An Update on DTG Printers
If you’re considering buying a DTG printer, you now have an incredible variety of options.
Direct-to-garment (DTG) printers have come a long way since the first models were introduced at the 2004 SGIA Expo. Engineers, software developers, and chemists have made remarkable advances in printheads, equipment design, inks, workflow, and software.
They have some powerful economic incentives to do so. According to an online presentation by AnaJet regional manager Charles Burwell, garment printing in the US is a $23 billion industry. While the garment printing industry is still about 95% screen, digital printing is gradually becoming more prevalent.
As the technology has moved from entry-level to production-grade, more and more garment decorators are adding DTG capabilities to their businesses. Harry Oster of Equipment Zone notes that, “Initially, many DTG machine buyers were starting a business based solely on that machine.” Today, screen printers, embroiderers, promotional-products firms, and apparel manufacturers are buying DTG equipment to complement their existing production equipment. Other buyers of DTG equipment include digital and in-plant graphics printers, sign shops, educational and non-profit institutions, sports retailers, e-commerce companies, and home-based studios and start-ups.
As the customer base has expanded and become more diverse, so has the selection of machines and accessories. Firms that have been in the DTG business for years have introduced upgrades that reflect some of the ease-of-use and productivity improvements their customers have requested. New DTG printers from companies such as M&R, Lawson Screen & Digital Products, Kornit, and Aeoon Technologies reflect a deep understanding of the needs of higher-volume screen printers as well as textile and apparel manufacturers.
While the proliferation of DTG printers has enabled more companies (and individuals) to get into the decorating business, screen printing firms have some advantages that newcomers to the business can’t match. For one thing, screen printers already have relationships with apparel vendors and many of the biggest potential customers for DTG output, such as corporate brands, non-profits, and sports teams. Plus, experienced screen printers already understand how to prepare designs and graphics for garment printing. They are equipped with heat presses and dryers, and have systems for inventory management and pricing.
According to a spokesperson for AnaJet, screen printers who incorporate DTG technology may be pleasantly surprised by some of the changes digital printing can bring. For example, they may be able to price their garments higher per piece for small-quantity orders. Full-color orders and intricate graphics may command higher prices per piece. Oster added, “What we commonly see is a screen printer buying DTG to handle the orders they might otherwise turn down. The job might involve a full-color image with an order of only a few dozen pieces.”
Some screen printers use DTG machines to print full-color event-sponsor logos on the backs on shirts that have been screen-printed with a one- or two-color left chest image on the front. One helps a client test the market appeal of new T-shirt designs using the client’s e-commerce site and the screen printer’s DTG equipment. Once enough orders start coming in, the client commits to a longer run of shirts that will be produced on the screen presses. DTG printers are also useful for printing sample shirts. Bringing a personalized sample shirt to a potential new customer can be a terrific way for a salesperson to make a positive first impression.
From entry level to production
Some observers believe the DTG printing business got off to a shaky start when entrepreneurs began launching modified versions of Epson printers with printheads originally engineered to print photographs on coated papers. Things started to improve when companies such as Brother and AnaJet recognized the need for heavier-duty printers designed specifically for printing directly to garments.
Since then, many of the first-generation DTG models have been retired in favor of more robust printers. Most newer models use more durable, industrial-grade printheads from companies such as Ricoh, Spectra, Kyocera, and others. Last year, Epson made waves in the DTG market by introducing its SureColor F2000 printers with new PrecisionCore TFP printheads that are better suited to the specific requirements of textile printing. Some distributors that built a customer base selling modified Epson printers are now authorized resellers of Epson SureColor F2000 printers.
The DTG Sourcelist
We've compiled a comprehensive sourcelist of DTG printers to help you see the enormous variety of printers that are now offered. (Go to http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/STMG/sp_20140607/index.php#/28 to view the sourcelist.)
Some machines are clearly designed for ease-of-use in start-up businesses, offices, sign shops, and storefront environments. Other printers are geared for higher-volume production of T-shirts and other promotional products. The type of DTG printer that’s right for you depends partly on your business goals and partly on the requirements and expectations of your existing customer base. For example: Do you want to use the printer to produce promotional products other than T-shirts? Do you want a machine that can work with your existing screen-printing equipment? Will you use DTG equipment to fulfill a steady stream of small-run or one-off orders for custom shirts that come in through an online storefront? Do you want a portable DTG printer that you can take to conventions, sports tournaments, music festivals, and other events?
Here are few things to keep in mind about the specs on the sourcelist.
- All of the printers on this list use water-based pigmented inks and piezo drop-on-demand printheads. Unless otherwise noted, each printer was designed to print on 100% cotton and up to 50/50 cotton/polyester-blend shirts. Some models can print on polyester if a pretreatment is applied first.
- The maximum print area listed in the specs shows the standard-size platen supplied with the printer. If a manufacturer offers an upgrade option that allows you to expand the maximum print size, that information is listed under “Features and Options.”
- Printing on dark shirts is slower and more costly than printing on white shirts. Dark shirts must be pretreated (either with a power sprayer or on an automatic pretreatment machine) so that an opaque layer of white ink can be applied as an underbase for the printed colors. Without the pretreatment, the white ink wouldn’t stay on the surface of the shirt. Without the white ink underbase, the vibrant colors of the design would get lost in the blackness of the shirt.
- Print quality doesn’t depend solely on printheads, resolution, and droplet size. Other factors that affect quality include the RIP software, sturdiness and precision of the media-transport mechanism, evenness of any pretreatment, humidity in the printroom, prepress skills of the designers and operators, and consistency of the garments supplied by the T-shirt vendors.
- Throughput speeds can be misleading. The time it takes to print a shirt depends on the size and color density of the design, thickness of the fabric, and efficiency in loading and unloading each garment. The overall time required to produce dark shirts depends on how quickly they can be pretreated and how much time is required to create and print the white underbase. Productivity is also affected by how long it takes to set up each job and cure the wet ink with either a heat press or conveyor oven. When you handle a lot of very small orders for many customers, you may spend a lot of time walking each customer through the process.
- Production print modes can be helpful. Because not every client needs super-quality photographic images, some models offer a “fine” print mode for photographic prints and a “fast” or “speed” mode for logos and lettering. While some designs printed in the production modes won’t be as bright or vibrant as they would be if printed at maximum resolution, many customers will be happy with the results and wouldn’t know the difference unless they saw shirts in the two modes side by side.
- Some DTG printers can be used to print other promotional products such as coasters, mouse pads, tote bags, towels, or even prestretched art canvases. If you plan to use your DTG printer to make photo merchandise on a variety of precoated surfaces, you may want to consider a device that can print images at higher resolutions. But if you plan to use your DTG printer solely to print cotton T-shirts, keep in mind that many customers may never expect you to print photos. An image printed with water-based inks on a soft, exquisitely comfortable T-shirt simply can’t show the same level of detail as a high-resolution image on a glossy inkjet photo paper. So it may not matter if the printhead can’t eject ultra-tiny droplets for super-high resolutions.
- The capabilities of the RIP are important. Before choosing a printer, check out the features and functionality of the RIP. Some RIPs are designed for extreme ease of use by employees who may not be familiar with graphics programs. If you will be accepting a lot of customer-prepared job files, you may want software that lets you easily tweak the files for optimal output. If you will be printing a mix of T-shirts and sweatshirts, you will want the ability to control the amount of ink used to achieve optimal saturation. A good DTG RIP will also be able to control where and how much white ink is required to produce underbases. More sophisticated RIP software can help you boost image quality, control ink usage, or match brand colors.