If you’ve been out shopping around for screen print equipment recently you may have noticed most major resellers and manufacturers now offer direct to garment (DTG) printers in addition to screen print equipment. DTG is becoming increasingly more popular and viable as technology evolves. In this article, I am going to examine the distinct differences between screen printing and direct to garment applications. Both processes have their own set of pros and cons. What is important is understanding all the production details of each and determining how these applications will benefit your business.
The screen printing process has dominated the garment decoration industry for over 100 years. With advancements in ink, photo sensitive emulsion, and equipment, the process is reliable and repeatable and can be done by small shops or large factories.
Historically most printed apparel was likely screen printed, and most shops that consider expanding production volume, looked to screen print technology to help them grow. This model is changing as digital application technologies and the market evolves.
There are several benefits to the screen print process but the overwhelming distinction is speed and volume. With an automatic press for example, a shirt can be printed and put on a dryer every 3-5 seconds, considering of course after all the prepress requirements and press has been set up. That is the major distinction between screen printing and DTG, speed and volume Vs. set up and breakdown; we’ll examine that later.
Screen printing has a few distinct elements to consider before investing in the process. It’s important to be realistic with your expectations. High quality screen printing is a complex art form, and takes a tremendous amount of money and time to master. Simple applications are relatively easy to accomplish, but the high end, high volume jobs can be very difficult for a novice. Screen printing also requires a steady stream of supplies to keep up with materials usage, you may invest 100’s or 1,000’s/month to keep your shop supplied. Plus, and often overlooked, screen printing is insanely messy. Ink gets everywhere requiring constant cleaning of equipment and personnel. The screen cleaning and reclaiming process is a monstrous challenge. Ever see the TV show Dirty Jobs with Mike Roe? Well he does an episode on reclaiming screens. Screen printing is DIRTY!
It’s important to understand what you intend to accomplish and what you are willing to invest financially. To print 3-5 shirts per second you will need to make a serious investment in equipment, training, and space. This will require automatic presses, large conveyor dryers, ink mixing station, and a large screen processing and cleaning area. A full scale automatic shop can easily cost $500k or more in equipment and supplies. Typically existing shops grow into this type of set up, they gear up as production demands increase.
Most start up or small print shops begin with a bare bones screen print setup and can be productive with far less of an investment. A new manual press, flash dryer, small conveyor dryer and a small screen prep set up can be extremely effective. $15-20k is a reasonable expectation for a new small shop manual screen print set up.
Small shop or large, pre-press, set up, breakdown, and learning curve are what make screen printing a difficult application to adopt. Here is a scenario I give during presentations about how the screen print process works, it’s daunting so bear with me.
Prepare and separate art, create film positives, clean and dry screens, coat screens with emulsion and dry, expose screens, wash, dry, block out, dry, tape off, set screens on press, mix ink, register, test print, print, remove screens, remove ink, wash and reclaim screens.
That whole process can take hours to accomplish and is very sensitive to errors. If your exposure time isn’t correct, your screen may not wash out. If the platen gets too hot the ink can stick to the bottom of the screens and cause ghosting. If you use the wrong ink, or emulsion, or a screen breaks, you must re-shoot new screens and re-register. If one element is skewed or slightly off, the whole job can be jeopardized, with the potential to have to do the job again or replace damaged goods.
The reality is screen printing takes a long time to prep, and the more colors in the design, the longer it takes. Soon as the job is set, you’re cranking out shirts that is why screen printing is extremely conducive to large volume runs.
Large runs are where screen printers make money. Prepress, set up, and breakdown take time and resources, these costs must be amortized into the volume of shirts produced to sustain a reasonable margin. Large runs fuel screen printing shops and can be extremely lucrative.
A lot of small screen print shops will sacrifice margins and do small runs just to keep up with the demand of the custom shirt buying public. Consistent large volume jobs are hard to acquire and maintain. There is a lot of competition in screen print decoration manufacturing. A small shop may need to take on a 12-piece job, just to stay busy. This is where DTG stands out.
Direct to Garment printing is ideal for low volume jobs because set up and breakdown is negligible in comparison to screen printing. DTG is slower to print, but far faster to prep. A conservative estimate for setting up and screen printing 12 shirts, 5 color screen print job, start to finish, might take 4+ hours. With DTG we can have 12 shirts prepped, printed, and dried in about 30 minutes.
I often hear concerns that DTG isn’t viable because there isn’t money in low volume jobs and this can be true but this is where analyzing your business model is necessary.
Think about your customers’ requests. What are the average size print jobs you receive? Do they need large volume 144+, or do they want a dozen shirts for a party or team? With DTG you can confidently advertise low minimum, full custom, full color prints, on light and dark garments. Better yet, you can advertise no minimums. That’s right, NO MINIMUMS! Go ahead and look at your competitors online, how many of them are advertising no minimums? Very few I can almost guarantee. The reason they don’t dare is because if they are screen printing, they cannot reliability produce 1 off custom printed shirts.
Doing 1 custom shirt, with custom art, and customers often wild requests, can be a hard way to make a consistent profit. Our goal for offering no minimums is not to do 1 offs regularly, it’s to capture the low volume customers and save them from the pain of searching and contacting other screen printers who cannot deliver on their low minimum custom request. You’re making the customers decision to contact you easy by eliminating doubt, complications, and fear. Most customers don’t want just 1 shirt, but there is peace in knowing they can order 1 shirt with a full color print, especially for reorders or fill in needs.
The trend in this industry is low volume customization because that is what the customer is demanding. DTG gives you a distinct advantage in fulfilling the bulk of low volume business. DTG can be a stand-alone business where you print low volume jobs in house and contract out larger runs to screen printers, or DTG can be a supplemental addition to any existing print shop. Even larger shops are seeing the need for a larger number of quick turn low volume orders. Multiple DTG units is a very common sight now, where each machine might be printing 100, different custom orders per day. To scale up volume in DTG, networking additional printers and adding a conveyor dryer is the solution.
There are limitations and benefits to both techniques. Here is a list of pros and cons of each technique. (Image 5) Whatever you decide, DTG is a necessary technology that has the capability to satisfy the bulk of small order business. Screen printing is here to stay, it’s just a matter of investing in the time and resources to be effective, or contracting large volume work out while focusing on producing low volume jobs in house with DTG.