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Comparing the Best Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printers

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

There are numerous DTG printer manufacturers on the market. Each one claims their printer has advantages and features that set it apart from the competition. 

With a saturated market, it is hard to tell which printers truly offer the right needs for your printing business. It’s easy to get hung up on special features and technical modifications, but it is important to understand how the printer is made and if it can reliably do the job it is intended to do. 

My name is John LeDrew and I have been operating professionally in the garment decoration business for 10+ years working with some of the country’s most notable brands and production shops. The potential for DTG has been promising enough that I have worked withnearly every large printer manufacturer since 2007. This article is intended to distinguish between the types of DTG printers on the market and inform you of the top 3 desktop mounted DTG printers best suited for success in your business.  

The three main types of printers on the market today

Not all printers are created equal. 

1. Repurposed Paper Printers

Until recently, repurposed paper printers have been the industry standard since the inception of DTG in 2005. These printers take existing solvent ink paper print engine and driver technology, and retrofit them for use with textile ink. 

Repurposed paper printers are easily modified to offer a number of what are perceived as advantageous features. However, the value of these features are misguided because the transition from solvent ink to textile ink makes these printers notoriously unreliable. Solvent ink print engines are not designed for sticky, heavy textile ink. The systems often need complete printhead and ink delivery system overhauls which leads to regular troubleshooting and extended periods of downtime. The technology is outdated and reliability issues keep them from being a viable option for any modern DTG business. With the new advancements in DTG printing, repurposed paper printers should be not be given any consideration, and not one printer even comes close to making this list.

2. DTG Purpose Built Printers

DTG purpose built printers use existing paper printer components (print heads, lines, dampers, tracks, mother boards, etc.) but are built into a new body and frame, and updated with new firmware and software for the purpose of printing on t-shirts.

These printers can be more reliable than repurposed paper printers, but often experience similar reliability and maintenance issues. For similar reasons as repurposed paper printers, textile ink does not work well in solvent ink components, regardless how you reorganize the delivery. Many DTG purpose built printers will address ink settling by adding agitators or ink circulation components, which helps but doesn’t truly solve the problem of running textile ink through a solvent ink system. Be wary of printers that use Ricoh or Spectra heads. These heads are absolutely amazing printheads that allow for extremely high resolution prints, but when exposed to textile ink they clog easily and are expensive to replace. 

3. Textile Direct to Garment Printers

True textile printers are not made of paper printer components; they are designed and built specifically for textile printing. There are only two brands who build a true textile printer: Brother and Epson. 

Brother has been making some of the top DTG printers in the industry since July 2005. Their early adoption of the all color ink printer GT-541 has proven to be incredibly reliable and has received industry-wide praise. Brothers' development of a 6 to 8 head white ink textile printhead was introduced in 2008 with the GT-782. The recently released GT-3 uses essentially the same printhead technology as the 782 from 2008. 

Epson joined the textile print industry in January 2014 with the introduction of the SureColor F2000. The SC-F2000 uses the all new textile specific Epson PrecisionCore TFP Printhead. All components of the SC-F2000 were designed to work seamlessly together from the printer mechanism and printhead, to the ink chemistry and ink delivery systems. No other printer on the market uses this printhead technology. The technology used in the SureColor F2000 is the newest in the industry and is the most reliable and groundbreaking DTG printer to date. 

A note on Industrial Garment Printers

There are a few brands of printers labeled as industrial garment printers. These are typically large, high output, floor-mounted machines averaging in the $250,000 range. They require their own maintenance department and are often bought in pairs or more because at any given time one machine is down for maintenance while the others are running production. The three big industrial printer brands are Focus, Kornit and Aeoon. These printers are not viable for average size shops looking to add the versatility of DTG to their existing workflow.

Comparing the top 3 table top DTG printers. 

Modern table top printers can be easily integrated into production and offer lucrative versatility for low to mid-volume orders. The average customer is being trained to believe 1-off custom apparel is as easy to produce as it is to order online, and these customers are the bulk of new business. New customers are more expensive and harder to capture than ever. Don’t let your hard earned marketing dollars go to waste by not being able to service the new majority of custom apparel business. 

The population is demanding low volume customization - the question is can your shop provide? With new advancements in technology and equipment reliability, your answer should be a resounding YES! I have compared and rated the top 3 table top printers currently available on the market to help inform you which printer is best suited for the growth of your business.

