Universities such as Huddersfield are where the next generation of innovators have the equipment and time to experiment for the benefit of the entire industry

For most people in the garment and textile decoration industry, their main, daily aim is to do jobs to customers’ specifications and on time. Which is as it should be – it is what decorators are paid to do. Some also make the time to experiment with new inks and test the limits of what their machines can achieve. However, college and university students have the freedom to dedicate substantial chunks of time to discovering and testing new techniques that most commercial decorators could only dream about. The good news is that their experimental work has the potential to benefit the industry as a whole.

One educational establishment that offers precisely this opportunity is the School of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Huddersfield. It is, reports Alex Mighall, market development manager at RA Smart, “a forward-thinking university“ with one of the larger print facilities in the UK. Technical manager coordinator Stephen Calcutt oversaw the transformation of the print bureau into today‘s modern space. It houses a number of printers including a Mimaki-Tx300P-1800 direct-to-textile printer, a Ricoh SG 7100DN dye sublimation printer and Epson wide format inkjet printers for sampling, as well as the Mimaki UJF3042 UV LED flatbed printer. The print room had been operating as a traditional university print bureau used by a small number of students who would drop off files and wait for the results to be printed.

When Stephen was promoted to his current role five years ago, his aim was to encourage students from all disciplines to use the machines and research what was possible with them, rather than just using them as the manuals suggested. “It gave us the opportunity to do things we‘d never have thought was possible,“ he says. He also wanted to give the bureau more of a studio feel, an inviting space in which students could come in and try the machines, rather than observe. “When you walked into our old bureau you were stopped by a counter, with all our machinery behind the counter. 

“We opened it up, got rid of the counter and made it more like a showroom.” Stephen‘s approach of inducting all users on all the machines, rather than just having “certain people running certain machines“, has changed the way in which the students are taught. “We made the decision to become a lot more teaching- and learning-focused, and use our resources and educational tools,“ he explains. “We sit with the students and discuss their ideas and talk to them about their work. We want them to come and talk to us about what the machine can do.”

Students are able to experiment on the machines from their first year

A new way of learning

Senior lecturer Brent Hardy-Smith agrees: “I moved from being a teacher that just critiqued work to being someone doing the work alongside the students and discovering things with them. It‘s changed the whole nature of my teaching. Now, it‘s more like an apprenticeship – we‘re working alongside the students and totally immersed in it with them.” Students are also now able to use the machines during the first two years of their course – previously they only had access to the printers in the final year – so they have even more time for experimentation, which has allowed them to expand their creativity. The year before last, the students from the University of Huddersfield won the D&AD New Blood design show. This year, the brief was to make the work interactive digitally through fabric printing.

Twelve students from Huddersfield made it to the final 100, using the Mimaki-Tx300P to hide barcodes, QR codes and NFC chips within the material. Scanning these then took people online to see their work. The NFC chips were hidden from view by embroidering over them with Amaya embroidery machines, reports Brent. “What I try to instil in the students is ‘This is your time, you can use these things at a very heavily subsidised rate‘,“ he adds. “The whole show for D&AD was from a happy accident with the UV printer. Somebody had tried to hide an NFC chip and they made it work really well. The students from this year saw that and said, ‘Well, if they can do that there, could I do that on any of the other processes?‘ And that‘s when we realised, yes, you can with the Tx300.”

As the funding landscape for universities continues to change, the team is also looking at generating new finance revenues for the print centre without impacting on the availability of the machines for the students to do their research on, says Stephen. “We are looking to increase our relationship with business. Not just for income to pay for machines, but also to practise the research we are doing on the machines as well. It‘s not just about turning out UV- printed golf balls. It‘s about trying to put what we‘re doing into industry. It‘s bringing our uniqueness and the fact that we‘re designers running the machines rather than a print specialist running the machine.”

It’s good to talk

Another area they are looking at and discussing with Hybrid, the UK and Ireland distributor of Mimaki, is the way in which machines talk to each other. “One of the battles I‘ve got is the stranglehold design software has on the market,“ says Brent. “What we‘re talking about is the way that the machines‘ RIPs talk to each other. If they can‘t be dictated to by the design software, you suddenly get this flexibility and freedom, and a whole other world opens up to you. With the software, you just know what is possible, but with a RIP you get potential, you don‘t know what‘s possible. And when that happens, you get accidents, and that‘s when you make discoveries.” Next September, the art, design and architecture students will be housed in the new £30 million Barbara Hepworth Building. Students from across the different disciplines will share workspaces, which Brent says will lead to the formation of new relationships and experiences – and new discoveries that the whole industry can benefit from.

First RA Smart open day for educational sector earns top marks

In November, machinery distributor and textile printer RA Smart teamed up with Hybrid Services to hold its first event exclusively for colleges and universities. On each of the two open days, stafrom educational establishments that included Central Saint Martins, Ravensbourne and the Royal College of Art were invited to spend the morning at Hybrid Services, where they were shown the latest Mimaki printers from the smallest TS30-1300 to the Tiger-1800B. 

The visitors were given a tour of the RA Smart factory

The visitors were also the first in the UK to see the new Mimaki TS55-1800 dye sub printer, which Mimaki has said brings high-end features to the entry- and mid- level markets and offers high-speed, one-pass printing at high resolution and ink density. The visitors were then taken to nearby RA Smart, where after lunch they were given product demonstrations in the demo suite and a tour of the facility. “Education‘s a really important sector for us, one of our most important sectors,“ explains Alex Mighall, market development manager at RA Smart. “We wanted to oer a day out from the normal nine to five. They may all be used to one type of machine, so this allowed them to come and see the breadth of machinery on offer and also the latest equipment that‘s available. It also provided a networking opportunity for them at the same time. It proved to be a really successful day.“