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Build Your Business: Trends
The Nuts & Bolts of DTFDirect-to-Film, or DTF, is fast becoming all the rage among decorators
DTF prints typically have a thicker hand, or feel, on a garment because they sit more on top of the fibers compared to DTG printing. Photo courtesy of Brother International
Direct-to-Film (DTF) has been hailed as a revolutionary embellishment process. No longer an abstract idea wistfully floating along within the decorated-apparel think tank world, DTF has infiltrated the industry, setting up shop and ready to upend the great pretreatment debate.
Essentially a digitally produced graphic transfer, in addition to fabric, DTF can be applied to a variety of unusually shaped items made from various materials. The benefits of DTF include the way it can provide durability while remaining cost- and labor-friendly. For anyone still unsure what DTF is, the process of creating DTF transfers using a commercial DTF printing system is quite simple, with the secret recipe for DTF printing success consisting of a few key ingredients: a printer; RIP (raster image processor) software; DTF inks, film and powder; a curing device and powder shaker; a heat press; and safety procedures for powdering, curing and ventilating.
In terms of design, you can generate artwork as you would for other types of apparel or rigid goods decoration (direct-to-garment, UV, white toner, sublimation, etc.). According to Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson America, Inc., most RIP software packages used for DTF printing will then automatically mirror the image and create a white layer underbase according to the background of the graphic. (Transparent backgrounds on all your designs are therefore a must.)
Once the artwork is loaded into the RIP, the design is processed and sent to the printer, where it will print the graphic’s CMYK inks including white. Then, the transfer will travel to the shaker/dryer, depositing powder onto the film and shaking loose any extra powder that has not adhered to the back of the graphic(s). After the transfer is dried, it is ready to be applied to a garment with a heat press or packaged for shipping to a customer.
Market Game Changer
One of the strengths of DTF is the way it delivers a wide range of options in terms of materials and fabric colors. It can even be used on rigid substrates. Another tool in the garment decorator’s toolbox, it expands the designer’s range by opening a new world of possibilities with almost no restrictions.
Check says, for example, that DTF fills the void where full-color is no longer cost effective with screen printing due to small order sizes, or one-offs, and heat transfer vinyl is limited to a single color. It can also supplement direct-to-garment (DTG) printing by being usable with synthetic materials and on unusually shaped items.
According to Matt Gusse, founder of DTF2U.com, with DTF, “we can create full-color transfers with no textile color or fabric in general limitations and without artwork limitations.” He adds there is no weeding, the designs are soft to the hand and “there’s no pre-treating, no true two-step process, limited heat concerns, and transfers are printed at high speeds and at low cost.”
The resulting transfers are also described as being nearly indestructible, with Gusse saying he has heard consumer reports of 50 to 75-plus washing with little to no fade. “With application temperatures as low as 230°-240°F on poly’s, cotton or anything for 6-10 seconds, we can now embellish just about any fabric without pressing concerns. While doing this in-house for under a $1.00 a sq. ft. or outsourcing from a print-provider for $3 to $6 per sq. ft., the profit potential is near unlimited.”
Compared with other transfer papers, a single sheet of DTF film is also cheaper in cost says Trista Cai, product manager, A-Sub. Combining modified printers and shakers for production, manufacturers can save on manpower and material costs as well, making the process suitable for mass production. Bottom line, these kinds of changes cannot be ignored or taken lightly. “DTF will have a place in the fabric transfer industry,” assures Cai. “In the future, more and more manufacturers will start using DTF.”
Practicality Above All
Despite being such a hot commodity, DTF is not suitable for every shop or designer out there. With this in mind it is vital to consider the needs of one’s own business before investing in a DTF system by looking at things like the current market, the nature of your business, equipment costs in the preliminary stages and so on. Cai suggests, for example, that while DTF is an excellent choice for large volume production, she would not recommend it for personal, designer use.
In addition, Check says, “Make sure to look for products from reputable suppliers that can provide support, service and training. Review the equipment’s warranty terms and conditions, along with the necessary print volume and maintenance required. A high-speed roll-to-roll system may look enticing, but do you have a constant flow of orders coming in to keep the machine running efficiently? Hybrid print solutions, like the Epson SureColor F2100, can print directly to the garment for excellent breathability and soft hand feel, as well as print sheet based DTFilm for maximum versatility.”
Before taking the plunge, try making a checklist of why implementing DTF into your business is the right move. Don Copeland, UV product manager, ColDesi, says several points on that list must be made to justify the investment. Among the things he suggests considering is whether or not you are already spending a decent amount of money ordering transfers; whether you want to downsize your current screen-printing operation; whether you are outgrowing any other full-color digital solutions you may be using, like DTG, sublimation, printed vinyl or white toner laser; or whether you are looking to add printed garments to, say, an embroidery or trophy operation.
“Is it practical for every shop?” Gusse says. “Absolutely not! I personally try to scare the s— out of first-time printers, home printers, printers without maintenance experience. You don’t just spend $15,000-$40,000 and start printing $100s.” That said, Gusse emphasizes that “the transfer technology itself, meaning the end product [i.e., the transfer] is for everyone in the heat press-embellishment world. There are too many possibilities for the future and solutions to issues from the past that DTF provides to not implement it into your arsenal.”
As for when it makes sense for someone to make the jump to DTF, turns out many may already have, given the fact many DTG printers have the capability to print DTF as well with the help of a software update.
At Brother, for example, the company’s GTXpro printers allow companies to use their DTG printer to print on DTF sheets, “allowing them to have the best of both worlds,” says Elliot Evans, manager marketing operations, Brother International. “To begin using DTF with any of our DTG printers a customer can review our helpful guide at brotherdtg.com/dtf,” Elliot says. “As companies grow their volume of DTF business, they [may also] want to look at equipment that will print on rolls and automate the process of applying and curing the powder adhesive.”
Beyond the Limits
Clearly, DTF is not only here to stay but will continue its revolutionary trek across the industry. The new “darling” of the heat-transfer printing market, it possesses the tenacity to not only catch up with but even surpass DTG in the coming years. “Throughout 2022, DTF’s popularity swelled. We believe that in 2023, with the emergence of the new DTF printer inkjet technology, it will improve the quality and efficiency of printing and reduce costs,” Cai says, adding that she projects ultimately, “DTF will completely surpass DTG.”
Overall, the future of DTF transfer technology is a bright one. Evans predicts DTF will begin to have OEM manufactures enter the market offering better support, training and equipment for customers hesitant to invest into the current technology. Continued innovation and growth in this field is paramount, thoroughly fueled by both supplier and consumer.
“I expect that DTF printing in 2023 will gain the support of the mainstream print manufactures with the addition of hybrid print systems that support both DTG and DTF in a reliable cost-effective solution,” Check says. “As designers and producers get more experienced with DTF, I expect we’ll see many new product opportunities where the technology can be applied.”
The technology will continue to advance and stabilize, while simultaneously shaking up apparel printing. More and more printers are accommodating for DTF by condensing automatics and shrinking the “old” digital guard (print/cut, eco, latex for apparel, lasers, sublimation). “DTF is literally knocking down walls, building new buildings and making room for containers of machines at a time,” Gusse says. “Those not on board with an in-house solution or a stable print provider will be left in the dust.”
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