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The current and future state of direct-to-substrate technology

DEFINING the DIGITAL ERA

In the beginning, there were only a few approaches to digital direct printing. A few early manufacturers developed proprietary print heads; the other method was to adapt home/office paper printers to accommodate textiles. This initial introduction of the technology was revolutionary and exciting, but not without its flaws.

The adapted systems did not always play nice with the inks developed for printing paper products. Those manufacturing proprietary systems rushed to market to join the competition, perhaps premature of perfection. Additionally, these first generations of D2 printers showcased slow speeds, breakdowns and sometimes less-than-perfect results. The steep learning curve that was masked by an assumed simplicity also left early adaptors frustrated with the inability to reach full printing potential.

While the downsides of the technology may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some users, the trials and tribulations they encountered allowed innovators to tweak, develop and grow the technology, while users (both current and potential) have become far better educated on the capabilities and limitations of the discipline, states Brett Weibel, BelQuette. Further, according to Susan Cox, LogoJET USA, “Not only is efficiency improved, but the direct-to-substrate process has allowed many of our customers to expand their product offerings.”
To chart the evolution of the technology and what it may hold, experts from the digital direct portion of the industry weigh in on the current state of D2 and where we can expect to see it go.

For best results…

Direct-to-substrate printing allows decorators to create intricate multi-color jobs in short runs, preferable of 96-pieces or less, notes Bill Richards, ColDesi. It not only allows for on-demand production and easy customization, but further allows decorators to take on jobs they never could have before, literally changing the limits of design capabilities, states Geoff Baxter, M&R Companies.

For example, shops offering D2 decorating along with screen printing do not have limitations in terms of colors or minimum orders. The technology also does not require the setup costs and time involved in preparation of artwork and screens; if the art can be transferred from a computer or USB, it can be easily reproduced with D2.

The key for successful reproduction is careful selection and prepping of the substrate. While compatible with a variety of items, the technology lends itself best to flat, absorbent products, namely of the fabric variety, explains Baxter. But hard substrates can be decorated by direct printing as well. “From printing on OEM products to branded golf balls and heat sensitive substrates, direct-to-substrate opens more opportunities for embellishment,” Cox reports.

Hard items must first be made receptive with the addition of pre-treatment. Once printed and dried, they must again be coated with a post-treatment to seal the ink and make the print more durable. The key to its lifespan, Richards adds, is in the pre-treatment process; without a good initial coating it’s nearly impossible to get good results, let alone inks that will stay adhered. The same can be said of fabric products as well.

It is well known that D2 works best on white and light-colored garments, but it is not impossible to also create colorful images on darks. The key here is to apply an even coating of pre-treatment fluid. This solution provides a surface for inks to bond to. This process also allows colors to show up on darks when printed on a white under-base. Without a consistent and even coating of pre-treatment for the under-base, the subsequent layers of ink can look cracked or ink may be faint or missing in spots.

Whether dark or light, T-shirts are often the primary target of digital direct. But users should not overlook the opportunity to create custom designs on other wearables such as sweatshirts, polos and denim, as well as non-wearables such as towels and napkins.

Much of this diversity in available substrates is due to an extensive selection of platens that accommodate zippers, sleeves, pant legs and large all-over prints. But it is also credited to the advancements in printer technology, pre-treatments and inks.

Equipment evolution

Direct-to-substrate equipment has come a long way from its humble roots, while the market interest and industry use continues to grow at an impressive rate, states Andrea Glatfelter, Kornit. Speeds have increased and ink lay-down is more consistent, in turn generating better prints. This, in part, she says, can be attributed to the fact that the new generation of equipment is designed for D2 rather than modified for it.

More and more often, today’s D2 machinery is moving away from early Epson-based technology and is instead outfitted with industrial print heads designed for the specific purpose of printing textiles. The heads are more robust and able to take more pressure, explains Baxter, which also leads to easier cleaning and a longer lifespan.

Because of this, ink runs through the equipment more efficiently—a historically problematic aspect of the technology. What’s more, inks are now being made specifically for the equipment and sometimes for a specific brand of print head.

Sources tell us that the development of proprietary inks in conjunction with improved print heads proves to be a major turning point in the evolution of the technology, creating more consistent results. White ink has also become more stable, says Glatfelter, requiring less babysitting while also providing a better base for more colorful ink application.

Further, there are advancements for rigid substrates: “There have been great advances for direct-to-substrate solvent printers,” Cox reports. “Heated beds and/or halogen lamps help cure products better while printing which improves print time and image quality.”

And, the tricky process of applying pre-treatment has become automated. When done by hand, the substance tends to be messy, with overspray covering nearby equipment, apparel, workers and furniture. Worse, it is also corrosive, says Weibel, leading to machines rusting.

Automated pre-treatment machines not only encase the spray, avoiding tacky and damaging results, but also remove the human margin for error in shaky application. Some equipment now also houses the automatic pre-treatment in the printer as well, adds Glatfelter, further reducing occupied floor space and additional manpower.

Someday, in the future

The incorporation and improvements made to the machinery, inks and pre-treatment has brought the industry to a new generation of D2, but not yet to its pinnacle. “I look at the D2 industry like the transportation industry,” explains Richards. “We started off with a horse and buggy with the goal to fly around like the Jetsons.” Based on this timeline, he estimates the technology to be somewhere in the mid-1950s, with things getting faster and flashier.

And while speeds have greatly improved, allowing for increased production capabilities, it’s nowhere near that of screen printing. The capability of D2 to output hundreds or even thousands of shirts at a cost-effective price point and in a reasonable time frame is still unattainable when compared to screen printing.

What’s more, the complicated and involved development of ink increases overall cost and causes lag times between ink and hardware development, with the costs (and consequences) being passed down to the end-users.

“Our direction is driven by what print head and ink technology work well together,” explains BelQuette’s Weibel. Without proper research, hardware developers, risk capital on potentially outdated or incompatible equipment, a risk no company wants to take. When looking at the state of the industry from this angle, it seems that we are in the midst of an antiquated era. But, it’s also important to note that if, we are “in the 1950s,” in terms of development, the swinging ’60s are on the horizon.

“I personally think we’re at the genesis of a full blown digital revolution,” declares Weibel. And he may certainly be onto something. From its introduction to the market, the equipment has traveled light-years in a relatively short period of time. In the next 10 years, it’s expected that the technology will grow tremendous amounts in all aspects of development—from lowered ink prices and more variety, to improved graphic recreation and more user-friendly technology.

Regardless of how far the advancements go, sources say they promise to continue to improve vastly and fit with the increasing demand of end-user needs. And, with all of the excitement surrounding D2, the next five to 10 years may be the era of the metaphorical flying car. Or, at the very least, an era of digitally printed shirts, flying off the shelves.