Today, we’ve got an interview that’s going to be a little bit different. It’s definitely 3D print related but it’s in a very different way. I wanted to preface this for all our listeners saying while this isn’t absolutely the deepest 3D print subject, it’s still really cool and there are a lot of parallels with the 3D print industry and a lot to learn from it. Especially if you are involved in a 3D print startup that’s maybe making a new machine or even if you’re in the education space. I think there are a lot of great nuggets for you in this affordable textile printing topic.
We’re going to talk to Charlie Runckel of FabricZoom. It is an affordable fabric printer that uses off-the-shelf 3D print parts to have created its initial beta run here. They are based outside of Portland, in Beaverton, Oregon. The team had been coming up and thinking about how to make an affordable fabric printer and affordable textile printing. They were looking the cost of all of the parts and all of the time it would take to develop it. What they’ve come up with is just great. They really modeled what the 3D print industry has done. We’re thinking about those first 3D printers where they were $3,000 and all of that or even they started in the kit world, but they were all using these off-the-shelf parts. They were really building up from there.
Many of them still use off-the-shelf parts especially stepper motors and printheads and things like that. You can buy off-the-shelf parts and make your own 3D printer. Really, they apply that same technology using some of the actual motors and different things that 3D printers use and are made of today to make this fabric printer. They had to go beyond that because they’re not 3D printing. There are so many parallels. To me, I was so excited for this interview after having gone through it because there are a lot of lessons in what they’ve done to execute their vision and their goal that I think a lot of 3D print startups should model for their business.
We just really wanted to bring this to you. We thought it was of interest to the general maker community as a whole, which you guys are. We thought that would be of interest to you as well. There are many of you who have makerspaces who also do costume design and other things as well, school systems and educators who do all that. We thought this would be very interesting to raise awareness of it as well. It excited us. I hope you really enjoy this interview as much as we did. Even though it’s not 100% strictly about 3D printing, I still think you’re going to enjoy it.
Listen to the podcast here:
Affordable Textile Printing with 3D Print Parts with Charlie Runckel of FabricZoom
Thanks so much for joining us, Charlie.
Thank you for having me, Tracy.
I’m super excited to talk FabricZoom today, especially because there’s a 3D print tie. It gives me an excuse to talk about one of my favorite subjects, which is textiles and 3D printing at the same time. Your company has created the first affordable fabric printer using off-the-shelf parts commonly used in 3D printers. Let’s start with how you guys came together to realize that 3D printing parts would be ideal for this, and then we’ll talk more about fabric printing, affordable textile printing and other things after that.
My business partner, Hue, has been trying to build a low cost but high quality fabric printer for a long time. Recently, a printhead came on the market that he thought would be perfect. The main problem was that developing a fabric printer, especially a large one, requires a certain amount of scale and it requires a large commitment to develop it and then to manufacture it. I actually know Hue because we go to the same Farmer’s Market in Beaverton.
One morning, over biscuits and gravy, we’ve got to talking about it and I suggested that instead of designing this like a printer, he designs this like a 3D printer. We used all these off-the-shelf parts. Our development would be easier because we can reuse a lot of code that’s already floating around. We can use people’s tricks that they learned to improve the resolution of things. Then also when we go to manufacturing, everything we do is already produced in large volume, and so we can get away with producing 20 or 50 or 100 machines. Whereas normally, a fabric printer of this size, you’d have to go into this saying, “I’m going to make 10,000 of these.” Then you’d have some problems raising the funds. You’d have some problems getting all the investors in. By making this 3D printer hardware with a printhead, we got around a lot of those issues. We made a machine that is very user-friendly, that has very high technical capabilities but that is also affordable.
Right now, when you buy a fabric printer, a lot of fabric printers are in the half million dollar range or the low hundreds of thousands. The cheapest ones that have some issues working are in the low tens of thousands of dollars range. Our starting price is $2,000 for a 57-inch printer. What we’re hoping is that our printer will be to fabric printing what the first $3,000 3D printers were to 3D printing, where you have a product that was once the domain of big R&D companies or a service provider on the other side of the country. Now, you can have something in your own studio or even potentially in your own home. If you’re a serious hobbyist or if you’re a small business owner, this is the perfect price point and the perfect mix of quality and print speed for you.
