Is screen printing or D2 right for the job?

Symbiotic Scenarios

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. 

It is easy for those who were in the industry back in the mid-2000s to remember the introduction of D2 printing. Walking a trade show exhibit hall back then meant walking past a D2 printer in almost every aisle. The ads by those manufacturers in the industry publications promoted D2 printing as the easiest way to get into printing garments. I even remember hearing a sales rep state “it’s so easy, it is like printing money.”

For the screen printing community, many were confused as to how this new decorating technique was going to affect their business. Many of the screen printing supply distributors began quickly promoting and selling D2 printers. However, like any new technology, there were some growing pains. The reliability of the hardware came into question as more manufacturers released D2 printers, and the ink chemistry was not as user-friendly as it was being marketed. A significant percentage of the screen printing community became turned off with D2 printing in general.

Fast forward to 2012 and the changes to the technology have been well noted by the screen printing community. The reliability of the hardware has improved dramatically and the ink chemistry has become easier to work with. I now see screen printers and D2 users networking together at trade shows to help grow both businesses. The once contentious relationship between the two types of decorating techniques is now turning into a symbiotic one, which we’ll examine here in this discussion of how screen printers can benefit from D2 and vice-versa.

Accommodating art

Screen printing is still the primary decorating technique used for printing on garments. However, screen printing still has its weaknesses, and those weak spots are typically where D2 printing excels. What follows are just a couple of reasons why screen printers should consider D2 printing.

First and foremost, artwork is still king. The most successful screen printers I meet have one trait in common: the ability to create and print high-quality artwork. In screen printing, the true art is in the ability to create screen separations that accurately reproduce the artwork. As the artwork becomes more detailed and the number of colors increases, it becomes more challenging and time-consuming to screen print a job.

D2 printing removes many of the limitations of screen printing regarding artwork. The skill to create screen separations is removed for those utilizing D2 printers, and the number of colors is likewise a non-issue. This means those that use a D2 printer don’t have to simplify the customer’s artwork based on the quantity of shirts wanted. D2 printing even allows screen printers the ability to enhance customers’ artwork to their maximum ability to ensure the highest quality of product. This includes adding fades, gradients and even photographic elements to the artwork. By using a decorating technique that maximizes their artwork talents, screen printers can help ensure long-term success for their company.

Short-run solution

In general, screen printing is designed for medium- to high-quantity production runs. Yet two of the challenges screen printers commonly face are short-run orders and samples. How a screen printer defines a short-run can depend on the number of colors in the artwork and the number of print locations, but it is typically described as runs less than 48 garments.

D2 printing allows screen printers to fulfill orders as small as one shirt and up to the breakeven point where screen printing becomes the best decorating technique to use. During these challenging economic times and due to cash flow issues, most customers are looking to order the minimum quantity of garments. By incorporating D2 printing, screen printers are still able to fulfill orders and make good profit margins in the case of short runs.

Larger screen printers that specialize in working with well-known brands and large companies spend a lot of time selling their artwork designs. These screen printers have to create the artwork and print a handful of shirts before they even know whether they are going to get the order. Going through the process of creating the screens, setting up the press and breaking it down can be expensive and result in an increase in price or a loss in margin. D2 printing allows screen printers to dramatically reduce the costs and time associated with creating such samples.

Prime print locations

Over the past several years, trends have dictated that screen printers serving more fashionable markets need to print artwork in non-traditional print locations. Some of these print locations include on the shoulder, off the collar, wrapped around the sides and over zippers. In order to accomplish most of this type of printing, screen printers need to invest in multiple specialty platens for each print station. The cost associated with purchasing these specialty platens and the additional setup time installing them needs to be included in the selling price of the printed garments to get a return on investment.

In order to print in these non-traditional locations with D2 printing, either the standard platen that comes with the D2 printer can be used or some cases require a single specialty platen. D2 users only need to get the garment close to flat in order to print over seams, zippers, pockets and other areas that are challenging for controlling the off-contact point in screen printing.

The breakeven dilemma

For all the aforementioned weaknesses, screen printing remains a viable and profitable decorating technique with distinct advantages over D2 printing. Our first example here requires that D2 users understand the breakeven point at which a job should be transferred from D2 printing to screen printing.

There is a common misunderstanding amongst new users that the D2 machine must be running in order to make a return on investment. D2 printers are a great tool to get more orders, but it’s important to use the most profitable printing method. For a large percentage of the jobs being printed, both screen printing and D2 printing can be appropriate depending on the quantities ordered. It is very important for D2 users to understand all the costs associated with both decorating techniques based on the color of the garment and colors in the artwork. This makes the decision of which decorating technique to use easier, and will result in more profit.

Neon, metallic and spot colors

Since most D2 printers utilize a four-color printing process (cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks), there is a limit on the colors that can be printed. Most manufacturers of D2 printers recommend that new users print out color charts that will help determine what colors are achievable based on the color management settings in the printing software. However, for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any D2 machine will be able to create a true neon or metallic color—colors which are easily found in screen print inks.

For a D2 machine to print these colors, a D2 ink manufacturer would have to create ink in these specific spot colors and create new ICC profiles to print them correctly. Due to the number of different spot colors available in screen printing, it is currently not cost-effective for a D2 ink manufacturer to create them. So D2 users will want to consider using screen printing for jobs that require specific spot colors that can’t be printed adequately with a D2 printer.

Synthetic fabrics and specialty inks

D2 inks are specifically designed to adhere to fabrics that have open, porous fibers—natural fabrics similar to 100 percent cotton. While D2 users have been able to successfully print on most types of polyester garments using CMYK inks, they have not been able to print on them with white ink. However, there is still a large demand for printing on to dark synthetic garments and screen printing is more than capable of doing this type of work.

Because the screen printing process does not require pushing ink through tiny nozzles in a piezeo print head, the ink manufacturers have more ability to adjust the chemical formulations that will allow printing on to a variety of synthetic fabrics. Some of these inks have specialty characteristics to make them printable on specific types of fabrics. For example, printing on to bathing suits for a high school swim team requires the ink to have more elasticity to prevent the inks from cracking when the garment is being worn. D2 inks cannot currently accommodate such requirements.

Both D2 and screen printing are appropriate techniques that should be considered when fulfilling orders. Successful garment decorators are those that understand the benefits of each technology and select the appropriate one based on the factors discussed here.