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The Logical Move into Direct-to-Garment Printing

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

For sign and digital graphics and screen printing shops, it makes perfect sense to branch out into direct-to-garment printing.

Ryan Kurek, director of marketing for North America for Kornit Digital North America, says that the industry is constantly changing and with that comes the need to branch out into newer technologies. He calls it the necessity and the opportunity.

“Business models, if you don’t shift, become eliminated, like the pager or the Blackberry,” he says. “We were all used to the Blackberry because of the touchpad. We thought it was a necessity.”

Then the iPhone came out with a digital keyboard and that became the new normal, he says.

There will always be a market for screen printing, he says, but screen printers don’t want to lose out on the opportunity to do smaller print runs and are therefore moving slowly into the digital printing and direct-to-garment printing market.

Any run over 500 shirts, for instance, will want to stick with screen printing. It is more economical, but with direct-to-garment printing, it just makes sense to use that for smaller print jobs, Kurek says.

Matthew Rhome, marketing manager for Epson America, advises individuals wanting to get into direct-to-garment printing to attend an industry show and take a look at direct-to-garment printers in action.

“While you’re there you can soak up as much knowledge as possible from vendors and customers alike. Many of the shows offer educational seminars. Take advantage if you can,” Rhome says.

He adds that first-time direct-to-garment business owners should “research the market to understand the potential customer base, identify existing businesses that could offer competition, and use this information to develop a strategic edge. A business plan is a necessary second step. It helps define the business, its direction, operations and expansion path. Writing the business plan will help define start-up costs and operating capital needs. Once they know how much money they need to get started, they can determine how to finance.”

Paul Crocker, marketing director for AnaJet, says that it doesn’t have to be “a formal business plan, but the key is to have a real plan for how they are going to get customers.” 

Crocker says he has heard way too many stories about people who thought that if they bought a direct-to-garment printer, the customers would just come and that isn’t always the case.

“If I’m putting $15,000 to $20,000 into something, I want to make sure I’m confident I can start to make that money back or at least enough to make the payments,” he says. “From an operational standpoint, in direct-to-garment printing, printers like to run. They don’t like to sit in a corner, so you’ll eat up a lot of your overhead and are going to spend a lot of money maintaining the machine if you are not running it consistently producing customers’ orders.”

Another thing companies should do when determining whether to enter the direct-to-garment market or not is to figure out how much space they need for the equipment. Some companies do make smaller direct-to-garment printers. Many people start their businesses in their garage because these machines don’t take up a lot of space.

Most machines are at least 3’ x 3’ and they go up from there, he says. Along with the printer itself, companies need floor space to work on the front of it, loading shirts, and room to put a heat press.

“You don’t want the press too close to the printer. You want to have a few feet of space between the heater and printer. It creates heat and drives out the air, which then will potentially give you issues with, primarily, your white ink,” Crocker says. “You want to give yourself enough space between the two to not have the heat press impact the environment around it.”

Screen printers, who already have access to a tunnel dryer, can forego buying a heat press, but shops that do not should buy a heat press with good pressure on it and make sure it is big enough to accommodate the largest print size their printer can produce, he adds. DTG-printed shirts that come out of a tunnel dryer will have a different feel than shirts that were placed in a heat press. They will feel more like a screen printed shirt. Heat presses press the ink smooth.

Michael Perrelli, marketing manager for Direct Color Systems, says that in addition to the printer and heat press, the direct-to-garment process requires a way to pretreat garments that are going to have a white ink base layer.

“Some customers are also using a heat tunnel to dry the shirts if still wet with water after a post print heat press,” he says.

When a print shop is determining whether to buy or lease equipment, they first need to figure out their budget and customer base.

They also need to factor in location, availability and taxes, says Rhome. “The business owner needs to decide what works best given their specific situation,” he says.

If they do decide to purchase a printer, they need to make sure it has an onsite warranty. Image quality and print durability are also factors they should take into consideration, Rhome says.

