We've been in the DTG (Direct To Garment) printing game for over 10 years now and thought we'd put out a post documenting our experience of owning and running DTG machines and how the landscape of the industry has changed over the years from our perspective.
Back In The Day
There were initially just two very different equipment offerings commercially available in the DTG market, back in 2004. the first being the Kornit industrial DTG printer from Israel, a state-of-the-art machine for the high volume market.
The second being, the T-jet machine from the US, which was the first affordable machine for the smaller T-shirt printing workshop. This machine truly brought DTG in to the mainstream and made it accessible.
The machines above were not the very first machines available from those manufactures or even the first DTG machines by a long way according to Scott Fresener's blog (The man behind the T-jet). He found a company in France using working DTG prototypes in production as early as 1993!
But the reason the two machines above were so significant, was that they were the first to have white ink, giving the ability to print on any colour T-shirt. This was the start of the mass customisation revolution.
An early Kornit Storm 931 Machine.
How White Ink Changed Everything
What got me excited about DTG when I started researching it back in about 2006, was the ability to print any colour design on any colour shirt. I had experience of vinyl and transfer printing and a working knowledge of screen printing. But that didn't interest me - it was old hat - I wanted a futuristic machine, you could slide a T-shirt in to a press go! (or nearly). What made that possible was white ink, as you needed to put a white base down first to cover any fabric colour other than white...
In the early 00's Kornit developed their own white ink and Scott Fresener was in talks with the chemical giant Dupont to create one for his T-jet range. I don't think "DTG" was anywhere on Dupont's radar at that time, as a burgeoning technology, it was still a group of what were essentially hobbyists over in the States.
But somehow, Fresener managed to persuade Dupont to develop an ink especially for it and the rest is history. Now 10 years on there are a good 20 manufactures in the mainstream DTG market and more than half of them still use Dupont ink, including Aeoon, the only real competitor to Kornit with their huge industrial machine. All of which came in to being, following Freseners meeting with Dupont.
Mixed designs printed using DTG inks
Getting Our First Machine
Back in 2008, myself and my family decided to go all in and enter a brave new world. The world of DTG and On Demand print.
After doing extensive research for a couple of years previously and watching this industry grow from its infancy in to something we could actually use, we decided to go around and see each machine available and test it out before making the big purchase.
After much deliberation, we narrowed it down to the two real options we had at the time, which were; the DTG Kiosk from DTG Digital (they confusingly have a company name that is basically the generic name for the type of printer they sell). and the Blazer Express from T-jet.
In the end we chose the T-jet Blazer Express with the caveat that the vendor sold it to us for the same price as the DTG Kiosk, which is actually based on a smaller inferior Epson print engine to the Blazer, so we got a good deal there!
Interestingly, the UK distributor of the DTG Kiosk at the time, used to sell earlier T-jet models a year or so previously, but pulled out due bad support from the US. So the two guys we bought the Blazer from were the first to setup a company in the UK importing T-jet's new offerings. As such, I think we were the first company to buy a T-jet Blazer in the UK and if not, then certainly their first customer.
But this led to problems, big problems...
Press shot for the T-jet Blazer Express circa 2007/2008
After ordering the machine from the two entrepreneurial souls importing the T-jet to the UK, we were told we would need to wait a month to take delivery. This is because the machines are made to order in the USA, which they are, complete with flashy aluminium panelling riveted together in an "all American" style. This is totally unnecessary and all the other machines on the market at the time had a simple plastic shell, just like any standard paper printer. As we know, the Americans love to 're invent the wheel' and make it look fancy, but to be fair it did look the part when it finally arrived!
So the issues started the day it arrived... in its massive euro pallet from the airport. It came in a tiny car-derived van not much bigger than the box itself. Being housed in our new unit on the first floor and without fork lift to hand, we levelled the back of the van with the make shift Luton tail lift attached to our raised loading bay and began shimming it across.
To cut a long story short, we bent the couriers van back door slightly with the tail lift, leading to his firm screaming obscenities at our new insurer for the next few days, but we managed to un-crate the machine, get it in the lift and finally get it upstairs.
