How to optimize images for DTG printing – Basic Levels and Saturation Adjust

This video shows the basic steps to optimize most standard images for Direct to Garment printing. Prior to printing any image, you should check to ensure that the color values are rich and saturated, or that they match the expected output you are looking to achieve in the final print.

You do not need to be a Photoshop expert to get the most out of your artwork!  The general guidelines set forth in this video are easy to wrap your head around, and involve minimal steps….  However, the results you can achieve are absolutely noticeable and profound.

The process of fine tuning artwork is not an exact science, but you can certainly get the best possible print quality out of any image by following these basic guidelines.  Keep in mind this process is relevant regardless of which printer hardware you are using, what RIP you are running or which ink set you prefer!  ALL DTG setups can benefit from this basic knowledge.

A Call to Action: What Needs to Change Before DTG Printing Can become Reliable and Profitable

DTG Printing has been around for many years and it has certainly evolved quite a bit throughout the process.  In the early days of DTG, white ink printing wasn’t even possible and the general color gamut of CMYK inks was less than impressive. In a few short years, however, DTG printing has come a long way – white ink is mainstream (available on nearly every printer on the market) and the level of color output and print detail is absolutely stunning.  Visit any industry trade show across the country and you would find it incredibly difficult to not be impressed – it is not uncommon for the DTG booths to be absolutely loaded with potential buyers and interested parties, soaking up every second of the action as these high-tech wonders produce beautiful, full color prints on garments with what appears to be relative ease. Why then, do so many companies that adopt DTG printing wind up selling their machines within months of purchasing them (or sometimes, if they really like the abuse, they might keep battling their printers for a year or longer before they inevitably jump ship), often at a huge financial loss?  Part of the answer is staring us in the face while we stand there at the trade show, mesmerized by the visual print quality of the garment – the prints are just so incredible that we feel there is no way we can’t make money selling them!  Most of us would be hard pressed to find a screen printer would could even come close to competing with this level of quality.  However, what we often fail to notice is how excruciatingly long it takes to create a finished product, and they aren’t even showing all the steps at the trade shows!! Along these lines, I have compiled a simple list to explain what I feel must change in the DTG printing industry, before it can ever be accepted as a truly mainstream process.  After all, if small business owners can’t actually make money on it, then what’s the point??

DISCLAIMER: I am well aware that there are people out there having success in the DTG market.  These successful individuals are often the exception, rather than the rule.  I have noticed that people on the East coast seem to have slightly fewer issues with production (possibly due to higher overall humidity levels) but overall, more people fail out of DTG than are successful in the long run.  This article is meant to address the issues faced by most people who engage in the fine art of DTG printing, regardless of which printer they have selected.

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PAINFULLY SLOW PRINT TIMES

To print in the highest quality settings using most standard 4880 based DTG printers (which, regardless of what the salespeople tell you, is virtually mandatory if you want to achieve the same level of quality you see at the shows) on a dark garment, assuming a standard sized print area (approximately 12″ x 12″), it could easily take 10 minutes per garment to complete the actual printing process!  While this does not include the time required to pre-treat each shirt prior to printing, it is important to remember that you will have plenty of time to perform this step while the machine is doing its thing….  In theory, the initial pretreatment process shouldn’t add any time to the overall process, just more labor – that is, unless you are one of those shops who pre-treats shirts prior to printing them (rather than doing it simultaneously with the print process). At approximately 6 units per hour for high-quality DTG printing, how can anybody really make a profit?  Dark garments are, as one might imagine, the most popular type of garment for most clients – you can try to talk them into white shirts (which are much easier to print, faster, cheaper, etc) but you can’t build a strong foundation if you are constantly trying to talk people into the “easier” option for you….  Sure, light garments (ie, no white ink underbase) are better for us as printers, but your potential clients really don’t care how much effort, time or money you put into the finished product – at the end of the day, they all want it cheap and they want it fast! Of course, some machines are faster than others, but I have personally owned everything from the Kornit to a multitude of Epson-based DTG printers in the last 10 years and the best I have been able to get in a real production environment, thus far, was about 12 units per hour on dark garments (and I was not entirely satisfied with the print quality, at those speeds).  Advancements in technology have allowed some companies to develop printers using larger, more industrial print heads – Ricoh is a common choice among manufacturers, but using larger print heads to lay down more ink in a shorter period of time can often compromise the overall print quality, since tiny droplets of ink are critical to creating to most subtle details and effects (just ask Anajet how that worked out for them).

