by Melissa Donovan
Interest in direct to garment (DTG) printing in manufacturing facilities is rising rapidly as businesses look for ways to bring design capabilities in house while catering to a growing demand for one-off or low runs of garments to keep pace with consumers’ desire for limited capsule collections. This in turn minimizes unnecessary inventory and waste.
Above: U.K.-based Snuggle installed two Kornit Atlas MAX systems for versatility in its on-demand fulfillment production operations.
According to Smithers’ The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2026, COVID-19 may have negatively impacted digital textile printing slightly, but the overall growth of the market was strong at an 11.9 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2016 to 2021 and 12 percent volume from 2016 to 2021. Based on this, Smithers projects digital textile’s printed volume will increase from 2021 to 2026 by a CAGR of 13.9 percent, reaching 5.5 billion square meters.
Ecommerce is a huge factor, as COVID-19 propelled online ordering to new heights. Buyers not only want customized products but they want them quickly. Simple elements like pre-sewn t-shirts, bags, sweatshirts, washcloths, and even hats can be decorated on a DTG printer quickly and efficiently.
For manufacturers looking to include DTG printing in their facilities, they require production-level presses that can handle the level of output they deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“If someone is looking to get into DTG and it is for the purpose of production/making money, it is extremely important to purchase a high-quality, production-level DTG printer. Now there are multiple levels you can go with this. It all depends on your business model, needs, and price range you can afford as to which machine is selected,” advises Brian Walker, CEO/founder, i-Group Technologies.
Look for Quality
When a manufacturer is considering implementing DTG printing in house, it is important their research leads to the purchase of a high-quality, production-level DTG printer. These types of devices need to handle product in quick turnaround times at high quality.
Determining whether a printer is deemed production-level is not based on price, says Mark Stephenson, director of marketing, ColDesi, Inc. “A collection of single-shirt-at-a-time printers might sell for under $20,000 USD, but implementing multiple printers is often a better choice than investing hundreds of thousands in a single high-volume printer. It should be pointed out that all commercial DTG printers are designed for just that—printing all day, every day. And the more you use them, the better they perform.”
“A high-quality, production-level DTG printer is a critical part of a workflow as it enables shops to create high-quality customized clothing, unique sportswear, individualized novelty products, customized socks, and décor pillows in the amount needed and with quick turnaround time,” says Tim Check, senior product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc.
Multiple factors should be considered when looking for the ideal DTG printing equipment in a high-production setting. Specifically, high image quality, reliability, production speeds, reduced maintenance time and lower operational costs, and an easy to learn and intuitive workflow, suggests Check. Furthermore, he says a DTG printer should be equipped with printhead and ink technology designed to deliver consistent print quality, high contrast, and vibrant color saturation.
“It is imperative to implement a high quality, production-level DTG printer to ensure quality, consistency, and longevity of prints for clients. The business owner will be able to experience higher productivity at a far lower cost. It’s all about being productive, efficient, and profitable,” agrees a representative from OmniPrint International Inc.
Besides the actual hardware and its capabilities, Adam Tipre, owner, DTG Connection LLC, suggests considering the training and support that comes with the printer. “In my experience, poor training leads to dissatisfied customers.”
If the purchase is one of the first for a manufacturer, they might be weary of spending the money on a higher quality device. However, Mark E. Bagley, director of marketing, Industrial Products Division, Brother International Corporation, says even if starting out small “it’s always smart to think of your DTG purchase as an investment in your business’ growth. Keep that in mind when evaluating printers, pretreaters, and curing equipment.”
Two features that standout in production-level printing are scalability and automated maintenance capabilities.
It’s true, when you begin a business or add a new piece of hardware to the portfolio, there is hope that business will grow. To avoid being pigeonholed into existing equipment and limited in growth, scalability must be top of mind.
Stephenson believes scalability is essential “to the ability to easily add capabilities by adding on one or more printers into a production network, which makes scaling production up—or down—simple and very economical.”
“Due to the increasing popularity of shorter runs and photographic quality, many decorators are able to grow their business by adopting DTG printing. But it doesn’t stop at short runs. So selecting a DTG solution that makes it easy for decorators to scale up their operation is important. Decorators want equipment that allows them to continue increasing output in the pretreating, printing, and curing processes without substantially increasing labor or altering their workflow,” explains Bagley.
