Direct to Garment Printing Technology

New solutions in direct-to-garment printing technology mean better opportunities for sign professionals to break into the world of printing durable goods

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When it comes to customized and personalized apparel, we’ve come a long way from the days of those T-shirt shops some of you may remember, filled up with Pac-Man machines.

Back then, technology was very simple-you picked your favorite from a wall of pre-made images or selected a series of letters, and using heat-activated plastic transfer, they’d be happy to hot-press Farrah Fawcett or your name onto a shirt of your choice. Unless you had the time or patience for traditional screen printing, that rubbery iron-on was about as custom as you got.

Customers nowadays are seeking more sophisticated and truly personalized options. With the continuing evolution of digital technology, print and sign professionals can-with the right equipment-set themselves up to offer bright, clean, long-lasting images on virtually any piece of clothing. Hats, shirts or even shoes are all potential canvases.

For those looking to expand their sign business, new and sophisticated direct-to-garment printing systems can tantalize customers with wearable versions of their own logos, images or art, easily and affordably printed on as little as one item at a time.

Modern print shops looking for truly long-lasting images and greater flexibility have two major choices to consider: The more complicated dye sublimation process, which works only with polyester fabrics, or the relatively new and increasingly flexible direct-to-garment printing process, which finally allows bright, long-lasting images to be printed directly onto cotton or other garments.

Direct-to-garment printers also offer more value than the slightly lower-tech digital transfers, the latest generation of the old-fashioned plastic transfer-specialized paper that can be run through a color printer or even printed at home, then heat-transferred onto an item of clothing.

Matthew Rhome, head of business development for Epson America Inc.‘s fabric imaging division, says digital transfers have major shortcomings in durability, just like those old, fast-fading T-shirts. “As well, digital transfers still need to be cut out from the backing material, so artwork that includes fades or gradients are not possible,” he says.

Mark Bagley, director of marketing for Brother International Corporation‘s industrial products division, says that while the dye sublimation process has been a great way to create very colorful images on sport-related apparel (think cyclists’ jerseys, as a vivid example), new digital, water-based-ink DTG systems offer many more choices and can also allow printing professionals the ability to do a simple one-off project for a potential customer as a possible gateway to more business.

“DTG works much better on natural, open-pore cotton materials, and can even be used on natural fibers like bamboo,” he says. “It’s kind of like four-color CMYK printing on steroids, with a bigger print head and special ink that binds directly to the material.”

Rhome notes that the first commercially available DTG printer was introduced in 1996, but it was literally a CMYK-only model and had no capability for printing on dark garments. Many companies also experimented with equipment jury-rigged together from existing printer components, but the results were often less than impressive.

“Since the introduction of this first printer, the most major advancement in DTG technology has been the introduction of reliable white ink and with it, the ability to print dark garments,” he says.

Titanium dioxide-based white ink was introduced in 2005 but early formulation problems caused it to frequently clog printer components, leading them to wear out prematurely, Rhome explains. Current technology, introduced by companies that develop both the ink and manufacture the print heads, has cured most of those problems and lessened the need for maintenance.

“Just like digital signage, the DTG printer can be used for one shirt or many at the same material cost per item,” he says. “A sign shop should understand that every sign customer is a potential DTG T-shirt customer. You already have the customer’s art or design, so why not print shirts, too?”

The DTG process is a bit more complicated than the old iron-on world, but the results are definitely worth it. Clothing items need to be pre-treated with a small dose of a spray-on solution that helps to better bind the ink to the fabric. After the shirt or bag is run through the printer, the item then also has to be cured with an adjustable heat press to seal in the image.

Unlike the more extensive equipment required for the dye sublimation process, sign shops can begin their DTG work on a small and affordable scale, with prices for equipment dropping as the technology improves.

 “With current promotions, someone could get started in the DTG business with an Epson F2000 white edition, a good heat press and a simple pretreating system for less than $16,500,” Rhome says. “Space requirements are very minimal-one could easily run the printing operation in an area not much larger than their kitchen table.

Ventilation isn’t required and workflow is very straightforward-the shirt is pre-treated, then it is printed, and finally it is dried.”

Flexibility is DTG’s greatest asset, as sign professionals can use the equipment to offer a whole new range of printed products to their customers, but not necessarily have to commit to a major print order with an outside vendor. Costs are simply contained to the price of the printed object and supplies.

“If you want to be successful in DTG printing, you need to know how to sell apparel, and how to work with artwork,” Bagley says. “This is about providing value to your customers, but it’s also a great way to upsell a current client. You can print out a single shirt based on their design and you’ve got something that’s extra helpful for sales calls.”

As for future developments, expect to see faster, more compact and more inexpensive DTG technology to emerge, allowing professional-level results on even smaller scale. Randy Anderson, product marketing manager for Mutoh America Inc., says that integration of pretreatment and drying, available in some high-end DTG equipment, has definitely simplified the process, as has increased integration with current white screen printing technology, to increase throughput. At the same time, Brother has also developed special digital camera add-ons to preview and guide the printing process, providing even more detail.

“In the middle of the market, platen options allow for a wider range of print platens, not only for a variety of sizes, but a variety of products to include hats, shoes and other specialty market items for personalized or business identity products,” Anderson says. “There is already a split in this industry between high-volume production and the desktop DTG for Mom and Pops. Look to the future to see the desktop DTG become simpler and easier to use while still maintaining quality output, in a more affordable package.”    

Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been covering the automotive industry for more than ten years.

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