Top 10 Reasons NOT to Get Into DTG Printing
Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printing can be incredibly rewarding, and offers many advantages over traditional screen printing. Whether you are a new startup company or an established print shop looking to augment your production capabilities, DTG is definitely worth a second look. However, it is important to note that DTG printing is not for everybody; due to the particular challenges that it creates, you must be prepared to commit yourself to understanding every facet before you can hope to have a relatively trouble-free experience. Here are 10 good reasons to consider avoiding DTG printing, for the moment:
- Environment Must be Carefully Controlled – The physical properties of the water-based inks are incredibly sensitive, changing drastically based on the external environmental conditions. For instance if the air in your print room is too hot or dry, the ink will quickly dry in the print head causing nozzle blockage and other related issues; this can manifest in moderate to severe banding (missing or rough lines in the printed image) or even entire nozzles dropping out. Especially in areas with more extreme weather (for instance, Southern California tends to be very hot and dry), steps must be taken to keep the environment cool, humid and comfortable. An ideal operating environment would have the temperature somewhere in the general range of 75-80 degrees and a relative humidity level of somewhere between 30-60% – depending on where you are located and what kind of building you are in, you’re going to have to look into various humidification systems, air conditioning, swamp coolers, etc. This is not the type of equipment you can randomly add to your warehouse work space without seriously considering whether or not it will be protected from the extreme elements.
- Equipment / Consumables are Expensive – Getting into DTG printing can represent a huge financial risk for a small business on the edge; with many DTG printers averaging around $20,000, you can easily wind up spending $25-$30,000 for an entire package (complete with printer, pre-treatment machine, heat press, supplies, shipping, training, etc). If you are confident that this is the route for you, try going to a few trade shows and keep your eyes out for a great deal – trade shows are the best place to save money on the initial equipment purchase. However, once your machine arrives, there isn’t much you can currently do about the ongoing costs of the ink and supplies; on many machines the cost of ink “per print” can easily be in the $1-3 range for a standard size print on dark shirts and the cost of pre-treat fluid can easily cost another .30-.80 per print – compare that to the cost of plastisol ink, which often ranges from .05-.15 per print! On machines that accommodate larger print areas, the cost of ink alone can actually get up to $4-8 depending on size and coverage. Unfortunately, the cost of ink does not come down in larger quantities, so there isn’t much we can do (as DTG print shop owners) to compete with screen printing prices on larger quantity orders – there is almost always a break-even point where screen printing still makes more sense than DTG, and it is important to recognize this distinction and not try to make a decoration technique work for an order that does not call for it (for example, 50 black t-shirts with a white ink print on the front would be better suited for screen printing rather than DTG).
- The Process is SLOW – While we are able to skip the majority of the setup and tear-down process, screen printers have a huge advantage when the ink actually hits the t-shirt; screen printing presses (even the manual variety) are considerably quicker when it comes to actually printing, whereas the process on a DTG printer can take quite some time. Although white shirts are relatively quick (its not uncommon to knock out 20-50 white shirts per hour, depending on your particular equipment, setup and print resolution), dark shirt printing can be the bane of any DTG print business – realistically, expect to print about 8-15 black shirts per hour under normal circumstances. The number of prints you get per hour is directly related to the specific print resolution you operate at, so the higher quality you are looking for, the fewer prints per hour you will be able to achieve; printing at the highest resolution on the Neoflex, there are times when oversize images (15″ x 20″ dimensions) are coming off the machine at a rate of about 3 prints per hour…. You need to enter into this business with a practical, realistic view of how long it is going to take you to print some of the more extreme orders – without this realistic understanding, you might price yourself out of business before you even get started (Need help understanding how to properly price DTG printing services? Learn about our free tools, here).
- No Minimum Orders - Wait a minute…. Didn’t this same point make an appearance on our list of top 10 reasons to get involved with DTG printing?? Why then, would it also show up on a list of reasons why NOT to get involved with DTG printing? The answer, while simple, is often overlooked; although it is great to have the ability to print “on demand” for your customers with no minimum order quantity, it is also overwhelming to take the time out of your busy day to educate a client, find out what they are looking for, then hold their hand throughout the entire process for them to only order a single custom shirt – the harsh reality that many small business owners run into is that it can be very difficult to maintain profitability when you are spending an average of 45 minutes per client and each person is only ordering one or two shirts! The best way to avoid this unfortunate situation is to streamline your ordering process as much as possible, through the use of online design software and other technology to minimize the amount of time spent processing each order – also, try providing as much detailed information as possible for your clients, allowing them to seek out answers on their own either through your website or other provided documentation. The fewer times you have to repeat answers to simple questions, the more profitable your business will be!
