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Digital Technologies and the Apparel Decorator, Part III

In our previous article, we looked at laser transfers, dye sublimation, heat-applied vinyl, and print-and-cut media.

By Johnny Shell, Vice President - Technical Services, SGIA

In this final of a three-part series, we'll explain the application of heat-set media and direct-to-garment inkjet, giving you a better understanding of how these can enhance the success of your shop.

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  • Heat-Set Media
    Heat-applied rhinestones, nail heads and sequins have regained their popularity over the last few years. Newly introduced digital routing technology is allowing shops to create their own heat-set rhinestone transfers to easily accommodate low-quantity runs. Using standard plastic-engraving stock, the router engraves a design template to house the selected stone size. The stones are arranged in the template (adhesive side down), picked up and transferred to the garment using a hot-fix tape which keeps the stones arranged as they are in the template.

    Roland's EGX-350 uses standard engravers stock to cut quickly templates used for rhinestones.

    Rhinestone media comes in several material choices, sizes and colors. It can be real crystals, such as Swarovski rhinestones, or man-made simulations that are affixed using a heat-activated adhesive that is applied to the back. The EGX350 desktop engraver from Roland, with a price tag of approximately $5,500, was designed with rhinestones in mind.

    The device easily allows for creating custom rhinestone apparel in addition to decorating gifts, awards and promotional items by personalizing them with names, events or special dates. The engraver will handle a wide variety of materials that include plastic, aluminum, acrylic, brass, wood and stainless steel. Rhinestones cost anywhere from $3 to $10 for one gross (144 pieces). The engraver stock cost is $2 to $5 for a 23 cm by 30.5 cm (9 inch by 12 inch) sheet.

    Although not entirely digital, rhinestone appliqué provides a unique, non-traditional decorating method at a low investment cost. For about $7,000, one can easily purchase the engraver, heat press, rhinestones and ancillary materials necessary for production. The drawbacks are that the process is labor-intensive and relatively slow in average production workflows.

    The Brother GT 541 is among the many direct-to-garment inkjet printers being used to produce full-color photographic images on garments.

    Direct-to-Garment Inkjet
    Fast production times, high-quality, full-color images, unlimited customization and ease-of-use are just some of the benefits associated with direct-to-garment inkjet printing. Today, direct-to-garment inkjet printers are being used by apparel decorators who are eager to gain additional market share and accommodate short-run business that previously was turned away. With average run lengths dropping, having the capability to print small-quantity custom designs at higher margins is an attractive feature to the thousands who have adopted direct-to-garment inkjet technology in their shops.

    Direct-to-garment inkjet devices use drop-on-demand piezoelectric technology which produces ink drops when voltage is applied to a piezoelectric crystal that vibrates. This vibration creates pressure in the ink reservoir and ejects an ink droplet. Ink used in direct to garment inkjet devices is a water-based, textile pigment ink designed to provide full-color, photo-realistic images.

    Once properly cured, the image durability is quite long. The "hand" of the finished print is similar, yet lighter, to that of screen printing. Cotton is considered to be the optimum fabric for decorating with a direct-to-garment inkjet device, but some manufacturers claim decorating other fabric blends is possible. It's always good to test beforehand.

    Many direct-to-garment inkjet devices allow for printing on white or light shirts by using a standard set of inks and print driver. This method allows the user to choose the printer by name in the print dialog box, similar to selecting a particular printer on an office network. When using this method, the user creates an image within a preferred graphic application and selects "print."

    When printing to dark garments, white ink must be introduced and will require workflow adjustments. When printing with white ink, the print driver option usually isn't possible. The user typically works with a manufacturer RIP or secondary software application that generates a white under-base and highlight white for printing onto dark fabrics. The RIP then communicates with the printer so that only the white head or channels in a head fire during the under-base pass.

    Additionally, the RIP dictates the highlight white that will be printed when the CMYK colors are printed. When printing a light or white shirt with a device using white ink, the operator may need to use the manufacturer's RIP or software so that only the proper color channels in the print head fire during printing. If the standard print driver is used, white ink could be printed along with the other colors, as the driver assumes a standard ink set is being used.