Are you using things like stepper motors? What about controlling software, are you using Arduino or something? Is that were the 3D print machine ties come in?
That’s absolutely right. Our stepper motors, close loop encoders, promotion, the frames. If you look at the frames on these, it’s 20×20 millimeter or 20×40 millimeter aluminum extrusion. Almost all the parts of this would be recognizable to a 3D printing enthusiast. I fully expect that when we start shipping these, I’m going to see all sorts of hacked versions combining our printer with other 3D printer parts. We are using an Arduino Due. I would say all around, these are 3D printer parts but they’re normally what would be considered premium 3D printer parts. The quality tolerances that we need for printing fabric are higher than the bottom level of 3D printing. The stepper motor is fairly fine. We’re using higher quality motor drivers and things like that. On the whole, the transformers, the motors, the pumps, these are all things that would be familiar to a 3D printer. Ultimately, we did have to create our own boards to deal with this.
Because you’re dealing with a totally different process by which you are applying. You’re not extruding, you’re applying color.
Our printhead, instead of one extruder head, it has two banks of 192 Piezoelectric heads. Actually, the printhead is the one piece that probably wouldn’t be too recognizable for a 3D printing enthusiast. We had to make quite a bit of custom hardware to interface that.
One of my first jobs out of college was working for a company called Milliken & Company, which is one of the largest textile companies in the world. My job was to justify the purchase of a textile printer at that time, which was a Sophis system, which was about a $250,000 printer. I had to go in front of Mr. Milliken probably within three months of working for the company. Fresh out of college, I had to make this presentation to the head of this company and justify why we should have a textile printer in our design studio that was worth $250,000. Your printhead is very similar to the ones that are the ink-based textile printers. Aren’t you injecting ink?
That’s right. We’re laying down reactive ink.
That’s even familiar. The fact that you’ve gotten the cost so far down from where that came from is amazing. If I remember correctly, the Sophis system and the printers, they were still printing on paper and simulating the look of fabric. They weren’t actually printing on fabric.
That very first model was only printing on paper. It was printing on a very specialized paper that took the dyes in a special way or took the inks in a special way. Eventually, we did have the fabric printer that came out of that but that was a year and a half later. This is a whole other level now. This is within reach of small business people, even I would say home hobbyist. We know people who buy 3D printers who are doing this for fun, who are enthusiast, who pay more than $2,000 for a 3D printer. Some of them do. I certainly would and did.
I have done that as well. I have more than a few 3D printers myself.
It could be even hobby level or a small business level who wants to print their own fabric and not have to rely on an outsource, like we’ve done. This is fantastic. Cost effectiveness, let’s talk about that. We just did a project for a client where we designed a custom fabric for them and we had them printed out. We had to wait, which was another thing. It wasn’t immediate. Waiting is a really big deal. It takes a lot of time. It probably took us two weeks of waiting time between the time we ordered it from Spoonflower, which is the outsource that I think is one of the better ones. It costs us roughly $350 for what were multiple pieces but barely a yard of each. We still then had to redo it. We’ve had to go create a few other generations and order more fabric a couple of times.
It’s two weeks each time, right?
Yes, because the color wasn’t quite right. One of the blues was just a little too hot in its coloration. Something wasn’t right in the coloration of the fabric. It looked good on screen, it didn’t look so good in print, which is a very common occurrence. I think we probably lost a month of time, which we could have done in a matter of hours because we would have started printing and go, “That’s not working. Cancel the print and start it again.” There’s a great benefit there if that’s your business.
Designers have used this. The nice thing about this is that they will print an inch strip and they will say that blue is not quite right. One of our claim to fame, not just that it’s an affordable printer, is that it’s flexible in terms of the material we can put in because of our tension system. You can lay down thick or textured material. The problem with thick material is that you have to figure out empirically how much ink to put down. Every material is going to be different. The nice thing here is that you can lay down an inch and say, “That’s not quite dark enough.” You can lay down another inch and say, “That’s too much,” and you can get things just right within a few minutes.
Without really changing the color, you’re changing the injection level, that balance essentially?
