Marshall Atkinson discusses the merits of digital printing

The first thing we should get out of the way is a common misconception about digital printing. Screen printers will always compare it to their brand of production. Will it ever be the same?

No way. Digital printing is something completely different. Screen printing is a lion. Digital printing is a cheetah. There are lots of similarities, but they’re mostly completely different animals. If you are a screen printer and you want to really understand digital printing, you have to stop thinking about it like it’s the same animal you’ve been working with all these years. Just relax. Enjoy it’s cheetah-ness.

Digital printing is different because of how it works. First and foremost, you are using water-based four-colour process ink to print the image. This means that the final printed image is completely dependent on the quality of the file, and the skill of the person doing the prep work.

Because it’s a four-colour process, you will never hit a Pantone colour with an exact match. You can come close, and there can be a lot of effort to calibrate the final print with some Photoshop-based colour correction actions… but you’ll never hit PMS 186 exactly. Some of the newer hexachrome systems produce better results. You’ll get a nice red, but not that exact one. For exact, you’ll need to print that spot colour. For some, that’s a non-starter. For others, a nice red will be fine.

What’s the trade-off then? Well, mainly that you can print millions of colours on a shirt without any halftones. Why worry about just hitting one specific colour when you can print with photographic quality?

For the people in the “hit the PMS colour” camp, I think we’re talking about the wrong thing. Instead of focusing on that one colour limitation, why not illustrate the benefit of a larger printed colour palette on the garment?

Reconsider how you educate your customer

That’s great, but Marshall, I just print for the corporate world. How can I sell to them? They always want their logo in exact Pantone matches! They have to have their logo printed in a spot colour!

Do they?

I’ve seen corporate logos printed CMYK in plenty of magazines. All were four-colour process, not spot. Probably didn’t hit those Pantone colours either… but they were close. Why is that any different? Is the only time that corporate client has to have an exact colour match is on a T-shirt? Please…

When you are talking colour with your customers are you educating them about the expectations of CMYK digital printing? Showing the differences and being transparent with the process? Teach your customer how the cheetah hunts. They already know how the lion feeds.

Print biology 101

So if screen printing is a stately lion, why is digital printing a cheetah?

That’s easy. Speed. That’s why it’s the cheetah. And by speed, I don’t mean how fast it prints “on” the shirt. The speed we are talking about is avoiding all the “normal” work involved in traditional screen printing. While you’ll never want to print a 10,000 piece order with digital equipment, running those ‘under 100’ piece orders might make more sense.

What makes digital printing faster is that you aren’t monkeying around with the screen prep, press registration, ink mixing or other set-up steps that traditional analogue screen printing employs. Don’t forget about reclaiming and emulsion coating either.

For digital, the art still has to be prepped, but even that can be automated. Lots of companies right now have their art sent directly from their webpage to the print queue in their digital printer. Shirts are pulled and staged, and the job is printed. No order entry. Packing lists are printed at the end of the dryer belt. Cheetah workflow speed kills, especially if you are competing in the online world. This is why Amazon just purchased a small army of Kornit presses and placed them in Texas.

Hold onto your butts (my favourite line from Jurassic Park)

Digital printing isn’t going to quietly fade away somewhere. In fact, you are going to hear more about it in the future as the technology increases and printing speeds and colour matching capabilities increase. Hexachrome print heads, for example, add two more colours (orange and green) to CMYK, so there’s an expanded colour gamut and that means spot colour matching is more feasible.

The new Kornit Vulcan reportedly prints around 250 shirts an hour. Other digital equipment manufacturers will catch up too. One day a shirt will just simply be printed much like a colour copy: all in a single pass of the print head. Zip. Done.

What are the limitations?

The pretreatment step is crucial. Kornit owns the patent for the inline process, which is simply the best way to do it. Hands down.

For all other manufacturers, it’s an outside step or something you have to do with a separate machine. This means you are touching the shirt more, which impacts your workflow and labour costs to produce the order. Also, the pretreatment fluid has to be controlled exactly. Too little or too much can have adverse affects on the print.

Not all shirts work well with a digital printer either. Garment dyed and even some brightly coloured regular T-shirts have issues. For those, the pretreatment can turn the shirt a little yellow sometimes. Also, results can vary from dye lot to dye lot depending on the shirt manufacturer. Misting with water in a spray bottle helps, but it is unreliable.

Polyester tends to repel the water-based ink, but some colours (white or lights) and brands can work okay. It’s a trial and error thing. Supposedly, everyone is working on inks that work on polyester.

So what type of shirts works best? Normal 100% cotton. All day long.

Number one digital printer issue: clogged print heads

This is the biggest headache for a lot of shops. Although the colour print heads can clog, the challenge lies mainly in the white print head due to the nature of the titanium dioxide that comprises white inks. It just loves to clog up like bran muffin and cheese day at the retirement home.

If you read the comments by DTG owners (or former frustrated owners) this is the challenge that drives them nuts. The expectation for any device is that you should be able to use it when you want. And that’s perfectly fair. No argument.

This is why a lot of systems have print heads that purge or weep ink constantly to prevent the clogging. That leads to increased costs as all that purging ink is going down the drain. Newer systems have been addressing this issue by engineering methodologies to deal with the clogging and purging challenge.

Think before you buy

Lastly, I’d like to point out a common problem with shops that purchase a digital printer and that is that they didn’t invest the time to construct a solid business plan to sell digital printing. These things aren’t cheap by a long shot.

For a lot of shops, it is a shiny new toy that they play with for a bit, and then it sits in the corner waiting for the “right job” to come along so they can use it. They complain how it sits idle, and then when they have a job for it the equipment fails them. My premise is that they failed the printing equipment by not thinking about how they should be selling digital printing before even considering buying one.

Recommendation? Find a partner

My recommendation for people who are interested in a digital printer for their shop is to find a trusted contract printer that has the equipment and can do a good job for them. They can then sell the services and learn how to talk to customers about it, how to create or preflight the art files for optimum print quality, and what the overall expectations with the system will be. Once you are selling enough to flood your contractor with work, and it gets painfully obvious you should be doing it yourself, that’s the time to drop the hammer on spending that cash for the equipment.

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.