DTG: Going in with a Plan

Preparation is critical when adopting a new technology as unique as digital decoration.

Something about the topic of direct-to-garment printing brings out strong opinions from screen printers. Most say the technology scares them. Others think it is still an emerging print platform. Some tried it at one point and it didn’t work for them for some reason. There are stories all over the internet.

One of my favorite quotes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is, “Every battle is won before it is fought.” With digital printing on garments, success all comes down to the preparedness of the company – before they purchase the equipment.

I believe that a lot of garment decorators completely miss the mark on DTG printing because they don’t comprehend the print platform and all the intricacies that go along with it. Shops try to cram the tried-and-true analog mindset into the digital printing world, and it just doesn’t always fit.

From what I’ve seen, shops that have failed with DTG, more often than not, didn’t write a business plan for selling this type of printed image. Their success was doomed by a lack of strategy.

A DTG printer is like a shiny new toy. A few months after the purchase, when there aren’t any sales, it loses its luster. Then, because the machine is rarely used, a series of poor maintenance-based mechanical failures destine the program to an equipment fire sale. This is the DTG cycle of death.

But it doesn’t have to happen that way. What can a shop do to prepare for success early? Here’s what’s needed to hit the gravy train for DTG printing:

• Business planning and sales
• Production steps
• Machine maintenance

If you’re interested in adding a direct-to-garment print platform to your business, then having a robust understanding of these three key areas can determine the likelihood of your success. Let’s explore.

Business Planning and Sales
Shops that are successful in using this technology have a strong and thoughtful strategy for selling it. They have a fully developed plan that feeds work into this production area constantly. If you’re considering buying a DTG printer on the off chance that maybe you’ll send a dozen or so shirts to it someday, you are doomed from the start.

This type of print production is different than screen printing. It may require you to educate your customer on the attributes of the print. Are you prepared to have that conversation or post that information on your online sales page? Have you worked out a strong sales funnel for this type of production?

Certain situations build a strong case that DTG will be successful in a business. Some examples that best maximize digital’s capabilities:

Repeat, one-off designs from a web-based order platform. Why keep any pre-decorated inventory when you can just print on-demand? All you need to do is stock the blank shirts.

High color-count, low-volume orders. Need to print a 12-color back on eight shirts for a customer? No problem with DTG.

Photographic images. Since digital printing doesn’t use halftones to replicate the image, DTG printing will have a superior look to traditional process-color screen printing. No halftone image interference.

Shops that want to add T-shirt printing as a sales tool, but don’t want to add the infrastructure needed for screen printing. DTG doesn’t use screens, emulsion, inks, or reclaiming. It takes far less labor, and the physical footprint needed in the shop is considerably smaller. A lot of embroiderers, fringe apparel decorators, and even sign shops use DTG to augment their sales for this reason.

For the right order size (usually about a case of shirts or less depending on the model), DTG has a faster throughput from start to finish than traditional screen printing. Mainly due to the lack of traditional screen printing prep challenges, DTG orders can get entered, produced, and shipped in less time. Many online apparel decoration companies are sending the majority of their orders through DTG units to decrease the turn times from 7 to 10 business days to 2 or 3. If you are an online player, this is a very compelling argument.

It’s more sustainable. DTG printing uses far less energy, chemicals, and water, and produces less waste than screen printing. For shops or brands that have an eco-friendly perspective, this is a good fit for their image production and aligns with their triple-bottom-line approach.

Before any equipment is purchased, shops should investigate and research their market, competition, pricing models, marketing, equipment and consumables, and other factors that could have an impact on their business. This is how you determine if DTG printing is a good fit for your shop.

Production Steps
There are six critical areas in DTG production. As in screen printing, certain standards have to be followed to achieve an optimal outcome. Many shops get hung up along the way with one or even all of these steps, and then publically denounce DTG printing as a nonviable print method. It all comes down to understanding the print platform, really.