That’s right. You can adjust the two separately.
It’s like adjusting infill and other things. You don’t have to change your core CAD file to make that happen on 3D printing. You just change that in the slicing process. What I think is naturally going to happen is the designers who buy this printer and use it are going to become better designers of fabric when they deal with some of these issues. Because you’ll start to see the repeat printing out in front of you. You’ll be like, “That’s not working out.”
Also, exactly how thick you make lines for different materials. It’s a quick learning curve until you’re pretty reliable in terms of, “Maybe that line looks good on the screen. That looks good on a printout on paper, but on 30 count linen, that’s going to be crooked or I’m not going to be able to see that well enough.”
Tell us about the base fabric material limitations or opportunities with your printer. Is this the type of thing where there’s really one type of fabric you want to print on all the time and you’re just doing different color patterns? Do you really have the opportunity to use different base fabrics?
It’s the exact opposite. You have the opportunity to try all sorts of different materials. Our ink works with natural fibers. Anything with cellulose: cotton, linen, rayon, hemp, that’s no problem, and it works with silk. The main limitations are that our ink chemistry will not work with nylon or polyester. We are talking to a different ink supplier and in a year or two, we’ll probably sell a printer specifically made for nylon and polyester. This printer for now is natural fibers only. Within that, you have a great deal of freedom in what you load because we have a tension system that’s not based on multiple rollers. That’s present in a lot of fabric printers. We have one that’s based on a magnet.
Because otherwise the rollers sometimes stretch the fabric and distort it and sometimes they don’t push it fast enough because it’s too thin.
You have to recalibrate it each time and it usually takes a few yards to get a fabric working and then you have to print by the bulk. We wanted a printer where you could print one yard at a time. You can stop at a fabric store, buy a yard of a fabric, load it in our machine and try it immediately and figure out if you like that yard or not, or maybe that yard is all you every intent to print.
Our eight-year-old has just started sewing. She’s gotten this idea that she would like to create her own fabric designs on top of it because her mom is a textile designer. She realized that that’s possible, and she would go crazy with this printer. I can already see it. Let’s go back really quickly to the fabric. Do you have to pretreat it?
Yes. There is pretreated fabric that is available for sale and we supply that as well. We intended it for people to pretreat their own fabric, that way they can use whatever fabric they like. Essentially, we supply a pretreatment solution. You soak your fabric in it for twenty minutes. You hang dry it and then you iron it and you’re good to go.
Any good textile designer and/or seamstress would know that you should wash your fabric before anyway, so it’s not doing more than that.
Actually, you don’t have to dry it between washing and soaking. You can wash it, rinse and then soak immediately. That cuts out another step.
You have a Kickstarter going here for this printer. Has that finished yet or is it still going on?
It’s still going on. The Kickstarter has been difficult. Apparently, it’s easier to sell a 3D printer on Kickstarter than it is a textile printer. I think part of that is just explaining to people what it does, which I really hope interviews like this can get the word out.
Kickstarter’s audience match is the key. How much money you put into promotion, that’s the second key. There are only two ways to get enough backing on Kickstarter. One is to put enough money into it and the other is to make sure that you have the perfect match to the audience. In this case, I think there’s a mismatch. Kickstarter is 70% male, maybe even higher than that, maybe closer to 75% male. I think that’s a mismatch because there are a lot of quilters and textile designers. If you look at the Spoonflower profile of the artist that are on it, they’re a majority of women. You actually have a mismatch. Selling a 3D printer sounds really cool to a certain young male audience. Selling a textile 3D printer doesn’t sound so cool.
Having bought 3D printers through Kickstarter in the past, I am of the wrong audience. I can appreciate that. I am happy to say that the nice thing about the Kickstarter is that after getting the word out and raising the kind of interest we have, we’ve been approached by investors. I tend to think the Kickstarter will probably not make its targets but we will be manufacturing in November one way or the other. There is a happy ending to the story. We’ll be honoring all the pricing we offered to our Kickstarter backers even if the Kickstarter falls through.
That’s great that you know that you’re going to be going forward as a company either way and you’re going to be able to deliver that kind of value to the people that have been interested. I think that’s really important. At least you got to use Kickstarter to help market your project.
