Build Your Business:

Leveraging Technology to Grow Your Decorated Apparel Business

More and more of today’s decorated apparel companies are looking to the latest innovations to help them grow and stay competitive

By Thomas Trimingham, Contributing Writer

With any growing decorated apparel business, there comes a time when you need to consider taking you technology to the next level. Image by Svitlana

May 1, 2023

There are many ways to expand an apparel decorating business with more and more of today’s companies looking to the latest innovations to help them grow.

One of the reasons this approach has become so popular is when properly applied, an innovative business will not only grow more profitably, but with less waste, in many cases even reducing costs as it’s building.

That said, to start successfully implementing innovations in your company, it is helpful to review what they are and the areas where they can be best applied. An implementation process can then be determined to install those specific technologies, systems or techniques that make the most sense for your business.

Innovations can be new ideas, methods or devices that save time, energy and expense or improve capacity, quality and speed. Keeping this in mind, to capture and review potential innovations for your business, it is useful to do three things:

  1. Review what innovations can do for your business: learn what is possible from whatever innovations you come across as you interact with the wider industry, so you can create a vision of potential improvements.
  2. Define those areas in your company that could benefit from these innovations: sorting each of the business processes you’re engaged in into a separate area is a great way to start determining potential improvement zones.
  3. Search out specific new discoveries or technologies that it makes sense for your company to adopt: ask yourself, “What is the biggest change that can be implemented in an area, or areas of my company that would best facilitate future growth?”

Putting these three steps together will give you a powerful head start.

What can innovation do for your decorating business?

To get a jump on what innovations can do for a business, I reached out to Marshall Atkinson, industry business coach, Shirt Lab Co-Founder and principal of Atkinson Consulting.  In response, Atkinson suggested, “Innovation is one of the best ways for companies to grow revenue,” adding, “now is one of the most innovative times in history.”

Direct to film printer for apparel decoration

At the cutting edge these days is the latest DTG technology. Photo courtesy of Brother

No surprise, the pace of business in the decorated apparel industry continues to accelerate, with new methods of decorating and running a business continuing to gain in popularity. Among the innovations experienced by the industry of late have been the development of direct-to-film (DTF) technology, and the latest, much improved direct-to-garment (DTG) equipment currently available.

Before jumping to adapt tech like this, though, it can first be useful to consider what exactly it will do for your company. With this in mind, the following represent some of the benefits that can result from a properly implemented new idea, method or piece of equipment:

Increased Efficiency

This area of innovation relates to using less energy or requiring fewer steps or less labor to accomplish those tasks that are currently necessary to move orders through your shop. These kinds of improvements often involve the removal of unnecessary blocks to productivity or a revision in the way existing processes are done through new equipment, new methods or both. An example of this could be the implementation of a folding machine for garment handling.

Improved Capacity

Understanding what your current capacity is and what makes sense in terms of the capacity goals for a business the size of your company will help you decide if increasing your capacity is the next logical step. An example of capacity improvement would be a manual screen-printing shop that adds an automated press. Same thing with an embroidery decorator taking on a larger-capacity embroidery system or maybe investing in a multihead setup, or a heat-press shop making the jump to an automatic or dual-platen system, as opposed to the all-manual systems it’s using now.

Improved Product Quality

An improvement in quality can be described as the ability to reproduce images as accurately and reliably as possible, without a loss of clarity or detail. An example of quality improvement through innovation might be the addition of a DTF machine to a heat press-shop, so it can add short-run jobs and digital quality services to its existing offerings. It’s important to bear in mind that improved quality also offers additional benefits in the form of reduced wastage, allowing it to immediately help the bottom line as well.

Cost Reduction

Innovations that reduce the cost of decorating, materials handling and a host of other business operations are becoming increasingly popular as labor costs continue to rise. Sometimes the resulting savings can be passed along to the customer. Other times, the savings can be added directly to your own bottom line, as is the case with the previously mentioned savings accruing from reduced wastage. An example of a recent cost-reducing innovation would be the Tagbot accessory that fits onto an automated press and prints the tag print in the same step as a front decoration.

Diversification of Services

Many shops these days are looking to recent innovations to add an additional decorating method without necessarily having to create a lot of extra shop space or add labor. Examples of the kind of equipment that makes this possible include the previously mentioned innovations in DTF and DTG. Other examples include some of the smaller, event-style or live-decorating types of equipment now on the market, which can be utilized to provide additional in-house services.

Improved Profit Margins

Among the more popular forms of innovations are those that allow a business to make more money while doing the same or less work. To achieve this, software systems, standardized processes and other digital products can provide faster, cheaper preparation steps as well as quicker printing with less waste. Examples that help improve margins in this fashion include automated screen preparation machines. Similarly, today’s digital business management systems (BMS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages can dramatically reduce the time and cost involved in things your company is already doing.


As the industry becomes increasingly aware of the need to address its environmental impact, innovations assisting decorators in lessening their waste and generally improving the work environment for their employees are becoming essential. A reclamation machine is a great example of how a screen-printing operation can lessen environmental impact, while improving their working environment. Another great way to reduce your company’s impact is to source environmentally responsible blank apparel. As an added benefit, you may find your customers appreciate these kinds of initiatives as well.

Embroidery business and machines for apparel decoration

Investing in the latest new tech is a process, as opposed to something a company does haphazardly. Image by standret

Something else to think about as you’re considering pushing even one of your company’s processes a little closer to the cutting edge: depending on the specific solution you go with, there is often a cascading effect for the companies that employ them, with additional benefits spring boarding off the initial improvements they provide.

