Peter Joyce, managing director at TOTShirts, shares the lessons he’s learned since buying his first direct-to-garment printer four years ago

When digital printing onto garments first came to my attention back in the early 2000s, I felt I’d better take a look. At that time, the process produced poor quality prints and printing onto darks was still a long way off . Nonetheless, I kept a keen eye on the technology as I thought one day it might reduce the cost of sampling and make those small volume runs with a high number of colours commercially viable.

We finally decided to take the plunge four years ago, but as the cost of building these machines meant there was no cheap route to market, it was an ‘all or nothing’ decision. I chose all!

With no experience, we purchased an Aeoon Kyo 12 and I must admit I thought that the technology had advanced sufficiently for us just to install it and get on with printing. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Environment, ink costs, the cost of spare parts and servicing, the need to pre-treat, suitability of the garment surface and dye content, curing, and receiving adequate support were things that posed many problems.

Had I known about these issues at the time I may well have decided against adding direct-to-garment to our portfolio of services, however that would have been a mistake.

So, four years down the line, and with three Brother GTXs recently joining the Aeoon, what can I tell you?

Environment

The ink that we use in the Aeoon has to be at the correct viscosity. This changes depending on the [ambient] temperature – if it’s too hot or too cold, the ink simply doesn’t perform very well. The tolerance is very narrow – within three to four degrees centigrade – and the English weather doesn’t help. We had to build an enclosed space with air con and heating to maintain the optimum temperature, which is between 18°C and 22ºC.

The amount of moisture in the air is also very important. If it drops to less than about 60% humidity, the inks dry and clog the heads on the Aeoon: when this happens, the heads cannot be recovered.

The Brother machines are a lot more forgiving.

Ink costs

On the Aeoon, subject to coverage, the inks can cost anywhere between 20p and 80p per print for CMYK. Throw in the white ink required for dark shirts and a large print area can cost anything up to £2.

For the Brother, the cost of buying the machines are a hell of a lot less, but you’ll need to get quite a few of them to get reasonable production numbers and the ink will cost you more.

Cost of maintenance, spare parts and servicing

The Aeoon is pretty easy to maintain, but failure to administer the recommended procedures will be at your peril! It’s a very high spec machine and the heads alone come in at around the £5,000 each mark; we have 12 of them. Dragging a service engineer from the Midlands or Austria also costs a pretty penny.

We’ve only had the Brothers for a few months so we’ll have to wait and see how they pan out on this one.

More than one pretreatment machine is recommended to save time

One of the company’s three Brother GTXs from MHM Direct GB

Pretreating garments

Some companies print white shirts without pretreatment, but the results are not particularly vibrant and dark garments just won’t work without it. We use Image Armor DTG pretreatment for the Aeoon – it’s the industry standard. Brother has its own pretreatment fluid.

It’s an expensive extra process that needs to be handled correctly. The area the pretreatment is applied to needs to be much bigger than the print target area, and it needs to be an even coating at the right volume – get this wrong and you’ll be printing rejects! Pretreatment can also stain certain coloured garments.

My hope is that the ink manufacturers are holed up in laboratories with their petri dishes and test tubes formulating ink that will no longer require pre-treatment. Either that or I hope the garment companies are secretly working on garments that will do the job.

Pretreatment machines

The need for diff erent pretreatments for light and dark garments as well as for diff erent inks has meant we have had to buy multiple pretreatment machines – it’s much more effi cient this way rather than trying to keep changing the fl uids in one machine. We have two Schulze Pretreatmaker IVs.

Suitability of the garment surface

Fibres sticking up out of the garment will effect the integrity of the print so choose ones that have the fl attest surfaces and heat press them post pretreatment to give the best results. Working out the best T-shirt to use is trial and error. You have to go through it on a garment-bygarment basis – if it works, we’ll add it to our portfolio, if it doesn’t, we won’t recommend it. The Fruit of the Loom Sofspun T is our standard one that we know works well.

Curing

Again, there are very narrow tolerances on the ink. Under- or over-curing the inks will mean they are not washfast and, unlike with screen printing inks, re-curing doesn’t work.

We’ve found that tunnel drying and pressing pretreated shirts provides the best surface to print on and doing the same post-print gives us control.

Real-world production output

For A4-sized prints, our Aeoon can produce approximately 200 whites or 100 darks per hour. With the Brother, you are looking at a maximum of 50 white shirts and 20 darks per hour.

Artwork format

Different machines require diff erent artwork software rips. The Aeoon is designed to hold the ripped art locally, and increasing the size of the storage means that designs can be stored and retrieved very quickly. The Brother holds about 1,000 files, but these are cleared every time they are turned off and require reloading.

Even though both machines print CMYK, the fi nished print can vary so it’s not possible to sample on one machine and do the production run on the other.

In conclusion…

Now we have overcome the initial pain of integrating the DTG process into our business, we are pretty comfortable with it. It still has a long way to go to compete with screen printing, but for single and low number production runs it has opened up a diff erent market for us.

When the boffins can increase output, reduce costs and get rid of the pretreatment process, and the inks become more vibrant and have wider curing parameters, it’s going to have a major impact on the industry.

www.totshirts.co.uk