You would think that most of the printed T-Shirts we see are produced in China, like so many other products in our shops today.  It is not necessarily true. It is true that a large amount of the T-Shirt blanks come from Asian countries including China but much of the actual printing is done right here with the possible exception of those in the big chain stores such as K-Mart and Target, etc. who, more than likely, bring them in from Asia.

So there is ample scope for innovative entrepreneurs to capture a slice of the custom market locally and even some export markets.

With many of our wide format printers building up a textile printing knowledge base as it slowly takes market share from vinyl  - that same knowledge could be put to good use with garment printing. T-Shirt printing represents an easy starting point.

Stats in the US indicate that the garment printing market in the US alone is a US$44 billion industry, imagine what the global market is worth and then consider the value of the local market – it could be a few billion dollars. That’s the whole garment printing industry, not the T-Shirt printing industry of course, that would obviously be a lot smaller but big enough for right minded individuals to make a good business out of it.

There are many success stories in the local T-Shirt printing industry with some even exploiting the export potential to the Pacific islands and beyond. Typical markets would be  ie, corporate requirements, sports events, clubs, school groups, designers and a myriad of personal requirements.

The DTG-M2 from Impression Technology
Bear in mind as well that the modern DTG machines can print onto almost anything textile, so the range of products extend far beyond just T-Shirts.

Like all new business ventures, creating a product is perhaps the easy part; the difficult part is selling the product and capturing a big enough slice of the market that ensures a sustainable profit in a reasonable timeframe.

For the purposes of simplicity this editorial feature is aimed at readers that know little or nothing about T-Shirt printing but have a keen eye for expansionary opportunities.

Most will know that there are three main printing methods, dye sublimation, screenprinting and direct to garment.

Starting at the bottom end of the market, we have seen for decades in many of the nation’s markets and flea markets small time entrepreneurs who can print shirts on the spot for consumers. A digital photo is taken of a face (for instance) from which a dye sub print is made on a small printer using dye sub inks and media. This dye sub print is pressed against the shirt in a heat press for a few minutes. Customers can then go away with their customised T-Shirt using this elementary technology.

Many other products can be printed using dye sub technology, both flexible and rigid products.

As we go to press with this story, Impression Technology, a local Sydney based company with a worldwide network of dealers has announced the availability of the first toner dye sub based system called the TST3 Trans Slam. See story on this new product elsewhere in this feature.

The screenprinting method includes everything from the conventional screen table as well as the screen printing carousel. Both these systems can be obtained in basic manual machines as well as highly automated systems and everything in the middle. There is a huge range of options for anyone considering entering the industry at this level.

Lastly and the most recent and perhaps the most exciting product range to the market is the DTG (direct to garment) method. This is the one we will be focusing on in this feature. These machines range from smallish desktop models to the bigger machines for the factory environment. It is in this product range that the best growth in the market is taking place due to the ease of operation, relatively low entry price point and quality of finished garment.

Typical cost of entry with this type of machinery is approximately $20-$30000 for the basic machine but you would also need a heat press for the finishing process.

Numerous machines are available from numerous suppliers but as usual the local market generally shows a preference for those products that are made available by local suppliers and of course supported locally.

The DTG range from Impression Technology as well as the Brother range from GJS Machinery, the Neoflex range from PrintOne and last but not least is the Anajet range from Adco International would seem to be the major players with all four suppliers experiencing good sales in our market. There are of course other suppliers selling imported printers and our apologies go to them if we imply that they are not significant players.

The Brother GT-3 machine from GJS Machinery
The DTG range from Impression Technology are locally designed and engineered in Sydney and manufactured in Asia whilst the Brother products come from Japan and the Anajet and Neoflex range are made in the US.

Like most inkjet printers today, the suppliers make money on the machine sales but perhaps the real profit for them are in the ink sales that follow when the machine starts to produce. Ink can be supplied in the traditional chipped ink cartridges but for the bigger users or those that want to reduce their ink expenditure, bulk ink systems are available for some machines and of course bulk ink is always cheaper than ink supplied in chipped cartridges.

