This is the second installment of Meet the Expert, a four-part blog series in which we discuss embroidery, DTG, screen printing, and sublimation with the pros who do it every day at Scalable Press.

DTG printing looks like something that could easily replicated with the inkjet printer in your home. There are similarities in process; an item is loaded into the printing machine and thanks to the power of software and engineering, the printer knows exactly what to print, from the text to the design, down to the color.

However, there’s a lot more that goes into creating a high quality, vibrant design than meets the eye, most of which happens before the garment is ever loaded onto the printer. To understand the process, we caught up with DTG expert, Kevin Gonda, who gave us a behind-the-scenes look and shared his thoughts on the future of the industry.

Scalable Press

1. Tell us about your role and what led you to Scalable Press? My job is to make sure everything goes right, from the time we receive the artwork until the garment is printed and ready to send to the customer. As for what led me to Scalable Press, I joined the company a little over four years ago. At the time, I had just transitioned from being an intelligence analyst for the Army and was going to school on the GI Bill and running my mom’s restaurant franchise. A regular customer of one of the restaurants who headed maintenance at Scalable Press told me about an opening. I was just finishing school and looking for a new opportunity, so I went for it. Since then, I have served as a supervisor, a facility lead, and now a DTG process manager, learning everything I can to create a standardized, repeatable process to ensure high quality results.

2. What goes into the DTG process to make a garment print-ready? Before any garment heads to the printer, it has to go through pretreatment and curing. Pretreat is a solution that acts like a primer. Essentially, it prevents the DTG ink from soaking into the garment during printing by filling the space in between the weaving of the shirt fibers. It also allows for white ink to adhere to and sit on top of the surface of the shirt. Without pretreating, the garment will not have the vibrancy you want, so it’s essential to the process. 

Just as important is the next step, curing the garment in the heat press. These two steps work together to lock the fibers down and create a nice, flat, smooth surface to print on. We use a very sophisticated automated system that’s calibrated to our exact specifications for pretreating and curing garments. Based on our presets, the system can adjust the spray density, cure time, cure temperature, and so on for the type of fabric, color, and design placement of the garment it’s working on. This helps to ensure the correct pretreat laydowns while it also helps to prevent over-curing or scorching of the fabric.
3. What are some of the key elements customers should know when choosing DTG printing for their order? It always starts with good artwork and choosing the right fabric. DTG machines use water-based ink, so the fabric needs to be able to absorb the ink and the pretreatment solution we apply to the garment before it goes to the printer. That’s why we recommend the garment be made up of at least 50% natural fiber, whether it’s cotton or hemp, both of which work very well with DTG. Basically, the higher the natural fiber content the better for DTG printing. 

4. What’s a good design for DTG? It all depends on the way the artwork is prepared. Designs with transparencies are fun. We don’t always enjoy when the design is a gradient to a transparent because it means we have to reproduce the under layer for the design to have vibrancy of color. 

The worst design is always a square box. Anything that has a solid, square line is very difficult to ensure it’s straight and centered.  And that’s because as much as everyone would like think garments are identical, there are always slight variances. Because of that variation, it’s very difficult to guarantee you can line up a print perfectly for every garment.

That’s why I say the boxes are the hardest. When you get a garment that’s a little off you’re not going to make the customer happy because that garment has a quarter inch of extra fabric on the shoulder seam on one side. So no matter what you do, it’s going to look a off-center, and a square box shows that worse than anything.
5. How long should DTG printed garment hold up? I’d say quite a while. I have some shirts I printed a few years ago that I still wear regularly and still look really good. It really depends on the print itself. If you have everything dialed in, it can last a really long time. If there’s something that’s gone wrong, such as the garment has been over-cured, under-cured, or pre-treated incorrectly, you won’t get the same kind of longevity. 
6. DTG’s popularity has led to more home-based operations looking to get into the print-on-demand industry. What’s your take on that? In terms of the printers, the home machines use the same print heads we use in the industry. However, they’re just not buying a machine purpose-built for DTG, but converting the machine to support it.  What’s more, the home operations don’t have a system like ours that calculates density per square inch for pretreat. Most of them use spray bottles to apply the solution. Visually, you can see it, but you can’t tell how much it received. And that can affect the amount of ink that’s placed on the garment, which means you might not get the opacity you’re expecting. Also, if you apply too  much pretreat, it can actually lead to ink bleeds, so it’s key to have a consistent process.

7. Any updates or adjustments you plan on making to the DTG process at SP in 2020? We have a few things in the works. We’re currently working on implementing printing profiles in real time, which is a project we hope to complete and deploy soon. Once we have that in place, we’ll be testing DTG on tri-blends. I’ve already done some testing with a shirt that was 65% synthetic. I printed on it a few months ago and have been wearing it regularly, putting it through washes, and seeing just how long the print will hold up. So far so good. 

 8. What does the future look like for DTG printing? One big change that I’m already seeing is the move from traditional CMYK, four-color machines to six-color machines to expand the number of colors that can be matched and reproduced. This is a big change for the industry as a whole, and an exciting one. 

Another change coming down the pike are systems that are more specialized for those synthetic blends. Some of these systems are intended for 100% synthetic fiber for DTG printing. This is a trend that’s emerging quickly, particularly as people are leaning towards performance garments that have a higher synthetic fiber content. I expect we’ll continue to see more changes like these as the marketing and printing technology continues to evolve.

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