We’ve definitely met people that we probably would not have met through Kickstarter. We’ve gotten a lot of suggestions of where to take this in the future.
We talk about this all the time. We call it our AB model of doing a small run to getting to the final model where you spend all of your tooling dollars or whatever that might be. You’ve done that here. You’ve created a process by which you’re really both testing out whether or not you have exactly the right systems working for you, the right parts, the right machinery, the right features that you want to include. You’re testing that all out in the lowest price possible, with the lowest cost parts that you can possibly do in a very small run so that you can really get a great proof of concept.
The first six generations were really about figuring out what quality level of 3D printer parts we really needed. We would start at the top of the scale and the bottom of the scale and figure out where we need it to be. For the most part, it ended up being in the top of the scale but the top of the prosumer 3D printer scale is still not that expensive.
How long did that process take for you?
About two years.
Timeline sounds you’re really similar to a lot of 3D printer startups that we’ve come to know. You really must be experiencing and going through a lot of the same things. The difference is somewhat specific to the machine and the specific market that you are catering to.
I imagine a lot of the problems we had are similar, they were with motion and reproducibility of the motion.
Because you have to go all the way across the fabric. It’s more of completing an entire row all the time.
It’s a physically enormous printer. Our main beam is 15×8.5 inches across. Within that, at a 150 DPI, that’s 85 micron resolution. The human eye is really great at seeing gaps. When you have a scan pass and you move, making sure you’re lined up at just the right place is pretty daunting. Imagine you’re making a 3D printer with 80 micron XY resolution and that printer has a meter and a half print area.
Two years doesn’t seem unreasonable to develop something like that and still be in process by which you haven’t overspent on making all of those parts custom. You haven’t overspent on having to had make two large a minimum run of it as you head into the marketplace.
The nice thing is that we initially made all our parts 3D printed or in laser cut acrylic or hardboard. As things solidified, we are sure this is the part we want, we transitioned up into a water cut aluminum. The nice thing with the laser cutting and the water cutting is that’s doable in very small runs, that’s doable in fairly fast turnaround. Actually, our aluminum cutter is a couple of miles away from our office here in Beaverton, so they’re local. We could talk to them about making small changes as we needed to.
We’ve interviewed different people on this podcast in the past and we’ve seen, out at some 3D print specific events and trade shows over the last couple of years, people that have been experimenting with 3D printing on fabric as a way to use the 3D printing process more in fashion design. We’ve even talked with some people like that new 3D printer being developed up in Seattle, I think it’s Blue Dragon, where they were talking about how they’re working with somebody who is actually putting fabric on their build plate and 3D printing on it. You’re seeing a lot of people experimenting with actual 3D printing technology, trying to expand on the materials that they’re making clothing out of and other fashion accessories and things. I wonder if there’s a future here, an interesting dynamic of combining this custom printed fabric done on arguably a different kind of 3D printer. I have some people argue it’s a 2D printer but I’m going to say no. It’s a 3D printer because you’re on real fabric, just smaller dimension. Perhaps having a secondary process of taking this custom printed fabric done your way, your design and then further embellishing it and creating something different with traditional 3D print technology. It seems that there’s an interesting synergy going on here between the different kinds of machines. They’re close cousins almost.
I’m more of a material purist. First off, I think it’s really smart that you started with natural fibers because they’re much more appealing to the kind of audience who is creating their own materials. There are a lot of quilters, there’s a lot of those that believe in the pure materials to begin with. While I agree that polyester and nylon rules the ready-to-wear world in a lot of ways, natural fibers starting there is a great sense, then adding plastics to it. The 3D printing side have not gotten sophisticated enough to be of value. I could see wanting to put amazing embellishments of what would be sequins today, what we know as sequins. Sewing them on is extremely expensive, or being able to put jewels and embellishments in places, like crystals and things. Printing those on would be amazing but the materials on the 3D print world are not there yet. That’s really where it’s falling apart and I do not think anyone is working on that type of stylized materials because they don’t think it’s important. That’s where it starts to fall apart. I do think it’s a place, I just think it’s going to fall apart in the material world.
