The Digital Workstation: Dare to go Digital... in Volume

Sometimes, the world wows us with creations that exceed our expectations, and one classifying innovation is a device known as the iPod. Changing the way the world listens to music, the iPod transforms its patrons into DJs as they digitally transfer their set lists onto an inconspicuous gadget housing every one of their favorite songs.

Along similar lines within an industry worlds away, digital-transfer technology transports an image from computer screen to substrate in a matter of minutes. By design, digital transfers are the solution for decorating one-offs, producing multiple, vivid colors, or reproducing a detail-oriented photograph on a T-shirt for Grandma, all on a short-run/quick-turn basis. But evolving technologies are helping digital transfers break free of this typecast, as the industry increasingly considers this technique on par with traditional players in high-volume production settings.

A numbers game

Ask a screen printer the minimum quantity to which he’ll justify raising a squeegee (not to mention reclaiming, coating and exposing screens, mixing inks and setting up his press) while remaining cost effective to customers and still making a profit. In other words, what’s the magical break-even volume number that renders the job worth it versus considering an alternative method, subbing it out, or turning it down? On the other hand, what might be that magical number, going the other direction, when the volume on hand is deemed too much for digital transfers’ one-by-one nature?

No one can deny the efficiency and economy of screen printing a tall order, or the dedication, talent and loyalty our industry’s screen printers harbor for their craft. But these days, even screen printers aren’t denying the instances where it’s preferable and profitable to generate a digital image, output via inkjet or laser, and heat press it to a product; there is virtually no pre-press set up involved and no break-even magic number, as every item, starting at one, represents a profit.

“Digital transfers do, of course, excel for small-volume decorating,” states Aaron Knight, Geo Knight & Co. “With digital-transfer papers, a few items are just as profitable as many, and screen printing simply cannot justify the set-up costs for a few items. This is well established and accepted.”

Not only can these decorators identify the useful application, but many also dabble in heat-transfers themselves. And, while these supplemental machines are commonly used to apply necessities such as vinyl lettering and appliqués, Knight predicts increasing usage.

“Almost all screen printers will readily admit there is a heat press on the premises,” he reports. “More and more this is simply because digital transfers have offered too many benefits over traditional screen printing to be ignored completely. The quality of the image, the feasibility for accepting small orders and making them very profitable, and the general cost accessibility of digital transfers has resulted in countless traditional screen-printing facilities adding digital transfer to their capabilities.”

No break-even cost analysis would be complete without mention of the numerous variables involved in determining the best technique for any given order—variables that may point decorators toward digital transfers for reasons other than set-up rigors.

“Screen printing can be cost effective for as few as eight to ten prints for a simple, one-color image,” remarks Brian Dunster, Joto Paper Inc. “A digital transfer may be a better alternative for producing hundreds of prints if the image is more complex, such as a detailed photographic image.”

Outside of substrate number and complexity of image, embellishers must consider the number of colors involved, time allotted, substrate and substrate size just to name a few parts of the equation.

“It’s a combination of quantity but it’s also a combination of quality of image,” says TheMagicTouch’s Greg Weeks of the allusive break-even formula. “There’s a limit to the quality of image that you’re going to get, even with some of these twenty-head screen-printing pieces of equipment. So if you want full-photo reproduction on a T-shirt, whether it’s one, one-thousand or ten-thousand, you’re going to go with a digital transfer.”

Weeks goes on to discuss the importance of balancing cost and determining what the market will bear. Variable costs like transfer paper and toner have been known to lighten wallets more than screen-printing ink, but differences in capital equipment costs between the two disciplines allow transfer technicians to purchase more and approach production levels of output.

“They’ll go with a half a dozen or a dozen of these printers,” Weeks offers as an alternative to pricey screen-printing equipment, adding: “They get not only the redundancy—because if one goes down, they’ve still got a dozen of them working—but they’re actually able to get out the same or greater output and get the quality level that people are looking for.”

