Expert Apparel: DTG Gets Serious

Early technology problems have been largely solved, making DTG an attractive and reliable decoration option for many shops.

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printing has had a brief history in our industry as a viable decoration method. Though there was some prior experimentation, machines capable of producing repeatable and salable products have only been available for a decade. Let’s take a look at this brief history and where we stand with DTG today.

The Experimental Years
I like to compare the first decade of DTG to the early days of automobiles: Much experimentation and discovery, and much pain and suffering for those who jumped in early. And as with cars from the last century, not only have the buyers come and gone, but the manufacturers and distributors, as well.

Many decorators entered the DTG arena early, sensing its potential. From the beginning, the ability to print short runs of as few as one garment and full-color photographic images certainly has been appealing. In the early days, we could only print CMYK on light colored garments. About two years into DTG’s existence came the advent of white ink, at which point the decoration potential exploded. But then, the reality of dealing with an entirely new printing method set in. New machines, new inks, new everything – it all translated to issues that none of us had ever experienced.

Many early entrants were discouraged by the results, limitations, and spoilage, and frankly, by the process in general. With the early machines, lost registration, banding, and limited ink capacities among other issues slowed production and caused high reject rates. The losses varied, but it wasn’t unusual to have spoilage of 5 percent or more. The greatest frustration was that these issues occurred randomly and erratically.

There were certainly successes, as witnessed by the large internet companies that grew from those early days into multimillion dollar companies. And there was failure and frustration. For many, the risks that come along with innovation and new opportunities were worth the time and treasure expended. But, many early innovators simply gave up on the concept.

Some garment decorators never entered this market in the first place, simply due to the horror stories they read on web forums or heard first hand from others who took the plunge. These decorators patiently waited for DTG to become more professional and production-worthy. Many of them are now reaping the rewards with the latest generation of machines. Is DTG now a perfect process? No, but what decoration method really is? Today’s machines are undoubtedly more dependable and capable of longer production runs than a decade ago. And people are making money with them.

Concerns of the Past
The biggest problems of the past were caused by the white ink. Specifically, the solids in the ink separated from the liquid and settled. This caused the printheads to clog, resulting in downtime, lost revenue, spoilage, and cash spent on replacement parts. While other factors can impact printhead clogging, the culprit early on was usually the ink. Attempts were made to circumvent the problem with solutions such as recirculating systems for the white ink, but this didn’t make the issue go away since the recirculation occurred away from the printhead, where the clogging actually occurred.

Other problems resulted from the fact that most of the early units, and many still in use today, were repurposed machines originally designed to print paper and other substrates. By reconfiguring the feed mechanism, these printers went from printing poster-size images on paper to imaging T-shirts. In other words, we were using these converted machines for substrates not intended, and more importantly, with ink systems not designed for the printheads. Feeding fabric along with a heavy shirt holder under the printhead proved to be quite challenging compared to moving paper or another lightweight substrate.

Current State of the Industry
Although many machines on the market still use repurposed printheads, others use heads created specifically for printing fabric with water-based textile ink systems. After multiple generations of inks, the uptime of these machines has increased dramatically. If clogging occurs, and it certainly can, the likely cause is improper maintenance of the machine or simply lack of use. Blaming the ink system today is probably misdirected. In the past, companies that focused on DTG and possessed a little technical knowhow could usually keep their machines up and running. DTG as a sideline business was more difficult because sporadic use of the printer invariably led to clogged printheads. That’s not as true today, and incorporating the technology successfully is now much simpler.

Controlling the environment is still critical. You cannot efficiently operate your DTG machine on a production floor that is hot, cold, arid, dusty, etc. This is still a somewhat delicate and sophisticated printing device and the conditions that work for your other equipment often won’t suffice. Maintaining a comfortable room temperature and approximately 50 percent relative humidity 24 hours a day will keep your machine functioning properly and efficiently. Working outside these parameters will be inviting problems, sooner rather than later.

There were utopian dreams early on that DTG would replace all existing garment printing methods, but that was never true. DTG still has some limitations. Even with the fastest models, production speeds don’t come close to screen printing. As the print speed of DTG increases over time, it will gradually take market share from screen printing. But specialty inks such as puffs, metallics, glitters, and gels will likely remain specific to screen printing.

Still, DTG has filled a void in the market. Its niche today is handling very short runs, personalized prints, and full-color photographic images. In reality, the bulk of screen printing is spot color work. Printing a high-quality photographic image is outside the repertoire of most screen shops, as a matter of either limited skill set or choice. DTG allows these screen printers to take on photographic work without acquiring additional skills or fundamentally changing their production methods. And they can produce these prints with virtually no preparation time or expense.

Choosing the proper garment is still critical to getting a brilliant image. No amount of tweaking will result in an optimal image if you choose to print the wrong garment. The ideal substrate is ring spun, 100 percent combed cotton. For best results, the garment needs to have a tight weave and a flat, smooth surface. This will help you to produce the very fine details attainable through DTG. Many of the popular garments used in other decoration methods such as screen printing will not measure up for this process. In other words, all garments are not created equal, and DTG is less forgiving than other decoration options. Many garment manufacturers now offer shirts designed specifically for DTG printing.

Blended fabrics can be printed, but the higher the cotton content, the better. Finding a variety of 100 percent cotton fleece products, for instance, is difficult, but a 90 percent cotton/10 percent polyester or 80/20 blend will give you excellent results. A 50/50 blended garment is certainly printable, but the image will not be nearly as bright as it would be on 100 percent cotton. Plus, a 50/50 blend will not hold up as well in the wash.

Pretreating is still required, despite printers’ hopes that this added step would be eliminated. I spoke with a client a little over a year ago who said, “Thank goodness this new company has entered the market. Now we won’t have to deal with pretreating ever again!” The assumption being that the new player must surely have figured out how to print without pretreatment. That isn’t the case and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

Technology Options
Although most DTG printing today is done CMYK + White, discharge and expanded-gamut systems are also available. (See June/July 2014 for a comprehensive source list of DTG specifications.) No specialty or spot colors are available. New ink formulations arrive on the market frequently, sometimes without announcements from the manufacturers that the inks have been improved. Gone are the days of white ink separating overnight. The inks still need to be agitated occasionally, but this is a minor step compared to white ink issues of the past. Printer manufacturers are working to achieve higher productivity. Multiple-platen systems and quick-change platens shave time between the printing of each garment. Systems with multiple heads and wider arrays allow for faster printing as well, and more systems like this are in development. Now that consistent quality has been achieved, print speed is the next logical step in technology development.

Automatic pretreating has addressed a critical variable in the process. Hand-held power paint sprayers are still in use in some shops, but they are messy and deliver inconsistent results. Automatic pretreaters will apply the same amount of the solution every time, a step that takes about six seconds on most units. A few DTG models incorporate in-line pretreatment.

Upgrading your RIP software to a more advanced product will offer some added features. For one, you will have more flexibility in regulating the exact percentage of white ink being laid down for your underbase. This will not only save you money in ink cost, but help you dial in the exact look and feel you want. The basic RIP software provided with most machines gives you just a couple of options in this area. Additionally, some upgraded RIP software will archive your images so that you can duplicate a print from a previous run.

If you walked away from DTG in the past or you’ve been waiting for the technology to catch up with the concept, the time to add the technology to your business may well be at hand.
 

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