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The “DTG vs New Car” Analogy: Production Speed

NOTE: This article comes from KatanaDTG.

Due to the inherently high cost of most Direct to Garment printers, the comparison is often made to the automotive industry.  For this comparison, we will be using the analogy of a delivery company needing to cover as many miles as possible, in the shortest amount of time (relative to a DTG print shop hoping to produce as many shirts per  hour, as quickly as possible).

SCENARIO 1: Buy one high-end supercar for $30,000 – Maintenance costs are 5 times as high and gas is a special blend which costs twice as much.  However, you never have to change your own oil or work on your own brakes – a special technician will come to you, whenever needed, to work on your car.  If you try to change your own oil, your warranty may be cancelled.  All replacement parts must come from the manufacturer.  Top cruising speed is 200 mph.

 

SCENARIO 2: Buy 3 low-cost cars (at $10,000 a piece) for $30,000 – Maintenance costs are very low and gas is standard unleaded at 1/2 the cost of the special blend.  However, you have to change your own oil and replace your own brakes when they wear out.  Parts wear out faster, but when they do you can purchase them at a variety of auto-parts stores for 1/5 the cost of the supercar.  Top cruising speed is 80 MPH.

With the first scenario, a business could easily cover 1,600 miles in a standard 8-hour shift, ensuring reliable operation at a significant cost.  Assuming $2 per gallon for special-blend gas (let’s pretend standard Unleaded is a reasonable $1 per gallon and for the sake of simplicity, both vehicles get the same 20 mpg mileage) they would spend around $160 in gas (or around $0.10 per mile).  Over the course of 30 working days, the fuel cost would amount to approximately $4.800 for 1,600 miles traveled.

With the second scenario, a business could easily cover 1,920 miles in a standard 8-hour shift, although more parts may need to be replaced in the process (for a fraction of the cost for similar parts of the hypothetical supercar).  Assuming $1 per gallon for special-blend gas (let’s pretend standard Unleaded is a reasonable $1 per gallon and for the sake of simplicity, both vehicles get the same 20 mpg mileage) they would spend around $96 in gas (or around $0.05 per mile).  Over the course of 30 working days, the fuel cost would amount to approximately $2,800 for 1,920 miles traveled.

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer – each hypothetical delivery company is going to have to weigh the factors which are most important to them, which may include (but are not limited to):

  • Investment / Maintenance costs
  • Cost of fuel, per mile travelled
  • Amount of “hands on” work required
  • Availability of parts
  • Redundancy considerations

When determining which model is right for your Direct to Garment printing business, be sure to properly evaluate all relevant factors – rest assured, there are options out there for virtually any business model!  Finding the RIGHT machine is far more important than finding the BEST machine…

How to Print on Wood Using DTG (Direct to Garment) Printing

NOTE: This article comes from KatanaDTG.

Printing on wood is fun and easy with most direct to garment printers.  As long as you have the ability to adequately adjust the z-axis height (the relative distance between the print head and the substrate), the process is relatively simple!

WHAT YOU NEED

  • Blank wood panels (the ones we used are available from Hobby Lobby and other craft stores)
  • Masking tape or painters tape
  • White gesso or water based primer
  • Paint brush
  • Acrylic finishing spray to protect the printed image

STEP ONE: Wipe down each piece of wood to remove residual sawdust and other debris.

STEP TWO: Mask the outside edges of the wood with tape.

Using a low-tack masking tape, tear off small pieces and work your way around the border of the wood.  This allows you to preserve the outer bark layer, which enhances the final appearance of the printed wood.  If you are using pieces of wood without bark, you can simply tape around the outside edges to prevent runoff from the primer layer or overspray from the printing process.

STEP THREE: Coat the wood in some
sort of water based primer or white gesso.

The gesso (or primer) allows the inks to adhere properly to the wood, creating a beautiful print.  You can use any sort of white water based primer, white gesso (a common painting product artists use to coat their canvas prior to painting), or even a clear gesso if you want more of the wood grain to show through.  For this example, we used a Bob Ross brand white gesso, available from Hobby Lobby and other craft supply stores.  Allow the primer coat to fully dry, prior to moving on to the next step.

