The DTG User Experience
Sampling, prototyping, and on-demand printing are some of the benefits direct-to garment inkjet printers represent. Discover how four companies have made these machines important parts of their businesses.
The market for direct-to-garment (DTG) inkjet printers has grown steadily over the past few years. When Screen Printing first covered the technology in its September 2005 edition, only four companies offered DTG printing systems. The playing field had more than tripled nearly two years later, with offerings from 13 companies showcased in a follow-up article in Screen Printing’s March 2007 issue. Now, almost two years after we last covered DTG systems, the manufacturer count is at 17.
The demand for DTG inkjet printers isn’t coming solely from garment screen printers who need a solution for short runs and one-off jobs. Companies that specialize in signage, graphics, and promotional items also are getting in the game, as are entrepreneurs who set up seasonally at sports events, amusement parks, and shopping malls. The following profiles demonstrate the ways in which a variety of companies have successfully integrated garment inkjet printing into their operations.
QRST’s is a company in growth mode. The Somerville, MA-based garment shop uses six- and eight-color M&R Gauntlet garment presses, a Brother GT-541 direct-to-garment inkjet printer, and, after re-cently acquiring a company called Cambridge Embroidery, a couple of Barudan single-head machines.
QRST’s was founded in 1989 and purchased seven years ago by Peter Rinnig. For him, digital garment decoration represented a way to complement the shop’s screen capabilities. Now, he says, it accounts for a substantial portion of his business’s gross revenue.
QRST’s bought the Brother GT-541 two and a half years ago. Rinnig says being an early adopter of the new technology has paid off in a variety of ways.
“It was about 8% of our gross the first year, then 10 or 10.5%, now it’s at 12%,” he explains. “And when you’re first to market in something like that in my area, you end up with 15 or more of your competitors who don’t have one and who come to you to get their digitally printed shirts. I already have it, so they don’t need to buy one.”
Rinnig attributes part of his success with garment inkjet printing to research. He says he made it his mission to understand from day one what would and wouldn’t be possible with the digital printer. He decided on the Brother after six months of investigating, including obtaining printed samples and visiting trade shows.
Run lengths on Rinnig’s GT-541 typically are two dozen or fewer, and he says his policy is to automatically put any incoming order for fewer than 24 shirts on the Brother. “Or, if they want more than 24 but it’s a process-color print or color photo, I might also tell them it would be perfect on the digital printer,” he notes. “I explain that you can do full color, low numbers, and photos. And there’s good and bad: good, you get the full-color photo with no setup charges and you can do as little as one piece and get soft hand; bad, it doesn’t pop like a traditional print.”
Another caveat Rinnig issues to customers involves the vibrancy or saturation of the digital garment print once it’s washed. Rinnig says he tells clients that they may see a loss of color saturation of 5-8% on the first wash so they won’t be scared when they launder the garment.
“I say after the first wash, the color is for the life of the shirt. I think in almost three years I’ve had one person complain,” he says. “So if I say that up front, and it doesn’t fade, they love it even more.”
The Brother GT-541 printer and the Geo Knight DK20SP heat press dedicated to it stay in a separate room, shielded from the exposure to dirt and dust they might experience on the production floor. Even though the digital garment-decorating equipment is isolated from the rest of the production tools, a full-time employee keeps the machines company 40 hours a week, operating them exclusively. Rinnig reports that the Brother has printed more than 88,000 garments since QRST’s put it into action.
Spreadshirt is headquartered in Boston, MA, but the company also has branch offices in England, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, and more. Luke Jackson, Spreadshirt’s manager of quality and innovation, says the company got its start in garment decoration by heat-applying plotter-cut vinyl designs onto apparel. The business then branched into direct-to-garment digital printing in 2007.
“We started with the Kornit 932, the smaller unit, and we currently have two. That was our first venture into the technology and we developed with it. We didn’t want to dive in headfirst, but we’ve been happy with it and have been adding machines. And if it continues to deliver, we’ll add more as capacity is needed,” Jackson explains.
