Single-Pass DTG: Where’s My Flying Car?
Dreaming the future of direct-to-garment print
The phrase “Where’s my flying car?” is often used to express skepticism about over-promised and under-delivered technologies. Some of the inspirations have been Back to the Future, Star Trek, The Jetsons, and techno-optimism from the ’50s and ’60s. Many flying car prototypes have been built since the early 20th century, using a variety of flight technologies. Most have been designed to take off and land conventionally using a runway, although vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) projects are increasing. While there have been numerous attempts, not one of the prototypes have been produced in large quantities.
|A prototype of the 1947 Convair Model 118|
The first single-pass digital inkjet printer specifically designed to print textile fabrics came to market in 2012 (nearly ten years ago). The MS Lario, launched by MS Printing Solutions SRL (now owned by Dover Corporation), set the stage for a new era of textile printing technology. Running at previously unmatched speeds for high-volume textile printing, the Lario altered the concept of digital textile printing forever. It challenged the dominance of rotary screen printing by reaching productions speeds never achieved by any digital inkjet textile printer. This revolutionary development was followed by single-pass printers from other major digital printer manufacturers like Konica-Minolta (Nassenger SP-1), SPG (Pike), and EFI Reggiani (Bolt)—with some printing nearly 6,000 linear meters per hour.
We’ve also seen single-pass inkjet emerge in markets like labels, packaging, and even web presses. To be fair, though, the media for these printers are coated and/or the ink is aggressive enough to bite into the media surface. The media are often white, so there’s no need for a white underbase. T-shirts, on the other hand, come in many different colors. The top sellers are white, black, navy blue, gray, and red. So, four of the five best sellers probably need a white underbase. The typical t-shirt print size is only 10”-12” wide, which is similar to widths on single-pass label/packing printers. Smaller widths equal fewer printheads, so it’s hard to say it’s a cost issue given that automatic screen printing machines can be over $100,000 USD. Furthermore, it really isn’t a volume issue because there are multi-billions of t-shirts printed each year.
The label/packaging/web media are also flat—unlike a t-shirt that has a texture. The problem really has to do with the knitting in the shirt, which produces topography like the Alps. Most t-shirts are made using a rib knit fabric that has vertical textured lines of peaks and valleys. Alternating rib stitches (the vertical peaks) and purl stitches (the valleys between the ribs) make up the vertical ribs in the fabric. The point is that those valleys need to be fairly filled with white ink before a flat, opaque surface can be achieved. The pre-treatment or fixation used for DTG helps the white ink stay in place and harden enough for the color pass. Current ink and fixation chemistries require time for this partial cure to happen.
|1x1 Rib Knit|
Getting a nice underbase isn’t a huge problem for screen printing because the ink deposit is primarily determined by the mesh count and number of print strokes. Plus, screen printing doesn’t require a pre-treatment or fixation like DTG to partially harden the white ink prior to printing the colors; they just use a flash unit to gel the underbase so color inks can print on top without smudging into the white. Screen printing is great for high volumes if the image doesn’t have to change. While this notion will keep screen printing as a viable printing platform for some time, consumer demands have shifted and expressing individualism and uniqueness is the flavor of the day.
The newest DTG technologies interlace fixation with the white and color inks as they are jetted. There are also emerging platforms that use automatic screen print oval bases and separate white and color digital print engines. The newest oval is the M&R POLARIS (launched February 17, 2022) which pre-treats, flashes, presses, and digitally prints white and color passes at reported speeds of 320+ shirts per hour. M&R developed the POLARIS by merging the base of the STRYKER Automatic Oval Screen Printing Press with two print engines of the DS‑4000 Digital Squeegee Hybrid Printing System.
Keypoint Intelligence predicts that nearly 20% of printed t-shirts will be printed using DTG by 2025. With a projected 9 billion shirts printed annually by 2025, single-pass DTG is a nice dream to have.
I think it’s good to dream…to push the envelope of what is possible. Maybe I’m a techno-optimist, but I do believe the only thing that makes achieving a dream impossible is the fear of failure, and I’m sure you know failure is not the opposite of success…it is part of it. While the platforms I described above still use scanning printhead configurations that are fast, the move to better ink and fixation chemistries—not to mention the increasing consumer demand for custom on-demand products—does beg the question: “Where’s My Flying Car?”
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