November 12, 2020
From the early days of converted desktop inkjet printers to today’s purpose-built direct-to-garment (DTG) machines, many things have changed with this digital application. However, the process has remained virtually the same: 100% cotton shirts still are the best substrate. Water-based ink still is printed through an inkjet print head. And pretreatment solution still gets applied to shirts prior to printing white ink.
Some of the key changes and developments include:
- Better pretreatment solutions and application methods
- Improved printhead technology
- Better ink chemistry
- Faster production speeds
- Availability of pre-pretreated shirts
- The use of conveyor dryers for curing
Where DTG Stands
Pretreatment solution has progressed in recent years from a stiff and sometimes-yellow chemical on the garment to a thinner, clearer solution. It’s available for dark-colored shirts (requiring a white underbase), as well as white and light-colored shirts (no white ink).
The purpose of pretreatment is to cause the ink to begin curing on the shirt’s surface before the fabric absorbs it. This is similar to the way a screen printer prints a white underbase and flashes the ink before applying the other colors. Pretreatment causes the ink to “flash” on the garment’s surface.
You can pretreat a white or pastel shirt when printing CMYK inks only, but it’s not required. Pretreating these garments will yield brighter, crisper images and better washability.
Most DTG decorators today regard automatic pretreatment machines as equally as important as the printer and heat press or conveyor dryer. Most decorators have forsaken the pump bottle, paint roller and power sprayer in favor of an automatic pretreatment machine. Uniformity of application and cleanliness are the primary reasons.
Pretreating shirts via any method that results in inconsistent application on the fabric surface will result in equally inconsistent prints. In other words, the amount of pretreatment and the consistency across the entire image area will impact the finished print.
Print heads used in the early days of the DTG process were built for printing on paper and for a different ink chemistry. This caused some clogging issues, and still is an issue today with machines that are manufactured as repurposed paper printers. However, most of today’s machines now feature print heads specifically built for use with DTG’s water-based textile inks.
Ink developments, specifically those concerning white ink, have improved the reliability of DTG printers. The titanium dioxide used as a pigment is better suspended in today’s white ink, resulting in fewer solids settling and, therefore, less head clogging.
Faster production times make DTG printing more competitive with other decoration methods. Using multiple printers to increase productivity is becoming more common as well. Garments now are available that arrive at your shop already pretreated. In the not-so-distant past, these shirts didn’t print well; today, they print as if you pretreated the shirt yourself.
Heat presses were, for many years, the norm when curing DTG-printed garments, and most decorators still use them for that purpose. But conveyor dryers are becoming an increasingly popular option — especially if you have more than one DTG printer. Once a decorator adds a fourth or fifth printer, it’s also common to upgrade to a conveyor dryer.
Considerations for Adding DTG
Nearly all garment decorators are living and working in a new world where consumers want custom products in low quantities, and they want them now. Even professional buyers are approaching garment decorators and asking for multiple shorter runs instead of larger-scale production because they don’t want to carry large decorated-apparel inventories; instead, they want decorators to act as a “warehouse” that carries their goods. For some of these customers, you will need the ability to produce in an on-demand environment.
Consider the following when evaluating whether to add DTG to your decoration options:
- Are you leaving money on the table by turning away shorter-run work?
- Do you want to have an online e-commerce presence?
- Are you working with a less-skilled labor pool since the training is less complex?
People were wary of DTG technology in its early days. But after seeing the digital method become established and then flourish, many screen printers began to realize just how many orders they turned away because of minimums.
Despite DTG decoration’s newness, many online garment resellers use the technique. Inventory includes blank goods and orders are filled on demand; many times, they’re printed and shipped in the same day.
In a word, speed is next on the horizon when it comes to DTG printing. A process that took 10 minutes or more in its infancy now takes less than a minute. The average print time for a 10″ x 12″ image on a colored shirt today still is around two minutes, and a white shirt takes less than a minute on even the least-expensive printers.
The practice of purchasing pretreated garments will only increase with more availability from garment manufacturers. Will pretreating your own garments completely go away? Probably not, since our customers sometimes dictate which garments they want you to decorate. Unique styles and colors (Texas Orange, Carolina Blue, etc.) will require digital decorators to at least pretreat garments outside of the standard offerings from manufacturers.
While a learning curve exists in becoming an expert DTG decorator, that window is much smaller than most other decoration methods. For example, screen printing requires using a variety of screen mesh counts, ink options, etc. DTG printing basically involves repeating the same steps in production. In fact, most of the printing decisions are made in the art department. A DTG machine operator generally only loads and unloads garments.
If it hasn’t happened already, DTG printing likely is in your future. With advances in inks, pretreatment and machines, this transition is becoming a much easier process to conquer.
Terry Combs has more than 40 years of experience in the garment-printing industry, and has managed production shops large and small across the United States. He has written hundreds of management and technical articles for industry publications and spoken at industry events worldwide. He currently does DTG sales and training with Equipment Zone.
Hybrid DTG Printing
Combining screen and DTG printing has been a dream pursuit since the process’s early days. Today, it’s becoming more of a reality. One recent innovation has been the introduction of printing with plastisol inks on a screen-
printing press before applying the DTG print. In the past, only water-based inks were effective in this hybrid process.
The craft of full-color, photographic images being printed using screens may be disappearing. While many screen printers can produce beautiful, photographic images on colored garments, developments in DTG decorating — combined with screen printing — may make this technology obsolete.
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