STEP FOUR: Measure the wood (we’re gonna gloss right over the myriad of joke opportunities) and set the general size of the artwork in the RIP.

Measure the width and height of each piece of wood, prior to attempting to print.  Set the width / height to ensure the printed image will cover the entire piece of wood.  This step can take some practice, as you want to ensure all critical parts of the image are printed within the boundaries of the odd-shaped wood – make sure you select each piece based on its general compatibility with the desired artwork.

STEP FIVE: Print a test image for alignment.

Tape a piece of paper (or paper towel, in our case) to the platen, lower the ink volume significantly to reduce potential bleeding, then print a test print directly on the paper.  Once the image is printed, tape the wood in the desired location, directly on top of the test print – make sure you adjust the z-axis at this point, to accommodate the thickness of the wood (once again, glossing right past that).

STEP SIX: Print your image!

SOME NOTES FOR ADJUSTING YOUR PRINT SETTINGS: We used Kothari RIP on a Katana PRO printer, so we made a series of specific adjustments to get the best results on each piece of wood:

  • Printed in high resolution, 1440 x 1440 mode

  • Changed to uni-directional printing rather than bi-directional, allowing for more flexibility on the print head height

  • Lowered the color volume to 35% to prevent bleeding

  • Added a 300 ms delay between each scan line pass, allowing more time for ink to dry

Once your image has been printed, you can remove the masking tape from around the edges of the wood – your incredible wood print is nearly done, at this point!

FINAL STEP: Apply a clear acrylic top coat to protect the printed image.

You can use almost any type of clear acrylic spray coat for this step – the point is to seal in the image, since we don’t actually heat set the ink at any point.  You can purchase various types of sealants at any art or craft store, or swing by your local hardware store and purchase a can of clear acrylic spray.

HAPPY PRINTING!
BE CREATIVE!

DTGPS Color Chart – Adobe RGB Color Profile

Use this awesome color chart to determine your full range of RGB printing range with your respective direct to garment printer.  Keep in mind, this image is profiled using the “Adobe RGB (1998)” color profile in Photoshop – if you wish to reproduce these colors in your artwork, please ensure you have converted your working color space to match the same profile.

NOTE: Within your RIP settings, you need to ensure you are actually taking the input profile into consideration.  If you have set your color management to discard embedded profiles, you will not be able to achieve the full range of colors.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE COLOR CHART

How to Properly Prime a Bulk CIS Ink System

A few years ago, we never would have recommended a bulk CIS system for ink delivery into any DTG printer.  However, with recent advances in ink chemistry stability, many of our users have been switching to bulk systems with great success!  It is our goal to provide current and useful information to our entire user base, to ensure everyone has the best tools available for their long term success.  Along those lines, we have done extensive testing with a variety of bulk CIS systems and have determined that our preference is for systems which have an air chamber in the actual bulk ink reservoir.  Our testing indicates superior reliability with such systems, although we have determined there is certainly a right and wrong way to fill these units!

NOTE: This article comes from KatanaDTG user Knowledge Base.

This tutorial is meant as a starter guide for properly loading a bulk CIS system for direct to garment printing – please note that these systems are designed to maintain a balance of ink and air, so properly managing your rubber plug arrangement is crucial!

INSPECT YOUR CIS SYSTEM

Almost all bulk CIS ink systems are manufactured overseas, and while most are relatively reliable there will be an occasional manufacturing or assembly error which can result in serious problems for DTG end users.  Before attempting to load ink into your new bulk system, take a good look from every angle to determine if there are any potential issues with the system, itself.  In particular, you want to ensure that the ink line leading out of the reservoirs are routed smoothly along the bottom side of the assembly.  This is a major pain point for DTG users – a kinked line can lead to back pressure in the system, which will prevent ink from flowing along a particular path.

