Adding a Direct to Garment Printer to Your Shop

Digital Garment Print, Digital Printing, Direct to Garment Printing

Direct to Garment Printer and Your Screen Printing Business – 7 Things You Need to Know about the Direct to Garment Printer Business

Direct to Garment Printer s are being added to more and more businesses as decorated apparel production shops are moving into digital production.  Screen printing shops like the versatility that digital apparel printing brings.  Listed below are the seven top things to consider when you are adding direct to garment or digital printing to your program.

#1 Know the Differences

For decorators, the comparisons between digital printing with a direct to garment and traditional screen-printing becomes a major focus.  Some shops get hung up on the non-spot color attributes of CMYK printing.  Or the production workflow differences between the two processes is a big concern.  For others, the conversation is cemented in the “not-going-to-keep-up-with-my-auto” focus.

Don’t get lost in those straw man arguments.

Digital printing and the use of a direct to garment printer is here to stay, and is ever evolving.  A direct to garment printer is a production tool, just like your heat press or embroidery machine.  It’s simply another way to decorate a shirt and make money doing it.

Where it shines is in a few production buckets that have always been an Achilles heel to most shops.  These are pain points for most screen printers:

  • High color count orders with low quantities.
  • Photography or high end illustrations on apparel.
  • “I need it now” orders.
  • Variable data printing jobs with a high degree of customization.
  • Better inventory control for online apparel sales.

Digital printing allows decorators the easy flexibility to customize their workflow to solve these challenges.  What was a production bottleneck in screen-printing, becomes an attribute for digital production. A direct to garment printer has advantages.

If you are unfamiliar with screen printing and the differences between it and digital, set aside some time to watch this full webinar recording on the topic: DTG vs Screen Printing for Commercial Production

Will a current DTG printer be able to produce 5,000 shirts in one shift?  Frankly no.  Still, traditional screen-printing can’t reproduce millions of colors on a garment, or print blends without a halftone dot.

When thinking about digital, it’s good to understand the limitations. But better to comprehend the strengths.  It’s about using the right tool for the job.  No more.  No less.

#2 You Can Now Sell Speed with a Direct to Garment Printer

Let’s face it speed is an advantage.  We have been trained over the last twenty or so years to not accept “slow”.  You can thank fast food drive trough’s, online shopping, even how as consumers we view our entertainment choices.  On demand is everywhere.

Everything needs to happen at the speed of “now”.

So when shops publish their screen-printing turn times of seven to ten working days, customers can view this as incredibly slow.  Even turn times with five to seven days won’t cut it.

What if your published ship time was one to two business days?  What if it was same day?

How much business could you garner with that production model?  What would it take to build that?

With a digital platform, you will be as fast as you can crank out the art and print the file.  If you stock the inventory in house, you can just produce the orders as they come in.  No waiting.

Does the average consumer care how the shirt was decorated?  Will they even know?  Remember, speed kills.  The competition.


#3 Artwork

The quality of the incoming art file has a direct correlation with the final print when using a direct to garment printer.  Here are the top challenges that could affect the order:

  • Low resolution. You want to shoot for 300 dpi at actual size for the source file.  The most commonly sent is a 72 dpi file. Downloaded from the internet.
  • Muddy colors. DTG prints as a CMYK file.  Preflight the images and improve the value of the hues in the design for better results.
  • Small tonal ranges. You want to see brilliant whites, deep blacks and all colors between.  A quick curve or Photoshop Action can help boost these areas.
  • Jagged edges or .jpg artifacts. Since everything is digital, beware of blowing up inferior files to larger sizes and then printing.
  • Color mode changes. Know the difference between RGB and CMYK.  Sometimes there are noticeable color shifts when printing.
  • Handling the underbase white. You’ll need this when printing on non-white shirts.  However, how you build the file and what gets white underneath are important things to consider.  Make sure your art staff is fully trained.  Always run a test print if you are unsure on the outcome.

Basically what you put in, is what you get out.  It pays to have great art.

It is smart to have a proactive approach when it comes to handling files that need tweaking.  Write a process for your art staff to follow.  What happens if they need to change something on the file to improve it?  Do you ask for a better file from the customer first?  Do you charge the customer for the improvement?  Is it included in your set-up fee?


