Disruption in Our Industry

P2 Printing Tan Longsleeves - Marshall Atkinson

Can you predict the future?  Do you think you know what’s going to happen in our industry a few years from now?  We believe we know…and as a whole the decorated apparel industry is betting that nothing much is going to change.  Our body posture is “head down, gotta get this job out today.”

One of the biggest human weaknesses is our inability to comprehend that our future might be impacted by forces we don’t understand.  Beyond a science fiction movie, people just can’t predict the future very well.  We think we know, but we really don’t have a clue.  However, one thing is for certain and that is that we live in truly marvelous times.  It used to take centuries for major forces to change industry’s ways of doing business.

Now your entire business world can cease to exist in a matter of months.

Don’t think it can happen to you?  That’s what taxi drivers thought before Uber.  That’s what newspapers thought before the internet.  That’s what the hotel industry thought before Airbnb.  That’s what Blockbuster thought before Netflix.  That’s what bookstores thought before Amazon.  That’s what Kodak thought before digital cameras, and now phones.  That’s what record companies thought before digital streaming, and now Pandora or Spotify.

To make matters worse, all of those new businesses are also evolving into other areas as well.  Success breeds success like some weird sort of toe fungus, that morphs into the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  You don’t see it coming.

So what are we going to do when that slimeball slinks out of the swamp and heads into town to disrupt the apparel decorating world as you know it?

There are already signs that disruption is on the way.  Somewhere soon, there’s going to be a tipping point that will upset this industry.  Are you paying attention?

One day we may just find ourselves looking back and thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?”  How does disruption in an industry work anyway?

It always starts with some sort of problem and then developing an answer to that challenge.  I don’t have a car and I need an easier way to get from point A to point B than finding a taxi.  Enter Uber.  There’s nothing on tv worth watching but I don’t want to go a store to rent a movie.  Enter Netflix.  I love to read, and I want an easier way to get a new book.  Enter the Kindle.

So for apparel decorating, what are the challenges we all face every day?  If you take the marketplace (who the shirt is for) out of the equation, our problems are:

Inventory.  Think about all of the different manufacturers, styles, colors, and sizes.  There are so many different apparel choices out there that it is almost overwhelming.  Everyone had their favorites, but if the customer is choosing the brand and style that leaves the decorator at their mercy.

What innovation could spark a disruption in how apparel decorators are handling the inventory?

Rollercoaster sales seasons.  For a lot of decorators, sales are usually feast or famine.  We have periods where we have massive overtime and can’t find enough people to help; coupled with periods where we lay workers off or shorten hours for a few weeks.  It’s the uncertainty that is so heart wrenching.

Could there be a new sales methodology that either dries up orders for some shops while flooding others with business?

Creating the art.  Getting fantastic designs onto the garment with either thread or ink relies on skilled people that can translate that idea or image and make it technically functional for decorating.

What type of technological advances could wreak havoc on our industry design-wise?

Durable equipment.  Mechanical stuff breaks down over time.  Cheaper units break faster than more expensive ones, but everything will sooner or later have an issue.  Throw poor preventative maintenance, unkept working environments, chemicals and solvents and user problems into the mix; and you’ve got a big problem on your hands.

What equipment manufacturer is going to lead the charge for innovation in the coming years?

Production scheduling.  When will that job ship?  It’s the math problem we do every day based on variables that change constantly.  Is there an easier way?

Will there ever be a “perfect” scheduling software for this industry?

Skilled employees.  It’s easy to find people that can come in a box up a shirt.  Run and embroidery machine or an automatic press?  Incredibly more difficult.  Not to mention trained artists, digitizers or customer service staff.

What major challenge will this industry face in the next few years that will be an industry disruption with our staffing?

Production.  Actually printing or embroidering the shirts.  Will digital continue to gain ground as print head speeds increase?  Will embroidery machines ever evolve?

What’s the future look like for actually decorating a shirt?

Sustainability.  Everyone overlooks this, but think about all the consumables you go through each day.  New regulations and laws are enacted all the time that affect our industry.  How much do you contribute to your local landfill?  All of our shops use electricity or natural gas to run.  Is there a better way?

Could there be more regulations or legislation that affects our industry and starts to disrupt it?

Shipping.  We have completed the job and now it has to get somewhere.  Now we are at the mercy of a completely different industry with costs and rules that change constantly.  Not to mention some performance issues.

Virtually every shop relies on the freight industry in one way or another.  What changes to this industry will cause huge problems down the line for us in the future?

Money.  Get back.  I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack.  As my Uncle Bill always says, “Money is the lubricant that greases the skids of life”.  A lot of shops are under capitalized, not financially savvy, or just plain bad at business as they discount their way to volume.

Yeah, I wrote the last one just so I could quote Pink Floyd.  Money is still a huge issue though, and if your accountant has a frowny face something could be disrupting your balance.  What will it be?

So which of those problems could produce the BIG disruptor that will change the industry?  

For the sake of a contrarian argument, let’s say none of the current challenges above foster the disruption for our industry.  Maybe there’s something in my coffee this morning, but what if the disruption was something that nobody will see coming?

Like Self Decorating Fabric.


