Unraveling the Mysteries of Digitizing Software
This article offers advice on selecting the appropriate digitizing software for your embroidery operation.
Digitizing, as it relates to embroidery, is the process of creating or transforming artwork into stitches for use on an embroidery machine. The digitizer scans or imports artwork and is then faced with several important software-related decisions before the artwork can move along to the production stage.
Digitizing software comes in many shapes and sizes and varies according to cost and functionality. Such an assortment of software options often leads to great confusion among prospective buyers and opens up several very important questions. This article will describe what digitizing software does and how it works and will examine important features and the role the software plays in the embroidery workflow.
What is digitizing?
Developing an understanding of the digitizing process is a key part of selecting the right software for your business. We can break digitizing down into five stages.
Stage 1: the thought process The thought process is one of the most important parts of digitizing. It’s the stage where the digitizer plans the design elements, color sequence, and travel path. If six different digitizers were to complete this process, you would most likely see six different sets of choices. The design elements include determining what types of stitches to use on the various objects within the design. The color sequence is the order of colors from the start of the design until the end. The travel path determines which objects to sew first and how the machine moves from one shape to the next in the most efficient manner. The travel path is very important because a design without an efficient travel path increases the amount of production time to complete the actual embroidery. The thought process is essentially the creation of a blueprint for the design. Imagine a builder who shows up without any plans and just starts hammering nails into random wood. The end result is far less than desirable. Eliminating the thought process leads to the same undesirable outcome.
Stage 2: scan/import The second stage of digitizing is the scanning or importing phase. The digitizer either places the image in a scanner and creates a digital representation of it on screen or imports a previously scanned or digitally created art image from a file.
Stage 3: digitization In this stage the digitizer either traces the shapes of a scanned image through the use of drawing tools or automatic shape-recognition systems. Each shape has a stitch type, density, and stitch direction applied. All embroidery, regardless of how simple or complex, is composed of four different stitch types: manual, run, satin, and fill. Breaking shapes into a series of less complex shapes helps clearly identify which stitch types should be utilized in each situation.
Autodigitizing is a term that describes digitizing software’s ability to automatically draw the shapes and decide which stitch types, stitch directions, and densities to use. The success of automatic digitizing is largely based on the design. A very clean, clear, and simple logo that doesn’t have a lot of intersecting shapes autodigitizes more effectively than a fuzzy, complex design. Autodigitizing is a valuable tool for stitch-count estimation and for simple designs. One of its drawbacks is that more complex shapes can cause confusion when the software attempts to set stitch angles, especially at intersections.
Stage 4: proofing Stitching out and evaluating a completed design allows you to check for any problems, such as misregistration, puckering, and even excessive thread breaks. Make any necessary changes to the design and, if needed, generate a new proof. Unfortunately, proofing is one of the most commonly skipped stages. It’s critical, especially for the new digitizer, to personally sew out completed designs in order to see any mistakes and fix them before starting production.
Stage 5: production A properly digitized design is one that complements production and runs smoothly and efficiently. Poorly digitized and inherently problematic designs can be production nightmares. Examples of problems within a design include specific areas of repeated thread breaks or needle breaks. These errors significantly slow down production and can turn a job from profitable to a disaster in a heartbeat. Other factors that contribute to reduced production and increased cost are unnecessary color changes and trims. The expenses associated with a poorly digitized design quickly overshadow the cost savings of a properly digitized one.
The digitizing process has experienced many dramatic changes during the past 30 years. Modern technology can make short work of designs that would have taken hours and hours to complete in the past. Pricing of designs has also changed. At one time a 10,000-stitch left-chest design might have cost in excess of $200, but today that same design would command a fraction of that price.
Does price have anything to do with quality—specifically, the price of the software? Does experience have anything to do with the quality? The answer to these questions are not yes or no answers. The answer to each one of those questions is it depends.
If you’re looking to add digitizing to your list of services, should you buy the most expensive package or buy the least expensive one to just test the waters? Your software purchase is an investment in your company and not an expense. Find the software that has the features you need to obtain the highest return on your investment. Only you can decide which software package has the features you need for that high ROI.
One of the first things to do is evaluate your business model. Screen printers who are looking to get into embroidery should take stock of which graphics programs they already use. Do you use Adobe Illustrator for your graphics? Do you use a PC? Do you use a Mac—or perhaps both? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then be on the lookout for an Adobe Illustrator plug-in (Figure 1). An Illustrator plug-in will allow you to access your digitizing functions within that application. Note that all drawing tools would remain Adobe Illustrator, thereby eliminating the need to learn a new program for graphics creation. The integrated digitizing functions would convert those shapes from standard vector-based shapes into digitized shapes. Another significant advantage associated with this type of a plug-in is that it doesn’t matter whether you use a PC or a Mac.