We asked Jerry Erich, Business Development Manager at Impression Technology for his estimate of how the local market is broken up by each of the three technologies. He said, “There has never been a study done as such (that I am aware off) that shows percentage breakdown in terms of what decorating technique is used. I can state that DTG printing in Australia and indeed on a worldwide level is still growing; this is evident with new big name machine manufacturers entering the direct to garment digital market as well as traditional high volume manufacturing countries who are now embracing DTG technologies. In the past 18 months we have sold just over 150 machines in Australia alone and total ink sales have increased significantly.”

Ron King, a director of PrintOne and Wilenco who supply the Neoflex range of DTG machines gave us his thoughts on the opportunities for local entrepreneurs producing T-Shirts: “A lot of garment printing and T-Shirt printing is done in Australia. There is also a small group of Australian garment manufacturers whose product is typically used by high end boutique clothing labels.”

Ron went on to say: “DTG offers two distinct advantages over screen printing that are important with regard to opportunities:

1)    With set up costs per print “run” being effectively zero it is uniquely suitable for low run custom production and allows easy repeatability of jobs. Why is this important? Because it allows your customers to order small runs and/or offer their products as “print on demand”, which reduces or eliminates their inventory holding and forecasting risk. Print on demand is particularly suited to ecommerce models.
2)    Quality DTG can provide a photorealistic print quality that cannot be matched by traditional methods. This ability will create its own niche market as designers become increasingly aware of the potential of the technology. “

Sue Frawley of Quattro with their new Brother GT-782
Sue Garlick from Quatttro working the carousel
Companies like Victoria based Quattro Screening utilise a four colour carousel screenprinting unit as well as DTG technology, the latter being their recent purchase of the Brother GT-782 running with ink cartridges.

Quattro is managed by two ladies, Sue Garlick and Sue Frawley, both from diverse backgrounds in the Defence Force. Neither ladies have any regrets about their choice of business venture, they started with just the screenprinting carousel and today, with the Brother GT-782 acquisition, they have built a business that turns around about 2000 shirts a month with their main market being government.

Both ladies were very upbeat about the future with the only downside being the souring cost of electricity. “This obviously eats into our margins and hence we have to review our pricing periodically to counter the cost of the power that we consume.”, said Sue Frawley.

We asked the two Sue’s what, if any did they think were the weakness in the DTG technology, they said that the GT-782 could only print on natural fibres at the moment (ie cotton) but once it can print on polyester, then DTG will take over from their screen printing methods.

Grant Morley of Adrenaline Printing, by contrast is using DTG machines from Impression Technology. He claims to be the biggest local T-Shirt printer. A chef by trade, he got involved with T-Shirt printing because he was sick of the hours required by being a chef. He started small with just one DTG Kiosk and has built the business up from there.

He was full of praise for Impression Technology and their support, especially in the early days when he was just starting out. Today he still runs the Kiosk but he has added two DTG Vipers and two dye sub machines as well as a DTG M2 which is on order. In addition he has diversified into embroidery and utilises two SWF embroidery machines.

With a turnover of over 3500 shirts a month and with an average cost between 30-50 cents for a plain white shirt and approximately $1-50-$3.50 for a coloured shirt, Grant runs a sizeable business with good margins. He now is exporting to Fiji, New Zealand and Vanuatu.

We also asked Grant for his thoughts on the DTG technology and any possible weaknesses. He explained, “I run a bulk ink system that also filters and circulates the ink. Using a bulk ink system means I am not locked into expensive chipped cartridges and can buy my ink from whoever I choose. In a way my supplier has to earn my ink business. I also strongly believe that the circulation system reduces my maintenance and extends the downtime periods that I experienced when first starting my business. We now have no downtime at all and have had no breakdowns for the past 2 years.”

On the subject of profit margins, he said, “I like to run a tight business and keep tabs on all margins, etc.  As we have grown, our buying power has improved and our costs are lower so this has enabled us to pass these savings onto our customers.  Our business has grown tenfold over the past 4 years and our margins are the same. As we buy a lot of stock from the USA and our dollar is good, this also gives us a better margin.”

Printing white ink is almost an essential with T-Shirt printing as many of the blanks will be a colour other than white. So make sure that your machine of choice can print white ink. Inks are mostly aqueous pigmented inks.

