Reasonable Expectations

  Before choosing a DTG printer, acquire samples of both light and dark apparel from each manufacturer you are considering, and then compare them. Photos courtesy of AnaJet. You can build on the power of personalization and create a graphic that incorporates a photo so that each shirt has the same template and theme but is uniquely printed with a child’s picture. Images courtesy of Digital Art Solutions When direct to garment (DTG) digital decorating processes first became available, the buzz was very excited and expectations were high. Now, just a short while further into the lifespan of this burgeoning industry, that excitement and those expectations have settled down into a measured assessment. We now have a track record to review when considering the possibilities and limitations of DTG. The track record is short, certainly, but we know what DTG printers can do. We know what they can’t do. We know which machines work and which do not. And, we know what businesses are likely to benefit best from those conditions. Is your business one of them? MODIFIED EPSONS VERSUS PURPOSE BUILT DTG PRINTERS Opinions on that matter break into two distinct groups—groups whose opinions, it seems, were formed from the use of two distinctly different types of equipment for DTG. For purpose-built printers, the opinions are positive; for modified printers, the opinions could be diplomatically described as pessimistic. David Gross of Condé Systems in Mobile, Alabama, explains that a few years ago, when the first DTG printers came out, a lot of businesses decided to be on what he calls “the bleeding edge” and buy into that first generation of DTG printers. “Folks who were selling them and using them were doing their best, but the bottom line is that they were, for the most part, modified Epson printers. They were just not made for printing on fabric, and they were sold to people who expected the reliability they got with their other printers. There were a lot of folks whose printers were never able to pay for themselves, and it’s a really sad situation,” says Gross. For this reason and others, according to Ammie Grauten of AnaJet in Costa Mesa, California, the new direct-to-garment industry is going through a shakeout and consolidation period as predicted in a recently published book, The T-shirt Revolution: Building Your Business Using a Digital Apparel Printer, co-authored by AnaJet’s CEO, Dr. Chase Roh, and its VP, David LaVita. “The industry is finally able to sort out properly engineered textile printer systems such as AnaJet, Brother and Kornit from modified desktop printers. In the October 2008 issue of Digital Direct—a supplement of Printwear magazine—in an excellent review article by SGIA’s VP of technology, Johnny Shell, these three printers and Mimaki are singled out as the only direct-to-garment printers with their own textile printing engine,” says Grauten. Out of those three companies—AnaJet, Brother International and Kornit—only two really apply to the awards market. Kornit’s equipment commands a very substantial capital investment—substantial enough that it is out of the range of most small businesses. Therefore, Brother and AnaJet are considered by many to offer the only printers specifically designed for printing on fabrics and textiles. Barry Silevitch of Brother International in Bridgewater, New Jersey, addresses the issue further, explaining, “There are a couple of different classes of equipment. The Epson-based platforms, whether it’s a modified 1800, 1900 or 4800 machine, are typically not made to print on fabrics. Our machine is a production-based machine, industrial grade, very robust from short runs to mid- to high-volume applications. It was designed from the get-go to print on fabrics and textiles, and the print head design is optimized to do that, with the size of the nozzles, as well as how our array is set up. So, even with a lot a contamination and fibers around the print engine, it still maintains high reliability and integrity. Fabrics do take their toll; it’s not like printing on paper.” Notice that Silevitch mentioned the print heads. There is a reason for this. While AnaJet’s machine was designed specifically for printing on fabric, it does utilize Epson print heads. That is a point of contention for some who feel those print heads have problems printing on fabric. However, AnaJet contends that the problem is not with Epson’s print head but with their driver, and AnaJet engineered its own driver specifically to eliminate those problems. As usual, opinions vary, so it’s best for each customer to conduct their own research. Obtain samples from these companies and compare them. Contact businesses similar to your own who are using the equipment, and ask their opinions. If possible, see if you can observe the machines in action. Even better, see if it’s possible to play around with the machines before making the decision to purchase. WHERE DOES DTG FIT? Before a business bothers with the decision of which DTG machines to buy, there is the question of whether or not it is a fit for their business at all. At a much lower investment cost, heat transfer, sublimation and TheMagicTouch are already capable of printing full-color digital images and photographs—not just on T-shirts but many, many other products as well. The general opinion is that these are great options for short runs, but they are not feasible for high-volume orders. Screen printing has long been the consensus choice for large personalized apparel orders. However, the setup expense for screen printing is high enough that it’s only justified for large orders. Of course, not all orders for personalized apparel fit into these two categories. There is a middle ground, and many feel that demand is best met by DTG printers. Gross sees a lot of potential for companies that offer screen printing. “The progressive screen printers have definitely bought into the digital world, because they want to use their screen-printing equipment for the runs that make economic sense. They want to use the DTG printers for on-demand, short-run, full-color and photographic shirts. Having a digital side of their business coupled with the screen-printing side, they’re in a much better position to say yes to more orders. It’s a glove fit for those companies, and the boost in their business could be incredible,” says Gross. Silevitch adds that sublimation and heat transfer require an extra step. “Also, our system shoots ink directly into the fabric, and usually it provides a much softer feel. It’s a much smoother operation since you’re not transferring, and the user doesn’t have to worry about registration or anything of that nature. In a lot of cases, our process is less on a cost-per-print basis, because some of the inks and transfer papers for other processes can be somewhat expensive.” Gross points out that once a screen-printing shop adds DTG, it is very important to get the word out. Grauten has a good idea of just who to get the word out to. “Take a look at any awards ceremony, be it a sports championship or science fair. Everybody is wearing personalized shirts for that event. For an awards shop to be