Build Your Business:

Innovation in the Trenches

May 17, 2016

UPON HEARING THE term “innovation,” it’s natural to think about technology as it applies to products. But what about other aspects of apparel decorating, such as techniques, design, business practices and marketing?

In this vast and ever-changing industry, it can be difficult to understand why certain decorating styles and techniques are popular, or what shop owners can do to truly push the needle on innovation. Acquiring that knowledge requires dialogue with those that are in the trenches — standing behind the pallet, in front of the screen or over the ink bucket.

Impressions recently spoke with four shop owners about several industry trends, including technology, innovation, techniques, equipment and marketing.

Technical Innovation
20 years, new decorating techniques, including dye sublimation and direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, have come to prominence, but many decorators are raving about another technology that has significantly boosted business: direct-to-screen imaging.

“I think [direct-to-screen] is a phenomenal idea, a phenomenal concept,” says Pierre John Jamnicky, CEO of Blue Moon Promotional Inc., Eastlake, Ohio. “It streamlines production and removes the human element, which increases the consistency across production, which is huge.”

Direct-to-screen, or computer-to-screen, imaging can output an image directly onto emulsion, eliminating carrier film and even some human labor.

“As far as the quality of separations [and] the speed of the separations, the accuracy of direct-to-screen is one thing that has really helped propel our business,” says Tom Rauen, owner of Envision Tees, Dubuke, Iowa. “With the quality and speed, it’ll take a shop to the next level when they have that technology.”

Along with improved quality, direct-to-screen technology offers a significant increase in production and throughput capacity.

“Before we went [to] direct-to-screen, we were averaging about six to eight minutes of setup per screen on the press,” says Danny Gruninger, co-owner of Denver Print House, Lakewood, Colo. “Now, we’re averaging under a minute per screen. We’re getting jobs up on the press a lot quicker, we’re getting them down quicker and getting the next job ready to go a lot quicker. When we went [to] direct-to-screen, we saw over 40% increase in throughput right off the bat.”

Some decorators may scoff at the expense involved in direct-to-screen imaging, but Gruninger, Rauen and Jamnicky insist that if the technology makes sense for your shop, it’s worth the $50,000-$60,000 price tag. However, another shop owner warns of the downside to technology that affects so many aspects of production.

“Where there’s technology, there’s failure as well,” says Greg Gaardbo, CEO and creative director, Shockwaves Promotional Apparel, Arlington Heights, Ill. “Now, if something fails [with direct-to-screen], your whole shop is down instead of an easy part to fix if you were doing something with an automatic or manual (press).”

There also has been significant improvement in DTG technology recently.

“The quality of direct-to-garment [printing], which has been getting a lot more consistent, is getting real comparable to screen printing now,” Rauen says.

Indeed, when DTG was introduced, many believed that it would quickly replace screen printing — something that hasn’t actually happened, but its capabilities are consistently improving.

“I’ve always thought direct-to-garment is the wave of the future,” Gaardbo says. “I want screen printing in a box. The images are just unbelievable.”

Screen-printing inks have become more advanced as well; whether it’s silicone or water-based, environmentally friendly inks, decorators now can do a lot more than was previously possible.

“[Silicone ink] has been on the market for a couple years now,” Jamnicky says. “It allows a softer, stretchy, more doable print on some fabrics that were really difficult to print on before. It’s not easy, but it is significantly easier. And it’s a different product that wasn’t available before.”

Today’s innovative ink systems have made printing on traditionally problematic fabrics, such as polyester,less painstaking.

“In the past we used to have certain inks — like water-based inks — that we could not print on polyester fabric,”

Gruninger says. “Now, we have black blocker underbases where we can print a true high-solids acrylic water-based [ink] on a polyester fabric.”

Continuing the steamroll of innovation, operating systems also are improving, meaning the interplay between press operator and screen-printing press has never been easier.

“You can communicate with the presses with a laptop, an iPad, an iPhone, a tablet or a desktop computer,” Gruninger says. “Technology is definitely improving. Mainly what we’re seeing is just (an improvement on) overall throughput in our shop.”

Faster is Better…Right?
expect their orders to be filled quickly, so that begs the question: How fast is too fast for production speed?

“The speed itself I don’t see as a detriment,” Jamnicky says. “Sacrificing things to gain speed is an issue. The proper answer is usually a compromise somewhere in the middle.”

In other words, producing decorated garments as quickly as possible while maintaining high quality is never an issue. Speed becomes problematic when decorators push the envelope too much, causing them to overlook mistakes. One decorator says that American decorators should use their European counterparts as a model when it comes to production.

“Over in Europe, they’re not so concerned with the speed the presses are running,” Gruninger says. “They’re more concerned about maintaining a tempo. Compared to the United

States, where a lot of people are trying to hit a number, they’re trying to print as fast as they possibly can. It’s not about how fast you can print. It’s about maintaining a steady rhythm and tempo as far as production goes.”

But that’s not an endorsement of moving at a snail’s pace when it comes to production, either. Buyers and end users, after all, despise waiting for completed orders; however, they still expect quality.

“We’re in a business of deadlines where people place an order and want it yesterday,” Rauen says. “That mindset is shifting even more for your everyday customer because of the Amazons of the world that are shipping next day. People are getting used to that process and, in their mind, they think that regardless of what they order, including T-shirts, it’s going to be on their doorstep the next day. If you can’t deliver the next day or within two days, they’re going to find someone who can. The speed and turnaround are really going to play a big role in the next few years.”

The general consensus: Do a job as fast as you can without compromising the quality of what you’re selling.

Marketing to Your Audience
a marketing curve is increasingly difficult in a world dominated by social media stalwarts like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But there are ways to keep up with your potential customers’ needs.

“The younger generation wants to do everything [digitally],” Gruninger says. “We’ve definitely seen a need to do more Internet, digital and direct marketing. Having a good web platform and having a good interface [also is important].”

Some believe social media is the key to marketing in this age, but others like a more old-fashioned approach. “You’ve got to be banging on doors out there,” Gaardbo says. “It’s a matter of helping people understand what’s available.”

While that’s true, reaching audiences through social media is becoming an art form, and those who master it will find it much easier to reach a broad audience.

“With marketing, you have to set yourself aside from just providing a T-shirt and add more to it,” Rauen says. “Within each niche market, you’re going to have to provide the value that the customer is going to pay to separate you from the competition.”

And in this industry, innovation is making it easier to accomplish that goal.