The Downlow on Digital

If anything has been learned from the past two years, it’s that change is certain, and everyone must be able to adapt to it. But it’s not just adapting to changing global economies and disruptions caused by pandemics that apparel decorators must do; the industry itself has been and will continue to be constantly evolving, and with it, technology will continue to get better.

Decorators running analog equipment most likely have the move into digital technology already on their radar. While some technology is still being developed, there are plenty of current opportunities to make the upgrade.

Before going too deep, it’s helpful to first understand what’s out there for digital apparel decorating equipment. “There are several different digital decorating technologies,” says Taylor Landesman, VP at Lawson Screen & Digital Products based in St. Louis. “The main ones are direct-to-garment (DTG) and dye-sublimation, which primarily focus on different markets, and have different niches within the decorated apparel industry.”

“Direct-to-film as well as direct-to-screen, computer-to-screen, and large-format digital printing are all a huge step in the right direction for on-demand printing,” adds Justin Lawrence, owner of Oklahoma Shirt Company in Oklahoma City. For the purposes of this article, DTG will be the main digital technology discussed.

The Right Equipment at the Right Time

Whether it’s the price tag of digital apparel decorating equipment, the risk of trying to reach new markets, or the pain points that come with learning a new technology, making the leap from analog requires faith. But it’s a leap that must be done when the time is right.

“If I have learned anything from this industry, it’s that it is constantly evolving,” says Lawrence. “This makes for a lot of fun, new, fresh things that are constantly coming out … and it also puts stress and pressure on the decorator to remain on the ‘cutting edge.’” While jumping into digital decorating requires one to not only learn a new technology, but still maintain the other aspects of owning a business (customer service, personnel, etc.), he recommends shops heavily consider it simply because of the growth opportunities. “When is it time to upgrade? When you can’t go on anymore without upgrading/adding [equipment] — wait a touch longer, then press on the gas.”

According to Landesman, growth opportunities are just the beginning of a long list of benefits to adding digital machines. “Shops will be able to reduce necessary capital investments, reduce floorspace needs, reduce labor costs, reduce minimum order requirements, and be able to start printing jobs faster,” he says. He feels that DTG specifically only has a small learning curve, making it ideal for shops who may be hesitant to upgrade from their analog equipment.

Victor Peña, CEO at OmniPrint International, emphasizes the timing aspect. “If your shop is at capacity and your delivery times are more and more delayed, then it’s the right time to upgrade,” he states. He points out how living in a world of e-commerce and instant gratification has major effects for any apparel decorator offering their services online. “Adding digital is imperative to a successful online and e-commerce offering to your customers,” he continues.

Effects on Workflow

Despite its relatively easy learning curve and other benefits, there will be some challenges that go with adding this equipment, which should be part of the purchasing conversation. “One of the most overlooked points in going digital is the commitment,” states Peña. “Most businesses that don’t thrive buy equipment and put it in a random corner of their shop but don’t focus on turning it into a successful part of their business.”

Idle equipment is a particular sticking point for Lawrence, who calls out workflow as a big factor to making the switch. “The questions you would want to ask yourself are, where are you going to put this equipment, and how are your teams going to interact with it?” he says. Just because there’s some corner real estate available in the shop doesn’t mean it should be filled with new equipment.

There are also still nuances to digital technology that, while similar to the analog production process, will affect workflow if not properly implemented. Take DTG and screen printing, for example. “The biggest issue with adopting DTG methods is pretreating. Shops need to understand the process and how to streamline it,” Landesman states. “It is analogous to screen prep/making for screen printing; therefore, setting up a dedicated system and thinking through workflow goes a long way toward efficiency and cost reduction.”

Despite the similar thought process, workflow is different overall, which affects more than just the decorating method itself. “Managing e-commerce print-on-demand has important components to consider when every order can be for a different customer, different blank, different image, and different shipping options,” Peña points out.

If shops are going to make the move from analog to digital equipment, they need to adjust the business management side, too. Peña states that in 2013 when making shop visits, he saw some disturbing things: “Excel sheets everywhere, highlighters, many USB sticks, and staff running around piling orders in different areas to try to keep track.” If a workflow solution can’t be implemented across the board that matches the equipment, shops will waste countless hours in extra phone calls to customers and lost paperwork, and even disrupt the shipping flow.

