Choosing a Direct to Garment Printer

Dean Armando

Basically there are two general categories of these type printers:

1.    Printers based on existing printer engines (usually Epson)
2.    Printers built from the ground up using existing print head technologies

The first category can be broken into two sub-categories

1.    Machines that are basically desktop printers modified to print on a flatbed – often times these machines were developed for printing on rigid goods like tile, acrylic and the like, usually with solvent based inks or for standard water based inks with the use of pre and post treatments.  The first generation of direct to garment printers was, for the most part, this type of printer.  The primary example would be the Original Fast T-Jet & Fast T-Jet II – which was based on an existing flatbed, rigid goods printer with a bulk ink system and digital textile inks plus the addition of boards to handle 

2.    The other sub-category would be modified desktop (or larger) printers that were specifically built to print onto garments – examples DTG HM-1, HM-1C, Fast T-Jet Blazer, Flexi-Jet, DTG Viper.  These machines incorporate features that were designed to address the challenges of printing on garments. Features include systems to better manage white ink, extended print areas, automated head cleanings, pressurized ink systems and ink mist evacuation systems.  These machines, while still re-purposed printers where engineered specifically to print on garments and generally addressed the shortcomings of the first & second generation machines garment's.  Second generation of these machines were modified by the manufacturer to address some of the garment specific concerns such as garment height checking sensors, on-board bulk ink systems, auxiliary ink pumps, and the like – i.e. – DTG Kiosk.  A fair number of the newer entries into the marketplace (especially units from China and Korea) still fall into this category.

The second category of machines also falls into two sub-categories:

Brother GT 541 garment printer1.    The first sub-category would be two specific lines of machine – the Brother GT 541 and the Kornit line of direct to garment printers.  These machines were generally engineered from the ground up using more industrial duty print heads and proprietary printing technology.  The generally produce higher volumes of garments than the re-purposed printers, but at a price.  With the more industrial print heads comes a drop in typical print resolution which can effect overall print quality.  Also, print quality aside, these machines come at a premium – either a high price tag (Kornits sell for $90,000-$212,000) or high consumable costs (the Brother inks sell for nearly triple the price of other direct to garment inks.  Lastly, because of their proprietary nature – parts and service are generally much higher.

2.    The second sub-category would be the Mimaki line of direct to garment printers.  Though not a major player in the marketplace, they do represent another type of direct to garment printer.  These machines use the more common (Epson) print heads with proprietary electronics.  While this machine has not made a substantial impact on the marketplace, it is a likely model for future generations of direct to garment printers.

What is the price range from lowest to highest?

As of the writing of this article, the price range of new direct to garment printers is roughly $10,000 to $212,000 – with the majority of models falling in the $16,000 to $21,000 range.

ricoh ri 1000 printerWhat questions will a salesperson ask a prospective customer as he tries to help a customer choose a machine?

1.    Who is your perspective customer? 
2.    What do you anticipate as your daily volume of prints?
3.    Will you be using the machine to print “on-demand” or taking orders for delivery?
4.    Is speed or equipment cost more important to you?
5.    Are you planning on specializing in a certain niche – i.e. – oversize prints, beach towels, over the collar/sleeve prints, art canvases, etc?
6.    How frequently will the machine be used?

In your opinion, what are the features a decorator should look at in terms of the most important when shopping?

1.    Features that address the challenges of printing with textile inks and printing on garments (like white ink management systems, head impact prevention systems, versatility of the RIP software and platen systems)
2.    The training and support of the distributor/dealer you are buying from
3.    The actual performance of the machine – basically – did the prints you saw from the machine look good and wash well.

How important is it to be able to print on dark shirts?

In today’s marketplace, being able to print dark shirts at least doubles your potential customer base.   However, learning how to properly sell and price garments when printing with white ink – printing on darks increases your consumable costs as well as increasing labor costs/time.

GTX GarmentPrinterDo you have any feel for what percentage of the digital printing market is being done on darks?

At the current time, I would estimate that those who are printing white ink are probably doing, on average, 1/3 of their work on darks.  Since machines like the Brother do not print white ink and are a decent percentage of the marketplace, the actual percentage of dark garments that are currently being printed is probably about ¼ of the marketplace.  Those who take the time to master the art of printing in dark garments sometimes print as much as 75% darks.  I would venture to guess that 75%+ of orders that are currently turned down or shifted to transfers or screen printing are dark garments.

Will you print out a sample using customer’s artwork that they can wash test?

Yes, we do this all the time.

Do you recommend customers doing this?

Personal preference.  The downside to this is that you may not get the best representation of what the machine can do, or you may get an unrealistic representation if the vendor spends an immense amount of time tweaking your artwork to get the best image.  I do recommend that you do get a sample of some kind – whether canned or custom.

DTG Viper2 Garment PrinterWhat kind of hype might a customer hear that he should verify?

1.    Misrepresentation of machines as being built from the ground up when they are actually re-purposed. 
2.    Unrealistic per garment ink costs.
3.    Unrealistic print times/productivity numbers
4.    Over selling of the viability of non-textile printing (realistically – most non-textile items are for decoration, not everyday use)
5.    Over simplifying the challenges of printing on dark garments.

 If talking to a referral, what questions should the decorator be asking the referral?

1.    Quality of the support and training provided
2.    Realistic costs per print
3.    Realistic productivity numbers
4.    Overall satisfaction with their investment

FreeJet 330 TX

How can a decorator figure out his return on investment?

This is a loaded question.  Unless the customer has been farming out this type of work for a while and has an idea of what his workload will be – it is all just guesswork.  Generally, direct to garment printed shirts will return, on average, $5-6 per garment profit.  The decorator then needs to come up with a realistic number of garments that they feel they will print weekly and do the math from there.  Because apparel decoration prices vary based on the number of units printed, the number of print locations and the size of the artwork, there is some smoke and mirrors associated with this method.  General rule – if you are printing custom one offs – like in a mall kiosk, online or at an event, your margins will be much higher, while specializing in little league team shirts might generate shorter margins, but make up for it in volume.

What should a customer expect in terms of service and support?

Every machine should come with some level of training, whether on-site or at the distributor’s location.  Training should not be an additional cost, as it is critical to the success of your journey in the direct to garment world.  Companies that charge for training are simply trying to keep their “machine price” down by making training an option.  TRAINING IS NOT AN OPTION. 
In regards to support – what support is provided?  Do they have a dedicated support website with FAQ’s, pdfs, videos?  Is there a download section for software updates?  Is support available by email and phone?  Is there a dedicated user forum?  Is tech support a toll call or toll free?  Is the support for a limited tie or lifetime?

What kind of training and learning curve is involved?

ReviewIconskornitDirect to garment training should be a minimum of one day, preferably two days to allow for sufficient time to learn operation, maintenance, troubleshooting and actual printing.  A training DVD is also very helpful as it can serve as a refresher or to train future users/employees.  The option to “re-take” training can be beneficial as well. 
In regards to the learning curve, that is the million dollar question.  Printing on light shirts (without white ink) should only take a couple of hours to get comfortable with, while printing on darks can sometimes take weeks or months to master.

Any other advice for someone shopping for a first machine?

Make your decision based on the sum total of all the questions answered above.  Budget time to learn how to use the machine you do purchase.  Have a plan in place of how to market the output once you have the machine in place.  Remember, if it seems too good to be true – it probably is!


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