- Garment Selection is Critical – DTG printing is not intended to be used on all garment types; in fact, the inks tend to work best when applied to 100% cotton, so it is best to avoid 50/50 blends and other non-cotton fabrics as much as possible. On top of that, it is important to remember that not all cotton is created equal – you will experience better print quality and more consistent wash fastness when you select garments that are woven from higher quality ring spun cotton (30/1 weave is ideal). All individual brands, styles and colors can potentially produce varying results of quality and wash-fastness, therefore it becomes critical that you thoroughly evaluate any potential blank garments that you want to print on. It can get even more confusing when you begin tracking where each batch of shirts was manufactured, as different countries of origin can produce drastically different results, even when the brand / style / color are identical! Once you’ve found blank garments that print well and are consistently meeting your quality expectations, try to stick with them and encourage your clients to do the same; even if you warn a client that 50/50 blends won’t print as well, they will still insist that you do it and then become indignant when the results are sub-par. As a DTG printer, it is recommended that you think long and hard about a company policy that indemnifies you of all responsibility for client-supplied blanks (if your company even accepts client-supplies blanks), since you cannot properly vet products that you have not thoroughly evaluated. Or, even better, simply avoid accepting client garments altogether and focus on blanks that provide the highest possible quality – this is the only way to properly protect your reputation down the road.
- Pre-Treatment Process Requires Skill – Although DTG printing may help you avoid the rigorous setup requirements involved with traditional screen printing, you are not off the hook altogether when it comes to setting up a print job; while you won’t find yourself laying emulsion or burning screens, most people don’t realize that every single dark garment that you print must be sprayed with a “pre-treatment fluid” to prepare the surface for receiving the ink. Unfortunately, this is currently true regardless of which brand of DTG printer you are using or which brand of ink you are using; all dark garment DTG printing requires pre-treatment, and this step is perhaps one of the most critical when attempting to create a high quality print that will last in the wash. Over the course of the last several years the chemistry involved in this process has matured quite a bit, allowing for broader tolerances than before; however, there is still a relatively narrow “sweet spot” that balances great print quality against durable washability. Applying too much pretreat fluid will give you an awesome looking print but the image will most likely start flaking right off the shirt after the first wash cycle – applying too little pretreat fluid will not provide an adequate print surface, resulting in horrible print quality… The trick is to find the minimum amount of fluid required for any given garment (the amount will vary wildly between brands, styles and even colors – another reason it is important to properly evaluate any product you wish to offer), without compromising print quality; the less pretreat fluid you apply, the better the wash results. Oh, and even if you find the perfect amount for a specific garment, it can still vary from batch to batch (depending on the strength of your pretreat mixture and where the blanks were manufactured)! The annoyingly sticky (and often mildly corrosive) pretreat fluid is often applied manually through the use of a Wagner HPLV (High Pressure Low Volume) sprayer, similar to those used by high end automotive paint shops; on the other hand, some shops are now seeing the benefits of more reliable automatic pre-treatment machines that have been hitting the market recently (such as the ViperONE automatic PT machine), allowing for more controlled application of the pretreat fluid – if you go automatic there are definitely a number of benefits, although that is yet one more startup cost to consider before diving in, head first. Also, don’t forget to factor in the cost of pre-treatment in your various assumptions and calculations (in labor, as well as consumables cost on a “per print” basis).
- Cutting Edge Technology - Here is another double-edged sword, which appears on the list of reasons to invest in DTG printing as well as the reasons NOT to invest in DTG printing – while it is great to beat the local competition due to the fact that you are using the “latest and greatest” printing technology around, it is important to keep a level head and really evaluate whether you are truly ready to handle it. Beside the fact that any new technology will come with its own set of hardships and complications, you also have to think about the fact that any technology, regardless of how new or old it is, can sometimes be overwhelming for some people. This is not meant to disparage anyone in particular, although if you jump to the bottom of the page you will find a brief “self evaluation” you can do to weed yourself out, early. To be successful with DTG printing, you really need to have a solid grasp of technology or a willingness (and ability) to learn new things – hopefully quickly, since most people expect to start making money the first day their machine arrives! No matter how reliable your printer is, there will still be occasional complications, and there are times where you must be a pioneer and figure out creative new ways to make things work – as the technology has progressed over the past couple of years, we as a community have been able to stand on each others’ shoulders while sharing information and experiences, making the learning curve more manageable for newer users. However, be realistic and understand that you are going to have to do a lot on your own, experiment a lot on your own and perfect your own personal process that works for your business (in your particular environment), often on your own. You can certainly learn a lot from what others have done, but variables will always be a factor.