 

NOTE: A kinked line can be deadly for DTG users.  The line starting from the Yellow reservoir can be a particularly annoying pain point, as this can sometimes be pinched if it is installed at an aggressive angle.  Below is an example of smooth ink line routing in a bulk CIS system!

WHAT THE HECK ARE THOSE RUBBER PLUGS?

The rubber plugs for any CIS system are an important, yet often undervalued asset.  These plugs allow you to properly balance the volume / flow of ink and air in the reservoirs.  The plugs should be fully closed when the system is not in use, but when performing any functions on the printer which require the positive flow of ink, the Breather Plugs MUST be open!  If these plugs are closed during printing, priming or cleaning, a back pressure vacuum will be created as the system attempts to pull a closed ink line.

The Fill Plugs should be closed at all times, except when refilling a reservoir.  Before opening any Breather Plug, ensure you have fully closed the corresponding Breather Plug for the duration of the process!

FILL THE INK CHAMBERS

Open the Fill Plug for the reservoir you wish to refill – also ensure that the corresponding Breather Plug is closed.  Using a small funnel or syringe, fill each reservoir to an appropriate level.  Once completed, close the Fill Plug, ensuring a proper seal.

NOTE: If done correctly, ink should remain in the primary chamber, while air remains in the rear chamber.  This balance is important for proper ink flow!

Below is what the system should look like, once you fill each ink chamber – keep in mind the MK is left empty, or loaded with a light cleaning solution.  The PK / MK chambers are both routed to the same channel in the print head, and since we don’t switch between the two lines during normal DTG operation, the last chamber is left unused.

NOTE: Remember, the air chambers in the back of the reservoirs should remain empty after filling the system!  Make sure the Breather Plugs remain in place before opening any corresponding Fill Plug.

As you fill each ink reservoir, you will hopefully notice ink flowing naturally down the lines until they reach a balance – while they won’t flow completely to the ink cartridges, they should flow easily with the help of gravity.

NOTE: On the p600 print engine, ink is internally pressurized once it is pulled from the cartridge into the printer system, itself.  This helps considerably with smooth operation and ink flow!

USE SYRINGES TO PRIME THE CARTRIDGES

BEFORE YOU START

  • Make sure you have proper syringes which fit snugly into the bottom of the cartridge.
  • Make sure you have properly filled your bulk CIS system, so there is ink to draw into the carts.
  • REMOVE THE BREATHER PLUGS ON THE BULK INK RESERVOIRS, PRIOR TO PRIMING THE CARTS!
  • If ink does not begin to flow immediately, try shifting your syringe side-to-side, slightly, to ensure you have fully opened the rubber seal – you may also want to ensure you have fully inserted the syringe into the cartridge.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

  • Try to keep the opening of the cartridge facing upward most of the time – the point where the syringe enters the cartridge is the last place you want ink to flow.
  • Keep your fingers away from the chip on the side of the cartridge, as it can affect the functionality if you get grease or residue from your skin on it.
  • Try to ensure the chip on the side of the cartridge is always facing uphill from any potential ink drips or spills.
  • While there should be some expected back-pressure, if you feel an extreme amount of resistance you should stop and inspect your system.  Look for “pain points” where the ink lines may be kinked, or otherwise obstructed.  If everything looks clear, try shifting your syringe slightly until you see / hear / feel the ink begin to move.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Once your CIS system is fully primed, you need to move the ink from the cartridges to the print head.  To do this, use the Epson Adjustment Program to run an initial Ink Fill routine, which will subsequently prime the entire print engine!

NOTE: You can only run an Ink Fill routine if the Epson print engine thinks you have brand new cartridges installed.  Use a manual chip resetter to fool the system into recognizing brand new cartridges – it can sometimes take several attempts to fully reset some chips.

Things NOT to Do As a Brand New DTG user!

Direct to Garment printing can be exciting and rewarding, but from time to time we tend to get a little ahead of ourselves when it comes to diving in, head first.  While the process of DTG is nowhere near as complicated and fickle as it was only a few short years ago, it is still absolutely important to understand the critical learning curve you will experience as a new user in the field.

