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D2 Versus Screen Printing

Alan Howe has more than 20 years of hands-on industry experience. He entered the industry in 1987 with an equipment manufacturer and has since held technical-sales and management positions with well-known companies including Jay Products and Easi-way Systems, and Tech Support Screen Printing Supplies. Howe currently works as the technical sales manager for SAATI Chem. A familiar face a trade shows and seminars, Howe has also traveled the world as a short-term missionary and is involved in humanitarian efforts locally, domestically and worldwide.

Over the last few years, it has become obvious that digital garment/substrate printers have proven to be a viable tool. Whether or not there’s a place for each in the traditional screen print shop has been a hot topic up for debate. Even seeing shops that have prospered and failed at the integration, I still contend digital direct printing can fit very nicely in a screen shop as its own profit center or as an addition to production.

But this does require a little change in some thinking: we are not just screen printers, but garment decorators. All technologies that make decorating apparel for resale possible—screen printing, heat applied graphics, embroidery, whatever it takes—should be considered part of the arsenal.

To each its own

D2 printers have allowed users to produce garments in a way that screen printers could only dream about in terms of short runs and color capabilities. They afford the ability to create highly detailed graphics with virtually unlimited color capacity. Many of today’s machines can produce some great prints out of artwork produced at a minimum 320 dpi and can do so quickly, cost effectively and with good repeatability. 

This has been almost perfected with many of the CMYK machines that only print on white and light-colored garments. Though, the ability to produce direct prints on dark colored garments has improved dramatically, much due to advances in the machine technology and in the pre-treatment process. Direct printers also work best on 100 percent cotton and blends. 

The traditional screen print practitioner may see these factors as a liability in that customers are limited in terms of garment colors. But, the garment decorator sees opportunity in the ability to produce detailed graphics in limited runs with good profit margin.

Production scenarios are not always quantity-based. All factors must be considered when looking at the profitability of screen versus digital.

There is a rumor that, once the technology is perfected, direct printing will replace the screen business. But this isn’t necessarily true. Each has its own set of unique capabilities. For example, D2 printers use a water-based ink system that results in a soft hand print with a matted or satin look while screen printing produces the best colors with a pop, no matter the garment color. Fluorescents, metallics, glitters, shimmers, crystalinas and high density are other examples of specialties that can’t really be recreated in the digital garment world at this point. 

If the goal is a glossy look on athletic apparel, D2 may not be the right process. The 11-color, highly-detailed image going on 500 dozen black shirts for retail will probably go to a 14-color automatic (or into a contract decorator’s queue). But the order for 18 eight-color shirts for the family picnic (that will probably add three more shirts to the order at the last minute) is perfectly suited for direct printing. 

If you serve both ends of the spectrum (or can serve if you get the right tools), employ both technologies and use each to its fullest. Note that this does not indicate that one method is better than the other; successful garment decorators know what each process can and can’t do, and what they can do, they do very well. (These savvy professionals also know their market and what it can and can’t do.)

The companies that have successfully incorporated both of these technologies range in size and serve diverse markets. For one, a contract shop running primarily high speed automatics to produce preprint lines and large contracts incorporated a direct printer to produce multicolor prints for licensed products in quantities between one and four garments at a time. In another, a long time screen print practitioner added a CMYK machine to complement the screen, embroidery and heat printing technologies his shop uses to serve the local school and college market.

These are just two of many companies that are successfully using all the tools available for the markets they serve instead of trying to make one technology produce something it was not designed to produce or at a cost that is unprofitable. 

Pre-treatment options, whether automatic for higher-speed production or manual, have made direct printing on dark garments a reality.

Production and Cost

I believe it is often the case that a person’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. The same can be said of D2 and screen printing. Direct printers have the ability to produce virtually unlimited color without the cost of screens and all of the other consumables that have to be factored into screen printing. Truly a strength of D2.

With direct printing, the cost of producing a garment is fixed per garment, no matter if the print is for one or 1,000 garments. On a CMYK machine, the ink cost per garment is between $0.25 and $1.50. This depends heavily on the type of machine, the size of the print and the artwork. Machines with white ink capability can also significantly raise the ink cost per garment as well. In this case, per-garment cost can range from $1 to $8 just for white ink, plus the CMYK cost and the cost of pre-treatment, ranging from $0.30 to $0.75 per garment.

As high as these ink costs may seem, it is a fixed cost that is not tied to quantity. But this fixed cost can also be a weakness—screen printing costs decrease as quantities increase, which is why I still see D2 as a technology primarily for shorter runs. The larger quantities, then, are where screen printing’s strength is realized. 

So what about production? D2 printers usually have a maximum production of 60 garments per hour (depending on size of the graphic, placement, etc.). On pure speed, screen will always be faster—a small automatic press is able to produce 300 to 1,200 garments per hour and even a manual press should be able to print 50 to 75 pieces per hour.

This is not necessarily a race, but a factor in determining the profitability of any given job. In my experience, most of the businesses that employ both technologies start comparing the two at 50 pieces to determine what’s best in terms of their per-piece margin. Business also grows according to how many profitable jobs can be invoiced per day. The faster a job is completed, the quicker it is invoiced… and paid. It comes down to the old time is money rule.

The long and short

The shops that successfully use screen and digital printing all say that part of the screen or digital equation depends on the production schedule. In one report, there was a 1,500-piece four-color process job on a white shirt that normally would be setup on the automatic press no problem but was instead printed on the direct printer. Even though it took a few days, the job was completed ahead of schedule as were six other screen jobs on the automatic—all profitable and all customers happy.

Another shop had a 60-piece run that would normally be a screen print but, as a two-color on dark, the numbers indicated that profit was still good for running it on the D2 printer, freeing up his manual press to produce a run of athletic mesh jerseys for a football league. 

These examples demonstrate that choosing the right method of production isn’t always as simple as short versus long run. Knowing the cost and the production capabilities of each technology in any job scenario will allow garment decorators to produce the highest quality apparel with a good profit margin (and at a cost the customer is happy with). Wow. Utopia.