The most common question I hear in this industry is “What is the best DTG printer?” This question pops up regularly on major forums, and people ask every time they discuss DTG with me or anyone I know. While this is a perfectly valid question, it might not be the right question to ask when considering whether or not DTG printing is right for you.
Unfortunately, the issue of “which DTG printer is best” is one that is completely subjective, and depends on a multitude of circumstances and personal preference. After all, what really makes one printer better than another? Production speed? Print quality? Reliability? Support? Price? Which criteria do we apply, and which criteria is important to you? The real question you should be asking is this:
“Which DTG printer is right for ME?“
There is a critical and fundamental difference between the two questions: one takes into consideration your personal situation, circumstances, priorities, etc. The other one does not. Since most small ‘mom and pop’ shops wind up investing virtually their entire life savings to get started in direct to garment printing, this critical question can make all the difference in the world. After all, if your particular business model is focused on high-volume, low dollar printing, actual production speeds might make the difference between success and failure. If your business model is focused on the highest quality prints in the industry and you have a market that allows you to price accordingly, then selecting a printer that produces top-level results might be your main concern.
There is no such thing as an “apples to apples” comparison when considering which DTG printer to purchase; rather, it is better to make a list of what your top priorities are for your business model and preference, and rate each individual model based on the key criteria as identified by you. Don’t let someone else tell you which printer is best for them – a little bit of proper planning before the purchase can go a long way!
Here is a list o possible aspects to consider when determining which printer is right for you:
How many garments can you realistically produce in an hour in a realistic production environment? Don’t trust any numbers given to you by any sales rep; visit actual production shops and watch your designs printed in real-life so you can be absolutely sure of the print times you can expect when you receive your machine.
Different printers are limited by factors which can limit their overall production quality. These factors can include: max print resolution, droplet size, machine-specific color profiles, RIP selection, ink selection, printer base and lots more. Be sure to have your own specific artwork printed on multiple platforms, in different RIP settings, to help determine what the realistic limitations will be on each model.
With thousands of DTG printers in the field coupled with the incredibly long learning curve associated with direct-to-garment printing, equipment vendors are literally overwhelmed with tech support related issues. If you are tech-savvy and thorough (and you pay attention at training), you might be able to trudge the murky waters of DTG without much support; in this case, your options for which companies you can work with will be greatly expanded. However, if you require a lot of personal care from dedicated techs to help guide you throughout the process, you had better do your homework beforehand to ensure your expectations will be met, after the sale.
Are you looking for an inexpensive starter rig to dip your toes into DTG, or do you need a solid workhorse that will last for a couple of years? While it may seem like an obvious choice, there are some business models which revolve around treating the actual printers as more of a “consumable”, and sticking with low-cost starter machine or used market equipment. There are pros and cons to each.
Pay attention to consumables, maintenance and costs for general upkeep of your desired printer; while a ground-up industrial machine might seem like a great option, some would argue that a machine with lower maintenance costs might work out better in the long run. You will have to replace print heads along the way – do you want print heads which cost thousands of dollars each (these types of machines typically have 4-8+ print heads in each machine), or do you want print heads which cost under a thousand dollars and include all channels in one single unit? How much does a capping station cost? What is the realistic cost of ink “per print” at your desired print settings? All of these important factors will make a difference when it comes time to pay the bills each month.
The RIP software (Raster Image Processor) is what converts the image on the screen to a sequence of ink droplets on the actual garment. Not all RIP software processes the images the same way, and each version will come with a specific set of color profiles which will ultimately determine your overall print accuracy and quality (no matter how well built the printer itself may be, the RIP software is the brains of the whole operation). Try having your artwork printed on different platforms with different RIPS, and find out what settings were used so you can know what to expect in an actual production scenario (the RIP settings you use for production will have a profound impact on the actual production rates, so be sure you know what settings you plan to use).
Ease of Use
While most DTG printers adhere to a relatively specific process from start to finish, there can be a variety of steps which are unique to each unit / software combo. If ease of use is important to you, make sure you spend time with actual DTG printers so you can find out how complicated the process might be.
What is your general tolerance for acting as an industry guinea pig for any particular printer model, and what do you consider an acceptable amount of maintenance you are willing to do on a regular basis to keep your printer running at optimum? Selecting the “newest and greatest” model from any company (even one with a proven track record, overall) can have certain advantages and certain disadvantages – in particular, you could very well wind up being the one who finds all the random quirks and pitfalls of a new (untested in the field) DTG printer model. Additionally, printer models which have been around for awhile can require varying levels of regular maintenance…. Sometimes it will make sense to select a printer which requires more regular maintenance yet comes with a much lower overall operating cost, while other situations might call for a printer with minimal maintenance (even if the overall operating cost is greater in the long run). What is most important to you?
There are many more factors which could be taken into consideration, and it is up to you to determine your individual priority list. This article is simply meant as a starting point to get you thinking about what to consider when purchasing a DTG printer.
Resist the urge to give in to public perception – don’t make a buying decision of this magnitude based on a forum post or one particular use who couldn’t make a machine work for their particular business model. Rather, the smart DTG buyer will carefully examine each independent quality for the particular printer models which interest them, and make a decision based on what is going to be the best fit for their particular situation. I have seen people make money with cheap, used DTG printers which they refurbished in their garage; no tech support needed, as their personal experience allowed them to bypass the initial learning curve. On the flip side, I have also seen people fail with some of the most “reliable” and “industrial” models on the market – the key difference often comes down to finding the correct printer for the correct business model, and not limiting yourself to one particular style of printer. In some cases, a high quality dark-garment capable DTG printer might be your bread-and-butter machine, but having a cheap light-garment printer as a supplement might make perfect sense!
Don’t find out months down the line that your selected printer isn’t ideal for your business – think about it before you pull the trigger, and save yourself a ton of trouble in the long run!!