Watch for Ongoing Improvements in DTG Inks

The markets for DTG printers are growing, thanks to changes in apparel retailing, new inks, better RIPs, easier-to-use printers, and ready-to-print DTG garments.

Screen printing will play a role in the garment decorating business for years to come. But the scope of that role may change over the next decade due to market forces that favor the environmental friendliness and inventory-reduction possibilities of print-on-demand direct-to-garment (DTG) printing. 

The performance of DTG printers has improved in recent years, thanks to industrial printheads, better RIP software, enhanced pretreatments, reduced maintenance requirements, and steadily improving textile inks. This article highlights recent improvements in DTG inks, but also suggests why the robustness, versatility, and affordability of today’s screen-printing inks will perhaps never be supplanted.  

Market Trends
High-volume screen printers currently regard DTG printing as a complementary process, not one that could someday replace their existing analog presses. DTG works especially well for short runs of cotton and cotton/poly garments – particularly for designs that include full-color photorealistic art. But screen printing is still a more cost-effective option for creating 1- and 2-color graphics on many different fabric types. It is also more cost-effective for printing thousands of garments that have the same design.

Over the past year, DTG printers have become easier to use and maintain, more versatile, and more affordable. Some advancements make DTG printers easier to use at sites where screen printing is the primary method used to decorate high volumes of garments. Other improvements attract solopreneurs and well-financed startup companies that have no interest in learning about screen printing.

Entry-level DTG printers are popular with home-based businesses, embroidery firms, sign shops, and commercial printing firms that want to print T-shirts and related products on demand. Higher-speed industrial-grade DTG printers have been purchased by Amazon and other e-commerce-focused companies that fulfill short to medium runs of orders for licensed apparel and custom T-shirts from independent artists. 

As David Landesman, co-president of Lawson Screen and Digital Products, points out, DTG printing is an easier process to learn than screen printing – particularly for people who have used digital imaging software and inkjet photo printers for years. DTG printing appeals to startup companies because it doesn’t involve the messiness of mixing inks or the facility modifications for cleaning and storing screens and powering presses and dryers.

Some DTG owners and apparel brands share the vision of Kornit and other OEMs that environmental concerns and the continued growth of online apparel purchasing will erode the number of garments that will be mass produced and warehoused. On-demand garment production would reduce the number of mass-produced garments that end up on clearance-sale racks or in landfills. While screen printing will always offer major advantages in ink costs and versatility, those distinctions could be tempered as more apparel manufacturers choose to reduce inventory and shipping costs by only making garments that people have ordered. 

Some analysts envision local microfactories in which apparel fabrics will be printed, cut, and sewn on demand close to where the garments will be shipped. Within the next 10 years, brick-and-mortar retail stores might not house racks and racks of clothing. Instead, stores might function as physical showrooms for merchandise that can be ordered via smartphone. 

In the following recap of recent DTG ink and printer developments, you’ll see that some DTG manufacturers are developing inks that enable DTG printer users to expand the range of designs they can profitably produce on a wider range of fabrics. But printer OEMs are also striving to grow the market for on-demand printing by developing faster DTG printing systems to handle higher volumes of on-demand print jobs. To enable larger capacities of high-quality short-run jobs, DTG users will need software that can prevent human errors such as using the wrong image or garment type or selecting the incorrect print settings for different combinations of fabrics and pretreatments. If high-volume garment decorating jobs are distributed to smaller DTG sites for fast delivery to customers in different regions of the US, color management will need to be automated as well. 

Epson
Earlier this year, Epson announced the SureColor F2100 direct-to-garment printer. It is designed to supplement or replace one of the most popular DTG printers currently used in screen-printing shops — the Epson SureColor F2000. Although the F2100 includes dozens of new features designed to boost print speeds and automate daily maintenance routines, the platens and other accessories currently used with the Epson SureColor F2000 can be used with the F2100.

According to Epson Senior Product Manager Tim Check, screen-printing companies can acquire several Epson DTG printers for less than the cost of a single industrial-grade model that costs more than $100,000. If the multiple printers are efficiently arranged (e.g., in a circular pod), a single operator could be loading, unloading, and heat pressing a steady stream of printed garments. Using multiple printers also reduces the need to stop DTG production if a single printer requires repair. 