Until we get to a point where the average DTG printer is capable of producing at least 24 units per hour (dark garments, at a standard print size), I don’t see most people being able to make a decent profit – especially when compared to many other print decoration options available which are faster and less expensive.

NOTE: You can approach DTG from the perspective of an embroidery business model – since each machine can only produce a painfully limited number of units per hour, it makes sense that you could scale your business appropriately by adding additional machines…  The problem with this, of course, is you wind up dealing with a multitude greater level of tech support and troubleshooting, so the scale factor is not easy to calculate.  Additionally, since the cost of each unit is general $15,000 or more, it would require an investment of about $150,000 to hit an hourly production rate of about 60 units per hour on dark garments – in the real world, you will always have a certain number of machines which are “acting up” at any given time, so really you wouldn’t even hit those numbers most of the time (even for such a staggering investment).

CONSUMABLES AND OPERATING COSTS ARE WAY TOO HIGH

In the world of custom printed t-shirts, everyone is trying to save a buck.  Each and every client seems to want everything for nothing, so there is not much room for margins (especially when the client is ordering anything other than a single unit).  This becomes a major issue, of course, when you can only print 6-12 units per hour (which means you must amortize the cost of your general overhead and labor across a minimal number of finished product) and the cost of ink “per print” is often in the range of $2-3.  For the record, that number doesn’t even include the cost of the pretreatment, which must be added to the garment prior to printing. At one point my shop had 3 Neoflex DTG printers, which produced the absolute best quality at the time (compared directly to all the other models and brands I have owned) – since these 4880-based units we capable of producing some pretty big prints, we had lots of clients coming through the doors to take advantage of our print size capability.  While we were excited at first, our emotions soon turned to disappointment as we found the average cost of ink “per shirt” for these larger prints (generally 16″ x 20″) was easily averaging $8-10 per print!!  Oh, and at that particular print size (at the highest print quality) the total print time “per garment” was about 22-24 minutes.  At that rate and at those prices (assuming we had ZERO other expenses to contend with, aside from labor) we would have had to be charging around $34 per shirt to make our relatively low “net profit target” of $60 per hour. Of course, this would not have taken into consideration any misprints, quality rejects, shop overhead (like rent, electrical, phone and internet, etc) – the true number would have been north of $40 per garment, for a typical t-shirt…..  I suppose some markets do exist which would support this price for unique, one-off custom garments, but that market doesn’t include the clients that most of us tend to service on a regular basis.  If you can charge that much for a shirt, then more power to you!  We were trying to be competitive wholesale DTG providers, and it simply wasn’t feasible at those prices.  In fact, it was outright laughable.

In order for the average print shop to become competitive and profitable with DTG printing, the average cost “per print” really needs to fall in the .50-$1.50 range for an average size print on a dark garment.

NOTE: Many salespeople will try to tell you that their average cost “per print” is incredibly low – Brother even records print cost data across a broad range of users, allowing them to determine an allegedly accurate number for use in their sales and marketing documents.  However, these numbers generally include the cost of ink for small images (like left chest prints) as well as light garments – after all, it is a “total average” not a specific average…  At the end of the day, this is incredibly misleading since we must base our pricing on what it costs to do a standard size print – our profits don’t work in averages…. They work on a “per job” basis!