Currently lots of R&D money is being spent developing wearable technology that can be woven into fabric for sensors, data and all sorts of science fiction sounding reasons.  How much would it take for the fabric to actually contain display chips or some means to turn a color or display a graphic?

Who needs printed ink or embroidery when the latest designer fashion can be just uploaded into your clothing?  Today the shirt is red with your favorite team logo, tomorrow the same shirt can be uploaded and it will be blue with a detailed fashion forward pattern.

Instead of going to a store to buy new clothes, what if users just subscribed to their favorite designer?  T-shirts on the whole are just about the same.  It’s the color and graphic that makes them different usually.

Already the apple watch has different watch faces that the user can choose on a whim, and you can custom select the dashboard gauges and dials for your new Tesla.  Imagine how much fun it will be to go to a sporting event and everyone can be the jumbotron instead of looking at one?  What if we were all just a big bank of display screens in a crowd?  Imaging how much fun instant replay could be then!

I know this sounds like a really far fetched idea, and to tell you the truth I wouldn’t start looking for a buyer just yet for your shop equipment.

My idea is just for fun discussion, and sounds like a conspiracy theory I know.  However there is some information out there if you look hard enough.

Don’t believe me?  Check these links out.  Will these dots be connected?

Fabrics Controlled by Apps on Phones 

Future Fashion: 10 Apparel Trends to Watch 

Military Invisible Cloak Technology 

Smart Textiles 

Flexible Displays 


Flexible Electronics 


  • Great article, this is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Trying to picture myself as a Borders exec 10 years ago, predicting the massive industry change and how to not be wiped out by it.
    The most likely disruption I see is an oldie: volume players. I heard radio ads in both the LA and Bend, OR markets last month for CustomInk, and it freaked me out. I have a solid value proposition that prevents most of my customers from bleeding away to online-only low-cost providers, but at some point low prices become just too tempting for most people. This week I got another of those offers to print for a huge online house, the kind that sends you a price list (ie, this is what we pay our vendors, take it or leave it). They want to pay $4.80/shirt for DTG regardless of print size or ink usage. I just did an 8×11″ print for a customer with a lot of white ink where the ink cost alone (not counting inbound freight, profit, an labor, machine costs, training, maintenance, waste, etc) was over $5.50. Can you say loss leader? You can’t exactly “make it up on volume” if you’re losing money on every shirt. But it can be challenging to compete against well-funded competitors with sub-par math skills, because by the time one of them runs themselves out of business, another rears it’s head.
    And then, of course, is the inevitable $2k DTG machine. That’s not here yet, but it’s going to really mess with us when schools, events, even some businesses decide to just make their own shirts in-house.
    We’ve really got to pay attention to our value add. What can we do that our customers just can’t do on their own, even with good software? That’s the question to keep asking ourselves.

  • Marshall: Thanks for another informative and thought provoking blog. I’ve been looking at this question from a slightly different viewpoint and find myself asking what would cause a large number of textile garment screen-printers to miss out on seeing a fundamental change that’s occurring in our industry. I continue to see posts on industry forums from Screen-Printers complaining about what they perceive to be PITA customers, just because they are requesting short run quantity or quick turnaround for delivery. I have no doubt that some of these “Need It Right This Second” (NIRTS) customers screw around until they’re finally up against a deadline, then they try to get their local screen-printer to bail them out of trouble by completing a rush job to complete the shirts that are needed for their event.

    I also happen to believe that a fundamental change is occurring in society where people are becoming accustomed to having greater choices and improved response times, versus the traditional pay your money in advance and come back in two weeks model that the garment decorating industry has been built on. I’m going to take the “Devil’s Advocate” position and suggest that not all of these customers looking for a rush job are unorganized fruitcakes, but rather their enhanced service expectations are indicative of where at least a section of industry is headed. There’s a whole new group of Online Internet Service Providers, and a smaller number of smart traditional screen-printing companies who are offering an improved customer experience through an expanded offering of garment styles, with customizable design, low minimum quantities, and short turn-around times. What’s more they are making it easy for their customers to do business with them.

    The closest comparison that I can see to the garment decorating industry, on how increased customer expectations changed a market is what occurred in the sign making segment. It wasn’t that long ago that Sign Printers were working on the same 10 -14 day lead time to produce custom printed sign graphics. Now in many cases the average turnaround time is less than three days. In fact if you want to get an idea of how much the quick turn model has affected that sign segment you need only look at the names of the leading franchise sign companies that include; Signs By Tomorrow, Signs Now, SpeedPro, etc. I don’t know of any growing companies in the sign segment that are marketing their business as “Signs when we get around to it!”

    I think that it’s only a matter of time until these increased customer expectations for expanded choices and quick turn times become more prevalent in the Garment Textile Printing Segment. I’m concerned that those average garment textile screen printers who remain determined to stick to their traditional model of only offering a limited choice to their customers, at service levels that are designed around what is best for the printer run the risk of falling victim to these next generation service providers in much the same way that a larger portion of small town retail has been gobbled up by the big box retail chains.

    • Thanks for responding Peter. Excellent point. To me (for printing shirts anyway) that we will be responding to these requests is with digital printing. Print head speeds and capabilities are only getting faster, and in a few years the current technology will look very antiquated and slow.

Leave your comment

Talk to Marshall and get his help.
Learn More
View All Ebooks

Related Posts