Spreadshirt takes all of its apparel orders via the Internet. The company uses a batch system from which employees can pull a specific quantity of orders to print. According to Jackson, a daily average for throughput can be in the neighborhood of 600 shirts.
Spreadshirt’s Website offers customers the opportunity to build their own apparel decorations via its T-Shirt Designer software system. An extensive menu of wearables is available throughout the process, enabling aspiring designers to preview their creations on a variety of garments before committing to an order. Space is available for custom text, and thousands of stock graphics are available to place on the garment and resize as needed.
“The online design platform kind of rounds off the edges of ordering a T-shirt,” Jackson says. “You don’t have to be graphically skilled to at least get something on the shirt.”
Users who wish to venture beyond designing a one-off shirt for themselves can register on the Website, create their own shops, and then upload their designs, including those developed without the use of the T-Shirt Designer software. Upon approval, the designs enter Spreadshirt’s marketplace, where Jackson says the garments become point-of-sale items that garner commissions for their creators.
Spreadshirt still plotter cuts vinyl for vector-based designs, but all pixel-based graphics go to the Kornit printers. Jackson says he’s been impressed with the construction of the printers Spreadshirt uses.
“The Kornits were definitely built from the ground up, with solid framing, and it’s a huge operation to get one of those things in here. But when you get it in and you get it running, they run really well. They are a bit finicky now and then, and it is still a new technology, but once you get it working it’s amazing.”
If Jackson has a complaint, it’s that turning the machines on or off uses a lot of ink. “It does a purge process, where it puts some ink through the heads and cleans everything. They’re concerned about keeping the nozzles clear, and they lean more on that side vs. ink consumption,” he says.
In terms of print quality, Jackson says he’s found that dialing in the necessary pretreatment is one of the most important parts of getting premium output. He explains that the pretreatment must be tuned to the absorbency of the garment and that properly matching the two can deliver an exceptional print that really stands out visually.
“If your vendor then decides to get a shipment from a different manufacturing location (country of origin), then that absorbency depends on where the cotton came from, and all of these things will change a little bit and affect your vibrancy,” he explains. “You can get in-to the domino effect in complexity, but once you get the system working, it’s very impressive—and now they have the pretreatment all built in and it sprays it and prints. That seems to work very well.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit Jackson sees is the ability to offer customers a large assortment of apparel from which to choose. He also says it’s really nice to be able to go from one product type to another in the same run.
Peloquin Promotional Printing
Peloquin Promotional Printing, Aylmer, Ontario, Canada, is a family-owned business. When Peloquin opened in 1994, the company provided computer art and prepress services and then used its experience to offer print brokering services. Eventually, the shop developed into a full promotional-products business.
Peloquin became interested in direct-to-garment technology as a solution to problems the shop had with its screen-printing suppliers. Additionally, the company’s space requirements, small order sizes, and need for full-color printing made digital apparel decoration seem like a logical choice. Easy computer-file setup and a clean production process, free of harsh chemicals, also would be ideal for an office setting.
Peloquin researched the direct-to-garment market, attended an industry trade show, assessed printed samples, and decided to purchase a garment inkjet printer from AnaJet. Scott Peloquin, co-owner of the company, says he liked the fact that the printer is made in North America and that he also was impressed with the efficiency of the printer’s bulk-ink-cartridge system and use of an Epson printhead. Another plus, he says, was the included training. According to Peloquin, the technology also has allowed the company to open doors into new markets with low capital investment.
“With an environmentally friendly printer like the AnaJet, short-run and personalized custom graphics are a breeze, and turnaround times are not a problem,” he says. “With the portability of the ma-chine, we have travelled to dog shows and printed custom dog apparel in our booth while customers wait.”