ITS JUST NOT THAT RELIABLE

The production rates and ink costs provided assume that the DTG machine is actually working properly, without fail – in the real world (and I cannot emphasize this enough), I have never owned a DTG printer that actually worked all the time!  In fact, I don’t think it is uncommon to spend upwards of 30% of your time, on average, maintaining and troubleshooting your investment. Some companies offer excellent tech support service, while others tend to leave you high and dry after you make the purchase – even with excellent tech support, you will never receive the full-time, hands on assistance that most shops need in order to keep these machines running at peak performance, all the time.  Most DTG printer owners find themselves overnighting parts at an alarming rate, and spending as much time with their printers “opened up and in pieces” than actually printing garments for their clients…  Many issues are fairly common and don’t take too long to resolve, but this does not excuse the fact that DTG printers simply require significantly more maintenance and downtime than any other printing method or equipment I have ever seen.  Maybe 3D printing is the same way, but that is literally the only comparison I can make at this point in the game. When my shop finally stepped away (for now) from DTG printing, we had 5 DTG machines from different companies, as well as our own in-house tech support team dedicated to keeping them running.  Our main tech had been involved with many of the DTG printers we had owned, spent countless hours replacing parts and fixing major and minor issues, and had a solid working relationship with the primary tech support guys at the various manufacturers who had provided our equipment.  At the end of our run, there was not enough money I could possibly offer him to stay around and help me continue fixing my machines – he actually told me it was like trying to nail Jello to a tree, and he was “done with it”. A single Epson print head can cost between $400-700, depending on which model of printer you own (for the Ricoh, Brother and Spectra based machines, the cost is sometimes $1,000-4,000 per print head) – considering how shockingly easy it can be to destroy a print head (either through continuous use or by improper maintenance), this is a serious cost that must be considered in the long run.  This, of course, doesn’t take into account replacement capping stations, wiper blades, encoder strips, worn down plastic pieces, ink lines and lots more).

NOTE: I have owned at least 14 DTG printers in the last 10 years, and there has not been one single unit which has not required me to replace the print heads at least once!  This includes the supposedly “perfect” Brother GT-541 and the Kornit 932, as well as all other Epson based printers that have found their way through my shop over the years.  The inks we are running through these things have a much higher viscosity level than what the Epson print heads were designed for, and even the more industrial heads are subject to wear and tear from the TiO2 pigment that is added to the white inks to give them their opacity.  Additionally, all print heads are prone to drying out when they are not used regularly, so don’t even think about letting your investment sit idle – not even for a day!

Browse this website and you will find countless images from the last ten years, showing every single printer literally turned inside out and in various stages of disrepair – we are not unfamiliar with the technology and our issues cannot (to the dismay of so many salespeople, tech support people and equipment manufacturers) be simply attributed to fundamental “user error” – although this is the most common message you will hear in this industry, we cannot accept that we are the problem and the machines are so awesome….  That concept simply does not mesh with reality. Consider this – major companies such as CafePress and Zazzle are famous for their large, streamlined facilities and overall success in the industry; despite this, anyone behind-the-scenes will readily acknowledge the fact that at any given point, a certain percentage of their manufacturing stable is inoperable or receiving maintenance (scheduled or otherwise).  There is an overwhelmingly high amount of equipment turnover with larger DTG printing companies, whereas they will often invest huge sums of money into large numbers of new printers in an ongoing effort to find the “best machine out there”.  If these companies were completely satisfied with their chosen machines, we wouldn’t see them constantly switching between different brands.  Of course, I know they all have a certain number of reliable units which establish their “base foundation”, but having been on the sales side and having discussed various aspects of the technology with some of the big wigs in these companies, I can say with certainty that they are not completely content with any of the machines they are using.

If the DTG manufacturers want small business owners to succeed, they will design these machines to operate with minimal maintenance for much longer periods of time.  Even with OEM inks, most Epson printers are not intended to be printing constantly, so adding thicker ink to the equation isn’t doing us any favors in terms of reliability.  I should not have to do more than 10 minutes of maintenance per day (at most!) and there should be very little downtime on my DTG printers….  Additionally, I should be able to leave my printer idle for 2-3 days without worrying about whether I just cost myself $700 in a damaged print head.

IN CONCLUSION – A CHALLENGE HAS BEEN ISSUED

Understand, I am not a “DTG hater” – in fact, I am probably one of the greatest supporters of this technology, having been involved since the very early days in a very public way and invested huge sums of my own money (as well as various investment capital) into trying to make it work in the real world.  When one machine didn’t hold up to expectations and hype, I tried the next in line, and so on until I finally couldn’t justify it any longer.  I am not beholden to any manufacturer or brand, and although I have many long standing relationships and close friendships within this industry, the primary purpose for my involvement is my own success in this niche and I would never continue to own a machine that was not truly making me money.  I want DTG printing to work in the real world, and I want to stop hearing stories about people who have invested their life savings into this business, only to be disappointed in the end. For now, I find myself licking my wounds and settling old accounts to try and recover the pieces from a long, difficult journey into this technology – having adopted several different processes which don’t involve DTG (dye sublimation being my favorite, so far), I am slowly rebuilding and getting things back on track.  As the industry continues to develop and grow, I find myself checking in constantly to see what the “next big thing” is, hoping and praying that we are getting closer to something that can be widely adopted (and retained) by the average business owner.  I expect that, at some point, I will be totally impressed and awe-struck at how far the industry has come, and I will take another stab at in-house DTG printing. Until then, however, I would like to offer an open challenge to all DTG equipment manufacturers out there:

