DTG vs Screen Printing: Finding the Sweet Spot
BY DAVE GARDNER
If there is one lesson the industry is learning with regards to screen printing and digital direct-to-garment printing, it’s that each has its own niche. There are distinct advantages for each process, and this means that while there may be some crossover, in most cases, an argument can be made that decorated apparel shops should really have both to offer the greatest flexibility, fastest turnaround and most cost-efficient options to their customers.
In a nutshell, for these types of orders screen printing may be preferred:
- Every shop will have its own definition of “large,” but in general, most shops will need an order to be in the range of at least 24 to 36 pieces to make it affordable and profitable.
- The more colors in a design, the more screens have to be made, making the initial set-up costs higher. For this reason, designs with less than four colors are ideal for screen printing.
- Jobs with simple artwork also are going to be more suitable for screen printing, which does not hold as fine detail as digital direct-to-garment printing does. Also, if you have large areas of a solid color, digital printing sometimes has issues with banding and opacity. Screen printing will not.
- Another advantage screen printing has over digital is turnaround times on longer runs. An average automatic press can do approximately 600 pieces an hour for a total of 4,800 in a day. Compare that to about 30 pieces an hour on a digital direct-to-garment printer for a total of 240 pieces a day.
- While it is possible to print on noncotton fabrics with DTG, most of the inks, which are water based, are designed to bind with cotton. If the job requires a noncotton fabric, you’ll need to do testing on a digital printer to ensure professional results. Screen printing is more likely to be faster and easier if the job is on performancewear, nylon, and similar materials. This, however, depends on the shop, and its areas of expertise.
- While special effects are in development for digital direct-to-garment printing, proven special-effect inks are yet to appear on the market. So if your client wants glitter, puff, foil or glow in the dark, screen printing is the best choice at this time.
In these cases DTG makes more sense:
- One of the greatest advantages of DTG over screen printing is its ability to do a single print profitably. In fact, there are no cost savings in doing higher quantities. One print costs the same as 100 pieces. So if the order is less than 24 pieces, this will be the better option.
- Unlike screen printing, DTG can print an unlimited number of colors at the same price it prints one. So for jobs with four or more colors, it frequently will be the more cost-efficient process, especially for smaller orders. It’s also a great choice where then are lots of colors. In a shop with a six-color or eight-color automatic, it opens the doors for that shop to accept jobs with more than eight colors.
- When screen printing, ink must be pushed through holes in a mesh. With DTG, ink is sprayed through nozzles. This allows digital prints to hold much finer detail than possible with screen printing. If the artwork is complicated, sophisticated or even fine art quality, DTG is going to more faithfully reproduce the original.
- As noted above, digital inks were originally designed for cotton. While screen printing is also equally suitable for cotton, digital may be a better choice for some of the other reasons listed. For example, you might want to free up your press to do a noncotton job and use the DTG for the cotton.
- In a race against time, if screen printing is pitted against DTG, for a small order, digital printing is going to win. With digital, you are eliminating the need to make screens and set up a press. Once you have the artwork tweaked for maximum results (and tweaking also happens on a screen printing press) it’s a simple matter of loading the shirt and printing it. So if the customer wants it same day, DTG has an advantage.
- While it is possible to digitally print on dark colors, it is a slower process than on white. A white underbase must be laid down, and the colors are sprayed on top. So if the order is for white cotton shirts, this may tip the scale in favor of DTG assuming other factors mentioned above are in alignment.
Every shop is different, and these are general guidelines to be considered when choosing between screen printing and DTG. There are no hard and fast rules. The equipment, staff, existing workload, and other individual shop situations all play a role.
For example, a manual shop is going to have a lower minimum than an automatic shop. A larger shop with an in-house artist who can do separations is going to have more experience doing multicolor jobs using simulated and true process vs. a smaller shop.
So if a smaller shop gets an order for a design with 14 colors, using DTG eliminates the issue of having to get the artwork separated and experimenting with it on press until the colors look right. That small shop can now compete with the larger, more sophisticated shop to do the same amount of colors.
Until you crunch the numbers for your own shop, it may be hard to know whether screen printing or DTG is more economical. But at whatever your screen printing minimum is, whether it’s 24 pieces or closer to 100, having a DTG printer allows you to take below-minimum orders, no matter what the size.
Shop overhead is another consideration. Smaller shops have more flexibility to accept lower-quantity orders because they do not have $300,000 tied up in capital for a multicolor automatic press and prepress equipment.
If you were to compare, a shop with one automatic press probably needs to bill more than $200 per hour to justify its overhead. A small, manual shop with a DTG will only have to bill one-third of that amount.
The trick is to have good data about your shop’s costs and let that data make the decision for you. It’s critical to understand what it costs per piece to do a screen print vs. a digital print.
If you draw a graph, your initial cost for screen printing is going to be through the roof for one shirt. By the time you add up your art preparation, set-up costs, screen making, inks, and press setup, plus all the consumables, you might need to charge $40 for one shirt or higher. But that arc quickly bends downward as you increase the quantity.
Once you get past your breakeven on the graph, you're printing for pennies per piece. With DTG, the first shirt costs as much 100th shirt per piece, so it’s almost a straight line on the graph. You have to decide at what point these two lines intersect.
If you are using a hybrid solution, where the white underbase is screen printed on the shirt and a DTG machine is printing the colors on top, you will get a different answer. There will be an area in the range of between 24 and 288 shirts where because you are only setting up two screens and printing the CMYK with the digital printer, it becomes more feasible to do a lower quantity than straight screen printing.
At the end of the day, your customer base will determine which direction you should grow your print business.