The Future of T-shirt Printing – Magic Crystal 8 Ball Says Digital

Recently I had a conversation with someone regarding the future of the t-shirt printing industry during a shop tour of Visual Impressions.  The whole digital vs. traditional for t-shirt printing is good fodder for an article to explore where the future of this great industry is headed.  Here goes:

Digital Printing is the future, it’s that simple.  Many traditional screen-printers scoff at the idea of using a digital printer as it’s not their craft that they’ve spent years mastering and seems like cheating.  There is a love affair (maybe a love/hate affair would be more accurate) with the craftsmanship of pulling a squeegee and printing something.  Printers look at digital technology and complain that it doesn’t look right, the hand is different, the print speeds are too slow, and that the equipment is too expensive.  They argue that digital printers can’t handle specialty inks, technical fabrics, or some garments such as hoodies.

At one point all that may have been true.  However, as time progresses new technological features with digital printers will address all of these points and more.  Print speeds now are already over 300 per hour and that will increase further as print head technology expands.  Many brands of printers have the pretreatment step built into the printer so the extra pretreatment step outside of the print run will be a thing of the past.  Soon we’ll see Hexachrome ink systems instead of traditional CMYK, so color reproduction will become more accurate.  Also, there’s no reason to think that DTG print manufacturers won’t be able to add another slot for specialty ink either.  They want to sell you ink too.

Walk out into your shop and stand in the back corner.  Survey everything it takes to support printing one t-shirt order with traditional screen-printing.  Your customer service person had to take the order and enter it into the system.  Your art staff had to take (or develop) the art file and separate it into the individual colors for printing.  Each screen had to be specifically made for each color with steps for coating the screen, exposing the screen, washing out the emulsion, quality control & taping.  Production staff had to schedule the job, bring the screens and ink to the press.  If there were Pantone color to match, you may have had to mix the ink and get that to the press.  Set up and register the screens, get approval and print.  The job is checked off against the work order and shipped.  Count all the people that touched that job.  In some shops that might have just been one person (think of the time spent though), but in others it could have been 10-12 or more.

Now let’s think about a digital workflow of the future (or even right now to some degree).  Your customer places an order online.  The artwork is created online via your website and is automatically ripped using software that is instantly queued into the digital printer spool on your shop floor.  The inventory is pulled via electronic text message, and brought to your print station.  The DTG press operator prints the job and the packing list.  The job is checked off against an electronic work order and shipped.  A lot of traditional printing workflow steps are eliminated altogether.  One person could handle this entire order, but for larger shops maybe the number of people touching the order is now three or so.

The interesting thing about a digital print order is that not only does it have the capability of having lower transactional costs, but also lower production and labor costs as well.  The really big challenge currently is in the astronomical costs of the ink, and with more industry players and competition that should eventually fall too.  (At least that’s what me and every other DTG print user hopes)

Also, a direct to garment printer has a lighter footprint in the shop.  There is considerably less infrastructure to support, so more start-ups and other non-traditional printers will acquire them to build their business.  You don’t need the hassles of the screen room, or an art staff trained in high-end simulated process techniques to print amazing looking shirts.  Also, in an industry where customer order turn times are shrinking, the ability to get that order up and running and out the door quickly is a competitive edge.

In any industry, if the innovation makes something easier, more and more people will be drawn to it.  In fact, I can see a day when a traditional retailer that might have once engaged in print buying, decides to go vertical and just print their shirts themselves using DTG technology with an on-demand sales vertical process.  Why stock printed inventory when you can just print it for each order?  In fact, that day is already here with some online retailers.

Direct to garment printing is a different animal.  It prints differently on the shirt.  Feels differently on the shirt.  Sometimes it even smells differently.  However, the power of the DTG process is getting the image on the shirt quicker and more efficiently.  As it becomes more commonplace, consumers will accept the differences.  A good chunk of them just want a cool looking shirt…they don’t care how it was printed.  If your shop hasn’t invested in the future, or you are a traditionalist that still clings to the “old ways” of pulling a squeegee, one day in the near future you just may look up and realize that your customer base has migrated somewhere else.

So what do you think?  Agree with this?  Disagree?  I’d love to hear from you!!  Leave your thoughts in the comment section!

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