Automation of any feature or function is attractive, and maintenance is specifically advantageous to busy businesses who can’t risk a printer in downtime. Tipre says maintenance automation has experienced huge improvements over the last few years. He points out the example of how over ten years ago, DTG printers had to be used every day. Now they can be turned off for weeks at a time without any issues.
Automated maintenance capabilities include things like integrated self-cleaning systems that perform daily maintenance or quick load platens that reduce downtime and traditional hoop platen load times. “This not only can help reduce overall maintenance expenses, but also saves time with automation.
Intuitive software included with advanced DTG printers helps automate the process and enables seamless workflow integration,” comments Check.
Another example of a useful maintenance feature is integrated white ink circulation. This “prevents white ink build up for smooth, consistent print results,” notes Lily Hunter, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.
Beyond scalability and automated maintenance, Stephenson points to the importance of fitting the printers into an on demand or manufacturing workflow. “A system that starts with a customer’s selection of design, colors, and substrates online using a configurator that produces a traveler file to a shop floor that uses barcoding? That’s as important as the printer itself because it saves on labor expenses, makes inventory control easier, and reduces the need for preprinted inventory.”
What to Print
DTG printers are part of the core messaging attached to digital printing—print to anything. When it comes to device compatibility, manufacturers are given the option to look for devices that print on multiple substrates like cotton, polyester, and spandex.
“Buying a system that’s as flexible as possible and still makes sense financially is an obvious decision. But don’t try to solve all your problems with a single technology or piece of equipment,” advises Stephenson. ColDesi’s most successful customers may start with one or a cluster of DTG printers, but also add a high-volume direct to film transfer printer, sublimation, or white toner printer to maximize flexibility and take advantage of what each technology does well.
Hunter agrees that having the ability to print on multiple substrates offers great flexibility. However, most DTG offerings target printing to cotton or cotton blend materials. Depending on whether pretreatment is used, other materials are possible to print to like polyester or spandex.
“When it comes to DTG, you will get your best results on 100 percent cotton and cotton blends. 100 percent synthetic fabrics can produce great looking prints, but there are variables. For example, the dye used in the garment or where most of the spandex or polyesters are in the garment. Typically, spandex is used around seams and sleeves. Spandex also wilts under high temperatures,” advises Tipre.
Pretreatment solutions and technology has advanced to enable printing to more than cotton blends and yield quality results. “It is now possible to print on polyester garments. Print shops can produce output such as team sports apparel, activewear, imitation silk and leather, and accessories, pushing the business into new markets and attracting new potential customers,” says Check.
Ink choice is important in determining the best production-level DTG printer for the job at hand. A variety of factors like washability and durability can make or break an ink set. To avoid any mishaps, it is strongly recommended to utilize the ink sets recommended by the printer manufacturer.
“Manufacturers of DTG equipment spend a lot of time developing the chemistry and the equipment together, optimizing for both the life of the equipment and the quality of the prints,” admits Bagley.
This is why Tipre recommends sticking with manufacturers’ recommendations. “Significant testing occurs with that ink before the printers were brought to market. New types of ink are being developed, hopefully the manufacturer you choose is making the necessary updates.”
“As ink technology improves, so does the availability of specific or wide range inks that can be used on more materials. It’s important to understand that when it comes to ink, quality may change based off the choices made. Using specific inks intended for use on one material will typically result in higher quality output, while the use of a wide ranging ink might not always deliver the same type of quality,” notes Hunter.
Ink is not one size fits all. “Ink cost and formulation is of key importance. The best inks are specially formulated and engineered to work with specific printers. There is a science behind why special formulas perform best with the associated printhead. Not only is ink selection important for the operation of the printer but also to ensure the highest quality of prints and durability,” notes the OmniPrint International representative.
White ink is something to look for as an option beyond CMYK. Check explains how it can help improve print quality on a variety of garments that are black or dark colored. “Look for a printer that offers specific print modes for light and dark garments. For a brighter, more vibrant image, the dark garment print mode can activate a printer to provide a second coat of white ink.”
Different garments require pretreatment to ensure consistent color across multiple lots in addition to the ink actually staying on the surface of the garment. Now, not all garments require pretreatment, so if you are working with a certain product on a daily basis, iy may not be necessary.