The company uses its AnaJet to print on T-shirts, sweatshirts/hoodies, towels, pillowcases, canvas prints, sweat pants, shorts, team uniforms, aprons, and other garments that are 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Peloquin has discovered a lucrative niche in custom animal apparel. Another profitable area for the company is in its alignment with a marketing company that pre-sells custom designs. The marketing company provides Peloquin with multiple designs that Peloquin produces on its AnaJet for pre-sale testing before moving the work to larger screen-printed production runs.
“I have found that this is a good concept for a lot of our customers,” Peloquin says. “We will come up with a few designs for our client, print one-off samples, sometimes on different-colored items, and they can pre-sell for a larger order that they will place with us at a later date. People like to see what the final product will look like. This way, our client doesn’t get stuck with extra inventory, and everyone seems happy. The cost of printing the samples is no big deal with a digital process.”
Peloquin noted only a few drawbacks with direct-to-garment printing. The first drawback is that, based on price point, single- and sometimes double-color and large print runs are more suited to screen printing. A second challenge is to know how the ink will lay down on certain materials. Peloquin explains that AnaJet has helped alleviate this problem by allowing the software to print a test patch to check different ink-flow rates to make sure ink bleeding does not occur.
Digital Edge Signs/JAB Sportswear
Antioch, IL-based Digital Edge Signs ex-panded into garment decorating when the company discovered that printed ap-parel would be a logical extension of its sign business. Don Gecks, owner of the ten-year-old company as of a year ago, says Digital Edge initially developed its JAB Sportswear division to meet the demand from walk-ins, who he says wanted garments printed along with their banners and other displays. The wearables segment of the company now handles 1000 shirts a month, many of which are digitally printed on a Mimaki GP-604D.
“I have Mimakis on the Digital Edge side, and I wanted to stay with the same family,” Gecks explains. “The RIP system is the same, so the employees know the routine.”
JAB also has a six-color screen press to accommodate specialty work, such as printing organic inks onto hand-made garments. Other jobs head straight to the Mimaki, and Gecks notes that the average print run is a dozen or fewer pieces. The GP-604D uses a combination of discharge fluid and colored inks to image onto ap-parel. The discharge process also may be used by itself.
Gecks reports a steady increase in jobs for the Mimaki, and he states that the only negative he sees in his machine is a lack of white ink—something he emphasizes has not really been a big factor. “White ink is coming, so we’re waiting for that, but the biggest benefit is we can do two things at one time. We can put the shirt in and we can walk away and do another task,” he says.
JAB doesn’t man its Mimaki garment printer shift by shift. Instead, the company has adopted a more casual work pace when it comes to that particular machine. Gecks says he and his employees will attend to the printer as needed throughout the day. A simple walk-by reveals the status of a job, and Gecks notes that someone will always stop by to keep the process moving.
“We can just keep going back and forth between it and load another shirt and come back. It doesn’t require a full-time person.”
But one order that kept workers alert involved printing a logo on golf shirts. Gecks says that even printing at 720 dpi, the machine finished the garments so quickly that “we almost had to man it because by the time you turned around, you were done. It took longer to set the inks in the heat press.”
The machine’s needs for maintenance seem to follow the laid-back style in which the printer is used. Gecks reports that very little maintenance is required—no more than the daily maintenance for all printers at Digital Edge, he says. A fringe benefit JAB has found in digital garment decorating is that it attracts interest from young people. JAB welcomed high-school students enrolled in a graphics program to lend a hand last summer in digitally printing apparel. He recalls that they loved the process because, at four to five minutes per shirt, they could stand there and watch completed garments emerge from the printer. That, and it wasn’t tough work, he jokes.
Manufacturers of Garment Inkjet Printers
Digital Color Corp.
DTG Digital Garment Printers
Lawson Screen & Digital Products, Inc.
Sanwave Int’l Corp.
Sawgrass Technologies, Inc.
Shima Seiki USA, Inc.
U.S. Screen Print & Inkjet Technology