Amongst forward thinking print shops, there is a steadily growing interest in the concept of combining screen printing and direct-to-garment processes. Images talks to the main players to find out what type of decoration these hybrid systems are best suited for and why you should consider buying one
Hybrid? What’s a hybrid? Put simply, we’re talking about a textile printing system that combines both screen printing and direct-to-garment digital equipment. The idea is that each system has its advantages and drawbacks and that by combining the two you benefit from the best of both.
This concept has gained considerable traction over the past 12 months, with the industry’s heavyweight screen printing press manufacturers all entering this sector of the market, launching digital printing equipment for use with their existing screen printing presses in a hybrid printing set-up. MHM unveiled its iQ Digital system at the SGIA exposition back in September 2016; Roq introduced its Hybrid system at the end of last year; and M&R announced the brand new Digital Squeegee at the ISS Long Beach show in January of this year. These systems join hybrid set-ups from Polyprint, Resolute and Exile, along with the original ‘digital add-on’ printer–Kornit’s Paradigm.
The manufacturers have adopted various approaches to combining screen with digital; however, all share the aim of allowing seamless printing of both screen and digital inks, in perfect registration, as quickly and profitably as possible.
To find out more about the hybrid concept and why modern print shops should be considering investing in it, we spoke to representatives of all the major players (below). We’ve also brought together all the latest hybrid technology in our Product Showcase – ‘Kit Selector: Hybrid Systems’
How would you summarise the main advantages of a hybrid system?
Julian Wright: This system will give the user a great advantage when printing multi-coloured images with gradients and fades; it will allow almost photographic quality with minimal set-up time and graphic adjustment.
Mark Evans: Freedom to combine the best of both worlds– the convenience of CMYK digital printing with the customisation and added value that screen printing can add to the process.
Oliver Luedtke: New and creative applications and business opportunities (short runs, fast turnarounds, photorealistic prints, personalisation, customisation), and low cost per print as white base layers can be produced by the carousel, along with reduced time and labour when preparing screens and setting up carousels. Other advantages include reduced inventory of screens and a simplified print process that reduces the use of inks.
Geoff Baxter: A hybrid screen and inkjet DTG printing system provides the ability to screen print a white ink underbase, which can be optimised for performance on specific fabrics, and can cost up to 20 times less than digital white inks. Pantone spot colour and/or special effect inks can be printed after the Digital Squeegee Station, and bleed blocking barrier bases can be printed on difficult fabrics if required. It offers high productivity with lower cost consumables, no pre-treatment is required and it minimises the need for pre-press and art department involvement.
Colin Marsh: Hybrid printing bridges the gap between DTG and screen printing, making low volume complex colour designs possible with very low set-up costs.
Nuno Venda: With the Hybrid solution we can have the best of both technologies: with screen printing, the use of special effects in garment decoration; and with digital printing, unlimited number of colours, high resolution, quick machine set-up, reliability in colour reproduction, minimum waste of material, and reduced number of stencils (they’re only used in the decoration of dark garments and/or special effects).
John Potter: To take full advantage of the mass customisation market that has grown in the UK.
Do you think a hybrid system is better than having a separate direct-to-garment (DTG) machine and screen printing press?
ME: DTG offers a better solution for four-colour process than CMYK using screen print technology as it is possible to use high resolution FM screening for the CMYK print. What DTG lacks is the ability to add special spot colours, and printing the white underbase is the biggest issue for DTG printers. So, again, it’s the best of both worlds.
Combining the two technologies–screen and digital–opens up new creative opportunities for garment printers. A hybrid system is also a good stepping stone for existing screen printers who want to add DTG printing into their production workflow.
GB: Yes, hybrid technology truly merges the best of both analogue screen and digital printing, such as minimal artwork preparation and a very fast time to press with no need for colour separations and time-consuming screen prep, very fast press set-up, close to screen print production speed and a significant reduction in consumable cost. It eliminates the requirement for pre-treatment, and allows for printing on a wider range of substrates, including synthetics and performance fabrics.
NV: Yes, a hybrid solution is a better choice. It allows the printer to create jobs that are not possible with just one of the technologies. It gives a wider range of jobs that the printer can produce or develop. And the printer will still have the opportunity to use each of the technologies as standalone if he wishes so.
JP: No two customers are the same, however with the ability to produce contract work and bespoke work on the same machine, printers are no longer turning away work.
What are the potential drawbacks of the hybrid system?
OL: There are no real drawbacks. You just need to keep in mind that you are combining two different technologies so there will be some integration work required– mechanically, electronically and also in terms of the ink chemistry. There will be a learning curve and a ramp up period.
GB: Potential drawbacks are few, but could include that the limited colour gamut of the CMYK colour model compared to spot colours can make some PMS colours difficult to reproduce digitally, and the slightly higher cost of digital inks over conventional plastisol.
CM: The only drawbacks with hybrid printing are you do need some screen printing knowledge – as the process is mainly used by existing screen printers this is not normally an issue.
JP: Until now, production speeds have been slow for the investment required, however our iQ Digital is the first to offer production speeds in line with those of a traditional automatic screen printing press. Quite simply, without a high production speed, the return on investment is more difficult.
JW: A potential drawback is speed on larger runs, however the quality achieved by this hybrid process is difficult or impossible to match with a standalone screen print system.
ME: For screen printers entering the world of DTG the crossover from spot colours to CMYK digital printing presents plenty of pre-press challenges. Good colour management knowledge becomes much more important as this has to be applied digitally on a DTG print, whereas screen printers can always adjust colours on the press. Ensuring good registration between the two technologies is also a key factor.
What are the main challenges of bringing together a screen printing press and DTG system in a print shop environment?
