Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing (also known as D2 printing) is an apparel decorating method in which graphics and images are inkjet printed directly onto pre-sewn T-shirts, hats, hoodies, children and baby clothes, shoes, tote bags, throw pillow covers, and other fabric products.
Many DTG printers are used in screen-printing companies that decorate higher volumes of garments for brands, sports teams, and retailers. DTG printing enables screen printing companies to accept smaller-run, fast-turnaround jobs or decorate shirts with variable data or full-color photographic designs.
DTG printers are also used in home-based businesses, gift shops, and promotional products companies. Amazon and Fanatics use fleets of DTG printers to fulfill online orders from customers throughout the U.S.
DTG printing requires less floor space than screen printing and doesn’t require making, cleaning, and storing multiple screens. Plus, the learning curve for DTG printing is less steep than screen printing, especially for young creative professionals who have grown up using digital cameras and graphics programs.
How it Works
A print-ready blank garment is loaded onto a platen that will keep the print-surface flat and wrinkle-free while the inkjet printheads scan back and forth to deliver the ink droplets. The placement of the ink droplets is dictated by the print file created by the RIP software supplied with the printer.
Multiple shapes and sizes of platens are available for printing products such as baby clothes, shirt sleeves, caps, and shoes.
This demonstration of the Epson SureColor F2100 DTG printer shows how different platens can be loaded onto the printer, based on the type of garment being decorated. (Video: Epson SureColor F2100 Direct to Garment Printer Demo)
Depending on the type of DTG model used, the garment must be placed in a heat press or conveyor dryer to fully dry the inks.
Many DTG printers also require the use of pretreated garments for any design that will use white ink. Pretreatment solutions optimize ink adhesion and help ensure that inks don’t bleed off in the wash.
Types of DTG Printers
Entry-Level-Compact DTG Printers are easy-to-use, limited-capability inkjet printers that are small enough for use in a home studio, retail store, or event site. For example, the Ricoh Ri 100 All-in-One can print simple text and 4-color designs up to 11.7 x 8.3 inches on light-colored garments that are made with cotton or cotton/poly blends with at least 50% cotton. To save counter-space, the printer is stacked on top of a separate, enclosed heating chamber for drying the inks.
To save counter space in a store or at an event site, the RICOH Ri 100 DTG printer is stacked on top of the heating unit used to dry and fix the inks. (Video: Ricoh Demo - Direct to Garment Ri 100)
Commercial DTG Printers are faster, more versatile, higher-resolution printers that can print full-color images on both light and dark-colored garments. These printers include the white inks required to create a base layer so that colors will remain true and bright. They also come with more robust print-management software for creating under base white layers and accurately previewing how a color design will look when applied without white ink to a light-colored garment. Companies that make commercial DTG printers include Epson, Omniprint, Ricoh, ColDesi, Brother, and Kornit.
Omniprint’s Gamut Plus DTG inks enable some commercial-grade OmniPrint DTG printers to print on a wider range of garment fabrics, including cotton, cotton blends, and polyester. This includes dark polyester fabrics that aren’t available for dye-sublimation printing. (Video: Be Ready for the Game! FreeJet 330TX Plus | Omniprint International.)
Industrial DTG Printers enable a small print-shop staff to decorate hundreds of garments per hour at a lower cost per shirt than commercial DTG printers. Industrial DTG printers are built to hold two or three platens, and include expanded-gamut ink sets, bulk ink systems, and specialized features such as automatic wrinkle detection Makers of industrial DTG printers include Aeoon Technologies (Kyo), Kornit Digital (Atlas, Vulcan), and Omniprint (Cheetah).
While it takes 3 to 5 minutes to print a single shirt on a commercial-grade DTG printer, print times on industrial DTG printers can be as fast as 30 seconds per shirt on dark garments and 10 seconds per shirt on a white/light garment.
Kornit’s new Atlas industrial DTG printer is designed to mid- to large-size screen printing companies that need a heavy-duty DTG printer capable of up to 350,000 impressions a year. (Video: Kornit Atlas - First Look)
Most DTG printers use textile pigment inks formulated to work with a variety of fabrics and fabric blends. With the right pre-treatment fluids, textile pigment inks can deliver vivid, consistent colors, maintain the soft feel of the fabric, and resist fading and abrasion caused by repeated washing. Direct Color Systems makes a DTG printer that uses UV-curable inks to print directly on dark and colored cotton and polyester T-shirts without pretreatments.