While the inkset of the SureColor F2100 is unchanged from its predecessor, Epson added variable-drop printing and a Highlight White print mode to improve the image quality and color gamut. The Highlight White mode achieves bright-white output by applying a second coat of white ink only in areas of the image that are intended to be white. This highlight white layer is applied simultaneously with the color ink pass on a dark garment, improving print speeds by up to 35 percent. 

In Epson’s Garment Creator software, users can estimate and control ink costs by determining how much ink is applied to achieve the desired results. Other print modes let operators choose a faster print speed if the T-shirt design doesn’t require the brightest possible colors (e.g., retro-look shirts).

The SureColor F2100 also includes a triple-filtration system to keep clumps of white ink from causing nozzle clogs. An onboard air filter keeps dust and airborne fibers from a garment-printing environment from landing on shirts or affecting the printhead. The SureColor F2100 can print on garments ranging from 100-percent cotton to 50/50 fabric blends.

 Epson’s new SureColor F2100 machine is positioned as a cost-effective way to enter the DTG arena or expand a current operation. Variable-drop printing, Highlight White print mode, and a triple-filtration system to prevent nozzle clogs are a handful of features available in the newest SureColor model. Courtesy of Epson. 

Kornit
Kornit’s high-production industrial DTG printers are targeted to e-commerce sellers of decorated garments looking to scale up production. Well-financed, highly automated companies can enter the garment-decorating business without knowing anything about screen printing.  

In January, Kornit announced its new HD printing technology for its Avalanche series of industrial-grade DTG printers. The 6-color Avalanche HD6 (successor to the Avalanche Hexa) is designed to reduce ink consumption by up to 30 percent compared to the R-Series version and up to 46 percent compared to the previous non-R-Series of Avalanche Hexa. The Avalanche HD6 uses seven channels of Kornit’s NeoPigment Rapid Ink (CMYKRG + white), which are also used in Kornit’s highest productivity DTG platform, the Vulcan.

The expanded color gamut of the Avalanche HD6 enables users to hit a wider range of brand colors, team colors, and spot colors. Kornit says the opacity and saturation of the white inks has also been improved. Shirts printed on the Avalanche HD6 produce an improved hand compared to previous generations of DTG printers. 

ColorGate’s Professional RIP solution provides advanced color management and screening capabilities and improved white underbase creation. It includes predesigned color libraries for color matching.

According to Omer Kulka, Kornit Digital’s VP of marketing and product strategy, Kornit’s HD technology provides a profitable alternative for print runs of one to 500 pieces. The inks can print on a variety of fabrics and provide durability and washfastness. Kulka says that ink costs for a simple 4-color graphic on a dark T-shirt are about 25 to 45 cents per shirt. Print speeds range from 150 light garments per hour to 110 dark garments per hour. 

In April, Kornit reported more than $5 million in orders for new Avalanche HD6 systems and upgrades. “We have seen an immediate and clear interest from screen printers in the HD technology,” says Gilad Yron, Kornit Digital’s executive VP of global business.

Kornit’s Avalanche 1000 R-Series of DTG machines include features such as an ink recirculation system, double bridge architecture enabling white and color print phases to happen in parallel, and an automatic height adjustment mechanism for printing over buttons, zippers, and beyond. The new Avalanche HD6 is said to reduce ink consumption by up to 30 percent. Courtesy of Kornit.  

OmniPrint International
Using a combination of OmniPrint’s Direct RIP technology and their Direct Ink Gamut Plus inks, the OmniPrint Freejet 330TX can achieve high-resolution prints on light and dark cotton, cotton/poly blends, and polyester garments. The Gamut Plus inks can be cured in 60 seconds using either a conveyor dryer or heat press. Prints on pretreated dark garments can reportedly be output in single pass. 

According to OmniPrint President Victor Peña, the company developed their own formulation in response to customer requests to print on a wider variety of garments. OmniPrint brought a chemist onboard and expended their R&D efforts significantly. He says that OmniPrint has also partnered with major apparel brands to ensure that its DTG ink formulations would work with new performance garments being developed. Says Peña, “We’re interested in the long-term growth of the marketplace. If our customers make money with the tools that we’re developing, it’s good for the market.”

