By Simon Eccles, Monday 03 July 2017
DTG UK is one of those legendary successful print businesses that started in a back room.
Today as the name suggests the company specialises in direct-to-garment printing, with a mix of printing and fulfilment services for other companies or individuals and has a sister company called Air Raid Clothing that sells its own range of printed garments directly to customers. The company employs 15 people and has its own artwork studio for creating new designs and preparing submitted artwork for print.
It was 2009 when director Phil Walker says he and his fellow director Nick Davis set up “in effect in a bedroom”. After several moves into ever larger premises, the company moved into its present 510m2 site last June. This is in Kiln Farm on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. The latest move doubled the space to make room for the installation of a Kornit Storm Hexa digital printer at the same time.
This is a sophisticated direct-to-garment inkjet printer that prints in high resolution, with good throughput and specialised water-based inks. The Storm Hexa is more automated and significantly more productive than the pair of smaller entry-level Kornit Breeze printers that DTG UK first installed in 2014.
“The Breezes first gave us the ability to print directly in colour,” says Walker. “Prior to that all of the garments were printed by self-coloured vinyl transfers, which were cut out on a Graphtec contour cutter and applied by a heat press.
“We do a lot of fulfilment for other customers,” says Walker. “If you have a website to sell your t-shirts but haven’t got the equipment to print them, you can come to us and say ‘here’s the website and these are the different types of garments I want to print and ship’.
“We’ve got some customers that ship blank stock to us. We hold them in our warehouse so that when an order comes in we will print and dispatch to their customer. Some people ask what t-shirts we stock already and they’ll tailor their website to what we have. Or it could be a B2B that asks for 500 t-shirts for a conference or big event and we’ll send them directly.”
Being familiar with Kornit machines, the Storm Hexa was an obvious option for a company looking to step up throughput.
Built by Kornit in Israel, the Storm platform is available in three models, all with dual-loading pallets and automatic pre-treatment spraying to prime the textile to take the ink. This is a wet-on-wet printing process, and Kornit has patented its method of combining pre-treatment and printing in the same machine.
The NeoPigment inks are special water-based pigment types that work on a wide range of fabrics. They are non-hazardous, non-toxic and 100% biodegradable. Unlike conventional textile dye inks, there is no water needed in preparation and fixing and therefore no waste water. After printing the ink is dried and fixed to the fabric in a conveyor drier. Prints are permanent, washable and should last the lifetime of a t-shirt.
The Hexa part of the name signifies that this Storm has six colours – CMYK plus red and green, as well as white which can be used as an undercoat. The other two Storm models (Storm II and Storm 1000) as well as the Breeze run CMYK plus white.
DTG UK bought the first Storm Hexa in the UK from Adelco, the longest-established of two UK agents for Kornit. Since then about five more Hexas have been sold by Adelco. The extra colours were an important part of the Hexa’s appeal to DTG UK, says Walker: “You can never hit a real red on the Breeze because it is made from CMYK. This is a dedicated real red ink.”
Even more important is the productivity, he says. “When we get really busy times of year, the Breezes are fine for what they do but throughput is only about 20 garments per printer per hour. Whereas with the Hexa, we typically get 50 or 60 per hour, or a lot more than that if it’s a white garment.
“And one operator can run it. With any other printer it would be a lot more labour-intensive to get garments made,” he adds.
The Storm Hexa is hand fed, with a dual pallet, Walker explains: “You load up the right hand side, press the green print button and it goes into print. You can then load up the second garment on the left side and then press print. It will sit there until the optimum moment, with about 15 seconds left for the first one to print. It will then go in for the pre-treat spray. Then the first garment will come out and the second goes in to print. It’s a continual flow, with no stopping of the printer.”
By comparison the Breeze printers have a single pallet that can’t be pre-loaded. “There will always be 20 or 30 seconds downtime between garments,” says Walker.
The QuickP Production digital front-end queues up the digital jobs and artwork. “We have developed a barcoding system in-house,” says Walker. “The order comes in, with the artwork. This is preloaded onto the printer and the operators get a job label with a barcode. This tells them which garment to pick, then they scan the barcode to select the job in the printer. The artwork is loaded onto the screen for them, then the operator loads the garment, presses print, then checks it’s all working okay and unloads at the end. It saves the guys having to look for the artwork for the next job, or the printer might be finished before they could find it!”
