Recent developments in direct-to-garment printing can offer sign shops profitable pos

Direct-to-Garment Opens Possibilities

One of the fastest growing categories in inkjet printing today is direct-to-garment printing. Direct-to-garment utilizes a customized inkjet printer and specially designed inks to print directly onto T-shirts and other textiles. The process involves a T-shirt being placed on a platen as it would for screen printing, but instead of a screen, a printhead moves into place over the desired imprint area (just like with a wide-format printer).  The printed shirt is then cured with a heat press. 

The powerful new AnaJet mP5 printer has three industrial-strength print heads and an output resolution up to 1,200 dpi. (Courtesy of AnaJet Inc.)

With the latest crop of direct-to-garment printers, output providers can produce full-color T-shirt designs and other products on fabric garments. For relatively easy setup, post-processing and reasonable investment, direct-to-garment printing can give sign shops the capability to expand their business into short-run apparel production. 

“The majority of products being produced today are still 100 percent cotton shirts. Polyester blends are starting to gain in popularity with direct-to-garment users, due to the increasing price of cotton-based shirts. Other items that can be printed include stone drink coasters, mouse pads and golf towels,” says Matthew Rhome, national accounts manager at Brother International Corp., Somerville, N.J.  

“Overall we are seeing printer manufacturers increasing production rates, while making the overall production process much simpler for the end user. Probably one of the recent biggest advancements in the market was the specific technology that allowed for increased product production rates when printing with white ink,” Rhome says.

“The big development is that you can now print on a lot more materials, such as nylons and polyesters. In the past you were limited to cotton and white shirts,” says Brad Coleman, marketing and sales manager at MESA Distributors, Fort Worth, Texas.

This T-shirt was printed with DTG’s new Summit printer. The Summit’s advanced ink system allows you to print on light and dark cotton garments or light polyester and light nylon using the same inks. (Courtesy of MESA Distributors) The Brother GT-541 printer uses ink jet technology that prints on many garments in high-quality color and can be networked with multiple units, a cost-effective solution for short-run apparel graphics applications. (Courtesy of Brother International Corp.)

ADVANTAGES OF PRINTING DIRECT-TO-GARMENT 

There are a number of advantages of direct-to-garment printing. All the inks that are used in the process are water-based, thus, making them ideal for printing on organic cotton shirts for your “green” clients. In addition, the time it takes to prepare a garment for printing can be as little as 15-20 minutes upon receiving the artwork. Print runs of individually customized tees can easily be done as producing a bunch of identical ones. They can also be customized for each garment with variable text, images and logos. And, finally it’s cheaper. The cost and time needed in running a small run of four-color-process shirts is much less than for screen printing, because screens are not required.

“The biggest trend that we are seeing in our particular space is a movement toward hardier machines, and a movement from the garment decoration industry to parallel markets that have higher technology expectations. In a nutshell, direct-to-garment printing is becoming ubiquitous among all imaging businesses,” says Joe Longtin, marketing director at AnaJet, Inc. in Costa Mesa, Calif.

“Back when AnaJet started in 2004 we were looking at developing a printer that could output all on one finished garment. At the time we were leading the pack with re-engineering printers to print on different types of fabric,” adds Paul Green, AnaJet’s applications manager. “The big move for us occurred when we refined the ink process and developed our own patented closed loop ink delivery system. With this system, we were able to see to it that the ink has a minimal exposure to the air to prevent clogging and drying out. This development helped us become the top seller of digital apparel printers in the U.S. and maybe the world,” he points out.

A number of sample products output on the Brother GT-541 printer. (Courtesy of Brother International Corp.)

Longtin says over the years they have continued to refine their products to take their users to the next level. 

“We heard and anticipated a need from our customers for a production-ready, high-speed apparel printer that could output in the hundreds of pieces per day. Until very recently, this was the exclusive domain of screen printing,” he says.

BUSINESSES EXPLORING APPAREL MARKET

Longtin points out that more and more businesses outside of the garment decoration industry have picked up digital garment printers because they want to explore latent demand for custom apparel, promotional products and other types of products that take an image. 

“Successful sign makers and quick printing shops are used to working with high-precision printers and other equipment that runs fast and doesn’t break down,” Longtin says. Direct-to-garment printing offers them a piece of equipment that has a high margin, high profit potential and it requires very little maintenance with a quick ROI. The technology also leverages the same skill sets that are already using in their wide-format print business. Basically, a T-shirt is just another type of substrate that they can print on. Our mPower series of printers can print on T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other types of garments, as well as wood, glass, metal, tile and many other materials.”

Equipped with dual platens and dual printhead modules, Brother’s GT-782 printer offers concurrent printing in both white and colored inks. (Courtesy of Brother International Corp.) 