We as a consumer base need more from you.  We need you to consider the points laid out in this article and we need to see some tangible progression in this industry.  Distributors are making a killing off of equipment sales commissions and ongoing ink sales, but the end user is often left disappointed and broke.  We cannot tolerate 6-12 unit per hour print speeds, and we certainly cannot shoulder the burden of $3-10 in ink for a single print – large sized prints should cost us about $3-5 in ink, max (with decent coverage).  Standard sized images, on dark garment, should use between .50-$1.50 in ink.  During a normal shift, while also considering any possible downtime and whatnot, we should be able to print 24-36 garments per hour on a single machine – anything less makes this more of a hobby than a serious business.  Finally, although we understand that there is only so much you can do about the cost of parts and whatnot, it is really important that our printers are able to function for an entire day without requiring us to do any heavy maintenance.  In fact, we really shouldn’t be opening up our machines (beyond opening the lid for a quick cleaning) more than once every few weeks (or months).  We don’t want to be constantly replacing parts, and although we love understanding every aspect of our machines we would rather not have to be certified experts and replace parts on a seemingly regular basis – we don’t have to deal with that sort of thing from our wide format printers / plotters, or from our dye sublimation equipment, so why should we have to put up with it for DTG?  If things still aren’t completely up to par, be honest about it – don’t tell us to expect 15 prints per hour, when we both know we should probably expect more like 6-8…  At the end of the day, it will help us better determine if this business is really for us, and if we choose to dive in then we can at least prepare for what is in store for us and create a business model that is appropriate for this process.  DTG printing has come a long way and we are pleased by this, but there are still too many people losing their asses after a relatively short period of time trying to make it work.  Don’t just promise us more, but deliver more – actions speak louder than words, and we can’t wait to see this technology evolve into something entirely practical and profitable.

PS – Oh, and don’t try to pull that nonsense about how “when it becomes too easy, everybody including Wal-Mart will be doing it” – dye sublimation is easy, as is standard vinyl printing and plotting (relatively so, of course)…  However, we don’t see them destroying the small business market in these other fields – sure, there will always be big corporate competition, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be just as competitive with some reliable and affordable equipment and inks.

If you agree with this, please comment or share this article!  We are spending a lot of money to help develop this industry, so we should definitely be getting more out of it, at this point.  The important people are reading it, and the more attention we can give (and support), the more likely they will be to take it seriously.  Don’t be content acting as a paying guinea pig for the equipment manufacturers – demand more from this industry, so we can all get more out of it.

Managing Your Color Expectations with DTG Printing

Color management is a very important part of the DTG printing process.  In fact, next to selecting the proper garments for printing (which you can read more about here), proper artwork adjustment (color manipulation, etc) is the most important factor in determining how well (or how poorly) an image will print.  For starters, always make sure you are using the most accurate, up-to-date color profiles available for your particular printer to ensure that every printed image looks as amazing as possible; keep in mind, however, that even the best color profiles and RIP software will not do anything to “enhance” the existing colors in a custom design, so it is up to you to make the necessary artwork adjustments prior to printing your file(s).

Right off the bat, there are a few “Golden Rules” you should know about DTG printing / color management – by understanding this information and using it as a guide to educate your clients, you can ensure that everyone has a better grasp on what goes into a high quality DTG print:

1. The final print will ONLY look as good as the original artwork that is input for printing!

If the input file is low resolution, blurry or dull, then the final print will be grainy, blurry or dull.  If the input file is high resolution (200 dpi for garment printing), crisp and vibrant, then the final print will be clear, crisp and vibrant!