Entry-level DTG printers use CMYK inks only and most commercial DTG printers use CMYK + white inks.
Industrial DTG printers can use 6 colors plus white. The additional colors may include red, green, orange, light cyan, or light magenta depending on whether the DTG printer will be used to print team apparel, T-shirts with corporate logos, or shirts with photographic images.
DTG inks currently cost much more than screen-printing inks. However, the total cost of printing each shirt on a DTG printer remains the same, whether the customer orders one shirt or 500.
With screen printing, the total cost per shirt decreases as the order volume increases, because the screen-making costs are dispersed over a higher volume of shirts. So, screen-printing continues to be a popular option for garment decorating — especially for one- or two-color shirts with simple designs.
DTG printing businesses can buy blank T-shirts and other apparel from the same wholesalers who sell ready-to-customize apparel to screen-printing companies. However, most DTG printers can’t print on the huge range of apparel fabrics that screen-printing presses can.
Many DTG printers can print only on apparel that is all cotton or at least 50% cotton. The apparel wholesaler’s catalog typically indicates which garment blanks are best for DTG printing. Small shops that don’t want to mess with pretreating DTG garment blanks can purchase pretreated apparel from RTP Apparel.
Kornit DTG printers use proprietary textile pigment inks that can decorate garments made from cotton, polyester, cotton-poly blends, lycra, viscose, silk, denim, linen, leather, and wool — without the need for pretreatment or post-treatment.
Prepress and Pretreatments
The type of design and RIP software included with the DTG printer depends on whether the printer will be used by an untrained first-time printer operator in a retail store or an experienced print professional that wants to build an e-commerce business around DTG printing.
Beginner software streamlines and simplifies the garment-design process. More advanced software helps commercial and industrial garment decorators match the brand or team colors, minimize ink usage on certain designs, and monitor every step in production from accepting online orders to shipping the finished products.
Most DTG printing systems required pretreatments on any garments that will be printed with white inks. This includes all of the black and dark shirts that will be printed with a white base layer under the color inks.
ImageArmor and other companies make specialized pretreatments for dark or light garments that can be sprayed or rolled onto the blank garments. Automated systems for pretreating garments are available for higher-volume production.
Pretreatments help keep the white inks close to the surface of the fabric and provide a smooth surface required for detailed graphics and images with accurate colors. Pretreatments also react with the white ink so it cures quickly enough to accept an overprint layer of color ink without smearing.
Pretreatments for light-colored garments that don’t use white ink as color aren’t required. But the color vibrancy and wash fastness of the print can be improved with pretreatment for light garments.
Aeoon offers belt-driven pretreatment systems and heating systems as part of the production workflow they have built around their industrial DTG printers. (Video: Aeoon DTG Production Workflow Digital Printing)
Dying systems for DTG garments range from tabletop heat presses (from companies such asHix, Hotronix, and Geo Knight) to conveyor dryers that can handle the different drying rates of screen printing garment inks and DTG printing inks. Ancillary equipment for adding labels and tags to printed garments or folding the garments for packaging are also available.
Advances in Technology
Advances in DTG technology have made it possible for anyone to get into the garment decorating business. Today, print shops that specialize in making trade-show graphics can easily print short runs of T-shirts for booth personnel or promotional giveaways. Pet stores can print T-shirts that feature the owner’s pet. Or, artists can print T-shirts to sell along with paintings or drawings at an art festival.
Recent improvements in DTG technology have also made DTG printing equipment more reliable, easier to maintain, and more cost-competitive with screen printing for jobs up to 1000 shirts.
DTG printing can’t yet match the versatility and cost-effectiveness of screen printing for decorating certain quantities and types of garments. So, users of DTG printers focus on promoting on the mass-customization, on-demand, environmental sustainability, and image-quality advantages of DTG printing.
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This post is part of a series we are publishing to help you understand the many types of analog and digital printing processes now in use. Follow Ordant on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to learn when the next post in this series has been published. Our next post will discuss direct-to-object and direct-to-shape inkjet printing.