In 2010, Creative Apparel became the first company in the UK to install the M&R iDot direct-to-garment printer. We asked the company’s MD, Phil Millar to share his experience of D2G printing over the past five years and predictions for the future of the process

The iDot in action

Creative Apparel has been offering embroidery and printing services for the workwear and promotional industries since 1988. When owner and managing director Phil Millar decided to introduce direct-to-garment (D2G) printing five years ago, he said at the time that he chose the iDot because “M&R makes the best machinery on the market – the company has been around a long time and understands printing.” It was a natural fit.

“We bought it so we could do samples on it,” he says now. “We wanted to get more designs online – it gave us the opportunity to bring out designs and put them online within an hour.”

Phil’s still happily using the machine and, although it’s still the only D2G machine the company has, he sees D2G as the future and his firm’s expansion in this area as inevitable. “When D2G machines first came out there were lots of problems trying to operate them because they always clogged up and they’re not as easy as people think: people think you just press a button and it (the printed product) comes out the other end. We did a lot of learning on that side, but that’s how I see the industry going: smaller runs, multicolours and fast turnaround.

“Designers get a bit carried away with the colours and then they want a small run: when you do that on the screen print side, that’s six screens at £20 each and it ends up at a couple of hundred quid for one shirt. With D2G, you can do it for a tenner. It’s a lot cheaper, it’s a lot more cost-effective and you can get what the designer is after.”

Phil Millar and sharp images from Creative Apparel.

Steep learning curve

White ink clogging up machines is a common gripe with D2G printers, and Phil says he’s hoping it can be resolved soon as that’s what will be important to him if Creative Apparel upgrades its current kit. “Printing on darks is the holy grail. The technology is getting there now – over the last five years there’s been lots of improvements.”

When the iDot arrived there was a steep learning curve as the team got to grips with how to clean the machine and keep it operational – an inevitable process that comes with buying any machinery featuring new technology. “I think the technology five years ago, no-one really understood it fully then so we were all scratching our heads at what to do, but we’ve got it running nicely now. And the customer service [from M&R] is excellent, really good – I can’t fault them.”

At the moment, the majority of Phil’s business is screen printing, although he knows that will change: “In years to come – five, 10, 20 – it will be the D2G route. They’ll get faster, and that’s how T-shirts will be printed in the future, that’s how I see it. It will take the skill out of screen printing.”

To date, the main obstacle to Creative Apparel expanding the D2G side of its business further has been the company’s website. When Phil bought the iDot he had intended to set up, a webstore where customers could design their T-shirts on the site with the iDot then printing the designs on-demand. However, the people he employed initially to develop the website didn’t manage to produce the site Phil wanted or had envisaged. Undeterred, he’s hoping to launch the new site in six months’ time, although he cautions: “The design’s got to be right, not just a simple one aimed at stag dos and that sort of thing: lots of people are at that sort of game.”

For D2G to seriously challenge screen there is another issue that must also be addressed, says Phil. He reports that print quality is far superior with D2G compared to screen, but the speed of the output is still lagging: “It is speeding up though – TOTS have a new machine and they can print quite rapidly. The technology is improving monthly. Printing T-shirts will go down the route of Moonpig [the online card printer] eventually – and that’s what we’re aiming for.”