So what technology produces the best colour and the best ink fastness when the shirt is washed umpteen times?

Ron King gave us this: While the “best” colour is subjective it would be fair to say that DTG offers the widest colour gamut, certainly when compared to screen printing.  Dye sublimation can theoretically offer a similar colour gamut to DTG but in practice colours tend to be muted and subtleties of the print can disappear once processed.

Dye sub will give the best washing durability as the dye has become integral to the fibre but as it is restricted to manmade materials such as polyester its application outside the sportswear market is limited. Up until recently screen printing would have been considered superior to DTG with regard to durability but with the best of the current systems and quality inks a correctly prepared and printed DTG shirt would be considered similar with regard to a comparable screen print. Another point to note is that generally on a comparable print DTG will give a softer feel (or “hand”) than a screen print. This can be particularly noticeable to the wearer with full front or rear prints as screen prints and transfers can feel stiffer or thicker and also hotter due to less breathability.

Jerry took a different approach in his answers to the same question: The ink set are all CMYK+W. The best colours are produced according to the profiles generated within the RIP software. A quality RIP is one of the most overlooked parts in the DTG industry. There is no denying that the DX5 heads give a far superior print quality in terms of resolution and ink droplet size.

Ron then explained more on the technology of the typical DTG machine: A lot of the DTG printers are based on an Epson print engine of one type or another. While most are capable of excellent results it is important to note that some are based on professional models (such as the 4880) while some utilise cheaper desktop models (such as the 1800/2200). This is important with regard to duty cycle (the number impressions that the printer is designed for) and also because the professional models tend to have higher level features such as, in the case of the Epson 4880, a teflon coated print head designed to dramatically reduce incidences of nozzle clogging.
Aside from the print engine the two key factors are the mechanical design and the rip.
The user interface is critical. A poorly designed rip will mean an operator battling with their printer. The rip needs to be intuitive and simple while offering extensive control when required. It needs to be customisable and repeatable while offering the operator access to critical adjustments on the fly.
Mechanical precision is at the heart of DTG. To print on black or dark colours a white base layer must be laid down first then the colour layer printed on top. Simple in concept but difficult in execution. If the alignment between the under base and the top coat is off, the print is ruined. There are two schools with regard to mechanical design:
1 - move the object being printed or,
2 - move the printer over the object.
While both have their advocates leading edge design has moved toward having a fixed, rigid base and driving the printer across the object(s) being printed. This also allows a larger base area which can be utilised for either larger prints or a higher number of objects on the platen per “pass”.  That is, more flexibility and higher productivity.
This is really the main difference rather than whether the system is based on a “stand alone” or “desktop” print engine.  A large format printer modified to pass a rigid platen or sticky belt across its platen instead of vinyl will be subject to the same registration issues as an Epson desktop printer modified in the same manner.  This system is very suitable for DTG onto white garments where only one pass is required but when printing black or dark items that require a white base coat this type of system is more susceptible to registration issues when compared to a fixed platen with a driven printer.
A fixed platen system designed with an easily removable printer engine also allows for the system to be expanded to include additional ink types such as UV or solvent by simply swapping the print engine.

Everybody we spoke to agreed that the cost of blank shirt (white) would be anywhere between 20-50c whilst coloured shirts would be from $1-$3.00. Cost of ink per shirt would be on average about 50c and the eventual sale price of the printed shirt could be as high as $20.00. So the margins are pretty good in spite of additional administrative, packaging and freight costs..

There are some obvious things that any new entrant to this industry must know before investing hard earned money. We have listed some of these pointers:

1)  do your research, learn as much about the clothing and specifically the T-Shirt industry, textiles, the technology. Ask others about T-Shirt qualities, who to buy stock from and who not to buy from.
2) Ask suppliers for demonstrations and test their finished product for durability, wash fastness, etc.
2) As difficult as it may be, you should try and establish what kind of shirts you will be printing and to whom you would like to sell them to.  
3) How many players in the market, try and get to know their strengths and weaknesses.
4) Plan the finances with cash flow projections.
5) Set business goals, both short term and long term. Make them achievable but also make them not so easy.
6) Maybe you can find existing T-Shirt printing companies that you can work with and help them with overflow work, and vice versa.

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