2. There is NO SUCH THING as PMS color matching with DTG printing!

You can always print color charts for yourself or your customers to help select colors that are close to the intended output colors, but it is important to understand that a number of variables can effect the color output on the actual garment:

  • Different garment styles, brands and colors will print differently; a color chart may very well print a certain way on one brand of t-shirt, then print differently on an alternate t-shirt brand.
  • Many DTG printers use different color profiles for BLACK garments, WHITE garments and “ALL OTHER” colored garments – there is no guarantee of consistency between black and colored garments, or between dark and light colored prints.  Additionally, as printers we often have to adjust the volume of pretreatment spray, white ink under base or color layer saturation to prevent “discoloration” of certain garments; since we have to make these decisions during the production process in an effort to provide the highest quality print, while still ensuring that the garments survive the production process with minimal scarring, we cannot always guarantee that we will use the exact same under base percentage or color layer saturation from one day to the next.
  • The pretreatment process required for dark garments requires us to dial in the volume of pre-treat spray on a daily basis (sometimes several times per day) – altering the pretreatment volume even a slight amount could alter the colors in a print, slightly.  This is an artistic process, not a scientific process.
  • Varying degrees of humidity can cause fluctuations in the behavior of the water based inks used for DTG printing – most of us do our best to control all variables of production, including the environmental variables in the actual production rooms; however, there are times where the differences are noticeable, typically manifesting in slightly different hues being printed.
  • Color profiling is a touchy, subjective process where altering one range of colors could alternately effect another range entirely.  Since we can’t check with all of our clients prior to switching to new color profiles, we cannot always guarantee that a design printed today will print the exact same way in a year, or even a month – always do your best to keep your clients updated (via your website or newsletter) whenever you update your color profiles, but it is ultimately their responsibility to do the necessary testing and adjusting if they are trying to achieve or reproduce a particular color value.

3. The RIP software used to process artwork for printing on to garments is highly specialized and incredibly sensitive!

It will analyze an image and draw out as many color values as possible to recreate every subtle nuance of the digital design.  If the hue or tint of certain colors is off slightly, the end result will be more noticeable in the actual print!  This means that if there is a slight yellow tint to the design on the screen, you will definitely notice a yellow tint in the printed design.  With some practice, you will learn to spot these “off colors” and correct them before you ever send the file for printing – once you have some experience and understanding of the way the DTG process works, you will be able to identify the subtle differences in color and predict how they will look on the printed garment.

In “Golden Rule #3”, we explained how sensitive the RIP software can be when evaluation subtle color tints in a digital image – the following is a quick example of how this can effect a printed image, as well as a few quick tips for how you can avoid this before you ever start printing:

In the above image, you can see the original image layered in front of two different printouts (keep in mind the photos of the printed garments were done with an older model iPhone – not the best camera for capturing high quality pictures) – the concern the client had with this image was the fact that “the flesh tones don’t look natural”.  When asked why we didn’t take the time to stop printing and “adjust the image to make the skin tone look more natural”, the first question that popped into my head was “Who’s skin are we trying to simulate?”  As you may have heard, there is a wide range of flesh tones in the world, and I don’t think you could ever say that one is more or less “right” than the others, without resulting in a bloody nose or a fat lip.

Before these shirts were brought back to us for review, we were told that the body in the design looked “jaundiced” – the client was clearly shocked to see the yellow hue printed in the image, but upon evaluation of the original file we were able to determine that there was an extraordinary amount of yellow in the design, which had actually printed “as expected”.  Most people off the street would be hard pressed to notice the subtle yellow tint in the design, and might have expected a more natural looking flesh tone in the resulting print; however, with a little tweaking of the original image we can quickly highlight the “before and after”, giving you a better idea of what “natural looking flesh tones” might actually look like:

Click the image above to zoom in a bit for more detail.  In this comparison, we performed several slight adjustments to the artwork to achieve various results:

  • In the first example (far left), we show a closeup of the original artwork – you can see that the colors are rather dark, and if you compare the original to the others you will notice a definite yellow hue in the skin tones of the design.
  • In the second example (second from left), we simply reduced the Yellow channel by 30% in Photoshop (Image > Adjustments > Selective Color) – when compared to the non-adjusted version on the left, you can clearly see the difference in hue, but the colors are still rather dark.
  • In the third example (second from right), we started again with the original image and performed a simple Levels adjustment (Image > Adjustments > Levels) – this adjustment is used to bring the color and shading levels to the desired point, usually before you adjust the specific colors.  You can see that this version is much lighter than the first two, but since we did not reduce the Yellow channel you may still notice a subtle yellow tint to the flesh.
  • In the final example (far right), we started again with the original image and performed BOTH the Levels adjustment, followed by the Yellow channel reduction – the result is a smooth, natural looking flesh tone that will print as expected.