Peña says developing water-based DTG inks that adhere to moisture-wicking performance fabrics isn’t easy. The key was to develop the right pretreatment that could be used with fast-curing white inks. To prevent bleeding, the inks must dry quickly on contact – but not so quickly that they clog the DTG printers.   

OmniPrint is currently working on high-speed industrial DTG printers that can print a light or dark garment in less than 30 seconds. But boosting print speeds isn’t the only goal, adds Peña. He says big apparel brands want higher speeds as well as better image quality. 

Ricoh
Ricoh is also taking steps to expand the popularity and profitability of DTG printing. When the company introduced Ricoh Garment Inks for the Ricoh Ri 3000/Ri 6000 and AnaJet mP5/mP10 DTG printers, Ricoh priced the inks up to 25 percent less than AnaJet PowerBright Plus CMYK inks even though the new inks provided the same level of image quality. Ricoh has since reduced ink costs for AnaJet users who continue to use PowerBright Plus inks. 

AnaJet recently introduced firmware and software updates that reduce the amount of time required to print a white underbase on dark shirts on a Ri 6000 by about 60 seconds. The faster print speeds for white ink doesn’t affect overall print quality because most of the detail in an image comes from the CMYK inks. An adjustable white highlight feature for the Ri 3000 and Ri 6000 enables users to fine tune the white-ink volume on the CMYK pass. 

The company is also looking toward new types of users outside traditional print channels. At the 2018 CES Expo (formerly The International Consumer Electronics Show) in January, Ricoh won a CES Innovation Award for their new compact Ri 100 DTG printer that sells for around $5000, including software and heater. The 4-color Ricoh Ri 100 fits easily on desks and counters in souvenir shops and other retail and corporate environments that aren’t typically dedicated to print. The enclosed heating system supplied with the printer removes wrinkles from the fabric before printing and cures the ink afterward. 

According to Paul Crocker, AnaJet director of marketing, users can take the Ricoh Ri 100 to event sites or put it in a kiosk at a mall. Because the heating elements aren’t exposed like on a heat press, there is little risk that a user will get burned. 

Ricoh’s new AnaJet Fulfillment Network enables more artists and designers to sell their own T-shirts without investing $20,000-plus in their own DTG printer. Print shops across the US that use the AnaJet Ri 6000 to produce high-quality dark and light garments can apply to join the network and print and ship orders to customers in their area. 

With the cloud-based AnaJet Fulfillment network software developed by InkLocker, incoming designs can be downloaded along with barcodes that contain the appropriate print settings and color profiles for the type of garment to be printed. When this information is scanned into the RIP for the Ri 3000 or Ri 6000, the printer automatically prints the correct image and colors. The barcode also helps artists track the delivery status of jobs for their customers. The system is designed for ease of use, allowing even small print shops equipped with Ricoh Ri 6000 printers to benefit from trends toward decentralized printing and mass customization of garments. 

When independent artists and designers have generated enough business, they can buy a Ri 100 DTG printer to handle orders for shirts on light-colored garments and send orders for dark-colored garments to shops in the AnaJet Fulfillment Network. 

 The 4-color Ricoh Ri 100 is designed for environments that aren’t typically dedicated to print. The compact machine can be transported to events or mall kiosks for on-demand printing; an enclosed heating system removes wrinkles from the garment and cures the ink. Courtesy of Ricoh.

Direct Color Systems 
Direct Color Systems has developed DCS Multisolve UV-Stable IRF6(T) ink for a patent-pending T-shirt printing technology that uses UV LED inks instead of water-based textile pigment inks. At the 2018 ISA Sign Expo, DCS demonstrated that DCS IRF6(T) UV-LED inks on their Direct Jet UVMVP and 1800z printers can adhere to all types of T-shirts, including 100-percent cotton, cotton blends, synthetics, and 100-percent polyester – without chemical pretreatments. The only time a “pretreatment” is needed is when a white underbase is being printed. Then, the T-shirt should be sprayed with distilled water first. The printed inks stretch with the garment and resist fading, even after multiple washes. 

Another benefit of printing T-shirts with a DCS UV-LED printer is that the same device can print on rigid items, too, such as smartphone cases and sign blanks.