Not everyone uses Adobe Illustrator, so what happens if you use CorelDRAW or another graphics program? You have plenty of plug-in options in CorelDRAW. You would traditionally do your work in CorelDRAW and then switch over to the embroidery side and have your image more automatically digitized for you. You’d return to CorelDRAW to edit the graphic and then switch back again to digitizing. One key issue to look for here is a program that keeps your CorelDRAW artwork in sync with the finished embroidery. Any changes you make to the embroidery should be reflected on the CorelDRAW side and vice-versa. Another benefit is the ability to view both the CorelDRAW graphic and the embroidery graphic at the same time. Figure 2 illustrates integration between CorelDRAW and digitization.
You have many other options when it comes to a traditional digitizing system that operates on its own merits and without integration with a graphics program. Here’s a list of key questions to ask when determining which system is best for you. None of these directs you to the most expensive or least expensive software. They’re intended solely to guide you in selecting the software best fit for your organization.
Is there an upgrade path? An upgrade path allows you to start with features and functionality that you can use right away and then grow into more advanced features as your skill level grows. Make sure you won’t be penalized for upgrading in smaller steps.
Is there a charge for maintenance releases? No software will ever be entirely bug free, so be sure that you won’t have to pay to receive each fix that comes from the developer.
What are the training options? Find out how many training centers are located throughout the country. Look for on-site training and online training. The combination of the two ensures that you not only can receive proper instruction on how to use your software, but that you also have the ability to have your ongoing questions about the software answered in an online session, which eliminates the need to travel.
What is the support policy? Do you pay for support, or is it included as part of your software purchase? Can the manufacturer provide you with an e-mail address and toll free-phone number to use for support? You also need to look into support hours. Be sure the manufacturer offers ample opportunities for to get your questions answered. Look for a company that offers weekend and holiday support, because problems tend to occur at the least convenient times.
Can the software work with vector artwork? Customers routinely supply vector artwork for use in digitizing. Converting vector artwork to a bitmap in order to use it is taking a giant step backwards.
Are automatic tools available to speed up the digitizing process? A solid software package not only provides a series of tools that automatically recognize shapes and set angle lines, but it also gives you the ability to override the automated tools and take full control of its functionality.
Are any professional users groups established for the software? A strong users group demonstrates the presence of a group of dedicated installed base. These users can often guide you at time when you need help the most.
Is a large selection of fonts available? Lettering represents a huge chunk of all embroidery work (Figure 3). Having the right fonts at your fingertips is a big time saver. Be on special lookout for fonts designed for small lettering, as small lettering is often one of the most challenging aspects of digitizing.
What is the history of the companies that develop and sell the software? You need to be sure that you dealing with solid companies in both regards. Purchasing from an established company won’t do you much good when the software developer closes its doors. Your best bet is to find a company that has a proven industry track record and a strong indication that it’ll be around in the future.
Can the company offer you opportunities in overall growth? Most software packages offer embroidery in traditional stitching. Find out whether other options are available, such as chenille, sequins, cording, and even Rhinestone. You never know the path in which your business will take you, and you don’t want to have to start over each time you add a process.
What options are available for integration with drawing programs? As previously discussed, find out about any options available for integrating embroidery within your favorite graphics programs.
Finally, you may wish to ask for a list of customers to contact for advice and referrals. Naturally, a company will only offer lists of very satisfied customers. A list of four or five customers praising a product is a far cry from overall customer perception. You can still ask for a list of customers to contact, but only do so when you’re prepared to ask specific questions. Don’t waste your time looking for general opinions. For example, ask about ease of use and what role training played in that ease of use. By asking very specific questions you guide the conversation, which makes it more difficult for a customer to sing random notes of praise.
What role does experience have to do with quality? Experience is a key factor in understanding how embroidery reacts with material. The more you work with a program and learn how one thing on screen affects another on the garment, the more you will improve and learn from your mistakes. However, if you look for a software package that helps make some of those decisions for you, such as which underlays to use on which materials, then you will lessen that learning curve. Beginners can output high-quality designs, but don’t be fooled into relying solely on a completely automated process, where all you do is press a couple of buttons and, presto, you have a finished design in less time than it takes to boil an egg. With those expectations, you’ll end up with nothing more than egg on your face.
Finally, if you outsource your digitizing, what role does pricing have in the quality of the design? Logically, the less someone charges for their service, the less time they’re willing to put into the design. However, this isn’t always the case. Some very expensive digitizing companies produce sub-par work, and some very inexpensive companies produce premium designs.
Weigh your options
Don’t rush into a purchase that could end up slowing you down or costing you more money than necessary. Consider your goals and how digitizing software can help you achieve them before you buy a program that doesn’t fit your business. Conducting a little research, asking the right questions, and treating your software purchase as an investment rather than an expense will ultimately put the right digitizing program in your hands.
Ed Levy is president of Digitize4u, Inc., a custom digitizing and consulting firm. Levy also hosts www.embforum.com, which is a professional group for Tajima DG/ML by Pulse users. He can be reached at 866-242-1984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.