An example, shirts that are provided pretreated prior to printing. “I see pretreated shirts becoming more commonplace as the industry grows. A few additional t-shirt manufacturers plan on adding pretreated shirts shortly,” says Tipre.
For companies looking to offer several different garment/fabric types a pretreatment device is advantageous. “All materials and different colors require a different amount of pretreatment and owning your own machine allows you to adjust for optimum quality,” shares Hunter.
“The need for a pretreatment device is dependent on your intended applications. For example, if you print a garment with white ink, pretreatment is required for the white ink layer to bond to the garment and to provide a bright white base and opaque layer to mask the garment color,” explains Check.
However, even garments where pretreatment isn’t necessary do benefit from the process. “While it’s not necessary to pretreat when printing CMYK to a white shirt or lighter colored shirt, it can enhance the quality, clarity, and durability with washing. Utilizing a pretreatment device can help make the application more consistent across the entire garment and from garment to garment. In addition, utilizing a pretreatment machine can improve productivity by simplifying and speeding up the process,” advises Check.
Walker says while owning a pretreatment device isn’t necessary, it is highly suggested. “We recommend owning a good machine from the beginning, as 80 percent of most DTG-related issues stem back to improper pretreating by the user. Failure to pretreat the garment correctly will present many issues.”
“No matter what level of production a decorator needs, the consistency that pretreatment provides is necessary for generating a quality product that customers will come back for. It is very difficult to apply a truly consistent amount of pretreat by hand, especially if you have more than one employee doing the work. Moreover, different garment types require different amounts of pretreat for optimal printing. With a pretreatment machine, a shop can more easily create presets for certain kinds of garments, ensuring consistency no matter which employee does the pretreating,” recommends Bagley.
Bagley suggests that when the DTG printer is initially installed, the decorators train on how to profile garments for the pretreatment process. This includes how to measure the volume of pretreat being applied and what print settings should be used to get the best print quality possible.
Another benefit to an automated pretreatment device is minimizing mess. “An automatic pretreatment machine is a must for producing consistent prints and keeping your shop free of overspray that can negatively impact nearby printing equipment,” adds Stephenson.
Manual pretreatment is time consuming, according to the OmniPrint International representative. “When it comes to production-level printing, a pretreatment device not only saves time, but cuts costs. You are able to boost productivity and at the end of the day, productivity equals profitability.”
Finding the Right Unit
Pretreatment units are sold through many DTG printer manufacturers, although they don’t normally make their own. However, speaking with professionals and understanding your current and future needs helps determine the right pretreatment unit for your business.
“The pretreatment machine is a very important part of the overall garment decoration process and should be considered at the same time as the printing equipment as part of an overall garment decorating system,” says Check.
This hardware can last a long time, so reflecting on how it will eventually be used is important. “Most pretreatment devices are designed to last years if you properly maintain them. Purchasing a device that allows for future growth will help maximize investment,” suggests Bagley.
Look at space—fitting it into the footprint of the production floor—as well as drying the pretreated garments. “Tunnel dryer, heat press, hanging outside? All will work fine but what your shop layout looks like should dictate,” advises Tipre.
Evaluate where the pretreatment device will be placed—whether you decide to use a dedicated offline machine, inline treat with the printer, or apply by hand. “An enclosed pretreatment machine helps contain the spray mist and prevents contaminating the workspace and damaging equipment,” notes Check.
Think of workflow. “How much time does it take to get the device ready for the work day? What sort of end-of-day maintenance does it need? Consider how the operation of a particular pretreatment device fits into your workflow, or the workflow you are aiming for,” recommends Bagley.
When it comes to determining where to purchase the pretreater, Stephenson recommends getting it from whomever the DTG printer is purchased from, as it makes support easier.
Searching on the internet is a good place to start. Considerations to look into include consistency of spray pattern and single versus multi nozzle units, says Walker. “The ability to apply a minimal amount of pretreatment as possible as consistently/evenly as possible is paramount. See how little a machine can apply pretreatment consistently. Some will do better than others. Some units/designs can only apply X amount of pretreatment due to the spray nozzle and spray pattern. Do research and ask around.”
It Just Makes Sense
Looking ahead, DTG printing continues to make advancements in fabric versatility as well as more robust ink sets, variations like white, and intuitive user controls. All of these aspects combined provides manufacturers with production-level quality to combat growing ecommerce trends from consumers.
Jun2022, Industrial Print Magazine