I think there’s an opportunity. As Charlie said, they have plans to work on, I would use a different word instead of plastic. I would call it synthetic fabrics, nylons and polyester, some of these other things. That would be more compatible with 3D print materials that are around today. As those materials develop and this fabric printer may develop for dyes that work in synthetic fabrics, maybe there would be more harmony there that would make sense. I see opportunity in the future. Nobody is doing it today with the materials, but that’s an opportunity.
I want to dive into the software gap that you guys don’t have. This is what’s been really holding back 3D printing, we believe. Leaning how to design for 3D printing is a whole lot more difficult than learning how to design for 2D printing. We all have a lot of graphic capability. We also have a lot of resources out there to help us with our graphic capability, whether you want to go on Fiverr or Upworthy or whatever that might be, there’s lots of people out there to help you. Especially in your particular printer, you could print a full width design and not have to worry about repeat, which is a production problem and a skill that you must learn as a textile designer, how to put something in a proper repeat. You don’t necessarily have to do that because you can be printing a full repeat across whatever piece you need if you’re going to cut a shirt or a dress, your repeat could be the full width of that. You guys have eliminated that CAD. Do you work with specific systems in CAD? Do you recommend systems? How do you guys work on that side?
Our software takes standard image files. It will blow up the image file if you like. It will scale it up and down, but of course if you scale it up, you’ll lose some resolution. It’s best to start with as high resolution as you intend to use. We originally intended the software just to turn images into printable things. A lot of the alternating features, the idea of making repeats, that happened later just as a convenience issue for the designers that were using it. They want to make repeats and the other tools are just too clunky and by adding one little screen, we can add that capability.
The biggest things I would say our software does is just that you can take the image. We have a number of different algorithms for processing that image. We run them and we show them to the user. You just pick the one that looks aesthetically pleasing to you. This was very important because a lot of designers do not want to know about Wang’s Algorithm for adjusting color or things like that. They want to see what the various algorithms can do and pick the one they want. Then from there, you can scale, you can adjust, you can transform colors into other colors, which we found is a really important thing. A lot of times, a designer might have a pattern that they want and it’s in purple, and they would really like it in a specific shade of green. Otherwise, they want the pattern exactly as it is. They don’t want to do extra work.
That saves so much time because in order to go back and reformat your design, you have to go back and depending on the complexity of it, sometimes you have to select multiple areas, you have to spend a lot of time. You’re saying that you’re assigning a color placement to it. It’s as easy as we do it actually, we do that in regular production printing. Each area is designed a color A, B, C, D, E, however many colors you have in it and you can change out color A at any moment.
What for a lot of our users is the biggest thing is that the software makes recommendations for all the settings but you can override everything. The biggest thing people override is the amount of ink that is laid down in each shade. You can do this at two places. You can do this in a software and you can do this on the printer itself. You don’t have to go back to the software to try five different shades, but you have a lot more control, a lot more granularity in the software. One thing we noticed is that when people were printing on fabrics before, oftentimes when they are using a printer that wasn’t really intended for that purpose, they had default level. You had heavy, light and things like that. We offer absolute control over how many drops of each ink are present in each shade and you can save that. You can set it as high as you like. The printer will slow its head down if you ask it to print too much, simply because it needs that much time to fire that many times, but the amount that you can actually put in is arbitrary. You can lay down as much or as little ink as you like for any given shade.
I’m wracking my brain because I don’t think production textile printers are capable of that kind of adjustments on the fly within a pattern.
That’s one of the things I’m really proud of. I didn’t want to just make a printer that is good enough and inexpensive. I really wanted to add things that I thought were useful. I feel like the tension system with the magnets and things like that really give users a lot more hands on capability with the printer.
Let’s talk a little bit about time. That’s something that you can’t always estimate of course until you have your design. We know that in the 3D print world all the time. Sometimes we’ll put this design and go, “It’s going to take 24 hours to print.” What is the average time that you found when you have maybe full coverage of color?
The coverage of color doesn’t matter because ultimately the printhead will move at the same speed whether you’re a 10% fill or 100% fill. What really matters to us is how much ink you’re laying down at each pixel. I would say that for medium weight cottons, we can print at about two yards an hour or half an hour a yard. That’s slower than a lot of the bigger printers. That’s the major difference between us and a $50,000 printer.