If they decide to lease equipment, they need to make sure they have enough orders to make that monthly payment or have a plan to ramp up to that, says Crocker.

“I would urge anyone looking to enter the direct-to-garment market or expanding their current direct-to-garment capabilities to ensure printed samples are seen and felt. Reading a spec is one thing but you will want to get your eyes on output quality in terms of color and speed and see for yourself how that relates to feel and washability,” Perrelli says.

There also needs to be a thorough understanding of the steps needed to produce the garments, he adds. That means looking at whether pretreatment is needed and whether it is a safe process: water vs. chemicals. They also need to know if they need to be gentle when moving the garments from process step to process step or whether the print is dry after printing.

“Some companies will be better suited to handle more process steps than others. Prospective buyers need to understand how it fits their business,” Perrelli says.

So when choosing a direct-to-garment printer, companies need to revisit their business plan. If they are looking to get into the performance wear and synthetic garments market, “there aren’t as many options available to accomplish that as there are for cotton,” he says.

Crocker adds that different printers fit different needs. If the printer wants to do high-end custom shirts and charge a premium that will determine the specs they are looking for in a printer.

“If you are going for high design and really high quality prints, you are not as concerned about the speed but are absolutely concerned about the color and accuracy of the print, high resolution and all that,” Crocker says.

If they are going for high production, they will want to get a faster printer. Small printers are great for someone who wants to take them to an event and print out a handful of shirts there.

AnaJet and Ricoh developed a CMYK direct-to-garment printer that is less than $5,000, says Crocker. It doesn’t do white ink, so a business is limited to printing on light garments. It is also entry-level, so it is slower than other machines.

“But for someone literally just starting out, who don’t have a T-shirt portion of their business and want to try it out, this is going to be a good option for that, a low-cost investment,” Crocker says.

The machine is the size of a desktop printer but a little bit taller. It is based off a sublimation printer that Ricoh makes. It includes a curing unit, instead of having a separate heat press, so a print shop would not need as much space to fit it into its current location. It will be available in the spring.

Direct Color Systems’ UV printers can print both synthetic and cotton garments without a harsh chemical pretreatment. They also can be used to print on more rigid substrates like water bottles or signage, Perrelli adds.

Print shops need to ask themselves whether they need that type of versatility in their business or if they are strictly looking for a direct-to-garment printer that will print on dark garments.

“There are options out there for varying levels of applications and price points. Seeing demos, reviewing samples and seeing what else the technology is capable of are all things prospective buyers should review,” he says.

If a print shop is entering into the direct-to-garment market, they need to make sure their space is controlled for temperature and humidity to keep the ink flowing, Crocker says.

In large spaces, it is difficult to control temperature and humidity. He recommends that people with large floor spaces put their direct-to-garment printer inside an enclosed space inside the bigger building. That could mean putting a greenhouse-type building around it or hanging heavy plastic around the space.

“I’ve seen some pretty creative approaches to dealing with that,” he says.

If the printer is in a medium-sized room in which a shop can control the humidity, just having a non-misting humidifier in the room right next to the printer will suffice, he adds.

Screen printers have started seriously looking at direct-to-garment printers because they are tired of turning away small orders, says Crocker. They get a lot of high volume orders, but occasionally a client will request a small run. Then it is up to the printer to decide if it is worth wasting money on screens for such a small order or whether they should send the job to a print shop that has a direct-to-garment printer already. They lose profit, and customers, when they go that route, he adds.

A lot of times they will add direct to garment to their mix so they can offer clients the full gamut of products. Screen printers also use direct-to-garment printers as a sampling tool. If they make their own designs, they can print out samples on the direct-to-garment printer to show wherever they distribute their designs.

Embroidery shops are also getting into the direct-to-garment market because their customers decide they want something beyond just embroidery.

Sign shops get into it because their business customers will sometimes ask them if they can do shirts for them as well, Crocker adds.

For the most part, direct-to-garment printing is simple to learn, says Perrelli. The software, print modes and process steps take a lot of the guesswork out of file setup and shirt prep.