Select the right technology

Direct to the Point

With the growing popularity of digital direct-to-substrate/garment (D2) technology, a very common question that many garment decorators have is whether they should add screen printing equipment, sublimation, or a D2 printer to help expand business.

There are many factors that come into play when selecting which type of equipment to purchase. Before you decide on any specific equipment type or decoration method, one of the first steps to take is to thoroughly evaluate your market. Understand what type of items you are going to print.

Look at who your current customers are and what type of additional customers you are going to attract once you have this new decoration method available. Have a conversation with a few of your current customers and ask them how their orders might increase if you brought this new technology in house. David Landesman, Co-President of Lawson Screen & Digital Products, says, “We see more and more printers taking advantage of what I call ‘imaging-diversification.’ That is to say, instead of thinking of your company as a screen printing company, or a D2 company, or as an embroiderer—instead view your company as an imaging specialist that can handle and integrate your client’s needs most appropriately.”

Does your business focus on printing standard designs for churches, clubs, schools and teams? If so you should be able to produce most of what you need with screen printing. If you are making shirts with lots of colors, highly detailed graphics, photos, or producing smaller order sizes, D2 equipment might be the better choice.

Do you want to supply printed mugs, plates, key fobs, or polyester-based garments? If so, sublimation printing might be the best method to have in-house. You are going to have to invest some time to get the right answers to these questions, but in the long run, it will really help simplify your decision-making process and ensure you get the best equipment for your needs.

Work area considerations

One area most decorators overlook is the physical space where the equipment will be located. Have you checked the size of the equipment and thought of how you are going to move it in to your building? Lawrence Davenport, Senior Technical Support Manager at Brother International Corporation, states, “Some of our customers have had to temporarily remove walls or windows to move new equipment into their workspace when they found out that it just wouldn’t fit through a small doorway, or make the turn in a tight stairway.”

Check the size of your equipment in relation to the workspace. Cramped spaces are shown to slow production and can lead to accidents. In most cases, screen printing requires more floor space than a D2 or sublimation printer.

Another element to think about in terms of the work area is electricity and other utilities. The screen printing process requires water to develop screens. Screen printing dryers and often heat presses used in D2 and sublimation processes require 240 volt electricity, which is not standard in many locations and might have to be installed by an electrician.

Does your workspace have air conditioning and heat? Operating most D2 and sublimation printers properly requires a controlled environment, including suitable humidity levels, while screen printing does not require such a rigid setting.

Associated costs

You must thoroughly understand cost per print, ink waste, maintenance, and all of the other factors connected with the different processes. D2 and large format sublimation equipment is often more expensive when compared to basic screen printing equipment, but it has other advantages. The cost per print of screen printing is very low but you must factor in the auxiliary costs involved with the screen printing process, including: art preparation, producing a positive, screen making, alignment, setup and the whole cleanup process. The cost benefit to screen printing is with longer runs or short runs with one or two spot colors, but its gets expensive when you need just a few multi-colored shirts.

Digital printing processes such as D2 and sublimation are almost the opposite in that they have minimal setup or post production costs. These processes are most cost-effective when producing short runs of a multi-colored design, a design with high detail, or when printing just one shirt or item.

For example, printing 100 black shirts with a simple one-color design in white ink for a local high school football team is more suitable for screen printing equipment because of the long production time and the cost of ink and pre-treatment. But, if this same team wanted only 24 shirts printed in full four-color process, it might be better to produce them using the D2 process because of the extensive setup time and costs involved in making the screens and film positives. On the other hand, if the team ordered coffee mugs with each player’s photo on it, sublimation might be the best production method. Brad Belk, Managing Director of Axiom America, LLC says, “Sublimation has proven to be one of the most versatile decorating techniques and has been a profitable addition to many D2, screen printing and embroidery businesses.”

Pros and Cons

Remember each decoration method has its pros and cons and each is specifically suited to its task. Unlike screen printing, most D2 ink does not adhere to flame-resistant clothing, Teflon coated fabrics, nylon jackets, most polyester uniforms, and some 50/50 or 100 percent polyester materials, whereas screen print inks will.

Digital direct inks work best on 100 percent cotton, and some 50/50 and 100 percent polyester fabrics, while sublimation printing works best on 100 percent polyester fabrics and polyester coated items. “I can definitely say that the customers who use D2 and screen printing to complement each other are often more successful because they are not reliant on simply one technology to get a job done,” says Ryan Moor, CEO of Ryonet Corp.

Once you take the time to really evaluate your business, market and customer needs, you may reach the conclusion that D2, sublimation or screen printing alone may not be able to satisfy all the decoration needs required of your growing business. You may have to purchase many different types of decoration equipment. “This allows garment decorators to be more competitive, versatile and stable, which, in turn, can mean more profit,” states Luke Ryerkerk, D2 Product Manager at Ryonet Corp. Make sure you get the type of equipment for your business needs. You may need to start slowly, evaluate your market, invest in the method best suited for your needs and plan to expand at a later date.