Compare the previous examples to see how these minor adjustments can make a big difference in the final printed product – some small adjustments can go a long way, and can determine whether or not your design is going to print as you intend it to.  While you may think that your colors will print a certain way, experience will teach you how to more accurately predict the final outcome – the initial process of evaluating your designs for DTG printing is important for providing a solid foundation of knowledge as you move forward in this industry.

PRO TIP – Make sure your BLACKS are BLACK, and not charcoal grey!  Below you will find another example of how a small adjustment to the original artwork could make a big difference in the final print – many customers send us files that may appear “black” on the screen, but when compared to a true “RICH BLACK” the difference is quite dramatic – educating them on this subtle difference could make the difference between a satisfied client, and someone who badmouths you for printing “faded” looking designs:

Example A shows the original artwork, which was probably exported from a vector program such as Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw (it is easy to lose color value when exporting a vector file into a raster format, so always double check your artwork in a raster program such as Adobe Photoshop to ensure that everything looks right after being exported) – although the image appears “black-ish” on the screen, this will not print a deep, rich black color and will almost certainly end up looking faded or “washed out”.  Example B shows the artwork after we performed a slight levels adjustment in Photoshop, to restore the original color values that were most likely present in the vector version of the file.  You can see the dramatic contrast in color in the following overlay image (the top half is obviously the original, while the bottom half is the adjusted version):

We will continue to provide tips and tricks to help you dial in your process, including useful tools that will help you get started with basic image optimization.  To download some simple Photoshop actions and to read more about proper artwork formatting for DTG printing, check out the following link on our Fusion Logistics Group Website – Artwork Information.

Selecting the Proper Garments for DTG Printing

Aside from the quality of the original artwork file, the most critical factor in achieving top quality products with DTG printing is the actual garment that is being printed on.  Variables such as cotton content, weight, knit, texture, unique post processing chemical treatments and much more can ultimately effect the results we see on DTG printing, so it is important to select garments that are best suited to this unique method of decoration.

GENERAL RULES OF THUMB WHEN SELECTING GARMENTS FOR DTG PRINTING:

1. Garments with a high cotton content print best!

Try to avoid 50/50 cotton / polyester blends, as the water based inks used for DTG printing do not adhere well to polyester.  Additionally, the dyes used to color polyester garments tend to “migrate” into the printed image during the curing stage, causing the image quality to be negatively effected.  100% cotton garments are going to provide the best results, but if you cannot find a suitable 100% cotton option (which is often the case when printing on fleece hoodies) then look for the next best thing, which is typically 80% cotton / 20% polyester.

2. Ring spun cotton prints better than standard cotton!

The better (smoother) the print surface, the better the end results will be; this is typically true of any type of printing method.  Even with your desktop printer at home, you will achieve varying results when printing on standard paper, when compared to the same print on high quality glossy photo paper; the simple truth is that a better printing surface will almost always yield a better print.  The softer, finer weave of the ring spun cotton provides a more ideal printing surface for the DTG printer inks, creating a more stunning print that will hold better on the garment during repeated wash cycles.  Whenever possible, it is recommended to use ring spun or combed ring spun garments for most DTG printing applications.

3. Ribbed texture / patterns can ruin a DTG print!

The nature of ribbed fabrics allows for greater stretchability due to the inherent weave of the cloth; for most purposes, this is ideal and does not pose any sort of problem.  For DTG printing, on the other hard, this can cause the printed image to break apart at the vertical “channels” that are present in the fabric – this effect cannot be controlled so it is important to test and verify ANY ribbed garments before offering them to your clients.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

We have spent years working with DTG printers, and we tend to select brands and garment styles that are highly compatible with the DTG process – not only do we look for garments that print and wash well, but we must also ensure that our products can withstand the intense heat and pressure that our garments are exposed to during the printing and curing process.  Once we have found garments that we like, we try to evaluate how consistent they are between batches to even further refine our selection of preferred blank garments (we have found that the same brand tee produced at a different factory location can sometimes yield different levels of print quality and overall consistency).