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Apparel Companies Haven’t Put Enough Stock in Ink and Paper to Speed the Supply Chain

Shorter cycles are driving faster fashions in the apparel industry with design-to-consumer turn times measured not in months but weeks. Speed, however, still comes from ink—and paper.

Ink jet sublimation is the creation of high color fabric designs, which are printed by ink jet onto special paper that’s then overlaid with synthetic fabric and run through high pressure rollers where the ink turns into a gas, combining with the fabric at the molecular level. Printing fabric with this process ensures colors never fade or run.

In touring factories for nearly 30 years in this industry, I’ve seen countless trends, including digitization, globalization, computerization, fast fashion, short cycles, verticalization, 2-D/3-D systems, lean manufacturing, and so much more. Today, digital rules everything, and nothing proves this more than ink jet sublimation.

It’s almost as though, if you’re in the supply chain today, between the designer and the consumer, you’re in the way. Advances in ink jet sublimation have even made the designer and the consumer, in some cases, the same person. This technology allows 10-minute turn times for small shops and one-day turn times for 20,000 yards of fashion fabric for the major players.

It’s the paper

Neenah Coldenhove in Eerbeek, Netherlands, has been producing paper on this site since 1661, a location chosen for its clean, clear, soft water springs.

There, trucks arrive with virgin cellulose harvested from renewable controlled forests of fast growing Eucalyptus trees. To many in the industry, the environment is an emotional issue, and Coldenhove goes a step further in sustainability. The company, a member of the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN) has been recycling and the water and energy it uses for nearly 350 years.

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Ninety-five percent of this regional water used in Coldenhove’s production went right back into production. The other 5 percent was used in production elsewhere on site. One 2020 goal for the company is to reduce energy by 8 percent.

The production process at Coldenhove starts with pulp turned into paper in a continuous sequence. Fiber and filler are soaked in water, filtered, then run through a large machine, from which sizable rolls of coated paper emerge, ready for ink jet sublimation. It was Coldenhove that invented this coating, which is the key to full color transfer.

The paper is made in a consistent weight and strength that creates predictable print at high speeds. The special coating is added in-line as an integrated part of the process, rather than adding it later. The coating is the key. Without it, more than 35 percent of the ink is absorbed into the paper and never reaches the fabric.

It’s this coating, this target for the pixels of ink, that delivers instant drying and quick release of nearly 100 percent of the inks, creating especially sharp images. And the paper is delivered within 48 hours to 70 (and increasing) countries worldwide.

It’s the culture

How does a company that started in 1661 find itself still hiring and growing and expanding its customer base today? By never stopping the creation process. As one senior manager told me, “It is not our machines or fiber or paper or coating, it is our culture that gives us a competitive advantage.”

That’s why such a historical company has managed the exponential growth in volume and breadth of global coverage to more and more companies. Over the last decade, Coldenhove has experienced double digit growth each year.

The paper the company produces is not a new technology, it’s what they do that is so innovative. It is their focus to keep ahead of the ever-changing standards of the fashion industry that matters. The speeds and flexibility of digital printing is bringing production back closer and closer to the designers, to the Americas, to you.

It’s the speed and accuracy

In 2012, the industry saw a dramatic advance in the speed of ink jet printers, and increasing scale. This put enormous pressure on producers of both ink and paper. Coldenhove responded with its first product, JETCOL HTR 1000® . Today the company has announced 14 such branded products with more set for release, likely at ITMA 2019.

TexOps, an apparel manufacturer in El Salvador, has used Coldenhove paper from the start of its journey in ink jet sublimation and taking the printing to scale.

It’s a “very impressive place,” TexOps president Juan Zighelboim, said. “They are a key vendor to us, very good reputation, make a high quality product. We are very loyal due to quality, service and value.  We don’t switch out for cheaper knock offs available in market.”

In Europe, I saw a mill using single pass high speed ink jet printing under six racks of 100,000 spindles, each firing pixels of ink 3mm (0.1″) onto paper passing under them at 2 meters per second. Think about that. They get a digital file in the morning and ship 20,000 yards of fashion fabric that night.

The speed is astounding, but the accuracy is monumental.

The power of this process is in its simplicity: printer, ink, paper, press, poly fabric. The surprise, the secret ingredient, the piece of the puzzle that delivers exponentially more color and value than expected, comes wrapped to you as what it is—the paper, the target of the designs you want to matter.


Mike Todaro is the managing director of the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network, which is the industrial organization of the Western Hemisphere. Over 1,300 industry executives are networked from 200 organizations in all 30 links in the supply chain and meet throughout the year.