A key aspect of that workflow is marketing and sales. “Digital requires a business strategy that involves marketing and sales, space, and people for your new venture,” Peña says. “Remember: no digital equipment you purchase will ever dial the phone and get orders for you. It will also not run or maintain itself, [or] create a business strategy for you.”

Besides sales and marketing bodies, Landesman also calls attention to operators. “For screen printing, you need at least two skilled people: one computer/graphic artist, and (at least) one screen print operator,” he says. That changes when switching to digital printing methods like DTG. “Highly specialized screen-printing knowledge is removed with DTG. The operator does not need to be skilled in DTG printing or art creation. They simply need to know how to load a shirt and press start.”

However, that does not mean ignoring their footprint on the business or even just sticking someone in front of the machine without some knowledge of how it works. “You want to have trained staff to operate the digital business and equipment,” emphasizes Peña. “Provide them training and ongoing support. Remember: equipment is just one part of going digital.”

Additional Key Factors

Speaking of getting hung up on just the equipment and workflow side of things, there are a few other areas to examine before going digital. Factors like what materials shops will be printing on, the environment, and even pretreatment and ink need to be considered.

“It is so important to be aware of the space that is needed for the equipment you are getting,” Lawrence once again emphasizes, adding that often more space is needed than originally thought. “If you have room for the machine, but no space to lay out materials before and after printing, it won’t do you any good in the long term.”

This will, of course, vary on the setup ultimately decided on. “There are many sizes of equipment and setups, ranging from a setup you can run in a bedroom at home, to factory setups,” notes Peña. “Make sure you discuss your available space and future growth plans with your [supplier/manufacturer] to plan for the best mix of equipment for your needs.”

Landesman does point out that, especially for DTG, shops won’t require as much space as compared to screen printing. Environment does, however, factor into the equation. “DTG does not need a light-safe environment like screen printing does. However, it is best practice for DTG machines to be kept in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment,” he says.

From there, the setup as a whole isn’t as intimidating as it seems. “The setup and prep work for DTG is dramatically less compared to screen printing,” states Landesman. One can pretreat (even in advance of printing), then once artwork is created, immediately begin printing. “Compare this to screen printing, where you need to do color separations, print films, prep and expose screens, before finally washing and drying them. Then, once you get on press, you need to register the colors and do a test print,” he adds.

Other areas that will see adjustments include inks/raw materials and substrates. “Specifically for apparel, you need to make sure you are aware of the material you are using,” Lawrence notes. “The best garment would be a white [T-shirt] — the colors show up beautifully and you can really feel the printing on it.”

“DTG works best with cotton and natural fibers,” adds Landesman, a point that contrasts to screen printing, which works on all types of garments. “While DTG does work on polyester, the print is not as vibrant when compared to screen printing.”

This, along with other factors, is huge when it comes to pre-purchase planning. A big driver of the decision to go digital is not only whether its capabilities fit with a business’s current needs, but also future ones. “It’s important to look at your historical sales and new sales plan to guide you in the right direction,” says Peña. “Partner with a company that offers consulting services for your situation … [and] that has all the solutions in one place, like workflow software, machines, e-commerce solutions, inks, supplies, and curing technology training all under one roof.”

From there, it’s all about practice. “The best way to integrate DTG into your printing operation is to access your workflow and see what jobs make the most sense to run on your DTG printer,” Landesman states. “Most screen printers who add DTG begin to shift more work from analog printing over to DTG once they get comfortable and more familiar with the process.”

All in all, it’s not about which is better: analog or digital. It’s about what’s best for one’s apparel decorating business. “I personally still think that screen printing is the golden standard for a long-lasting, color-rich, opaque solution. Digital is getting really close, though,” says Lawrence.

And, like anything new, switching from analog to digital apparel equipment is a big move that has many benefits and some challenges, all of which should be carefully considered. “Many things will adjust … plan for these elements ahead of time. Space needs will adjust. Raw materials will adjust. Energy use could adjust,” says Lawrence. “As we get closer to perfecting digital printing and eliminating the need for the dark room in the printing world, it will definitely speed things up.” 

cassie_green_2021Cassie Green is a senior content editor at NAPCO Media, focusing on the apparel  community as well as curating content across other brands. She can be reached at