DTG has designs on XL-sized growth

Richard Stuart-Turner
Monday, June 28, 2021

Consumer preferences and spending habits have been evolving for years, with attention shifting away from bricks-and-mortar stores to online retailers, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has struck another major blow to the high street.

Fashion retailers in particular have felt the effects, with their physical stores classified as non-essential and forced to close during periods of lockdown. This drove an increasing number of consumers online, many of whom have now been converted for good.

This has been a boon for online-only fashion retailers like Asos and Boohoo, and has also proved fruitful for direct-to-garment (DTG) printing businesses, many of whom do much of their business online.

“At the same time, global logistics shut down and so digital commerce, combined with local manufacturing and logistics, took over,” says Phil Oakley, UK & Ireland country manager at Kornit Digital.

Indeed, digital DTG printing proved to be one of the print industry’s most resilient sectors during the pandemic.

The boost in e-commerce collided with a greater desire for printed personalised clothing like t-shirts, hoodies and – inevitably – face masks, plus other accessories ranging from tote bags and tea cloths to interior decor items like cushion covers, as people were spending more time at home.

The rise in personalised fashion has been driven by numerous factors, including influencers on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, as well as an increasing desire by consumers to give their loved ones gifts with a more human touch, particularly when they haven’t been able to be there in person.

Quoting statistics from Grand View Research, Ricoh UK national sales director Simon Isaacs says custom t-shirt printing alone is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.7% from 2021 to 2028.

DTG is also taking an increasing share of the garment printing industry from screen printing, although screen still plays a major part, particularly for very large runs, while dye-sublimation and toner transfer are among the popular digital alternatives.

“Digital DTG printing requires limited effort. It is easy and quick to setup with minimal maintenance. Preparation for each unique print requires very little intervention and therefore it makes this method highly productive and appealing to print service providers,” says Isaacs.

“DTG is also highly cost-effective on short, unique runs which consumers are demanding more and more. Corporates and manufacturers can create digital artwork that can be printed in-house, directly on a garment, on-demand with instant turnaround.”

He adds: “Screen printing often has long setup times, requires maximum effort and has historically been associated with printing solid graphics in large quantities to ensure productivity and desired revenue streams for the print service providers.

“It is not ideal for personalised print on-demand either. DTG inkjet garment printing is faster and much more flexible. It is economical and cleaner compared to traditional screen printing methods and requires significantly less operating space and business start-up costs.

“Garment designers can also create one-of-a-kind masterpieces or carry out longer production runs – regardless of the complexity of the images. There’s also no need to create film positives or use chemicals as they would with screen printing.”

With the Ri 100, Ri 1000, and Ri 2000, Ricoh offers DTG printers catering to different business and productivity requirements. Isaacs says both B2B and B2C markets are buoyant for DTG, but especially B2C over the recent months and years. 

“We’re seeing start-ups making the most of the vast array of e-commerce platforms like Etsy, Ebay, Amazon, and so on. They have recognised the demand and the opportunity to start a business and make profits with limited investment and setup required.”

For B2B businesses, he says garment printing is being used to increase general brand visibility and grab the attention of prospective customers.

“Therefore, the growing use of customised clothing as a branding tool is expected to be a major contributor to market growth over the coming years. The fashion industry at large is also witnessing a shift toward wearing customised clothing as well.”

He adds DTG is also a good way for printers to encourage their customers to spend more money with them, while also winning new business. 

“It is a rapidly growing market with a predicted growth of 31% on DTG printing by 2023 [according to research from The Ink Tank by Kao Collins].”

Yet there is still much further potential according to Oakley from Kornit Digital, which offers industrial-level DTG machines including the Kornit Atlas.

“Like many other industries that are transforming from analogue worlds, textiles is one that still has a long way to go,” he says.

“Therefore the opportunity for growth is tremendous with still less than 10% of garment decoration and textile manufacturing done using digital. As more and more of our lives are driven by an on-demand need for so many product categories, fashion is now moving in the same direction.”

Last year Kornit Digital set up a UK office to support what it predicts will be significant DTG growth in the UK market as a result of the rise of online retail and reshoring.

“The pandemic has in many ways acted like a magnifying glass to expose the many issues with offshore production today. In the fashion industry, the upstream manufacturing and then logistics often comprises the majority of costs,” says Oakley.

“Then consider up to 40% wastage from unprofitable lines either sold at cost, sold at a negative margin, or sent to landfill, and reshoring was a major challenge for which there was no easy answer.

“Kornit Digital offers the opportunity to not merely reshore manufacturing but to transform how we operate the textile printing and fashion industries. Effectively, brands can design, sell, and make and ship one garment cost-effectively, and with zero water wastage.”

Roland DG also offers a wide range of DTG printers, including the multi-station Texart XT-640S-DTG. Senior product manager for inks, textile and decoration Encarna Luque says one of DTG’s attractions is the ability for users to print several types of garments, mainly based on cotton but also cotton-blend and light polyester, using the appropriate pre-treatment.

But she adds users need to understand the processes involved in DTG printing, including pre-treatment, fixing the ink, and the printing devices themselves, to ensure efficient and high-quality results.

“It is necessary to spend a few days fine-tuning and testing the different types of materials you are working with, along with the pre-treatments, to ensure a perfect print,” she says.

Phil McMullin, sales manager, ProGraphics at Epson (UK), says DTG could be most easily adopted by start-ups and those already in gifting and promotional markets, as well as large-format printers.

Moving to DTG “is not a huge technology change for most print service providers”, he adds.

“They could bring outsourced business in-house and give greater control over quality, turnaround times, cost and profitability.”

He says start-up costs are low, that the process requires minimal resource, and that the product is high margin.