Right, we now had the machine in our brand new workshop and testing began in earnest! I had always intended to do very thorough testing before we started unleashing our product on the general public, as I knew you had to be careful with any print process, to not just pay attention to the print finish, but also the wash-ability, so we did a LOT of comprehensive wash wear testing on the same design.
Business was slow throughout the first year, but it soon took a steep up curve as we on boarded many small clothing brands to take advantage of our (then) pretty much unique service of printing and shipping directly to customers.
But as business started to boom, the issues with the machine came in thick and fast...
T-jet's approach to support was very much a DIY affair and, not being seasoned printer experts ourselves, this soon became an issue. Especially considering that they didn't have a qualified print engineer in the UK at that time!
The Blazer was a complicated and over-engineered beast, based on a Epson 4880 printer and to some degree, I think it's fair to say that it was still in a bit of a concept phase when it came to the enthusiastic American style of product development.
As such, in that year, we were on the phone to support on an almost daily basis! All the little circuit boards that drove the shirt loading mechanism and make it work with the standard Epson print side of things, seemingly all failed one by one. Not to mention the new ink clogging in the pricey print heads daily and sometimes resulting in them breaking completely. (for thicker inks the industry later introduced, 'ink disturbance' devices to circulate the ink and alleviate this issue).
So after watching endless support videos on Youtube from the manufacturer about how to fit a part to a very delicate machine we knew nothing about (and at one stage them resorting to flying parts over on a next flight from New York at their expense!) they finally found a UK print engineer, in the form another one of their very first customers to purchase a Blazer in the UK, who just happened to also be based in our city of Sheffield.
That man was Colin Marsh... He didn't know it yet, but he was about to change DTG in a big way...
The Resolute Years
After many arguments between us and the T-jet guys, they made the decision to employ Colin as part time tech support whilst he ran his paper printing business and a side line in T-shirts with his new T-jet Blazer. But this only lasted a year or so as Colin became tired of the lack of manufacturer support and parts stocks in the UK.
So he got to thinking, why not become a distributor himself? Not long after that, to alleviate the ink clogging issue, he found a chemist who specialised in DTG ink for another manufacturer who was looking to go out on his own and they made their first independent ink... Resolute Ink.
Before print manufacturers launched complex ink disturbance systems, Resolute's selling point was that you could leave this ink in the heads for two weeks, without even printing anything and it would still work, which at the time was a revelation! It did work and for then solved the problem everyone was having.
Anyway, off the success of the new ink, it wasn't long before Resolute were making their own brand of machines with a simpler and infinitely more reliable loading mechanism than the T-jet, but still based on the Epson 4880.
So we were the first company to purchase this then nameless concept machine that a few months later became the R-jet 4. A year passed and we soon needed another as our business grew rapidly... and with a proposed life span of approximately 3-4 years in constant use (we were running 12 hours a day at our peak).
So, after 10000's of T-shirts and 10 printheads and testament to Resolute's support and our DIY print engineer skills gleaned over the years (we could practically strip and Epson printhead blindfolded at this point)... The second machine was still running perfectly when we finally sold it 8 years later!
Since then Resolute have brought out many new models of their own machine and new versions of their own ink. But they still distribute Dupont ink and now a range of other manufacturers machines, to keep expanding, stay impartial and give the industry what it wants.
Resolute's new 'brite' DTG ink
Where we are now and why
At the beginning of 2018 with our numerous machines finally approaching the end of their long, laboured existence and many a happy customer and long-standing client under our belt. It was time to scale up in a big way.
By this point we had made many friends in the industry and gained a pool trusted partners, in screen print, embroidery and especially DTG.
We'd also been working closely with the UK distributors of the Aeoon machine to get their test unit right following their launch to the UK market over the last few years.
So now we are slowly growing our network of partners, to give the best choice to our clients and ensure that enough capacity is always available.
In the next couple of years, we plan to partner with many more on demand merchants, to expand our range, far beyond just DTG print, in to other customisable products and who knows what will be customisable in the next decade?!
The Aeoon KYO 3 platen DTG machine