In order to ensure the greatest chances of overall success, and to avoid stumbling right out of the gate, we encourage you to consider these following bits of advice if you are currently expecting (or have recently received) your new DTG printing hardware.

STUFF NEW USERS SHOULD GENERALLY AVOID

  1. Booking jobs before your equipment arrives – You must understand there will be a (sometimes) long and difficult learning curve to overcome when you first start out with Direct to Garment printing.  If your machine has not even arrived yet and you are already under the gun to deliver orders to waiting clients, the stress of setup and initial training will become practically overwhelming.  We fully understand the excitement of new print processes coming into your shop, but working your way through the learning curve is going to be far more palatable if you don’t have clients breathing down your neck in the process.
  2. Refilling your own ink bags or cartridges – Refilling your own bags or cartridges can be a truly cost-saving measure, which may yield substantial savings on ink in the long run.  However, the process is fickle and requires careful control of a number of variables – at this early stage in the game, your time is better spent learning the fundamentals of your hardware as it was meant to be run, and understanding the complexity of the RIP and pretreatment processes.  In an effort to save a few bucks on your first few ink refills, you may inadvertently introduce air bubbles or contaminants into the lines which could potentially compromise the entire system.  Additionally, the manual process can be time consuming and messy, quickly negating any short-term effects.  In the beginning, stick to using the bags and cartridges filled by professionals, and work your way toward a more complex process.  You’ll thank us, later.
  3. Attempting to print complex garments – Some folks receive their DTG equipment and immediately attempt to print on long sleeves, sweatpants, blended materials and all manner of complicated garments.  Without establishing a base line standard, it is nearly impossible to gauge the true performance and quality of your machine while introducing so many different variables at such an early stage of the game.  In the beginning, stick with  high quality ringspun cotton garments with a proven track record, and work your way out from there.  In some cases, new users will spend countless hours, days and weeks trying to figure out why they can’t get a decent print, only to finally discover that the blended material they are trying to use is not properly accepting the ink or the sweatpant legs are too complicated to keep level….  Once you have a solid understanding of the basics, then you can flex your true creativity by printing on complicated garment styles and locations.
  4. Altering default printing environments without proper understanding – Understanding how your manufacturer intended the hardware to interact with their respective RIP choice is critical – too often, users jump to the conclusion that they  must be using the wrong print settings without ever exploring other variables (such as their PT process, selected garment type, etc).  This can cause new users to dive into the RIP with the intention of “making it work”, but they often create a ripple-effect of consequences which prevent them from getting back to the intended quality point.  The first step is always to ensure the basic fundamentals are in place for high quality DTG printing, then as you begin to understand the various levels of RIP control you can dive in a little deeper and truly go wild!
  5. … We will add more as they come to mind.

Being an overzealous new user can seem exciting for a moment, but may cause you to stumble on some of the most basic of fundamentals – and make no mistake about it, Direct to Garment printing is all about the fundamentals!

Of course, this is merely a simplified list and there are many more things to avoid, as a new user in the field of Direct to Garment printing.  Feel free to offer any suggestions and tips in the comments below, and we will be sure to add some of the best ones to our list!

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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.

Kothari RIP Now Available for the Epson f2000 from DTG Print Solutions!

Kothari RIP for DTG printing has long been one of the most well respected and awarded RIP software on the market – thousands of end users have made the switch after seeing what a huge difference the proper RIP software has on the final output quality.  Kothari RIP has been at the top of every major print competition, across a broad range of DTG printers – the results speak for themselves, and we invite anyone to try comparing Kothari with any other RIP to see the difference, first hand.

After much anticipation, DTG Print Solutions is now officially able to offer the powerful Kothari RIP for the Epson f2000 DTG printer!  However, that isn’t the only platform we support – check out this partial list of printer models which can all benefit from the Kothari RIP:

  • Epson r1800/r1900
  • Epson r2000/r2200
  • Epson r3000
  • Epson p600
  • Epson PRO 4800/4880
  • Epson PRO 7800/7880
  • Epson f2000 !!!
  • DTG M2
  • … and MANY MORE!