As well as the printer itself and pre-treatment, which McMullin says is essential for dark garments and can be applied by hand or using a pre-treatment machine, users also require a heat press to cure the ink after printing.

Epson offers multiple DTG machines, including the SureColor SC-F2100 and the higher volume SC-F3000, which was launched last year.

McMullin says DTG’s environmental credentials are also important, as consumers – particularly in the fashion industry – are increasingly demanding sustainable manufacturing practices.

“DTG provides significant reductions in water and electricity consumption in comparison to traditional screen printing. It also offers designers the flexibility to customise designs and produce exact quantities on site and on demand, with very little waste.”

Yet, for all of DTG’s growing success, there is a new emerging technology that early adopters feel could hugely disrupt the market; direct-to-film [DTF].

The Magic Touch has recently teamed up with Resolute DTG on the new R-Jet Pro DTF transfer printing system for garments, a roll-fed device that combines a 600mm-wide PET film with pigment-based textile inks.

After printing in an R-Jet Pro DTF, the film goes through a unit that lightly coats it with a hot-melt adhesive powder. The resulting transfer is then cured using an inline ‘Shake & Bake’ unit or a traditional dryer.

The finished transfer can then be applied immediately to garments or textiles using a heat press but no pre-treatment is required – one of DTF’s major draws according to Resolute DTG managing director Colin Marsh, who calls the process “the bugbear of DTG”.

“You’re still using a water-based ink but it’s a more flexible ink – more like a latex than a DTG ink. It’s also suitable for polyester, softshell and nylon, which DTG can’t really do successfully,” says Marsh.

“Off the machine you can store the piece of film for up to a year and it’s a 15-second heat press, so it’s relatively low impact on the garment and it just leaves the ink behind.”

Zahid Ali, print room manager at Identity Printing, which installed the UK’s first R-Jet Pro DTF in May, believes that DTF “is going to shake things up” due to the quality, flexibility, and speed of the technology.

“Every one of our customers that we’ve spoken to about it feels the quality straight away and says it’s a definite improvement.”

RA Smart is planning to introduce DTF technology sometime later this year, according to owner and partner Magnus Mighall.

“The versatility and the technical ability of what DTF can bring to the garment decoration market looks very, very interesting indeed,” he says.

“In terms of the functionality of the product from a washability point of view, from a stretchability point of view with the inks – we just don’t see any cracking compared with some of the DTG technology – and the removal of pre-treatment in terms of printing onto dark garments.”

Businesses, brands, and consumers alike are becoming increasingly excited by the opportunities presented by DTG and now DTF technology, which are expected to provide major talking points at trade shows like Fespa as expos start to resume. Whatever the chosen technology, this burgeoning market undeniably has a bright future. 


DTG offers a waste-saving sell first, print later model

Graeme Richardson-Locke, technical lead and head of associations, Fespa

Direct-to-garment (DTG) technology is seeing rapid growth, with adoption by print shops, small to medium-sized brands and industrial printers. Of all the markets utilising digital technologies, the DTG sector is a shining example of success during a difficult year.

As demands shift, we’ve seen that the traditional print-then-sell model is no longer feasible for many. I believe that’s why the spotlight has fallen on DTG, because it enables brands to sell then print the required volumes, reduce wasted stock, capitalise on new opportunities and maximise their margins.

Whether you’re a micro-brand using the drop-ship method – whereby customers place an order which is then produced by a supplier and sent directly to them – or a consumer looking to purchase a personalised garment, DTG offers the flexibility to custom produce just one or multiple items of unique clothing.

Another key consideration driving brand decisions is sustainability. As demand for more environmentally responsible textiles increases, there’s pressure on garment producers to deliver. So, textile businesses are looking to make production more sustainable by investing in equipment such as DTG, which delivers eco benefits including water-based inks, reduced waste and low water usage.

The good news is that the DTG sector has also been augmented by significant developments, so there are technology options for all capacity needs, whether for small desktop print runs, mid-range volumes or industrial-scale production.

This year DTG continues to be a focus in the textile printing arena at Fespa Global Print Expo 2021 and, for the first time in 18 months, visitors will see the latest advancements in one place, from manufacturers including Brother, Aeoon Technologies and PolyPrint. 

And, for those looking to explore DTG further, the recent virtual Fespa Innovations and Trends event on Printed Clothing, where we discussed trends and heard from leading suppliers, is available to watch on-demand.


What are the major benefits of DTG and DTF printing?

Rich Wickson, managing director, Print Ready

“DTG has been strong during the pandemic and not affected as much as other areas. The difference between DTG and screen printing is like the difference between digital and litho printing, it’s good for shorter runs and quick turnarounds – we can print 20 t-shirts in an hour and every one of those can be different. It’s also not as much a commodity as normal printing is, although you’ve got to be quick and efficient at running it to make your margins because you could quite easily spend half an hour on a t-shirt if you’re not clued up.”

Colin Marsh, managing director, Resolute DTG

“Personalisation has been key to DTG’s success because obviously DTG is variable data with no setup cost. Gone are the days when 5,000 or 10,000 t-shirts would be printed in the Far East and imported for price reasons; it can be done on the fly and that commands a much higher margin, so obviously companies are eager to provide that service so they can cash in on those margins. But direct-to-film is more durable and economical to operate than DTG, so we’ve seen an uptake of this in the ratio of enquiries of about 20 to 1.”

Zahid Ali, print room manager, Identity Printing 

“The days of getting big orders have gone now, even the big boys don’t give you big orders any more, so with DTG you can print just single items if you want. And the DTG machines have just got better and better – you cannot fault the Ricoh machines that we’ve got, we’ve not had a single issue with them since we got them in. But I think DTF will have a big impact on DTG machines as soon as people realise the flexibility you have with it, because you can do polyesters, and there’s no need for pre-treatment.”

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