 

Kornit Breeze DTG Printer:

The Kornit Breeze is a DTG purpose built printer utilizing 6 Spectra solvent ink print heads. Kornit is known for an integrated pretreat application built directly into the operation of the printer eliminating the need for a separate pretreat process.

Although the internal pretreat process is streamlined and fast, it does present a few challenges. Pretreat, by nature, is a sticky adhesive. Overspray can lead to head clogs on sensitive print heads. Kornit pretreat is applied wet directly to the garment internally, therefore there is no opportunity to dry the pretreat before printing. Kornits print wet textile ink directly on top of wet pretreat. To properly cure the wet-on-wet print, the garment must run through a forced air conveyor dryer for approximately 10 minutes. Large tunnel forced air dryers can be extremely expensive and take up a considerable amount of shop space. Additionally, once cured, wet-on-wet application will show a significant reduction in color vibrancy and, more importantly, yields some of the lowest washability ratings in the industry. Wet-on-wet prints can be cured in a heat press, although the same reliability issues are experienced. 

The Kornit Breeze is no exception to these setbacks. The promise of streamlining the pretreat process makes the Breeze an enticing table top printer despite the $65,000 price tag. Not only is the printer expensive, but extended warranty services and support will cost $10,500 - and does not include travel for an onsite technician. The Kornit Breeze is relatively fast and does have internal pretreat, but be prepared to invest heavily in maintenance and repairs. The Kornit Breeze is the least viable option out of the 3 printers on this list. 

Brother GT-381 Direct to Garment Printer:

I chose the Brother GT-381 because it is faster and more closely comparable to the Breeze and the Epson SC-F2000 over its 6 head counterpart the Brother GT-361. 

The GT-3 is a true textile printer in the sense that the printhead was designed specifically for textile printing and was not a solvent ink delivery system. The Brother DTG printhead was designed in 2008 and, although it is older technology, allows for significantly increased reliability over repurposed paper printers. Reliability is still a concern with the Brother GT-3 printhead requiring the need for daily head cleanings. Brother ink is some of the most expensive ink on the market and is controlled by only a few distributers who do not discount or offer free shipping. Expensive ink and pretreat costs are an inhibiting factor for the Brother system.

The Bother GT-3 makes this list because it is a dramatic increase over the repurposed paper printer option and is the only other true textile printer on the market. The cost of equipment and supplies, reliability concerns, pretreat complications, and the limited warranty place theGT-3 series in 2nd place on this list. 

Epson SureColor F2000 Direct to Garment Printer:

The majority of repurposed paper printers use existing solvent-based Epson printheads and ink delivery systems. The conversion from solvent ink to textile ink has made these printers incredibly unreliable and extremely problematic. Epson never intended for these printers to run textile ink and therefore do not service or support any Epson modified solvent printer. 

Make no mistake when comparing Epson solvent based printers and the Epson SureColor F2000 - The TPF PrecisionCore printhead technology in the SC-F2000 is specifically designed for textile ink. The SureColor F2000 was built from the ground up for one purpose: textile printing. 

There are components within the SC-F2000 that are not found in any other DTG printer on the market. To address white ink issues, Epson has added multiple ink filters and has a built in ink circulation system eliminating settling issues. Maintenance is preventative with the SC-F2000 with prompted maintenance commands and easily accessed replacement parts designed specifically to increase reliability and ease of maintenance. Textile specific technology allows for printer health through extended periods of downtime. It is not necessary to do maintenance before shutdown and the printer can be left for up to 10 days with no need for maintenance. 

Epson UltraChrom DG ink works in conjunction with the ink delivery system which allows for outstanding vibrancy. UltraChrome DG ink and pretreat is Oeko-Tech certified and receives the highest rated washability given by the AATCC. The Epson warranty is the best warranty in the industry with 1 year full warranty and up to 2 years additional for $1,950. Epson does not make you ship parts and has guaranteed 2 day on-site service. No warranty comes close. 

With specific features built-in to address reliability, quality, waste reduction, and the industry's best warranty, the Epson clearly stands out as the highest quality and most viable table top printer available. The SureColor F2000 is not only my recommended printer for direct to garment success, it is the new standard in which all DTG printers should be measured.