The barcode tells the printer if it is a dark garment, so it will automatically put down a white layer first. If it is a white garment this is not needed and it will put down a smaller amount of pre-treatment spray.
The company did shop around but familiarity with Kornits meant the Storm made sense. “We did look around at the market just to see what there was. One of note was from Aeoon, an Austrian company,” says Walker. “They offered a printer which almost fitted the bill. But one of the main points was that Kornit has a patent on the inbuilt pre-treatment. We had the Breezes before and were happy with the process of how it all works.
“We ended up spending more money on the Hexa, but for us it was about the time taken, and the labour cost over the years. We didn’t want the Breezes doing one process and then something like the Aeoon doing different things.”
Installation was smooth, according to Walker: “Kornit sent somebody over. In terms of setup it took maybe three or four days. We have quite a big warehouse and humidity is quite a big thing with the printer. It has an in-built humidifier, so it maintains the heads at a constant humidity. On the whole there have not been too many issues, and nothing that Kornit doesn’t cover under the warranty.”
That said Walker does have some niggles: “We are definitely getting out of it what we expected,” he says, but adds: “This kind of machine doesn’t come without issues, just because it is direct-to-garment printing – there are so many different variables that can affect the output. The humidity or any kind of glitches on the machine can spoil a garment, which is one of my pet hates.
“For example in the past it has sometimes dropped a small amount of red ink randomly on the garment after it’s printed. That’s been few and far between though. I think the key thing with the printer is that it likes to run. As long as the operator is scanning the code and loading in the required time, it’s fine. When it stops, that’s when it has niggles. Kornit has recently released a software update that’s supposed to deal with random freezes.
“Often it just needs a phone call. Kornit has a centre in Germany. Most times they can diagnose over the phone or they can take over the PC remotely to find out what’s going on. In the worst case an engineer will have to come out, but that’s only happened once. Nine times out of 10 if you turn it off and back on it will come back to life.”
Would he order it again? “Yes I think so,” Walker says. “One of the key features is the wet-on-wet with built-in pre-treatment. Nobody else offers that. We have the two Breezes that are not old, but they are three years old now. When you put the two next to each other there’s only one winner in terms of speed and that’s the Hexa. I’d be happy to be able to grow the business further and get a second one. For anyone in our position, I would happily say to pick the Storm Hexa based on the 12 months that we’ve owned it. It’s been very good.”
Head height adjustment Automatic based on garment spec
Max print resolution 1,200dpi
Ink channels six (CMYKRG) plus white
Ink recirculation Integrated
NeoPigment ink containers Bulk ink system supporting 4-litre and 1.5-litre containers
Max throughput 170 light garments or 85 dark garments per hour
Max printing area 50x70cm
Price Around $250,000 (£193,000)
DTG UK is a specialised garment printing company based near Milton Keynes. Founded in 2009, it has grown to occupy a 510m2 factory unit where it employs 15 people. Turnover in the year to April was about £1.5m. It primarily offers B2B printing and fulfilment services to other companies, including direct links to their web-to-print ordering sites. It also has a sister operation, Air Raid Clothing, that sells printed garments directly. The primary printing equipment is the Kornit Storm Hexa inkjet printer, which offers six colours plus white, and an integrated liquid pre-treatment stage. DTG UK also has two smaller Kornit Breeze printers, and still maintains vinyl cutting and transfer production kit.
Why it was bought...
DTG UK wanted to step up to the next level of productivity and knew that would mean a big, fast printer. The company had plenty of experience with Kornit machines and liked Kornit’s wet-on-wet print process. Having assessed the range of options, the Kornit came out on top.
How it has performed...
“The best thing about it is that it’s enabled us to grow our fulfilment side of the business,” says diector Phil Walker. “It offers far superior speed than anything we’ve had before. Reliability has been good, as at Christmas and peak times of the year when we really need it to work. We’ve only had it for one Christmas but it enabled us to maintain those contracts for customers where we said we’d print for them and get them delivered. That’s the best thing about it. The worst thing about it probably is the random niggles where it may just stop, or spoil a garment.