Contact us today to find out how we can help step up your DTG game with this powerful piece of software!

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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.

What-Needs-to-Change--featured-image-930x300

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.

Nonstop Neoflex Production – One Hour in 15 Minutes

Many people ask us about the potential production rates they can expect with their DTG printer…. While the answer to this question may be difficult to pinpoint without understanding your machine capabilities, intended print resolution, production setup and other factors, we can at least show you a one-hour snippet of production from our very own DTG production facility.  This video was released awhile ago, but it shows a full one-hour production cycle, uninterrupted, including the entire pretreat / print / heat press cycle.

This video shows only one employee working on production (me) using on only one of our DTG printers, and is sped up to 4x normal speed to ensure you don’t get too bored during the process…  We are using the following production setup for this video:

  • PRINTER: Neoflex DTG printing system by All American MFG (based in Philly, PA)
  • RIP: Kothari DTG RIP (branded as NeoRIP PRO)
  • PRETREATMENT: ViperONE Automatic Pretreatment machine
  • PRINT SETTINGS: As always, we are printing in Hi-Resolution mode (the only mode we feel comfortable offering to clients for top-quality DTG printing)
  • GARMENT COLOR: We are printing on dark garments, using the full three platen setup available on the Neoflex DTG printers

Average production speeds (with our configuration) are approximately 6 finished garments per hour on one machine.

Dupont Pretreatment – Application Instructions & Tips

Pre-treatment is quite possible one of the most critical components to the high-quality DTG equation; too little pretreat chemical and your print results will surely suffer, whereas too much pretreat chemical can easily compromise your wash results.  In addition to finding the right volume of pretreat for the specific garment you are printing, you must also take steps to minimize fibrillation and reduce “pre-treatment marks” on the garments (you can read more on pre-treatment marks by clicking here).

There are many different ways to apply pre-treatment to blank garments, but the most common methods include the use of a Wagner HPLV (“High Pressure Low Volume”) spray gun or some sort of automatic pre-treatment machine (such as the ViperONE Automatic PT Machine).  Some DTG machines, such as the Kornit brand of printers, actually apply the pre-treatment while the shirt is loaded on the machine; there are basically two schools of thought on whether or not this makes sense, with one side advocating for the ease-of-use and reduction in the overall number of steps required to print, and the other side claiming that the inclusion of the pretreat step on the machine actually reduces overall efficiency (since it can’t start printing until the pretreat step is done, causing downtime at the printer) and presents the possibility of a “single point of failure” (if the pre-treatment nozzle becomes compromised or starts acting up, your entire print operation is offline).  Personally, I prefer to do the pretreat step off the printer, for a number of reasons:

  1. If a Wagner HPLV spray gun starts giving us trouble, we can easily replace it at any time; we even keep extras around at all times, reducing the possibility that we will be stuck without the ability to pretreat shirts.
  2. By pre-treating the garments off the machine, there is no downtime at the printer itself.  We simply load up shirts that are ready to be printed, and the printer continues to spit out completed product without delay.
  3. When pretreat is applied on the machine itself, there is no opportunity to heat press the garment to flatten out the fibers and evaporate the excess PT fluid – this reduces the overall clarity in the print, and can leave room for fibers to stick up after the pretreat is applied.

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Having said that, here is the basic method we use at Fusion Logistics Group to pretreat our garments (using a standard Wagner HPLV sprayer).  In the following example we were pre-treating a standard black t-shirt for a left chest DTG print:

