Is DTG Right For You?
If you have browsed industry forums or visited a trade show in the past few years, you know that Direct-To-Garment printing is shaking up the industry and providing a plethora of new options for garment decorators that were not available a decade ago. While adding DTG as a profit center is a great fit for many shops, every business is different. As an owner or manager, you need to carefully evaluate how DTG can fit into your existing business model and how you can make the technology work for you. There are a few main factors to consider, so I will touch on two of those in this article and go into greater depth in subsequent pieces.
When I work with potential DTG customers, your workspace is this is the first thing I ask about. Unlike a manual or automatic press, your new DTG printer is piece of sensitive electronic equipment and must be treated with more care than traditional screen printing gear. Is your space climate controlled and relatively dust free? Also, will you need a humidifier or dehumidifier in the room to maintain the proper conditions? Most printers, like the Epson F2000, will automatically shut down if the temperature in the room gets above 90-95 degrees, and sustained temperatures in the higher end of the operating range can cause damage to the inks and print heads, even when the machine is turned off. Humidity is less of a concern, as it needs to be average between 30% – 70%, but it is a good idea to get an inexpensive thermometer/hygrometer to keep with the press so you can monitor conditions.
Another important consideration that’s frequently overlooked is air quality. I recently went to do an installation and training session with a customer who, while his space was climate controlled, had his DTG installed right next to his Riley Hopkins press. The first thing I did was have him switch to a water-based pallet adhesive, as spray tack floating in the air can damage many of the internal components like the print head and encoder strip, and interfere with the lubrication of the carriage rods. If you pretreat with a power sprayer this is also something to take into account. If you do use a handheld sprayer, care must be taken to make sure that there’s no aerosolized pretreat floating around in the air where it can infiltrate the machine and cause issues. An enclosed pretreat machine can be set up right next to your DTG, and is something I strongly suggest buying – the print consistency and time savings will quickly pay for themselves. Despite what Epson says on their website, stay away from the paint roller method – it’s inefficient and wastes a lot of pretreat.
Additionally, what kind of shop are you? Do you have a retail storefront with a print shop in the back, are you home-based business, or are you in a warehouse in an industrial park? DTG can be very profitable in any of these cases, but you need to make sure you are using the machine in a way that works best for you. If you have a retail space, plan for walk-in business and be prepared to have designers that can work with customers on the spot. If you have more of an industrial or home-based operation, it may be necessary to add an online shirt designer or consider offering fulfillment services to maximize the return on your investment.
The last thing to consider is the workflow of the printing area. Is your pretreat unit located close to the DTG? Is your heat press within one step of both? Lastly, is there a good area to stack shirts before printing and after curing? Ideally, all of these need to be within about a 3-4 foot circle, so that the printer operator does not have to spend too much time reaching for things. I have seen some customers put the heat press in another room from the printer, and this is not a good idea. Not only will it take forever to walk prints back and forth, but you run a huge risk of misprints from the wet ink smearing on the garment.
You only hire the best (hopefully), but is your staff ready to add a new profit center? It is critical to evaluate your art department and conduct efficiency studies to ensure your designers can utilize the machine in a profitable manner. One of the biggest struggles I hear about when speaking with DTG owners around the nation is managing labor costs. It’s important to stress to your design staff that the money in DTG lies in putting out decent designs very quickly, not in making the perfect piece that takes four hours to put together. When looking at average orders of between $20 and $250, labor costs start to add up quickly. If you are in a market where designers make $15/hr., spending an hour with a customer designing one shirt that sells for $20 can destroy your profit margins quickly. If you have an art department that is used to spending time putting together large screen printed orders that will cost thousands of dollars it’s no big deal to spend an hour or three making everything perfect, so this can be a big mental adjustment to make for some designers. They need to have a strong understanding of what “good enough” means, and be prepared to coach customers through the design process in a timely manner. This is a big subject, so I’ll go into more depth on this in another article.
It’s also vital to make sure your staff understands how important it is to manage ink costs. When at all possible, try to guide the customer to a light-colored garment instead of a dark shirt – just the simple shift from a white on black design to doing black on, let’s say, sport grey, can save $2 or more in ink costs. It’s not just ink either – the print time involved in CMYK only printing means the difference between 30-50 shirts an hour vs. 10-15. Those costs add up quickly, and it’s critical to measure and manage ink and production times, and adjust your processes as you go. While you should always be pricing white ink prints much higher than CMYK only, the best profits are still made printing primarily CMYK jobs.
One last factor to consider with your staff is maintenance. Shops that do a lot of discharge and water-based printing will have an easier time of this, as staff is used to doing daily tasks to keep things clean, but shops that primarily work with plastisol will need to adjust to having to do daily maintenance to keep the machines in peak performance. The F2000 is better than most printers in this regard, especially with the new Eco Mode updates that eliminate the costly tube washes, but it still requires more care than just leaving your job set up and ink on the screens when you leave for the day. Having one employee take ownership of maintenance concerns can be crucial to keeping the machine in great shape.
That’s just a brief touch on two of the bigger considerations, but in subsequent articles I’ll dig into ways to maximize your ROI through efficiency gains, marketing techniques, and other tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles, please post them in the comments – I’d love to discuss them with you.
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About the Author
Tom Cochran has been an active participant in the DTG industry since 2012. In addition to owning Big Bend Screen Printing, a DTG, screen printing, and graphic design company, he consults on digital garment printing and other on-demand decoration techniques to a diverse set of clients across the USA. His clients range from small local shops to major athletic wear manufacturers. Tom also works with Ryonet providing contract training and installations for the Epson F2000.