The modern apparel decorator can consider direct-to-garment as another way to stay competitive in an evolving industry.

Might as Well Jump: How to Add Direct-to-Garment Printing to a Screen-Printing Shop

Mike Clark is the Associate Editor for Printwear magazine covering timely news in the apparel and textile industries. Contact him at mclark@nbm.com

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In recent years, direct-to-garment (D2) has emerged as a decoration method that both hobbyist and professional-level decorators have gravitated towards for a variety of reasons. Be it the spatial flexibility, short-order capability, or faster setup time, various businesses now offer direct-to-garment as their sole service, while others have added it as an option alongside other classic decoration methods. For screen printers considering adding D2 services to their shop, the transition is feasible, so long as that shop owner is aware of the considerations.

The main differences

Before any cost analysis is performed, screen printers should be aware of the primary differences between screen printing and D2.

Hence the name, images for D2 are digitally printed, rather than burned onto a screen. “There is a lot less manual work because of this,” explains Deana Leelachat, AnaJet. “There are also no limitations on the amount of colors you can print.”

Matthew Rhome, Epson, explains that despite the less analog design of direct-to-garment, printers should know that there are still differences in how the cost structure breaks down between screen printing and D2.  “Although you don’t have the artwork, screen preparation, and press setup needs like you do with screen printing,” Rhome explains, “Your per-print price is more because labor-wise it costs more, and ink costs more (for D2).”

However, Sharon Donovich, Kornit, contends that while screen printing is most cost effective for long-run jobs, D2 provides an efficient option for short-to-medium run jobs. “No matter if you are printing one unit or 144 units, there is no pre-press preparation, so the cost is fixed,” Donovich states.

D2’s flexibility also allows decorators to explore customization options like names and numbers on team sportswear or family reunion T-shirts, explains Leelachat. Donovich echoes this point, saying decorators who want to dive deeper into customized orders through online stores can take full advantage of the no-minimum order model of D2.

Substrate is arguably a bigger consideration for D2 and as of now presents more limitations. “Traditionally, direct-to-garment has been 100 percent cotton for best results,” explains Jerid Hill, BelQuette. “The technology is changing and getting better, but screen printing is more versatile on various fabrics.”

Crunching the numbers

Regardless of a shop’s goals, you need to crunch the numbers, Donovich contends. “Analyze the orders, the typical or average run length, the total quantity of orders per day, the current expenses, and profit. Once the numbers are clear, it is easy to understand what is needed.”

Next, a shop needs to decide what kind of capacity it wants to offer D2. If it’s more of a one-off service, shops can stick with a smaller printer, but if they’re interested in offering larger quantities like screen-printing services, they’ll need to consider industrial-size machines, says Leelachat.

To help decide what’s right for a particular shop setup, some equipment providers feature an ROI calculator on their website. With this, business owners can calculate what the actual numbers might look like before going window shopping.

Finding an existing direct-to-garment printer in the area is a great way to research costs and pricing for the decoration method. (Image courtesy AnaJet) 

Doing some area recon is also useful, suggests Leelachat. Consider reaching out to local D2 shops and ask about pricing and costs. She adds that they can discuss possible contracting options to gauge customer demand and determine pricing strategies before investing in the equipment.

“A shop that’s established already has the customer base, and it’s just a matter of determining how many short-run jobs they’ve turned down a month,” says Hill. “Then you factor in what pricing you need to be at [to be profitable].”

Hill also suggests that a shop owner calculate ink costs and spoilage amounts, factoring in roughly two percent spoilage. 

Businesses taking on D2 need to be aware of ink costs before diving into the service. (Image courtesy BelQuette) 

In action

After sorting out the numbers, all parties recommend getting a closer look at how the D2 process works; both in production and output. Rhome suggests taking some time to watch the process from start to finish.

“I tell any potential customer that before you buy a printer, you should take one of your art files, have it printed on a D2 printer, and watch it so you understand that process completely through,” Rhome explains. He adds that printers can do this either at a showroom or trade show or even have an equipment provider send the potential buyer a video of the entire print process.

Leelachat adds to this, encouraging shop owners to get a few different prints of artwork before investing so that the business owner can determine if D2 will truly meet their needs. Once printers have a chance to witness the process, they can start looking around for equipment.

Aside from the printer, decorators will need to invest in a couple of other pieces of equipment to offer up D2 services. For the entry-level printer, a heat press, and a pretreatment system are essential to the direct-to-garment process. The style of pretreat system truly depends on the printer’s volume or projected volume. For higher-volume shops, an automatic pretreat machine is recommended for both consistency and speed. To ensure they have an efficient system in place, printers should consult with the seller to make sure the pretreatment setup they choose is compatible with the printer.

Open up shop  

Regarding shop setup, bringing on D2, in most cases, will be a low-impact addition to a businesses’ layout and power consumption. In fact, you can add a D2 printer to your existing shop with little-to-no modification, says Rhome.

For electrical requirements, Don Copeland, ColDesi, points out that the printer does not necessarily pull a heavier draw than other equipment, but shops should consider making accommodations.

For an entry-level printer, a shop owner can set up D2 in their shop with a minimal footprint and little to-no-additional electrical maintenance. (Image courtesy Brother) 

“Have the electrician run two extra circuits with a couple of extra plugs on each circuit,” he says. This, he explains, allows for future growth if the shop decides to bring on more equipment or services.

Training staff for the new process should also be a relatively low-impact transition, most parties agree. But, again, it truly depends on how the shop wants to offer D2.

 “If you’re adding it as a growth operation, you probably do want to eventually bring somebody on,” says Copeland. Similarly, Leelachat suggests if a shop does want to offer D2, it can be helpful to designate someone with a graphics and inkjet background, such as wide-format printing, to run that department.

Both Rhome and Copeland agree that decorators already experienced with graphics software should catch on relatively quickly to art preparation for D2, particularly since it doesn’t require separations like screen printing.

“The same art director (from the screen-printing department) can be trained to prepare files and maintain the digital printing,” says Donovich.

How to sell it

Like most decoration methods, all contributors agree that the most effective way to sell clients on D2 services is by putting samples on display. This means hanging sample prints in a shop’s office or showroom to give clients a better idea of what a decorator can offer for everything from team wear, to family reunions, and even local businesses like restaurants and delivery drivers. In addition to putting garments on display in the shop, multiple parties recommend including a sample shirt with finished screen-printing orders.

Copeland suggests printing a single shirt with the client’s logo, along with the decorator’s information, and details on how the shop’s D2 services offer “no minimums, no setup fees.”

Rhome suggests a similar approach for local businesses, using D2 to help them promote timely events like promotional pricing, weekly restaurant specials, or even local political campaigns. Memorial T-shirts, which typically demand high-detail, photographic quality, he adds, are also a prime market for D2 prints.

Because of the short and medium-run capability of D2, decorators can run an online store for small orders. (Image courtesy Kornit) 

Despite all the technical differences, Rhome cautions that screen printers should not view D2 as a full-on replacement for screen printing, but rather understand it as another decoration option they can add to their shop’s arsenal.

Hill recommends showcasing D2 prints but taking caution when getting into semantics about the specifics of the process to customers. Letting the print color options and turnaround time speak for themselves, he elaborates, will be enough of a selling point. Overwhelming a customer with detailed information about digital printing may cause them to expect more than realistically available, he explains, and confuse both parties.

“Focus simply on the message, such as, ‘We now offer small runs with unlimited colors,'” says Hill.

If a shop can find ways to integrate D2 into its existing services, and ultimately demonstrate to clients why it’s a beneficial option, this service can open up new streams of revenue for shops of all sizes.