by Melissa Donovan
Clothing manufacturers in the t-shirt space look to direct to garment (DTG) printers as a means to decorate products.
Traditionally, screen printing was predominately used but DTG is gaining ground. The advantages of digital technology—efficient setup and order quantities as low as one—edge into analog usage.
It is up to DTG printer manufacturers and suppliers to educate manufacturing facilities about digital printing and the benefits it brings. As no two production lines are the same—certain factors need to be considered prior to t-shirt manufacturers purchasing a DTG device. Material usage should be addressed early on since certain fabric constructions may require the use of a pretreatment.
Above: The ColDesi G4 DTG printer is equipped with a new exclusive pigment ink formulated for the device.
Digital Moves In
DTG began as an innovative, promising technology—with a lot of kinks to work out. Its earnest beginnings were propelled over the last few years as speed and quality advanced. These achievements make DTG a worthy competitor to screen printing.
Slow machines and costly consumables were some of the earliest issues of DTG. “Both prohibited the technology from offering significant value to most screen printers. The application was best for one-offs and internet fulfillment, but had no place in a high-production environment. For most screen printers, DTG was used to augment their offering by making short runs more cost competitive and profitable,” explains Geoff Baxter, business development manager, strategic accounts, Kornit Digital.
Don Copeland, digital products manager, ColDesi, Inc., agrees that speed and cost were two of the largest barriers to entry. “Couple this with the fact that the earliest iterations of white ink for DTG printers involved something between wizardry and plain dumb luck to get consistent results.” One of the first large-scale implementations of DTG printers was around 2005/2006 with companies like CafePress, he notes.
“The widespread commercial adoption of DTG printing largely grew out of early online print on demand (POD) services likes CafePress, Red Bubble, and Zazzle,” agrees Jazmin Casing, product marketing manager, Ricoh Printing Systems America, Inc. “POD operators needed a cost-effective way to print one-offs and very small orders and DTG was ideal because of its quick and easy setup and printing processes and its ability to deliver high-resolution prints in virtually unlimited colors.”
As second and third generations of DTG printers debuted, more companies adopted the technology in house. “While screen printers were still suspect of the process, many other decorators like embroiders, sign shops, and trophy and award shops began bringing DTG in house to supplement their existing business. Many of the larger businesses that used fulfillment houses like CafePress and others began to get their own DTG printers. This placed more of the profit into their own pockets as well,” continues Copeland.
Over the years, production speed has increased and the cost of consumables has decreased. This positions digital to make a real impact in the production segment. “Many traditional screen printers use DTG printers for short-run, multi-color prints as well as offering more customized items that would be impractical with analog processes. The market today for DTG printers is greater now than it has ever been,” admits Copeland.
Baxter seconds that while DTG is still mainly used to augment traditional screen production, the tipping point is not far off. “At the current rate of innovation, DTG is rapidly closing the gap to become the logical choice for production garment embellishment,” he adds.
Accelerating the tipping point are current apparel trends. With the gap between retailer outreach and customer feedback growing smaller everyday thanks to social media, t-shirt manufacturers are quickly educated on what their buyers are looking for.
“DTG printing allows smaller batch sizes and even one-off production runs freeing up the merchandising and marketing teams to be more creative with graphic designs and offer a variety of products without pre-decorated inventory risks. The trend has increased over the last three years with major clothing manufacturers using social media marketing. The ability to offer products in coordination with current events and instant feedback from customers gives them the ability to learn quickly what will sell,” explains Mike Angel, business development, ColDesi.
According to Taylor Landesman, VP, Lawson Screen & Digital Products, Inc., as the demand for customization and limited runs of shirts grows, more garment decorators—including screen printers—will turn to DTG. “Compared to screen printing, DTG is quicker to set up and allows for the fulfillment of smaller runs of even one shirt.”
Early adopters in the mass retail space are adding DTG printed apparel to their offerings through in-store customization. “Brick-and-mortar stores are finding that creating a memorable in-person shopping experience is an advantage they can wield over online retailers. Expect to see more major retailers implementing DTG technology to create fun in-store customization experiences. You can already see it in action in American Eagle and Levi’s stores,” notes Casing.
Any Size, Many Features
T-shirt manufacturing operations are found in small facilities like personal garages all the way up to warehouse-size spaces reaching 10,000 or 20,000 square feet. Business look for small, compact footprints in manufacturing devices that can deliver on quality and DTG printers are no exception.
“Whether servicing their community direct or a large national or global base, the concept is the same. The ability to print any size run profitably and quickly is a universal need,” notes Angel.
Baxter believes that any size t-shirt manufacturer benefits from the utilization of DTG and foresees a future where it will be an integral part of their business.
Copeland argues that the size of the operation isn’t as important as the typical job size and/or business model. “A number of large companies operate banks of DTG printers running one t-shirt at a time. Likewise, there are a number of small businesses focusing on extreme niche markets that do highly custom, full-color prints that sell for $20 to $40 each.”
Features in a DTG printer that t-shirt manufacturers specifically look for include footprint, ink type, material compatibility, and speed.
“When determining ink costs, it’s important to consider not only the average cost of ink per print, but also the cost of ink used in maintenance procedures. Retail-quality prints, a reliable machine with time-tested printheads, and excellent technical support provide the best, most successful DTG printing experience for a business in the long run,” explains Casing.
Ink type isn’t as important as the company it is purchased from, cautions Copeland. “Most manufacturers are going to sell inks that they know perform well in their equipment and that the software is profiled for. The range of ink costs may seem extreme, but with most light garment prints ranging well under a dollar and dark garment prints maybe in the neighborhood of $2—a 25 percent difference in ink price is probably less important than choosing the right machine.”
“In today’s world, sustainability in consumables is important. The criteria for the printer varies based on the specific needs of the manufacturer including workload, type of client, budget, and type and composition of shirts to be printed. There really is no one-size-fits-all answer to this,” suggests Baxter.
A Bright DTG Future
DTG printers increasingly appear in production-type environments. Their ability to offer short runs, customization, and minimize inventory are some of the reasons why t-shirt manufacturers turn to this technology to supplement screen printing techniques. Many of the newest innovations are edging their way into screen printing’s marketshare and the future looks bright for this technology. IPM
Oct2020, Industrial Print Magazine