able to offer these personalized shirts along with the awards will be a huge advantage and money-maker. With the low production cost of direct-to-garment printed shirts, customers won’t be able to pass up the opportunity to order these detailed, multi-colored, customized shirts. Direct-to-garment printers allow for small or large runs, so awards and engraving shops can offer customized shirts with no minimum orders.” They also won’t be handicapped by a time-consuming production process, leaving the door open to larger orders. “Customers can order one or one thousand,” says Grauten. Commenting on what businesses use DTG, Silevitch notes that Brother has installations in many different types of venues. “We have customers that are small embroidery shops. We have customers that have a print shop. We have people that have gift shops. We have screen printers—small, medium and large—that bought the technology to justify the ability to print short runs economically,” says Silevitch. In addition, Brother has machines in a variety of entertainment venues, including sports parks across the country. Silevitch also tells the story of an awards shop he knows that uses Brother’s direct-to-garment printer. “They’re a pretty good-sized shop that does awards and trophy engraving, some transfers, and he also does screen printing. He was interested in our machine, so we sat down and we talked about his work flow. A lot of his customers are involved with schools, team uniforms and things of that nature. He felt by incorporating our machine, it would give him a couple of advantages. One was that it would give him flexibility in printing easily, front and back, on hoodies and sweatshirts, because our machine is very flexible from that perspective,” says Silevitch. The shop owner got the word out, in part, by putting a collage out for his clients to look at as they were picking up other items. Now, they bring in their designs, and he’ll print them up on demand, sometimes as they wait and sometimes the next day. “It really helped him out as a solution for his short-run applications, because he does screen printing for larger runs as well. He found that it was so flexible that it was a good decision for him. It seems that we’re getting a lot of traction in that market right now,” says Silevitch. THE INVESTMENT & ITS RETURN For any equipment purchase to be justified, the equipment has to be able to pay for itself—and the quicker the better. For AnaJet, Grauten says the typical entry cost for direct-to-garment printing is about $18,000. “Of course, with leasing and other promotional offers, this cost can easily be lowered. The beauty of digital garment printing is the production cost is so low that you could see your return on investment in only 1,000 or 2,000 shirts! That could easily be just one order.” For Brother, Silevitch says, “On the present model, GT 541, the machine sells for around $20,000. If you add accessories to it plus a heat press, you’re probably looking at an additional investment of a couple of thousand dollars.” As for the ROI timeline on that equipment, Silevitch says, “Brother makes no guarantee about ROI. It’s usually several months. It depends on the profile of the client. If they have jobs and a good marketing strategy, that’s a big part of it. If you print with our machine an hour or two hours a day, you’ll break even, in most cases, within the first year, that’s assuming they have healthy margins.” Gross advises that businesses look at the cost of a DTG printer and figure out how many shirts you would have to sell to break even. “See if that’s a reasonable number for you. If it’s not, then a heat-transfer system may be the way to go.” He adds that companies can get into sublimation for an investment of $2,000 to $3,000, and offer more than just apparel. Greg Weeks of TheMagicTouch USA in Niles, Illinois, adds that they can bring in TheMagicTouch, which requires an investment of only $2,100, and offer not just T-shirts, but many other different products as well—products that do not require a special coating and can be purchased from Michaels or Hobby Lobby. LATEST TRENDS & COMING ADVANCEMENTS While on the topic of product options, let’s discuss a couple of the DTG trends being witnessed by industry professionals. Jay Busselle of Digital Art Solutions in Tempe, Arizona, says, “The trend of printing on alternative locations and over the seams and collars continues to be strong. Another trend is instant printing or printing onsite at events. I think this is a result of people wanting immediate gratification and the concept of commemorating a memory. Also, this method of printing continues to allow people to enjoy the shirt without feeling the ink.” Also, Busselle says that on the decoration side, the strongest trends are to combine decorating techniques. “They’re adding sewing and rhinestones to a shirt that has been printed. Another proven strategy is to build on the power of personalization and create a graphic that incorporates a photo so that each shirt has the same template and theme but is uniquely printed with each child’s picture.” “We see more and more unique applications,” says Silevitch. “We see that people are looking to augment applications, printing on promotional items as well as some combo applications. For example, you can print on a tote bag, and then you can do embroidery on top of it to give it a 3D appearance. We see a lot of interest in those areas.” Looking ahead, Busselle says advances in better ink chemistry that will produce more-vibrant colors that remain brighter longer are on the way. “Another area that will only improve is the RIP software (although Brother doesn’t require a RIP) for color profiling and the availability of dedicated spot colors.” Additionally, Busselle thinks there will be a non-spray pretreatment for white ink applications as well as dedicated pretreatment machines. “You will also start to see ink recirculation systems and wet capping stations to increase the longevity of the print heads. There will continue to be advances in the combination and complexities of mixed embellishment and decorating techniques,” says Busselle. CONSIDER THESE Before we wrap up this discussion, there are a couple of other issues to consider, and one of them is support. “Manufacturers and users are also realizing that proper training and printer maintenance is a key to the success of a direct-to-garment printer,” says Grauten. She says that manufacturers are devoting more resources to training and support, and this is good. Without fail, new equipment requires support. This may range from the need to have a few simple questions answered to a full day of training. Make sure the distributor or manufacturer of the equipment you choose has the ability to fulfill your support needs. Finally, consider the environment—and not just for the sake of the environment. The inks used for DTG printing are reported to be very environmentally friendly, with steam the only byproduct. Not only is this good for your conscience’s benefit, it’s good for the conscience of the customer. They may not mind paying a little more for a green shirt, creating green benefits of another kind.