That’s still a whole lot faster than our two weeks sending it out to Spoonflower. I don’t really care if you’re as fast as a much more expensive machine. I think that that’s an acceptable sacrifice of time. You don’t have to be as fast as a commercial printer because you’re in someone’s home or small business, the speed is going to be dramatic compared to anything they’re doing now. I think that timing is amazing. I was expecting it to be an all-day affair.
If you’re printing twenty yards, it would be an all-day affair. If you’re printing a yard or two or you’re just trying to get some samples to figure out what’s what, then your turnaround is potentially very fast. The other thing is that you load it and then it prints. You can just walk away. We actually have a camera mounted on the machine that watches for errors. At common print errors, it would stop itself too. You can walk away and if there is a problem, it will stop itself so you don’t waste fabric. Fabric is, by the way, overwhelmingly the biggest cost of production. For our purposes, the fabric you’ll print will range from $5 at the very low-end per yard to $20 more realistically for really high quality textured fabrics. Our ink cost are well-below $1 a yard.
How often do you have to change the inks if you’re printing twenty yards let’s say?
We sell our inks in 250 milliliter bottles. At 50% fill with an even mix of shades, that bottle will give you 140 yards for a medium weighed cotton.
I can remember on the old Sophis printers and the systems, we would change them out all the time. It was constant.
It’s really a lot of ink. 250 milliliters is kind of hard to wrap your mind around, but it’s important to remember that when you buy an inkjet printer cartridge, there’s probably a few milliliters in that cartridge. If there’s ten or fifteen, then they’ve given you a lot of ink. This is 250 and we’ll be selling those for $40 a bottle.
I think it’s a very fair price, what you’re selling your ink for. I remember reading an article that on inkjet printers, the price that you actually pay for those small cartridges to go into your traditional paper inkjet printer, on a per ounce basis, it’s almost like the cost of gold. Those printer manufacturers practically give away the printer because they want to sell you the ink cartridges. That’s always been frustrating to me as a consumer, that they just seem so disproportionately expensive. Here, what you’re doing is the cost of the ink is, from a business perspective at least and even maybe a hobby perspective, insignificant. Like you said, you’re going to spend more money per yard on the fabric that you’re going to print on, which for most textile and fabric designers isn’t really a cost factor in their head. They want what they want in terms of the quality. They want beautiful silk or they want beautiful cotton, they’re going after that, they’re going after the quality. They get it from the beginning. They know how much it costs. They’re not nickel and diming that. Then to have the ink not be exorbitant really makes a huge difference, and have it not be something that you have to change out all the time. To me, that would be the bigger problem if I was constantly running out of ink, it would bother me a lot more than it would the cost of it.
The joke is that HP isn’t a printer company, it’s an ink company. They just happen to sell printers to move the ink. At some point, we sat down and said, “Do we really want to sell our printers inexpensively, almost at cost, and then really trying to get the money back on the ink? Or do we want to just price everything pretty fairly and spread things around?” When I was working with 3D printers, what really annoyed me was proprietary filaments.
You’re speaking to the choir. We hate that too. We get it, that sometimes using the stock ink, using the stock filaments, it makes sense from a standpoint of control of quality. When you’re not doing enough colors, that’s the big issue that I have. You require us to do this but you make ten colors? That’s ridiculous.
For us, there is actually a quality issue. We supply the ink for a very specific reason. We went to six different ink suppliers and we lost so many printheads because their ink would sediment or their ink would make something in the head melt. We have the ink that we mixed things into it ourselves to get it to work properly. We really don’t want to push people to try and buy a cheaper generic ink because that’s almost certainly going to kill the printhead. Printheads are very finicky devices. They’re finicky if you put things that weren’t intended to be put into them.
That makes a lot of sense actually. Respect the machine and how you’ve already done all the hard work, testing and engineering. You’re offering the ink at a reasonable price, so don’t screw it up and try to put something else into it. How many colors of ink is your head laying down? People often think of full color process or CMYK printing, what are you doing?