Artwork. Just as in traditional screen printing, a poor image won’t magically improve after production is complete. The quality of the artwork will always be a constant constraint for success. There are some preflight steps you can take to improve what you have. Even some simple Photoshop Action Commands can be written to produce a larger color gamut and increase the tonal range of the image before ripping the file. Also, taking the time to calibrate the CMYK workflow from the printer to the artist’s workstation can have a tremendous impact on success. This is tedious work, but if you want to have accurate print standards, it’s mandatory.

Garments. Not all garments are DTG-compatible. Yet, shops still try to print hoodies with big zipper seams, polyester, or other problematic types of apparel. The challenge with raised areas on shirts is their potential for the printhead to strike them, a disastrous outcome. Some shirt dyes react to the pretreatment in unexpected ways, too. It’s a chemistry-based problem that won’t go away unless you change one of the variables – the substrate (shirt), the pretreatment fluid, or the ink.

Pretreatment. Pretreatment is absolutely mandatory for printing on dark garments. This fluid sets up the printed image by giving the water-based CMYK ink something to latch onto. Dark garment prints often fail because the pretreatment solution wasn’t applied correctly. This process has to be dialed in perfectly. All DTG systems with the exception of Kornit handle this step in a secondary process. (Kornit owns the inline pretreatment patent.) This is such a vital step that a market has developed for pretreated garments that are ready to print right out of the box.

The print. Many variables here can influence the final image success. From the print control interface, most DTG equipment allows you to dial in the quality setting for the image based on how much ink will be deposited onto the shirt. For dark shirts, image quality will be completely dependent on both the pretreatment and the white ink deposition. Without accuracy at these two stages, the image often looks muddy and the shirt color itself can distort the image.

Curing. Since the inks used for DTG printing are water-based, 100 percent of the water has to evaporate during the curing process in order for the print to achieve any steadfastness. Most print failures occur due to undercured ink. While some DTG users have success curing with a heat press, I recommend using a conveyor dryer set at the proper temperature and belt speed for optimal curing. I’ve seen shops fail at DTG printing because they bought a great printer but tried to cure with a heat press. This only resulted in a tremendous amount of frustration and undercured prints. You aren’t saving money by failing to invest in a good dryer – you’re just asking for trouble.

Machine Maintenance
This sixth production area to control is the Achilles’ heel of DTG printing. What causes most shops to abandon this print platform? Clogged printheads. Why do printheads become clogged? Either from a poor maintenance schedule or irregular equipment use (or both). With DTG printing, the phrase “use it or lose it” definitely applies. This is why making sure you’ve built a good sales funnel for your equipment is so necessary for the success of the platform.

Equipment makers address this issue differently. Some have a purging system that allows the ink to be removed from the ink lines, while others have a continuous slow “weeping” from their printheads to ensure that ink won’t get caked up inside. Before purchasing equipment, it pays to understand how the machine you like handles this important challenge.

Another factor that can help you gauge your likelihood of success with DTG printing is simply to review the preventive maintenance program for the rest of the company. Do you have one? Does it cover things like air compressors and all of the other pieces of machinery? When shops already employ this type of thinking, it’s a predictor of success with DTG – a good canary in the coal mine.

DTG equipment is complicated. I’ve been to shops where they have never read and – believe it or not – can’t even find the owner’s manuals for the equipment they use every day. When something breaks, they just call in a technician. This type of mentality will doom a DTG machine into becoming a very large and expensive paperweight in a short amount of time.

The Future Is Now
There’s no doubt that DTG is here to stay in this industry. This is an exciting time, as manufacturers are busy developing faster printheads, hybrid DTG systems that will fit into traditional screen printing presses, and new ink formulations that will solve the riddle of printing on polyester fabrics.

Whether digital printing is the right production avenue for your shop is a question that only you can answer, but it needs to result from some sound thinking and prep work before you dive in headfirst. You don’t want to find out that your production application is located in the shallow end of the pool.

Explore more of The Marshall Plan or check out Screen Printing's June/July 2017 issue.

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