1. HEAT PRESS THE GARMENT:

Before pre-treating any garments, it is a good idea to heat press them to flatten out any loose fibers that might ruin your awesome DTG print.  We set our heat press to 340 degrees Fahrenheit and pre-press each garment for approximately 10-15 seconds (using MEDIUM pressure); you don’t need to press for too long because the garment will be under the heat press another 2-3 times by the end of the production process.  Depending on the type of garment you are printing on, you may or may not have to perform this particular step – if you stick to higher quality ring spun cotton (the tighter the knit count, the smoother the print surface) you should see much less fibrillation than you might find with a standard cotton garment.  Additionally, garments that have received an Enzyme wash during manufacturing seem to show far less fibrillation, primarily due to the fact that the Enzyme wash “burns” off most of the rogue fibers before the garment ever leaves the manufacturing facility – ask your garment providers which styles have been treated with an Enzyme wash, and see if that helps your overall printing quality!  Also, notice we are using a Stahl’s Hotronix draw press at the moment – we do not currently recommend this particular press due to its lack of an auto-release feature; when things get hectic in the shop, the last thing you want to be doing is chasing down the beeping heat presses – an auto-release press would allow you to leverage your time more effectively, without the fear of accidentally over-curing or forgetting the garment completely.  Auto release clam-shell presses are priced very competitively compared to standard clam-shell or draw presses.

2. SPRAY THE GARMENT WITH PRETREAT FLUID:

After the garment has been pressed, we drape it over a simple shirt board that we made from inexpensive laminate particle wood from the Home Depot.  Before you begin pre-treating for the day, it is recommended that you take a few moments to dial in your spray gun – you want an even, gentle spray that doesn’t sputter or spit any wild drops of pretreat fluid all over the place.  The Dupont pretreat fluid is a sticky, corrosive chemical that can easily gum up the spray gun if left unattended for lengthy periods of time (even a few hours could cause a deterioration in spray quality) – to combat this, we typically pour the contents of the spray gun back into the main pretreatment container about every 4 hours; we rinse the gun with warm water, shake the main pretreatment container then reload the gun. Some might say that is overkill, but our results have been far more consistent than they have ever been since we implemented this process….  Once we begin spraying the garments, we usually spray “left to right” then “right to left” on the next step down, releasing the trigger on the gun at the far right and far left of each spray; we repeat this until we have gently covered the entire print area with spray, as evenly as possible. If you hold the trigger and simply move the gun back and forth, you will end up with much heavier deposits at the outside edges of the spray area – look for a YouTube video of a professional painting a car with an HPLV sprayer and you can use that as a model for how it should be done. Once the first coat is done we immediately make another pass (moving left to right and back again, while working our way from top to bottom) – two lighter coats provides more even coverage and allows you to use your judgement on a “garment by garment” basis regarding when enough is enough (fleece often requires a heavier deposit, whereas thinner ‘fashion’ style garments will often require a far lighter pre-treatment deposit).

3. BRUSH THE GARMENT TO REDUCE FIBRILLATION AND CREATE EVEN COVERAGE:

Before heat pressing the garment again, it is important to spread out the pretreat fluid and ensure that the cotton fibers are pressed down into the garment; with all the moving around within the shop, it is easy for those fibers to work their way up (creating a less-than-ideal printing surface).  Some people prefer to use various types of foam rollers for this particular step, but we find that the foam rollers do more to hurt the process than to help it – while it may help spread the pretreat fluid evenly, the porous foam tends to lift the fibers more than pushing them down.  We use premium Wooster paint brushes for this step, and our experience shows us that the difference between the two is visually noticeable.  Using long, even strokes, draw the brush downward across the garment in strips until the entire print area has been covered (it doesn’t hurt to go over the entire area twice, for that matter).