Brother
Innobella Textile Inks for Brother’s new GTX Printer are designed to print a wider color gamut with bolder, more vibrant colors. Innobella Textile inks are formulated to resist chemicals found in typical laundry detergents and withstand being scraped by zippers and buttons. Garments printed with Innobella Textile Inks scored 4.0 or higher on AATCC wash tests. The inks are sold in replaceable pouches that use less plastic and create less waste.  

 Brother DTG’s new GTX printer features three times the number of nozzles as the company’s previous model, leveraging Innobella Textile water-based pigment inks engineered to deliver a wider color gamut. Courtesy of Brother.

Image Armor
Image Armor makes inks for many DTG printer models as well as pretreatments designed to lessen ink consumption, speed production, and enhance washability. Recently, Image Armor announced a Light Shirt pretreatment that can be used to print CMYK DTG prints on white and some light-colored polyester fabrics. Depending on the fabric and design, the company reports that some white ink printing can be attained on light-colored polyester with commercially acceptable results. 

Image Armor has also introduced RTP Apparel, a growing collection of pretreated T-shirts made specifically for DTG printing. The apparel reduces the risks of unevenly sprayed coatings or the need to purchase an additional pretreatment device. Users can print anywhere on the pretreated garment and achieve vivid colors and clear images, particularly on white T-shirts. 

Laying the Groundwork for Mass Customization
To grow the market for both DTG printing and mass customization, printer manufacturers are actively seeking ways to help current printer owners become more profitable while encouraging more artists and designers to launch and develop their own brands of decorated apparel.  

A lot of R&D has been geared toward making CMYK + white DTG inks more vibrant and durable while developing better workflow software. Efforts to expand the color gamuts are happening primarily on roll-to-roll textile printing systems for the potentially enormous markets for cut-and-sew fashion apparel and home textiles. 

According to Peña, the major manufacturers of textile inks are taking a wait-and-see approach before developing formulations for a wider variety of DTG inks. He predicts more ink innovations will emerge after more textile manufacturers and apparel brands start developing products specifically geared for DTG printing. 

Epson won’t discuss the possibility of expanding the range of its DTG inks beyond CMYK + white. But for roll-to-roll textile printing, Epson and its For.Tex subsidiary have developed a combination of pretreatments and inks that enable Epson’s Monna Lisa textile printing machines to use eight colors of pigment textile inks (CMYK + blue, orange, red, and gray) to print on a variety of fabrics including cotton, silk, nylon, and polyester.  

Kornit has introduced fluorescent yellow and fluorescent pink inks for its Allegro roll-to-roll textile printing systems. The pigment inks can be used in three new print modes: Neon Spot Color; Neon Process for a wider color gamut; and CMYK Go Neon for realistic images with brighter yellows and pinks. 

As processes for managing ink colors on garments become more automated, it’s possible that Kornit Digital might someday offer fluorescent inks as an option for their Avalanche Hexa industrial direct-to-garment printers. Many fulfillment centers for short runs of on-demand printed apparel already use more than one Kornit printer. So, it’s conceivable that a DTG printing center could run both a fast Avalanche HD with two sets of CMYK + white inks alongside an Avalanche HD6 that runs CMYKRG inks. In the future, perhaps an Avalanche unit might run CMYK + neon pink and neon yellow. 

Epson and Kornit are both actively educating designers and brands about the creative uses of digitally printed textiles in the fashion industry. As more creative professionals learn how easy it is to have their designs converted into apparel, they are learning more about both screen printing and DTG printing. 

Printing and fulfillment companies that use both screen and DTG printing educate customers about which process works best with which types of garments and inks. Scalable Press, a company that produces garments for independent artists and designers, has an online catalog that makes it clear to designers which garments work best with which process. Jakprints lets customers choose between screen printing, embroidery, dye sublimation, and DTG printing. Their website cautions visitors that DTG printing has not yet achieved the same level of quality as screen printing, nor does it allow designers to choose special-effect inks such as metallics, glow-in-the-dark, puff, high-density, and glitter. 

Landesman believes screen printing for garment decoration will be around for a long time. Some companies that start out with DTG printers will add screen-printing equipment, just as screen printers have added DTG printers. He believes DTG printing is simply expanding the market for garment decorating. When you consider all the variables involved, both printing methods still require a certain level of craftsmanship. While almost anyone can print custom T-shirts today, top-quality garment decoration will always be both a science and an art.

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