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Direct-to-Substrate Printing Software

Mark Bagley is director of marketing (Industrial Products Division) at Brother International Corporation. With both a legal and business background, he has also worked with several industry suppliers in providing educational content about their products online. 

Over the past five years, there has been an explosion of growth in the direct-to-substrate segment of our industry. Manufacturers have constantly been working on improvements to the printers, inks and printing software to make the process easier for all garment decorators to get into. More importantly, information on how all the components come together to provide a high quality, durable image is becoming readily available to those interested in this process.

Based on conversations with decorators currently using D2 printers, it is clear that most pre-purchase research is focused on the hardware components and on the company selling the printer. Little time is actually spent on the printing software—which is the main communication tool between the computer and the printer. Here, we’ll look at the five key factors when considering the printing software for any direct-to-substrate printer.

Print driver versus RIP

Printing software programs can be categorized into two groups: print drivers and RIPs (raster image processors). The main difference between a print driver and a RIP is the amount of information that is sent to the printer. Print drivers are typically used with CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) only or printers designed for light garments and provide users less control over how the artwork is sent to the printer. 

A RIP will provide users with more controls that can lead to smoother blends, better highlights and improved color reproduction. Most direct-to-substrate printers that print on dark garments use a RIP in order to generate the white under-base layer and to control the printer in order to lay down enough white ink. 

Depending on which printer model is being used and the artwork being printed, a print driver may be perfectly fine. Don’t get hung up on labels either way. Instead, use samples of artwork (including both photographs and vector graphics) that have a wide range of colors in them to test the printing system. Let the sample prints influence your decision. 

Print-to versus print-from methods

There are two methods used for sending the artwork to the printer. The first method is referred to as a “print-to” application where the user prints directly out of the graphic software program to the printing software. Most print-to applications require the user to add some minor changes to the artwork when printing on dark garments with white ink in order for it to print properly. 

The second method is referred to as a “print-from” application and requires the user to save the artwork in the graphic software program. The user then imports the artwork into a program inside the printing software and selects the appropriate settings based on the characteristics of the artwork. Some print-from applications require artwork to be saved in a raster format.

Although both methods can provide the desired results, determine which method will work best based on the people who will be using the D2 printer. Some printing software programs will allow you to use either method.

Color controls

With any decorating technique, accurately reproducing the customer’s artwork is very important. Most printers only use four ink channels (CMYK) to create the color in the artwork. The printing software is responsible for taking the color information from the graphic software program and sending it to the printer. Some of them will only allow the use of a specific color mode or source profile. This may require converting the artwork from one color mode or profile into the same mode used by the printing software. In doing this, the colors in the artwork may be altered based on the rendering intent; that is, the process used to bring colors into gamut from one color space to another. 

Other printing software programs allow the color mode and source profile to be changed in the printing software to keep the original colors in the artwork. A few of these programs will allow users with a strong background in color to create custom look-up tables and apply tone curves.

It should be noted that not all color modes and source profiles will result in the same colors. Users will need to create  procedures on how to handle artwork that is created in-house as well as that which is received from customers. Printing color charts will help determine the color gamut based on the color settings in the graphic software and the printing software. I recommend typing in the settings used for both the graphic software and printing software programs on the color chart to indicate exactly what settings to use to recreate the same color.

Under-base options

When printing on dark garments, a white under-base layer must be printed in order to block the color of the garment. Most direct-to-substrate printing software programs will create the white under base for the user. The white layer is created based on complex algorithms in the printing software that represent specific features in the artwork. 

Different printing software programs will provide different ways for how to create the under-base layer. Some will require the graphic to be on a transparent background while others have options for working with graphics on a colored background. In addition, having the ability to create both grayscale and solid under-base layers might be important depending on the artwork being printed. Thus, when shopping for equipment and software, ask specific questions as to how the printing software will handle the creation of the white under-base layer in artwork that has faded edges, colored backgrounds and in specific file formats (i.e. CDR, AI, PSD, PDF) on a variety of garment colors.

Other features

The majority of printing-software programs come with several other features that can be useful. Most come with some type of ink-cost calculators helpful for pricing print jobs. Using a production-run feature, the same design can be printed on multiple garments without having to reprocess the print job for each garment. Creating multiple hot folders or queues with predefined settings can allow other employees without as much knowledge in the printing software to process jobs correctly.

Although none of the features mentioned above are required for direct-to-substrate printing, they can be helpful integrating a printer into the specific characteristics of your business. For most current direct-to-substrate printer owners, the value of many of these features becomes noticeable after they start using the machine. But it never hurts to ask about them in advance.

Training/support materials 

The final aspect those considering adding D2 technology should research is what training materials exist for the printing software. Just like any new software, there will be a learning curve in order to truly understand how to use all the features to get the best possible print. Ask to see what training materials the company selling the printing software has to assist during the learning phase. Some companies will provide online documentation and videos while others offer training DVDs and written user manuals.

With new operating systems and constantly changing permission-based programs (i.e. anti-virus and firewall programs), odds are additional questions about the printing software will arise. It is how the company will address technical-support issues that becomes important. Several direct-to-substrate manufacturers and distributors have technical support phone numbers, online support forums and even remote-access software programs to resolve customer issues.

Based on the time and financial investment required for D2 printing, it is important to research all the main components of a printer. This includes asking questions about the printing-software program as well. So, before you make the final decision, make a written list of questions with the help of the information above to ensure you get the right package for your business.