- Color Matching is Difficult – Color profiles for specific ink sets in specific machines have improved significantly over the last several years; some companies have taken a huge amount of initiative and spent time and resources to push their particular ink sets to the limit. Regardless of this, there is no “magic color profile” that will work for all situations, all the time! Your own subjective opinions, as well as those of your clients (which will vary greatly), will ultimately affect your expectations regarding what you want to see on a t-shirt. For instance, the philosophy at Fusion Logistics Group is that t-shirts are meant to act as a canvas that display a message or an image to the world – we look for more saturated, vibrant colors that really pop off the garment! We use the best possible print quality settings and we use the highest resolutions by default, often at the expense of production capability and ink cost. Oftentimes clients request a more “vintage” looking print or a more “photo realistic” look, each of which require a different resolution or color profile; it is impossible to please everyone with one single print setting, so be prepared to spend more time with some clients on selecting colors for their designs, selecting print options, etc. Some color profiles have specific strengths and weaknesses (for instance more accurate grey tones, more vibrant reds, deeper purples, etc) – another reason that some companies make several profiles available is because when developing the profiles, sometimes adjusting one color range will cause another range to shift to varying degrees; it is very difficult to match all colors, all the time, using only one universal color profile. Even if you could create such a profile, the colors will still vary slightly based on the garment color you are printing on, the amount of pretreat fluid you apply, etc. Don’t panic though – even your home or office desktop printer comes packaged with multiple color profiles, depending on the various substrates you will be printing on (copy paper, glossy photo paper, etc); this is a fairly universal concern in the printing world. Try making color charts available to your clients and encourage them to order samples on their selected garments, in their preferred color – this allows them an opportunity to see how different colors will print, prior to submitting their final artwork. They can also try ordering the same color charts using different print settings (try to limit the number of options you give your customers, without restricting their creativity and flexibility too much).
- Waterbased Inks Not as Durable as Plastisol - Like so many other areas of this industry, the general washability of the inks used for DTG printing has come a long way over the last several years! Despite this fact, it is still a common issue among many DTG print shops, especially when they don’t fully understand all the factors that ultimately affect the wash-fastness of the print. As we discussed earlier, the amount of pretreat fluid is one very important factor to consider; higher quality garments tend to have a softer, smoother print surface which allow you to get great results with less pretreat; cheaper, more porous shirts (and those with polyester blends, etc) tend to require more pretreat fluid to “smooth out” the print surface, thereby compromising washability to get decent print quality. If you want to reassure yourself that the garments going out your door meet your durability expectations, it is recommended to buy an old washing machine and keep it in your shop to do daily, sporadic wash tests – it is best to do a water-only wash, as you don’t want to take the risk of introducing cleaning chemicals onto your garments that might cause unknown allergic reactions to your clients. Obviously if the shirts aren’t going out to end-users it might not be a big deal, but if you add detergent on a regular basis there will probably be some residual leftovers in the machine, even when doing “chemical-free” wash cycles.
- White Ink Can be a PITA – The heavy pigments used in white DTG inks is required to achieve the desired opacity for creating a beautiful, vibrant under-base. The more pigment in the ink, the better it will look on the shirt; however, the more viscous the ink is, the more potential for damage it poses to your DTG printer, and generally the more maintenance it will require. Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) is a common pigment used for white DTG ink – the TiO2 particles are suspended in the viscous liquid, making the ink appear vibrant and white; as these particles pass through the very tiny nozzles in the print head, they tend to group up and clog bits of the nozzle plate – if your machine is left sitting for a period of time (more than a day or two), the heavier pigment will settle at the bottom as it separates from the suspension fluid…. As this happens, the TiO2 particles can create “sludge” in the ink lines, settle in the dampers (creating various ink flow issues), and more! The battle against settling ink is an ongoing daily struggle, although it is important to note that the more frequently you print, the fewer issues you will have with your white ink settling. If you think you are going to simply print one shirt every day or two and you’ll be “alright”, you’re in for a big surprise! And c’mon, seriously – if you are only planning to print one or two shirts a day on the thing, why are you considering spending $20-30K in the first place?? Outsource your printing until you can truly justify the investment, and treat yourself to a Vegas vacation.
QUICK SELF-EVALUATION: If any one or two of these describes you, you still might be OK – however, if you notice that the majority of this list is right up your alley, it might be wise to re-evaluate this option!
- If you have trouble checking your e-mail on your computer, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you tend to throw away desktop printers when they give you trouble, rather than opening them up and figuring out what is wrong, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you don’t like seeing the inside of your industrial shop equipment, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you’ve ever called tech support to learn how to set the timers on your DVR at home, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you don’t know what a DVR is, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you don’t like acronyms, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you’ve ever found yourself uttering the phrase “What do you mean ‘reboot it’? I don’t know what that means”, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you are a pager-person in an iPhone world, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you travel out of town frequently or for extended periods of time, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you have employees but don’t think they’re responsible enough to have a shop goldfish for fear they will not perform the required goldfish maintenance, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you live in a hot, dry environment or your shop environment fluctuates wildly, you might want to avoid DTG printing.
- If you expect to be able to knock out 30-40 dark shirts per hour, you might want to avoid DTG printing (unless you want to buy a whole stable of printers).
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