inkjet Screens™, available with ScreenPro and the Harlequin RIP®, which they adapted specially for scanning-head systems. These proved very effective.

You can watch the short case study film here:

PrintFlat technology provided the ideal solution, giving smooth, uniform tints and accurate tone reproduction via a simple ‘fingerprint’ calibration of the screening process, where the density compensation is then built into the screen halftone definition. This means that the PrintFlat calibration is applied during the screening process at runtime and enhances the quality of your output without any compromise on speed. The PrintFlat approach addresses every individual nozzle, has no negative effect on other printing parameters, and allows drive voltage to be used to maximize printing stability and reliability instead.

A valuable additional benefit is in increasing overall productivity. Achieving higher quality with fewer print passes allows for greater use of faster print modes. Jobs that require 4-pass quality can be printed in 2-pass mode with PrintFlat.

The process can be automated for closed-loop correction and, unlike correction by adjustment of voltages, there is no effect on jetting stability or head lifetime, nor ink pressure and timing/drop speed variation.

PrintFlat can increase the added value of your service engineers’ visits, producing a much higher quality result in less time. Alternatively, the print service provider can operate the PrintFlat calibration process to maximize their output quality themselves.

Sunflower web image before PrintFlat is applied Sunflower web image after PrintFlat is applied.Before and after images illustrating how effective PrintFlat technology is at improving print uniformity.

 

For more information about PrintFlat technology visit: https://www.globalgraphics.com/technologies/printflat

For further reading about the causes of banding and streaking in inkjet output see our related blog posts:

  1. Streaks and Banding: Measuring macro uniformity in the context of optimization processes for inkjet printing

  2. Where is screening performed in the workflow

About the author

Jimmy Fox, Inkjet Printing Technologist, Global Graphics Software
Jimmy Fox, Inkjet Printing Technologist, Global Graphics Software

Jimmy Fox is an inkjet printing technologist with 25 years’ experience of developing inkjet printers, inks and applications.

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