He explains that the benefits are simple and compelling: personalized service with huge net profit. 

“The margin on a single designed T-shirt or a mouse pad can be in the 70-80 percent range, and the entire process—load design, load shirt, print, heat press to cure, and fold—takes about four minutes,” Longtin says. “The typical price for a printed shirt that we see customers charging is between $13 and $25 depending on the market and the amount of design work. Customers—many of whom are sign shops—tell us that they realized a return on investment in 90 days or less. Some sign shops stage printed sample shirts in their front office and let their customers know they can have custom shirts made while they wait,” he adds.

SIGN SHOPS IDEAL CANDIDATES

Rhome also feels that sign shops are perfectly positioned to enter this market. 

“It’s very easy for a sign shop to add direct-to-garment printing to their business. Sign shops already create artwork for products using the digital process, and it would be very easy to downsize that art for garment printing. The direct-to-garment printer works like just another output device—instead of printing vinyl for signs, it prints on T-shirts. Once this technology is added, sign shops will find that many of their sign customers will also turn into shirt customers,” he says.

ANAJET’S MPOWER SERIES

Longtin says their new flagship mPower series prints both CMYK and with white ink. 

“The print area is 14" x 18", which covers the useful area of a typical large T-shirt. We offer an entry-level model, the mP5, which has three industrial-strength printheads and an output resolution up to 1200 dpi,” Longtin says. “The next-level printer is the mP10, which offers twice the number of printheads and can run the same graphics at twice the speed. Our older generation Sprint unit is at a lower price point than the mPower series, but it still runs remarkably fast and meets the needs of smaller shops.”

He says their printers can print on virtually any fabric. 

The DTG Viper has a 16-inch wide print area and with a platen system, can print images up to 20-inches long with standard platen. (Courtesy of MESA Distributors)

“Our ANABright inks are ideal for cotton, while our POLYBright inks work for synthetic fabrics. POWERBright inks —specially designed cartridges for the new mPower series—work on cotton, and we are right now developing the capability to print on synthetics using the mPower,” Longtin says. 

BROTHER’S PRINTER LINE UP

Brother offers two models of direct-to-garment printers. 

“The GT-541 is a single-platen printer that can print on a wide variety of light and pastel colored garments,” Rhome says. “The GT-782 is a dual-platen machine that can print on both light and dark colored garments. Both machines were engineered specifically for direct-to-garment printing. All the equipment you need is a direct-to-garment printer and a heat press. Brother has quite a few sign shops that use our GT direct-to-garment printers.”

Equipped with dual, independently controlled platens and print-head modules, the GT-782 printer provides high productivity by concurrently printing both white and colored inks. The unique Brother print driver eliminates the need for RIP software. The GT-782 can receive continuous job files while printing, allowing for maximum, efficient production. It’s said to be a cost-effective solution for both high volume shops and small production runs.

MESA’S DTG PRINTERS

MESA distributes the DTG series of garment printers that includes the Raptor and Viper. The Viper is a 17"-wide printer that incorporates the patent-pending WIMS II (white ink management system) and pressurized constant ink feed re-circulation system. 

“Our WIMS offers a manageable white ink production process that delivers superior detail and vibrancy while offering a level of consistency unheard of in other direct-to-garment printers,” Coleman says. “The Viper is the most popular model. We sell quite a few of them because of the large-format aspect. It offers a 4880 printhead, which gives you a 16" x 20" print area and a four-in-one configurable platen.” 

Coleman says their latest introduction is the DTG Summit. 

“The Summit prints high-resolution life-like images at 720 dpi to 2,880 dpi with millions of colors, and accurately reproduces detailed gradient designs beautifully without banding or stepping,” Coleman says. An 8" x 10" image will print at 720 dpi in approximately 50 seconds. Maximum print size is 16" x 20". RIP software is included, thus, allowing you to print directly from most graphic programs.”

The Summit also features a four-point platen lift system allowing the operator to set the appropriate height to match garment thickness for easier printing on thicker garments such as hoodies and sweatshirts. “Garments are easy to load and unload with the tuck-lock platen system,” Coleman concludes.

MORE APPLICATIONS

AnaJet’s Green adds that along with the printer’s technology progressions are the applications that are growing along with it.  

“We are one of the few companies out there that has an applications department designated to help clients produce other types of products with the printers,” Green says. “One of the most impressive of the current trends in garment printing is the use of metal foil embellishment.” 

As for the future of this technology, Longtin feels that digital apparel printing isn’t going to replace screen printing or other technologies but will only enhance it. 

“More and more output providers will be adopting digital apparel printing services so they will have it side by side in the shops with other printing equipment,” Longtin says. “The companies that adopt this technology are going to have a lot more ability to respond to short orders and provide other services for their clients.”