State-of-the-Industry Report

A recent survey of Printwear readers indicates that digital direct-to-substrate printers top your lists as the number one planned purchase for the next year, which piqued our interest beyond the scope of this particular poll. So we asked around among some of the D2 dynasties for answers, discovering what’s behind the technology’s popularity, officially filing this state of direct-to-substrate report. 

Big machine on campus

According to AnaJet Inc.’s Dr. Chase Roh, Printwear’s survey results are consistent with findings from other industry research. “AnaJet sees continued strong demand for direct-to-garment printers,” Roh reports. “Both economics and industry trends toward smaller run size and environmental consideration will drive the demand for direct-to-garment printers strong for many years to come.” In addition to those compelling needs, steady incremental improvements in the technology have garment decorators more receptive to D2 today, Roh explains.

“Direct-to-garment inkjet printing has finally gained acceptance with the decorating community and proven itself as an accepted printing medium,” says Brother International Corporation’s Matthew Rhome, who reasons that the technology has finally come of age. “The most asked question at first was, how long is the print going to last and how durable is it? Customers were afraid the print was going to wash out. I think people finally realized that it does last, it’s a good product, and it has gained market acceptance.” 

The technology overall has also demonstrated its durability; and while screen printing still represents the largest share of the apparel-imaging market at more than 90 percent, according to Kornit Digital’s Yael Cooper, digital direct is setting a grueling pace. “Based on the past five years, it is becoming clear that digital technologies are fast penetrating the garment-decoration market, with an increase of more than six-hundred percent,” Cooper comments, adding that digital textile printing has been growing at more than 40 percent annually since 2002 from virtually zero. 

“There are a few market trends driving garment decorators to move into the digital arena,” she states, naming first the need for customization, a key requirement. “As a result, garment decorators must be equipped to handle their customers’ personalized artwork and be able to adjust their business to short-run productions.” Cooper also mentions the assimilation of Internet commerce and growth of global and local online businesses as a D2 driving force. “Customers want to shop online and get their product exactly like they want it and the fastest way possible,” she remarks. A huge market, web-based wearables require fulfilling embellishers to offer online interfaces and provide web-customized prints to individual customers, not just businesses or groups, Cooper continues. “The solution can be found in direct-to-garment printing technologies, which enable cost-effective production of customized designs and short runs.” 

Technological maturity is yet another factor, she resounds, pointing out that D2 is not so new anymore, although there are many new entrants and a lot more products being offered. “The machines are getting more reliable and as a result, garment decorators are getting to better trust the technology.” 

Advantageous advancements

With that trust comes responsibility to take this machinery to new heights, meeting the demands and expectations of its practitioners. A look at direct-to-substrate functionality now versus one year ago, for example, will reveal that these machines “Provide even better quality prints, cheaper and faster,” according to Cooper. 

“Direct printing systems have been making incremental improvements in the quality of both printer and ink over the last few years, making more garment decorators comfortable with the direct digital printing systems,” remarks Roh. “More and more industry education and manufacturers’ efforts to train and support customers are giving a higher level of confidence to decorators.” 

Roh also speaks of some progress with regard to maintenance, with a reported reduction in head cleaning that’s only necessary when the test print indicates so.

Not necessarily new in availability, but more so in demand, printing direct to non-wearable substrates is now possible from a digital garment machine with some slight alterations. “We’ve found that people want to print on other products beside shirts and the normal textile items,” reports Rhome. He says that there are special platens available to the industry for printing different wearables and non wearables as well as a pre-treat spray for use on non wearables. Even so, dedicated product printers are still available for those whose direct-printing needs are mostly tied to non-wearable products.

With performance apparel being one of the foremost markets today, another notable development is the ability to direct image wicking wear. Some systems make this possible with a poly pretreatment spray and another involves inks introduced specifically for printing on 100 percent polyester, nylon, rayon, spandex and other synthetic textiles.

Another something worth mentioning, adds Rhome, is Oeko Tex certification. He points out that while most inks employed here are water based, harmful substances may still be suspended within. “This certification satisfies the new children protection act certification, so that’s a big deal in the industry.” 

White out

While on inky issues, our sources say that the white variety remains a contentious topic. 

TiO2 or titanium dioxide—the main pigment of digital white ink used in many direct-to-garment printers—has a tendency to absorb oxygen and other gaseous material whenever exposed to such matter, according to Roh. “We worked with several ink formula chemists to use something other than TiO2 as the base pigment, but it did not yield desirable results.” In lieu of an alternative, the closed-loop ink delivery system has accordingly improved to prevent the white ink exposure to air even more over time, reports Roh. He additionally cites enhancements in the TiO2-based white ink since last year, with better anti-settling performance, less pigment agglomeration and flocculation.

“The biggest challenge was probably developing a durable, high-quality white ink that allows printing on dark-colored garments,” says Cooper. She adds that a solid, first-rate white ink was being offered to the market only as of 2006, and remains “a very serious barrier to many garment decorators since not every supplier can achieve the required market demands with their white ink. In order to better understand this challenge, developing a standard white ink for textile applications is only one piece of the puzzle,” Cooper continues. “The other piece is developing white ink that can work together with the inkjet print heads, a challenge yet to be met by many direct-to-garment providers.” 

White ink management, says Rhome, will always be an issue with modified desktop paper printers. “The printers that are really built for direct-to-garment printing, and have their own manufacturers’ print heads and control assemblies, do not have the same problems or maintenance issues,” he asserts.

Direct destiny

As we inch closer to the conclusion and introduction of another year, our D2 developers look ahead, offering their predictions on what’s next for digital direct. “I believe that customers can expect printers to get faster and provide higher throughput,” foresees Cooper. “Also, more efforts will be made to try and provide customers with a complete solution for their business, whether it’s an online solution, pre-treatment integration, workflow improvements and more.”

With more technologies available today than just a year ago, Roh points to a couple key characteristics on the horizon. “The two features which will drive the direct garment printing industry to a new level are higher-capacity printers at a reasonable cost and printers that can handle TiO2 in white ink better for lesser maintenance. Newer technologies are becoming available to make such printers possible, but it will take time for such systems to emerge.”

The next few years are going to be very exciting, with many new products, in Rhome’s estimation, and he offers some sound advice for anyone in the market: Try before you buy. “Go to the company’s headquarters or the company’s distributor, bring some of your files and bring some shirts,” he advises, quantifying some shirts as a few dozen. “Actually run a job like you are going to run if you purchase this printer, start to finish, see how long it really takes. Don’t trust what anybody tells you; see for yourself.” An evaluation, he emphasizes, is essential. “If a company is afraid of you doing that, then you don’t need to buy their product.” This test drive should not only give potential purchasers a realistic idea of time per shirt, but also a glimpse at maintenance and any modifications required during the production run. 

As direct-to-substrate technology continues to prove a viable method of decoration, more and more embellishers are pondering a purchase, putting themselves on the cutting edge of customization…and who can blame them? The day-to-day is much less dull there.