We’re doing spot printing, which is different than process printing. There are number of reasons for or against either. For us, the biggest issue was that when you do CMYK printing on fabric, it can be difficult to mix the vibrant color. The fabric absorbs the ink immediately. When you lay down yellow, you wait a couple of seconds and then you lay down red. You’re not really mixing. You’re overlaying one on top of the other. The colors you get are never really quite the ones you intended. Also, you lack consistency over the course of a print run and between print runs. One of our first users told us that when she uses a larger machine, about $200,000, for her runs and she’ll make thousands of yards at a time. Her problem is that her purples especially, but other colors as well, will shift over the course of the run. They will load these very expensive ink cartridges, they will use them about a quarter of the way through and then they would take the cartridges out because the cartridges are only ultimately reliable for the first quarter. Once they start running out, they become unreliable and their color palette shifts. Color palettes are very important to some designers.
With the spot printer, what’s nice is that if you have your shade of burnt umber, it will be that shade of burnt umber every single time because it was already mixed ahead of time and it’s only being laid down by one printhead. We have gray scale, so we have all the shades of that spot color. You can set whatever shade of it you like. You just limit it to that spot color. We have a two-head printer. You have two colors that you mix beforehand or we supply a large number of mix colors. We will also mix colors for you. If you have your recipe that you figured out, you can just send us the numbers and we’ll mix that for you custom as much as you like. That’s the same price as our regular inks. We have a robot that does that, also based on 3D printer parts, that mixes the ink for us. You have those shades of those two colors, and then if you really wanted to, you could mix those two colors together. A lot of artists are sneaky. They know how to mix black from two complimentary colors. You can almost always get an extra interesting color if you want, but there really is a substantial quality difference between the sharpness and the color vibrancy of a color that you mix on the textile as compared to a color you mix beforehand.
You have two different colors that you’re printing in any given time in terms of the ink, plus the mix of them and potentially creating value differences. If you had one color and a black, you can achieve a lot of different values I would think of the color that you’re printing.
Black is a good compliment in that case. Also, a lot of complimentary colors can make something similar to black or a dark brown just by mixing a lot of both. Practically, the results are just so much better with just one. Interestingly, what we found is that a lot of the patterns designers want to make are actually fairly bold. There really is just going to be one color and shades of it. Oftentimes, they don’t use the second color or use it really just as an accent occasionally.
That’s because in production textile printing, registration costs you, multiple color heads cost you. There’s a whole complexity that is involved in that and so you typically use the base color of the fabric if you have that as your one color within it as well. You’re automatically getting two colors.
As far as registration goes, one of the really annoying things to me is that if you are using a CYMK process printer and you want to make a line that is one pixel across, good luck if that line is not C, Y, M or K. You’re always going to see that tiniest difference the two lines. Whereas if you mix your ink beforehand, you can actually have a one pixel wide line and it will be one pixel wide, which is about 86 micron in our case.
This solves that problem of my big complain about the fact that we can’t match filament to Pantone colors. We can resolve that right there. We can match dyes and we can match inks straight to any Pantone color or any colors that we would choose in the process. I think that’s really great. I wish we could do the same with plastic in 3D printers but unfortunately the dye technology just doesn’t work that way.
If we start combining this printer with the Titan Robotics. It was part of Project Escher. I can just see this coming into production at some point. What you’re doing is something very unique that is not being done by a lot of production printers. You’re talking about very large on-demand. Essentially, you’ve got a 3D printed with running four or five independent heads on the same build plate. You can do the same thing theoretically with fabric so that each head is producing a quarter of a yard and you’re producing a yard of fabric in a quarter of the time of what you’re currently doing, or a yard at a time so you could definitely do a full production run faster. If you get to serious on-demand future textile printing of production runs, I could just see that happening. We’ve moved into a total on-demand book printing, on-demand publishing model everywhere else. Why not in textiles as well?
Laying heads like that, having multiple heads on the X axis is how most of the more expensive machines work in order to get your yards per minute. One of the issues with that though is that if you have those multiple heads, then you have to calibrate all of those multiple heads to each other. You don’t just have them in your Y axis, you can have them in your X axis as well. One of the interesting things for us is that by having one head, it’s slower but we don’t have that entire layer of calibration. Because now, you don’t have to calibrate your two heads to each other. It is just one head. It’s always going to be calibrated to itself.