Which brings us to the next step: looking at the areas in your company it makes sense to address.

Where to implement innovation?

This part of the investment review will differ significantly depending on your company’s structure and preferred decorating methods. As with all ideas related to business developments and implementation, be sure and obtain some expert advice that is specific to your company before investing in or dramatically changing your current organization. Some of the general areas in the decorated apparel business where innovation is now taking place include:

Sales and Marketing

Exciting new digital innovations in marketing and customer acquisition offer possibilities that never before existed, with software and AI services such as ChatGPT, rapidly becoming essential in these two vital areas. Employing services outside your company can not only assist with overflow, it can also allow you to take advantage of some of the latest AI services on the market, like Mid-journey, “an independent research lab exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species.”

Pre-Press and Setup

For screen printers, some of the most exciting technology is related to eliminating steps, chemicals and films. Equipment that employs the latest laser exposure technology for stencil creation is rapidly being adopted for these reasons.


The pandemic changed many organizations’ ordering processes. E-commerce also blew up in terms of popularity. There are many new ideas, products and services to consider when dealing with smaller order sizes or managing inventory and e-commerce orders.

Order Processing

Software systems continue to offer improved integration in the decorated apparel space as well as provide management tools for tracking efficiencies and customer orders. Today’s software even makes it possible for customers to keep tabs on how their orders are progressing without having to talk to a single person at your end. Adding a system to help modernize order tracking and processing frees up employees to do other, more creative or productive work, in addition to helping the bottom line.

Improved Production

New and improved production equipment continues to be made available across the industry in the areas of embroidery; transfer and DTF decorating; digital-printing; and screen printing. New options are also available with respect to screen-printing setup and teardown systems, as well as in the accessories that can quickly be added to an existing automated printing system.


New ideas and opportunities in terms of the kinds of items that can be decorated and the way in which those items are decorated continue to move forward. It’s vital to keep tabs on of what’s going on out there, so that you don’t get left behind by the latest trends and, by extension, the competition.

The key thing is to be able to clearly define the business area or processes you’d like to have work better and then carefully review them as a separate element within your firm’s overall processes. As you are doing so, be sure to also examine how this area or process overlaps with the rest of your company’s activities to make sure by “fixing” one area you don’t negatively impact another or create a whole new set of problems.

What Innovations to Adopt?

Establishing a vision in terms of improving your business will provide you with a clear set of targets you can employ as you consider the solutions that may be available to you.

As you are doing so, consider the scope of whatever change(s) you are considering. Will they consist of a “refinement” that improves the efficiency of a process you are already engaged in while not necessarily growing your business? Or are you interested in “leveling up,” adding capacity or quality or both? The thing to avoid is trying to do too much too soon or having an unrealistic expectations.

Again, it is critical you get help from industry suppliers or other experts in your area. The following is a short framework to help you work your way through the decision-making process:

  1. What kinds of changes are you’re contemplating; what are you looking to achieve? Is the goal to increase revenue, capacity, the overall size of your business? Define what you are looking to achieve, so you can measure the success of your effort.
  2. What are the timeframes and costs involved? Make sure you have a handle on all possible costs. Be sure you project these costs over time as well, so there are no unpleasant surprises. Knowing the amount of time it takes to add a new system, a process or a piece of equipment can help ensure you don’t end up having to, say, deal with a bunch of downtime during your busiest time of year.
  3. Include any affected employees in the process as early as possible. Doing so will encourage their ownership of the process and likely provide you with some valuable feedback prior to implementation.

Given the rate of change in today’s decorated apparel industry, once you have done your homework and received the requisite professional guidance required, it only makes sense to implement whatever innovations you’ve identified as being beneficial ones as quickly as you can. The sooner you improve your company, the more you will distance yourself from those businesses that have decide to wait before making a move—and the greater the chance of your success.

Where in your business to innovate?

At this point you may be thinking that all sounds great. However, you are too busy dealing with the day-to-day to take time from your company to look for ways to innovate. This is a common issue. With labor shortages and today’s order-speed increasing, it can be harder than ever to go from working “in” your business to working “on” it.

Impressions expo decorated apparel trade show

Trade shows are a great place to learn about the latest new production equipment available. Photo 2023 PWP Studio Corporate Event Photographers

With this in mind, Atkinson has a number of ideas on how to find out about the latest innovations.

“Attend trade shows!” he says. “Even if you attend only one per year, they are an essential way to avoid missing new innovations.”

Other ways Atkinson suggests is to join a group or groups on social media where they share innovations with companies that have common interests.

“A final thing,” he says, “is to pay attention to modern media and other innovations like AI bots that may not necessarily be in your industry. Often things develop in parallel industries first before they are adopted in apparel.”

If you can’t attend a trade show and are not sure where to start, you can also reach out to your local consumables supplier or equipment sales representatives and ask what some of the other companies they work with are up to. An even shorter path can be to bring in an industry consultant to help you find some new ways innovating.

Ultimately, taking an intentional approach to leveraging the latest innovations to help grow your business is one of the best ways to rapidly improve on multiple fronts. Having a vision of what you would like to improve, a specific area in your company to address and a plan for what new process or system you want to implement will provide you a much better chance of achieving measurable success. Successfully leveraging the latest industry innovations will also serve as a kind of proof-of-concept for a process you can replicate the next time you are ready to upgrade your business.  

Thomas Trimingham has been helping screen printers for more than 25 years as an industry consultant, artist and high-end separator, and author of over 180 articles. If you have feedback or wish to comment on this article you can reach Thomas at: