Printing – Real World Advantages and Disadvantages
Many of you may have landed on this article because you are interested in Direct-To-Garment (DTG) printing. You may have heard how easy DTG is, how DTG is the future, and how you can make good money with a DTG printer. Those who have been involved in screen printing who read this may have heard horror stories about DTG printing, such as how you can only print on white garments, the colors are dull, the machines need constant maintenance, etc. As with every evaluation, there should be an unbiased, helpful comparison to help anyone on the fence make a decision for themselves, which is exactly what I will attempt to do.
Upfront cost is always one of the biggest factors for someone looking to get into any method of garment printing. The biggest problem with making a cost comparison is that you cannot do an apples-to-apples comparison between a startup screen printing shop and an entry level DTG because they accomplish many different things and are available in differing configurations, depending on your needs and budget. I’ll break it down as best I can, starting with screen printing.
- You can start screen printing really easily, with minimal initial cost. An entry level screen printing setup purchased online from Texsource shows an investment of a few hundred dollars will have you churning out one-color shirts from your bedroom, basement, or garage in no time. This includes everything you need to get started; the press, frame (screen), exposure lamp, heat gun (for drying), chemicals, and some inks. With the popularity of screen printing, used equipment is also fairly easy to find, so better equipment may can be bought for a slightly higher investment.
a typical entry level package will get you printing, but be prepared to upgrade when your skills increase
- You will need inks. Choosing a popular and versatile ‘everyday’ general purpose ink, I looked at the Union Maxopake line. There, you can find ink sized in quarts and gallons (and sometimes pint sizes). Quarts are usually priced in the $20 - $28 range for most common colors, with a quart usually lasting for hundreds of prints (depending on artwork, mesh size, etc).
- Emulsion is necessary for screen coating, with a good quality entry level emulsion running about $20 - $30 for a quart, depending on your quality and performance needs.
- Cleaning chemicals will be needed for screen reclaim, emulsion removal, etc. Look to a starter kit such as the Franmar Cleaner Kit that will give you a startup sample of 6 commonly used cleaning chemicals for around $70. This will let you gauge what chemicals work best in your setup as well as determine how much you will use regularly.
- Remember that an entry press will only allow 1 color to be printed on 1 shirt at a time. To be able to do multiple colors or product multiple shirts simultaneously you will need to invest in a bigger press. It is common to quickly leave your starter press behind fairly quickly as your skill increases. A common ‘step-up’ press would be a 6-color press with 4-shirt capacity, referred to as a 6/4 press. Entry level pricing for such a press is in the range of $2,800 - $4,800, with features and build quality determining such a pricing gap.
- You will quickly find that a heat gun is not adequate for drying ink on multiple garments and can also be quite slow, so you will eventually want to upgrade to a conveyor dryer. The dryer is usually the ‘choke point' in many screen printing shops, with many purchasing a dryer that is insufficient for future growth. Consider buying the biggest dryer that your budget will allow when you are looking to upgrade. The last thing you want is to have to buy yet another dryer because you bought too small. An entry level dryer will run a little over $2,000, with higher production capable models running $4,000 - $6,000.
a conveyor dryer is one of the best upgrades you can make once demand increases for your services
- An exposure lamp is perfectly fine for beginning printers, but a dedicated exposure unit will eventually be desired for both exposure speed and quality. The newest technology in exposure units is LED, which is capable of exposure in less that 20 seconds when used with certain emulsions. Such a unit will run around $2,200 - $4,000.
Though they may not be necessary on startup, you will likely have to eventually add equipment to your shop to maximize efficiency. Such items may include
- A screen washout booth to help with reclaiming and cleaning screens - $600 - $3,000 (size)
- A drying cabinet that speeds up emulsion drying times for faster production - $2,500
- A flash cure unit becomes necessary when printing certain multi-color prints - $600
- Various screen mesh sizes for varying level of detail in artwork - $25 - $30 each
- A selection of screen printing inks – you don’t want to order an ink for every customer need, you want to be able to print quickly, so a good selection of shelf inks will be important. Remember also that certain inks only print well on certain materials, so you may need more than one of the same color ink for various shirt types. This could lead to significant costs of ‘stock’ ink. There are turnkey kits such as the Matsui RFU series that allow you to mix your own colors with the help of a color chart. The system requires only 14 stock inks, so some money can be saved by those willing to mix their own.
- A variety of items used every day, such as squeegees, buckets, mixing spoons, test sheets, dryer temperature strips, tapes, adhesive sprays, and cleaners. All of these items will likely see everyday use in any shop and should be considered.
- RIP software will be needed especially as your skill increases. It helps you design your artwork and determine the separation of colors for the subsequent screens you will need.
- A printer capable of producing film positives. Most inkjet printers can achieve this, but some printers have a better reputation for film output than others and have a greater community of support.
- A design program such as Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, or comparable creation software.
a screen washout booth isn’t a necessity when starting, but with growth you will greatly benefit from the increased efficiency.
THE UPFRONT COSTS – DTG PRINTING
Unlike screen printing, most of the process of DTG printing is self-contained into the actual DTG machine itself. Let’s have a look at that and also some subsequent costs to consider before you are up and running.
- It shouldn’t be any surprise that your biggest upfront costs will be the DTG machine itself, and pricing will vary wildly depending on brand and production capabilities. For the sake of startup consideration, I will assume only entry-level machines will be considered. My recommendation is to stick with brand name, established models that have a reputation for support and service. These DTGs will have the most active community of users – these are the very people who will likely be the quickest to help you via online forums if you have a problem or issue. You can also expect top notch warranty support from more well-established manufacturers. For the entry level, I can only (with my experience) offer 3 models of choice for you -
- The Ricoh Ri 100 is a true “entry” DTG printer, being aimed directly at startup hobbyist printers. Priced at $4,995, it is the only printer to warrant any serious consideration at the sub-$10,000 price level. This printer will garment print, but the print area is quite small (fully half the size of other entry printers) and it doesn’t seem to have a well established community just yet (although it does have an excellent brand in Ricoh behind it). Though it seems to be a capable startup DTG, it does not have the features nor build quality of truer entry level machines and thus should likely be considered as a ‘step-in’ machine rather than a true production machine.
Ricoh Ri 100 DTG Printer
- A heat press is highly recommended for DTG owners, but I find it a necessity. Like screen printing, your ink has to be dried (cured) on the shirt before it can be worn or washed. This can be accomplished with a conveyor dryer (like screen printing) in a high volume production environment, but starting out a heat press will be needed for several processes (see next). With a good starting size for a heat press being 16x20, expect a cost of around $1,200 - $1,500 for a good quality heat press by a reputable manufacturer.
- You will need to pre-treat any garment that you are printing white ink on. White ink printing is a relatively new capability of DTG printers, and while it looks fantastic there are some ‘quirks’ that you should be aware of. Pre-treating any shirt that will have white ink gives a ‘base’ for the ink to lay on, rather than being sucked into the shirt fibers. It is colorless and some say that it even improves the vibrancy of prints not using white. Once properly applied, you will want to fully dry the treated shirt. You can line dry or a much quicker method uses (again) a heat press, which can fully dry the treated shirt in 40-60 seconds. Quality pre-treat solution can be bought for around $50 - $100 a gallon (depending on brand) and can be applied with a special pre-treat machine for higher production shops ($3,000) or applied with a paint roller or spray bottle with proper technique. Expect per-shirt costs in the $.20 - $.50 range.
ink used in DTG printers isn’t plastisol ink such as most screen printing inks,
but rather special water based formulations.
It typically leaves a softer feel on the shirt but can lack the opacity
of plastisols. It is also more expensive
per print that screen printing. Most DTG
printers use CMYK inks with a white ink cartridge as well, some using 2 white
cartridges (with each feeding separate parts of the print head, so both carts
are used simultaneously). Depending on
the size of the ink cartridge, expect to pay at or over $200 per cartridge, in
some cases nearly $300. At the time of
this writing, the Epson UltraChrome cartridges are retailing for $217 each for
a 600ml cart (there is also a smaller 250ml cart if you are on a budget, but
you will have to replace more often).
The Brother Innobella inks for their GTX series currently retail for $217
for a 700ml, while their white inks are slightly higher per cart at $475 for
the 2-pack. It is worth mentioning that
compatible inks are available from 3rd party sellers for around half
the price, but it is not advisable to use these during your warranty period as
their use will void the manufacturer warranty.
DTG ink can be pricey to replace and will cost more per print vs. screen printing
- Other costs to consider are platen sizes. Though the provided platen will likely work for the majority of your prints, specialty platens can cost hundreds of dollars.
- DTG printers will require an occasional or daily cleaning with special cleaning solutions. They may also require periodic filter changes. Neither of these will have a significant per-print cost as these consumables are readily available and fairly cheap to purchase. Most newer printers perform a comprehensive daily self-cleaning routine and some even carry their own chemical cleaning cartridge that reduces waste ink while cleaning (Epson F2100).
- Should you have a print head failure that is outside of your warranty coverage, parts and labor can sometimes be in the $3,000 - $4,000 range. The print head is the heartbeat of your DTG printer, and it is advisable to keep your warranty coverage up for as long as possible.
- At the time of this writing, the Brother warranty is 1 year complete, and a second year limited warranty. The Epson warranty is 1 year complete and is expandable annually up to a total of 3 years. An annual expansion is currently $1,950 per year.
- Miscellaneous costs for a DTG might include a dust cover for the machine, a custom stand or table, Teflon sheets or parchment paper (for protection during curing with a heat press), or a power sprayer that can be used to pre-treat.
- A design program such as Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, or comparable creation software.
- Though RIP software isn’t mandatory for DTG printing (most brands ship with their own software for shirt preparation), there are RIP software packages that are developed specifically for DTG printers that claim to reduce costs and improve quality.
The print quality of both screen printing and DTG can both be impressively good. As with any print, your source artwork is key. The more optimized and higher quality, the better. Also, you should always consider the type and color of the substrate you will be printing on. That said, there are some key differences in their capabilities.
- Although screen printing can reproduce a broad color palette, doing so can require an extreme number of print heads (a 10 or 12 color print is not unusual). This can be relieved somewhat by printing in what is known as four color process (using CMYK inks just like a DTG does). However, CMYK is usually used when there is a very large number of individual colors that need to be preserved and can be a slightly trickier process to setup in your artwork if you have little four color process experience. An experienced printer can tweak the artwork and select the right screen mesh, emulsion, and inks to product incredible work.
- DTG printing can be photo accurate right out of the box, which is one of its biggest benefits. It is essentially the same technology as trusted inkjet printers that produce great prints every day but optimized for garment printing. The level of overall detail will likely not be limited by the printer but rather by the shirt itself. 100% ringspun or ‘flat’ cotton shirts are the preferred shirt for DTG machines, though they can also print on cheaper shirts and blends. Unlike screen printing, the color palette is virtually unlimited. You won’t have to worry about charging by the number of colors as is typical of screen printers – your cost per print will essentially be the same on a full color print as on a single-color print and can even be less if your single color print is all white (the most expensive color to print).
DTG prints have a virtually unlimited color range
Here is where the biggest difference lies with these two printing methods. Each have cost advantages per print depending entirely on the color palette and number of prints needed.
DTG printing is most advantageous when performing high color prints on lower production runs. That isn’t to say you cannot print high quantity runs on a DTG (you certainly can) but considering the amount of colors required and the production amount, at some point it will be more economical to screen print. Consider an order of 8-12 prints of a shirt that contains 6 colors. The colors are largely meaningless to the DTG printer as there are no separations or individual stations to setup per color as there would be in the screen printing process. There are no screens to prepare, no film positives to print – just pull in your artwork, pre-treat your shirts if necessary, and hit print. Now consider this same print with a customer who requires 200 or more prints. Once prepared, a screen printer with a proper setup could fill this order in a fraction of the time that a DTG could, and at a much lower cost-per-print. Consider your target audience. If you specialize in custom artwork that will likely be sold at retail price then a DTG may be an excellent addition for you. If your main customers will be looking for simpler prints at a wholesale cost with higher production runs, then screen printing is likely a more economical decision. Many screen printers will not fill orders of 10 or less garments without a huge price premium (some as high as a 2 or 3 dozen minimum) – this presents an opportunity for DTG owners to capitalize on this market at a premium price.
There are a few other points worth knowing before you make a printing decision.
- While accurate ink mixing for plastisol inks (screen printing) can achieve a very accurate Pantone color match, such accuracy is much more difficult with DTG. Printer profiles can be setup and saved, largely with trial and error, but if you have a customer that requires dead-on accurate color matching, DTG may not provide the results required.
- When using a heat press to cure your DTG prints, you can usually count on losing some color vibrancy when your cure is completed. This can be minimized by curing the ink in a conveyor dryer (like screen printers), however it typically can take a good bit longer to cure the shirt properly using this method. Experienced DTG printer users sometimes adjust their artwork to compensate somewhat for this loss.
- Although most DTG printers can print on a variety of materials, most recommend 100% ringspun cotton shirts as the ideal print material. High percentage polyester shirts can be printed on, but results can vary from just acceptable to terrible as polyester is prone to ‘bleed’ through ink when curing. This is especially noticeable when printing white onto dark poly garments. This is a problem that affects screen printers as well, but screen printers have a variety of inks that are specially formulated for printing on poly materials. Always be mindful of the material you are printing on. As of this writing, Epson has just released a new pretreat solution that is supposed to support DTG printing on 100% polyester garments.
- A DTG printer is excellent for 1-off prints or reprints. If your artwork is saved, all you need to do is prep your shirt and hit print. A reprint for a screen printer can be an exhaustive process for only a few shirts, especially if the screens have already been reclaimed. They would have to print the artwork again, coat screens, burn screens, mix ink (if necessary, and hope that your mix is accurate enough to match), and print and dry shirts. Not a problem for a large print job, but not at all profitable for small runs or reprints.
DTG printing requires curing just like screen printing. You can use a dryer, but most cure by using a
quality heat press.
Hopefully the points presented here will give you an unbiased comparison that is useful as you considering venturing into the decorated apparel business. Though there are significant cost differences at startup, those can be offset by the upgrade path you choose with screen printing (whose cost increases as your capabilities increase). Though screen printing may have a steeper learning curve, there are an enormous amount of resources on the internet to help get you started no matter what problem you may be having. The DTG community is a growing one, especially now that garment white is a standard feature of any serious DTG machine. Though you won’t find the same community depth as screen printing, you can easily find a thriving community of users ready to help with most issues you may come across.
Both of these excellent printing methods have their place in the apparel industry. Which one is right for you depends largely on your business model and budget. Consider the points contained here as you continue to develop your own plan and move toward starting your own business or expanding your hobby. Happy printing!