GB: The main challenges of merging the two technologies could be a higher level of preventative maintenance over what is traditionally performed in an analogue print shop, and the adverse effects of the shop environment and atmospheric conditions. General housekeeping should be maintained at a higher level than in traditional print shops.
CM: You need some extra floor space for both pieces of equipment, however the R-Jet/FreeStyler system is a direct-to-screen maker available with a built-in LED exposure unit. This reduces the system’s footprint and increases productivity.
NV: There are some challenges when coming up with a project like this because it uses two different technologies. It’s still very rare to have operators versed in both technologies. Usually the operator needs training in one of the fields, whether it be digital or screen printing. In the jobs that use both technologies, the printer must ensure a perfect fit between the prints made by each machine.
OL: Direct-to-garment systems are usually engineered for robustness and reliable operation. However they contain a lot of high-tech components so they are usually more ‘delicate’ than screen printing equipment. It makes sense to consider environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity and also to carry out proper maintenance.
JP: Carousels present major limitations because of their physical design, whereas the oval layout allows for better segregation of the different processes, allowing the digital process to be kept well away from the screening process. For example, lint, glue and heat from flash cures/dryers are very unfriendly towards digital print heads.
Due to its modularity, the oval format also facilitates the option to add more stations at any point in the future for greater flexibility without the need to replace the entire machine.
What markets do you think the hybrid is suited to?
JW: This system undoubtedly gives the user an advantage. The print quality achievable is fantastic and this will enable the user to target customers who require small to medium size runs with a higher quality finish.
ME: Really the two ends of the spectrum: retail, high end fashion garments where the combined technologies can produce bespoke designs that can be sold with a higher price tag and also short/medium print runs on to black or dark coloured garments where a screen printed white underbase makes a big difference to quality and cost.
OL: The Paradigm is perfect for promotional and retail markets, for custom decorators and contract printers.
CM: Hybrid printing sits well in most markets, but it definitely shines in retail and the many different print-on-demand scenarios.
NV: The Hybrid is best suited to any printer that wants to step up the quality of their work.
JP: Mass customisation: these machines open up an exciting possibility to create garments with unique personalisation on a high-production level.
What is the capital cost of the hybrid, and the ongoing costs?
CM: The hybrid system excluding the screen printing press starts at £9,950. This does include the direct-to-screen process, CMYK white T-shirt printing and, of course, dark garment printing when used for hybrid printing. Running costs are very low due to the R-Jet/FreeStyler using thermal print heads. This makes it practically zero maintenance with the benefit of never replacing expensive print heads.
NV: The Hybrid can come in different configurations (different number of print heads, different size, etcetera) so the capital cost depends on the chosen configuration. Something that the owner of a digital printer must have in mind is that the print heads are replacement parts, and their replacement is a significant cost. Their lifetime is shorter than the lifetime of the machine. We can make an analogy between the print heads and the tyres of a car: if a car has a normal level of use, the tyres will not last the lifetime of the car – they will wear out.
JW: If the customer already has a manual carousel or a single station, with micro-head adjustment, the only additional cost would be the Texjet DTG printers and the necessary brackets for the screen press. Ongoing costs would simply be the DTG inks and any necessary consumable parts on the printers.
ME: The FreeStyler computer-to-screen with the optional DTG Hybrid option with a starter pack of CMYK inks and T-shirt platens will retail in the UK for £10,995. The only ongoing costs are the ink cartridges. Print head reliability is not a factor with the FreeStyler as the print head is integral to the ink cartridge and is therefore a disposable item.
OL: The price of the Paradigm system is 110,000 Euros. The only investment one will have is the system itself as it uses the existing screen printing infrastructure. After that, you will have the ink and consumables cost which are typically low as the digital component will print only the CMYK portion of the image, not the white. And you should calculate some amount for an extended warranty after the first year.
GB: Cost can vary from around US$100,000 to over US$800,000 depending on the unit. Ongoing costs are the minimal costs associated with routine maintenance.
What’s the best way to make money from a hybrid?
NV: The real deal here is that a printer will be able to output jobs that they couldn’t before and almost no-one can today. They can run a production of 450 pieces an hour with digital printing quality and add to it glitter or foil or any other special screen printing effect, and do all of this in the same process with one, maybe two operators. When you are able to supply a higher quality service, you are able to charge more. That is how a printer can make money with the Hybrid. And of course if the customer only needs digital, they can do it, and if the customer needs only screen printing, they can also do it. With the Hybrid the options are endless.
JW: By utilising the superior print quality and feel, it will enable the garment decorator to increase the margin in their printed apparel. It is definitely a unique selling point, which will enable them to achieve a higher sale price, along with the benefits of quick turnaround on small to medium size runs, which ordinarily attract a higher margin.
ME: Fundamentally the cost of DTG printing is always going to be more expensive than conventional screen printing. Therefore concentrate on how it adds value to the garment decoration process such as short run, specialist designs or medium run prints on dark shirts where substituting a screen print white underbase for the digital white ink can produce cost savings.
OL: In garment decoration, margin is a direct function of creativity in the business model and in the design. In terms of run length, the ‘sweet spot’ will be medium run lengths–50 to 500 units per job–and jobs with multiple screens as this is where you can save most compared to screen printing only.
GB: By combining the four-colour digital process with the speciality printing techniques of screen printing at competitive price points, you will be able to achieve the higher efficiency and lower cost to manufacture from the hybrid set-up.
CM: The complex colour designs used for textile printing are very well suited to hybrid printing. When the print run is too low for a multiple screen set-up or too high for DTG printing, this is where the most money can be made. All systems are different, but as a general rule anything from 10 to 200 dark shirts will normally be best suited to hybrid printing.