    Cure temperatures are specific to the ink being used, so be sure to follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Generally, cure temperatures for many available devices hover at 176.7°C (350°F) with cure times ranging from 30 to 60 seconds or more. Cure times of two minutes or more may be suggested by the manufacturer when printing with white ink.

    Many find the biggest advantage of digital technology is its ease of use in producing vivid, full-color photographic images. A four-color process photographic print that actually looks good and generates a profit when using screen printing can be challenging.

    Direct-to-garment inkjet requires less space and is a low-cost investment when compared with screen printing, which needs a larger amount of valuable floor space and potentially tens of thousands of dollars in equipment costs. Direct-to-garment inkjet also produces little mess, requires no screens, uses little solvent and could save facilities time by avoiding setup delays or downtime caused by inadequate screens. In relation to the other technologies discussed here, direct-to-garment inkjet is at the upper end of the price scale in most cases.

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    But as with any technology, direct-to-garment inkjet has its disadvantages. For large-run lengths, direct-to-garment inkjet can be slow (when compared to some technologies like screen printing) and can cost a company more to produce a job. The break-over point will depend on the individual shop, but reports of companies using direct-to-garment devices to produce thousands of prints are becoming quite common.

    The equipment list for direct-to-garment inkjet includes a graphics computer, the direct-to-garment inkjet device ($10,000-$200,000; many are less than $25,000), and a heat press or conveyor dryer. Direct-to-garment ink costs range from a few pennies to more than $2 per print. Unfortunately, they do not have the necessary abrasion resistance required for athletic printing, nor is the ink capable of printing special effects like glitter or gels. Matching Pantone or custom-spot color can be challenging because direct-to-garment inkjet devices use ink sets based on CMYK. While many Pantone colors are achievable in the CMYK color space, still a considerable percentage is not.

    With most available direct-to-garment inkjet devices, printing on dark shirts with white ink entails the additional tasks of pre-treating the garment, extra print passes and more frequent maintenance procedures. Pre-treating a garment involves using a solution that can be applied using a high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) spray gun or automatic-spray equipment which is included on the printer or as a stand-alone unit.

    Separate pre-treatment machines are coming to market that reduce variability in this process since the application consistency and pretreatment's repeatability - when applying manually with a spray gun - is very important. Applying too much will affect how well the image holds up in a laundry cycle. Applying too little will cause the white ink to fall down into the shirt's dark fibers instead of sitting on top to build the necessary opacity.

    The gun's spray pattern also can affect the resulting print, so keep the nozzle properly adjusted and cleaned to avoid spurts. Using white ink will virtually double the total print time for each shirt. White ink is printed separately in the initial print pass and deposits the under-base.

    This print pass is followed by a second pass that deposits the color and sometimes a highlight white. The big advantage of white ink is the capability to decorate any fabric color. But the disadvantages include longer print time, increased ink cost compared with a digital print on a light fabric, and added workflow and maintenance steps.

    Empower Your Shop
    The worldwide decorated apparel industry is rapidly changing. In order to remain competitive, shops must adapt to keep their existing customer base and find additional markets. Several technologies can empower shops with the ability to decorate apparel (and other items) in different ways.

    There are lots of potential markets with needs that can be met with the latest apparel technologies. Having your business sit stagnant won't work in today's economy. You must decide where to go in the future based on the dynamics of your business strategy in order to maximize your customer base.

    Johnny Shell, SGIA's Vice President of Technical Services, directs and coordinates the activities for the Association's Technical Services department and the Screen Printing Technical Foundation. Shell also teaches SGIA workshops, writes technical articles for the SGIA Journal and conducts seminars at several industry events, including the SGIA Expo. He has worked in the specialty imaging industry for twenty years, with experience ranging from compact-disc manufacturing to textile and graphic printing.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rd Quarter 2008 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2008 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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