#4 Pretreatment

Getting a great print on a non-white shirt sets up the need to print an underbase white. For this to work, a pretreatment solution is necessary as part of the ink prep process.  The pretreatment is a clear fluid that is applied to the garment in a specific amount.  Too little or too much can affect the print with undesired consequences.

You can pretreat well in advance of production, so it’s easy to schedule the pretreatment on one day and handle the printing on another.  There are also t-shirts you can buy that are already pretreated if you want to go that route.

If you are just printing on white shirts, or don’t want the underbase white, the pretreatment process isn’t needed.  Just hit print and go!


#5 The Garment

Not all shirts will take a digital print.  If you haven’t used a particular shirt brand, color or style before, you should run a test print to see if it will work correctly.

As the ink used in digital printing is water-based, any dri-fit or performance shirt may be difficult to print.  The fabric of this type of apparel repels water, which makes digital printing problematic.  Not all performance shirts have this issue though.  Plenty of shops successfully print on white performance shirts.  As with anything, run some tests and see.  The challenge is usually when the pretreatment solution and white ink are introduced.

50/50 blends, heather shirts, and even some garment dyed tees sometimes have issues.  Occasionally the pretreatment solution can leave a noticeable ring where it was applied.  After printing, misting the edges of the pretreatment with water can work.   Use an inexpensive household bottle sprayer an apply as needed.

Also, some garments like hoodies can be a problem printing digitally.  The issue is that the print head can’t come in contact with any raised part of the garment.  Hoodies have zipper channels and pocket seams that are elevated from the garment.

Depending on the style, you can still print these if they aren’t too high by raising the print head up.  But, you may see a noticeable drop in final print quality and detail.  You should test any unfamiliar garments for print capabilities.  Keep a log by style and color so you can reference the results at a later date.


#6 Operational Costs

Like any new manufacturing process it pays to comprehend the operational costs.  If you have an understanding of these items, you can ensure a healthy profit.

Operational costs for digital production will focus on three areas.  Consumables, such as the pretreatment solution and ink.  Labor, which is what you pay your crew for their work.  And finally, the preventative maintenance program.

For the consumables and labor use the daily production logs to factor out your cost per impression.  Total up the number of prints and divide by the cost of the consumables used.  Determine the pretreatment and ink costs by calculating the weight differences. Measure a blank garment, one with uncured pretreatment, and a printed one.  Record the weight differences and determine the raw cost for the supplies purchased.  For labor, calculate using the time it takes for each step and add that up as a total for the run.  Divide by the cost for the employee(s).  Add that up to get your average cost per print.

One overlooked problem with running digital printing equipment is usually the preventative maintenance program.  This should be a mandatory daily activity.  These machines are designed to run, and machine idleness can introduce problems.  The most common culprit is the white ink clogging in the print head nozzles or in the lines.

Do your shop a favor and print at least one shirt a day, regardless if you have an order or not.  Some shops print their promotional marketing shirts as part of their daily routine.  It helps if ink isn’t just wasted on a test scrap.

Considering investing in DTG equipment?  Be sure to include room in your budget for the manufacturer’s warranty program and at least one extra print head.

These machines, although reliable, are complicated pieces of equipment.  With sustained, regular use the print head for a DTG printer usually lasts about two to three years.  Maybe a little longer with good care and regular nozzle cleaning and checks.

Many DTG shops get a replacement print head when they buy the machine.  You don’t want to be down with orders to print and have to emergency overnight one in.

#7 Training

It’s a fact.  You are going to need trained DTG operators.  Someone has to handle the production and run the machine.

Like anything there are skills that need to be taught and proper procedures to perform to be successful.  Instead of just training one operator though, think about the rule of three.

The rule of three for operations means that for any critical task in your shop, there should be at least three qualified people trained for that role.  Using the rule of three as a minimum standard means that you aren’t locked into just any one person.  Someone can call in sick or take a vacation day, and your shop won’t experience a brain-drain.

As you hire new staff members to your team, consider cycling more people through your digital department for training.  This will this make your employees more valuable. It will spread out the knowledge and increase the level of confidence that you can operate and expand your business as your sales efforts grow.

Imagine if you need to add another machine to your production floor.  What if you already have a bank of trained employees that can run it?

This won’t happen by accident.   Plan the training by making staff members available and giving them the opportunity to learn.  Not everyone will do it well and that’s ok.  Build your program and audition your future crews by finding the people that have the right skill set.

When you do it before you need them, you will create your shop’s bench strength.


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