4. COVER GARMENT WITH QUILON PAPER AND HEAT PRESS:

As is typical with most pretreat fluids, you  must heat press the garment after applying the chemical to ensure it is dry and flat when you load it onto the DTG printer (there is at least one exception to this rule, which is the Kornit brand which applies the pre-treatment on the machine itself then prints ink directly onto the wet pretreat).  For this process, we cover the entire pre-treated area with a special Quilon paper, then heat press for 20-30 seconds @ 340 degrees Fahrenheit (using HEAVY pressure) – ideally, the pre-treated area will be almost invisible when you are done with this step (if everything was done properly and you haven’t applied too much pretreat to the garment).  The time and temperature required for this step is going to vary based on a number of technological and environmental variables (the type and quality of heat press used, as well as your elevation, relative humidity, temperature, etc) – make sure you press the garment long enough to fully cure the pretreat, while avoiding the risk of over-curing it and potentially burning out the active bonding agent that holds the white ink in place; your exact time and temp may vary, slightly!  We have found that the heavier pressure during this step, combined with the brushing from the previous step, seems to do a great job of creating a smooth, ideal printing surface; fibrillation is minimized and we get very little “pitting” in the image. We did an installation for a customer a few months ago who had a pneumatic heat press system, which looked to me to be the best thing I have seen for this step of the process; when the time is right, we will definitely upgrade to a pneumatic heat press system (with a shuttle to improve productivity) that will provide consistent and repeatable results during this critical step.

5. REMOVE THE QUILON PAPER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM:

Once you have heat pressed the garment and cured the pretreat fluid, you should carefully remove the Quilon paper by pulling from the top to the bottom; this helps ensure that you are not pulling fibers back up from the surface of the garment, which is easily possible when lifting from the bottom.  Start at the top and gently pull the paper down in a smooth, even manner; if there is any resistance when taking the Quilon paper off of the garment, it sometimes helps to press the garment without any paper for an additional 10 seconds – this will ensure that the PT is dry, and will push down any fibers that might have been pulled up when you removed the Quilon paper. This step is not always necessary.

6. VOILA!  YOUR GARMENT IS NOW READY TO PRINT!

Once you have pressed the pretreat fluid, your garment is ready for printing and can be loaded immediately onto the platen for DTG printing.  You can load the garment straight from the heat press to the DTG printer, or you can stack the pre-treated garments for later printing.  Many people ask how long they can let their garments sit after they’ve been pre-treated; while we have seen some garments boxed for 2-3 months prior to actually printing (with no negative effect on print quality), it is important to ensure that they will not be shuffled around an excessive amount of times, due to the fact that you don’t want to raise the fibers on the print surface or cause any undue static electricity on the fabric, as both these things can easily reduce the overall print quality.

 

SOME IMPORTANT THINGS TO CONSIDER:

Below are some critical tips and tricks that we have discovered or learned over the last several years; we are constantly learning new tricks, so of course we will keep you posted if we find new information that  will help the general public.

    • Although adding an excessive amount of pretreat fluid to a garment can certainly result in a vibrant, amazing print from your DTG printer, we caution you not to overdo it!  Too much pre-treatment actually creates more of a barrier than a bonding surface, and while the print will look great right off the press it will almost certainly flake and peel off in the first wash (you’ll know it when you see it – the ink will literally peel off in large, connected areas; it’s like peeling the shell from a hard boiled egg).  If a garment is pre-treated well but then not cured properly, the image would experience noticeable fading after the first wash, and there would most likely be areas where slight flaking is evident; however, in the case of too much pretreat there will be little time for fading to occur, as much of the image will be destroyed right away in the first wash.
    • If you add too little pretreat fluid, the print will look faded and splotchy, regardless of how well your DTG printer is operating.  Even the best white ink printed at the best possible settings will look like garbage if your pre-treatment layer is not done properly!  Practice this step until you have become an expert, and your time will be well spent.
    • Crank the pressure up as much as possible when actually curing the pretreat fluid on the garment – you can reduce the pressure significantly for the actual curing of the printed image (not shown in this brief tutorial), or use a separate heat press altogether.   A pneumatic heat press will provide more consistent, even pressure, without the need to work extra hard opening and closing a high-pressure heat press.
    • When manually pre-treating a garment, take care not to spray too much on the seams or sleeve-lines – since these areas are raised slightly more than the body of the garment, they will receive slightly greater pressure under the heat press, which could ultimately cause light white pretreat marks to appear on these areas (sometimes they will show up as light white marks on the garment, while other times they will manifest as a mildly reflective sheen that looks different than the rest of the garment).  Of course this effect will be less noticeable after the first wash cycle, but the best way to control this is to avoid spraying the sleeves / seams as much as possible.
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