Lose the limitations

While having several machines can have its benefits, manufacturers recognized the need for production-oriented transfer equipment, supplies and accessories to speed the process and level the playing field. A quick glance at one such innovation, a carousel heat-transfer press, reveals a striking resemblance to the screen-printing press with which it has evolved to compete.

“Heat-press application equipment, by and large, has ‘arrived’ in its reliability and quality of application,” states Knight, emphasizing the digital controls and available automatic features that serve to improve throughput and repeatability. Additional proof that digital transfers have become viable in production can be found along the aisles of every major industry trade show, with an undeniable presence on the floor.

Expensive papers, singular heat presses, and slow printers—all elements that limited digital transfers to small-orders in the past—are progressing to become its production strengths for the future.

“The speed of laser printers, wide-format printers, and other digital equipment used for producing digital transfers has increased to the point where the printer is no longer the bottleneck,” Knight points out.

He explains how hardware now enables the printing to surpass the actual heat-pressing application time in many circumstances. “When a laser transfer is coming off a printer every ten seconds in high resolution and full color, and a heat press takes fifteen seconds to press that transfer, you have now made the final pressing application, not the output printing step, the longest link in the chain,” Knight says.

“For this reason, digital transfer technology is very viable for a high-volume basis. Add a few presses—at very little cost compared to screen-printing equipment—and two to three operators will have a finished garment every seven to ten seconds or so. This is very possible, and is being done regularly in high-production digital-heat-transfer scenarios.”

On the supply side, copy-friendly transfer papers are also upping the ante, with some decorators purchasing tens of thousands of sheets at a time, according to Dunster.

“The transfer papers have improved, and whereas it was difficult to get them to run in earlier versions in high-speed copiers, there are now papers that will run very effectively without trouble in copiers that are running hundreds of pages a minute,” he says.

“So you can produce those transfers very quickly.” Before paper-coating advancements, printers would jam, melt, and otherwise destroy transfer papers that were too thick and unfit to withstand the wear and tear that long laser-printer runs can impose. These reformed and ready-to-go papers also present an advantage over direct-to-garment systems that require pre and post-production treatments."

All our sources agree that, when it comes to putting colors on whites, digital transfers are a practical production competitor. While commercial-grade machines, increasingly affordable printers and papers, and ever-speedier transfer times are helping combat the conception that heat transfers have a low ceiling, certain challenges remain.

“Digital transfers are still developing new and improved white and opaque solutions for printing darks,” Knight reports. “There are methods and papers for printing darks, but a soft-hand screen-printed style digital-transfer method for doing darks is still not fully mature.”

In this regard, digital-transfer technology moves away from a competitor stance and into the light as a companion.

“What we’re suggesting is that it’s just one more option that, for certain types of images and certain kinds of jobs, can compete very well with the other options,” comments Dunster. “Couple that with the fact that you don’t need a lot of training, you don’t need to spend a lot of money, you don’t need a lot of time to do it, and it becomes a very viable complementary technology.”

Pick up the slack

While digital transfers are earning their place as a stand-alone production solution, players in other facets of the industry who are open to adding it will be well-equipped when another technique falls short.

"You can’t embroider a full-color photographic image,” declares Dunster, discussing the built-in market of existing customers for whom most decorators can now provide a greater range of finished products. “The digital processes, be it laser or sublimation, will do that very nicely. Again, the equipment you need to get started to do that is minimal. An inkjet printer is under a hundred dollars, you can get a laser printer for a few hundred dollars; that and a heat press and you’re ready to go.”

TheMagicTouch’s Weeks describes the value in digital transfer’s production across the scope of substrates: “They’ve captured that image, now they want to sell it in as many forms as possible to their customers,” he says, citing the range of printable products, including metal, wood, leather, glass, acrylic, nylon, and more."

“Because [digital transfers do] not require products to be coated to receive an image such as in sublimation, it’s not so much ‘What can I transfer to?’ but simply determining time, temperature and pressure to put an image on almost any substrate.” 

While digital transfers may never dominate the industry like our miniature, morphing friend from Apple, it seems that it won’t be long before you’ll find someone in every shop jamming to their iPod and applying digital heat transfers in multitudes.