Digital Decorating:

DTG vs. Screen Printing

Which embellishment process makes the most sense for your business?

By John LeDrew, Contributing Writer

Regardless of whether it’s a small or large shop, prepress, setup, breakdown and the learning curve make screen printing a difficult application to adopt.

September 1, 2017

If you’ve been shopping for screen-printing equipment, you may have noticed most major resellers and manufacturers now also offer direct-to-garment (DTG) printers. That’s because DTG is becoming increasingly popular and viable as technology evolves.

Deciding whether to invest in screen printing or DTG printing requires examining the differences between both applications, which have distinct sets of pros and cons. Understanding the production details of each and determining how these applications will benefit your business is important.

Screen printing has dominated the garment-decoration industry for more than 100 years. With advancements in ink, photo-sensitive emulsion and equipment, the process is reliable and repeatable, and can be done by small or large shops.

Historically, most printed apparel likely was screen printed, and most shops that considered expanding production volume looked to that technology to help them grow. This model is changing as digital-application technologies and the market evolve.

Benefits of Screen Printing
The screen-printing process has several benefits, but what separates it from DTG is speed and volume. With an automatic screen-printing press, for example, a shirt can be printed and put on a dryer belt every three to five seconds if prepress requirements have been met. That is the major distinction between screen printing and DTG — speed and volume vs. setup and breakdown.

It’s important to consider what you intend to accomplish and what you are willing to invest financially. To print three to five shirts per second, you must make a serious investment in equipment, training and space. This requires automatic presses, large conveyor dryers, an ink-mixing station and a large screen-processing and cleaning area. A full-scale automatic shop easily can cost $500,000 or more in equipment and supplies. Typically, existing shops grow into this type of setup and gear up as production demands increase.

Most startup or small print shops begin with a bare-bones screen-printing configuration and can be productive with much less of an investment. A new manual press, flash unit, small conveyor dryer and a small screen-prep area can be effective. A reasonable expectation for a new small-shop, manual-screen-print setup is $15,000-$20,000.

Regardless of whether it’s a small or large shop, prepress, setup, breakdown and the learning curve make screen printing a difficult application to adopt. Here is a simple list of steps involved in the traditional screen-printing process: Prepare and separate art, create film positives, clean and dry screens, coat screens with emulsion and dry, expose screens, wash, dry, block out, dry, tape off, set screens on press, mix ink, register, test print, print, remove screens, remove ink, and wash and reclaim screens.

The entire process can take hours and is sensitive to errors. If exposure time isn’t correct, a screen may not wash out. If the platen gets too hot, the ink can stick to the bottom of the screens and cause ghosting. If you use the wrong ink or emulsion, or a screen breaks, you must reshoot and re-register new screens. One skewed element can jeopardize an entire job.

Though the screen-printing preparation process takes time — the more colors in the design, the longer it takes — you can start cranking out shirts as soon as setup is done. That’s why screen printing is conducive to large-volume runs.

Such jobs enable screen printers to make money. Prepress, setup and breakdown processes require time and resources, and these costs must be amortized into the volume of shirts produced to sustain a reasonable margin. Large volumes fuel screen-printing shops and can be lucrative.

Keys to DTG
Many small screen-printing shops will sacrifice margins for small-run jobs to accommodate the demand of the custom-shirt-buying public. Consistent large-volume jobs are hard to acquire and maintain due to the competition among screen printers. A small shop may need a 12-piece job just to stay busy. This is where DTG printing stands out.

Ideal for low-volume jobs because setup and breakdown is negligible compared to screen printing, DTG printing is slower but preparation is faster. A conservative estimate for screen printing 12 shirts — a five-color job, from setup to breakdown — is four-plus hours. With DTG, 12 shirts can be prepped, printed and cured in about 30 minutes.

I often hear concerns that DTG isn’t viable because there isn’t money in low-volume jobs. This can be true, but determining that requires analyzing your business model.

Think about your customers’ requests. What is the average size of the print jobs you receive? Do they want 144-plus shirts, or do they want a dozen shirts for a party or team? With DTG, you can confidently advertise low-minimum, custom, full-color prints on light and dark garments. Better yet, you can advertise no minimums.

How many of your competitors do this? I can almost guarantee it’s very few because if they are screen printing, they cannot reliably produce one-off, custom-printed shirts — considering customers’ often-wild requests — and yield a consistent profit.

The goal for offering no minimums is not to do one-offs regularly; it’s to capture the low-volume customers and prevent them from contacting other screen printers who cannot deliver on their low-minimum, custom requests. You’re eliminating doubt, complications and fear. Most customers don’t want just one shirt, but there is peace in knowing they can order it with a full-color print, especially for reorders or fill-in needs.

The industry is trending toward low-volume customization because the market is demanding it. DTG printing gives you a distinct advantage in fulfilling this need. It also can be a standalone business in which you print low-volume jobs in-house and contract out larger runs to screen printers. The DTG process also can be added to an existing print shop, as even larger shops are seeing the need for quick-turn, low-volume orders. It’s common for shops to have multiple DTG units, with each machine printing 100 different custom orders per day.

Screen printing is here to stay. Do you want to invest the time and resources to be effective with that decoration method, or would you prefer contracting out large-volume work while focusing on producing low-volume jobs in-house with DTG? Whatever you decide, remember that DTG is a necessary technology that can be used to satisfy customer demand.

John LeDrew is the DTG director for Melco Intl. He has worked professionally in garment decoration since 2006, managing accounts and overseeing production for some of the world’s largest brands and retailers. For more information or to comment on this article, contact John via LinkedIn.

Screen-Printing Truth Serum

Screen printing has a few distinct elements you should consider before investing in the process. It’s important to be realistic with your expectations.

High-quality screen printing is a complex art form, and takes a tremendous amount of money and time to master. Simple applications are relatively easy to accomplish, but high-end, high-volume jobs can be difficult for a novice. Screen printing also requires a steady stream of supplies to keep up with materials usage; you may invest hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to keep your shop supplied.

Often overlooked is the fact that screen printing is messy. Ink gets everywhere and requires constant cleaning. The screen-cleaning and reclaiming process is a monstrous challenge. Have you ever seen the television show “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Roe? He has filmed an episode on reclaiming screens. Trust me — it’s dirty.