We are so excited to have come across your printer and the FabricZoom to get a chance to talk to you. We really appreciate you time and thank you so much for sharing everything with us today.
I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to get the word out because I think this is a very exciting product. I think this can really empower a lot of small scale designers to really compete with the bigger design houses. I just really want to get people to realize what this is capable of and getting in their own hands.
Affordable Textile Printing with 3D Print Parts – Final Thoughts
I am a big fan of FabricZoom. I believe that this is going to help revolutionize the merger between graphic design and textile design and 3D modeling, whether it’s creating clothing or creating objects or creating furniture, whatever that might be. This is that bridge that’s been missing for quite some time. There are so many things that they’ve done that I think are brilliant in how they approached making the machine to make it really achievable for themselves to test and prototype. Then also making it reachable for the same level of market really that desktop 3D printing has been reaching ever since a little after 2009. That’s very exciting and smart of them to have modeled that. At the same time, they’ve been very smart about how they approached the unique situations of the end result they’re trying to produce. I’m just really impressed with how they’ve done it and I think it’s going to be to the benefit of a huge new segment of the maker community.
The amount of things that you could do with this in a speed way that you’re just not capable of right now today with the cost of on-demand printing, which is a couple of weeks when you go to order that at Spoonflower. It’s just one of those things where you’re going to be able to iterate faster. You’re going to be able to design faster. You’re going to be able to output faster. You’re going to be able to use the materials immediately. Just that speed up in your making process is going to be phenomenal and well-worth every penny of that printer.
I think this is going to open up a lot of opportunities for makerspaces. Affordable textile printing is going to open a lot of opportunities for educational institutions. It’s going to open a lot of opportunities for community art centers. It’s really going to add a whole new dimension to the projects that can be done and the experience of the people that are participating and would be using the machine. I’m super excited about it.
To me, FabricZoom is the must have on demand printer for makerspaces, for sewing labs at schools, for quilters, for fashion designers and for textile designers. If you have any one of those interests, if that’s what your business is, if that’s what you’re educating about, you need one of these printers. The amount of time you’ll spend on designing and learning design and doing all of those much more core things than executing is just huge.
Even a lot of the fashion designers that we’ve interviewed over the last year who are experimenting with 3D printers in what they can do with them for their fashion designs. People at that level, I would think, would easily spend a couple of thousand dollars or maybe it’s three or three and a half by the time you’re done with having enough fabric on hand and the ink colors on hand that you need. It’s a no brainer.
I also think of someone like Leisa Rich. She’s a textile artist, she’s a fine artist at that, and her combining 3D printing has really changed her art. Her combining 3D printing and the textile design at the speed in which she could do that, I think she would love affordable textile printing. It’s just another tool in her toolbox to be able to achieve her vision. In her case, her husband, John, can’t argue because I’m sure that he spent well more than $2,000 on a 3D printer over time. There can’t be any argument in the investment.
I’m super excited about seeing this in person. I’m going to go check this out when I head to Portland for an event that I’m going to there. Hopefully I’ll be able to make that happen. I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I’ll do a live stream from there. We’ll put that on 3D Start Point Facebook page and on a blog post here.
I don’t want to call it a real departure from our typical subject. It’s definitely 3D print related. It’s relevant in so many ways. It’s maker related. I hope you enjoyed it. Let us know. If you’re a hardcore 3D print listener and you want to hear more about it, that’s okay because we’ll be back next time with another subject that’s more specifically 3D printing. I certainly had fun with this and hope you did too. Thanks again for listening. This has been Tracy and Tom on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
About Charlie Runckel
Charles is the president of FabricZoom. He is a serial entrepreneur and scientist, specializing in biochemistry and automation. He received his PhD at UC San Francisco for developing safer vaccines, but since then has been the principal developer in projects involving biofuels, 3D printing, algae farming and DNA computing. Charles taught himself robotics and is a passionate member of the DIY and Maker movements. When not scheming in his lab, Charles enjoys hiking in the Columbia Gorge and is an avid West Coast Swing dancer.
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