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David Sweetnam

Direct to Film Is Here to Stay

A quick history of DTF devices and their projected growth

Mar 8, 2023 11:22:28 AM


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It was great to be back at one of my favourite trade shows, the Printwear and Promotion show, held at the Birmingham NEC. As usual, there were the multitude of technologies around the hall, including direct-to-garment (DTG), embroidery, dye sublimation, heat transfer vinyl, and screen printing. Not surprisingly, a lot of the noise at the show was still centred around in-vogue direct-to-film (DTF) technologies.


If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

A few years ago, the DTF market was still primarily awash with Frankenstein devices cobbled together with typically an Epson printhead, a third-party raster image processor (RIP), Chinese fabric inks, and a powder/curing system to complete the roll-to-roll solutions. There was so much talk around stability, poor batch control, as well as less than perfect marriages between the Epson printers and the fabric inks they had never been designed to work with.


The major DTG players—unsure whether DTF was a fad—initially just dipped their toes in the water by promoting DTF capability on their traditional DTG devices using film sheets rather than the more efficient roll-to-roll systems. These were promoted amid the fanfare of “Best of Both Worlds” with the comfort blanket of blue chip printhead/ink/RIP technology and end-to-end support.


At this show, we now see the next stage in the blue-chip counter offensive. There were first time DTF roll-to-roll devices offered by Brother (still prototype),  the new Mimaki TxF150-75 DTF system, and Roland with its desktop VersaSTUDIO BN-20D at the booths of apparel distributor giants MDM, Xpress, and Amaya (respectively). None come with the option of a fully integrated powder/heating system, instead relying on third-party solutions. We expect this to change as vendors look to control the quality of entire ecosystem and safeguard their brand and quality of performance.


Brother's DTF Prototype Device


Show Me the Money

I was keen to hear how the DTF revolution was being pitched from a money-making perspective. It’s a given that DTF has the advantage over DTG when you need to decorate polyester, which is (to put it mildly) not friendly to DTG inks…but does DTF deliver on the need to make cold hard cash? Several booths promoted a business benefit of DTF being a lower cost of goods (COG), either allowing for more aggressive pricing or skimming off a larger profit margin.


Ink consumption on DTF is considerably lower than that of DTG. Even the Brother rep at their booth was happy to state that their new prototype DTF device, using the GTX Pro engine and identical inks, would use substantially less ink versus its DTG equivalent.


Another COG reduction pitch being used was the ability to choose lower unit cost apparel suppliers. The best practice with DTG printing dictates that you choose a higher-grade garment blank with rung spun cotton to get the best results. DTF does not have that same critical apparel sensitivity, and so that sales pitch goes away.


The last of the major COG reduction benefits being lauded about was surrounding staffing time. With no need to pre-treat garments, the ability to print an entire batch of apparel designs/logos unattended onto a roll ready for the final heat transfer step and the option to choose a convenient time for the heat transfer cure stage are being pitched as benefits versus DTG. Furthermore, while both technologies require curing, the typical post-print cure of a DTG produced garment will typically be in the region of 1.5-2 minutes on a heat press versus the 15-20 seconds required for the DTF transfer—allowing a single press to support significantly higher production levels in a smaller footprint for businesses that cannot afford or accommodate a heat tunnel.


Putting These Claims to the Test

These claims may be easy to make, but how can you gauge the real-world impact on your business? Keypoint Intelligence’s new DTG/DTF test program, which has just been launched, will give you a real-world “apples-to-apples” understanding of these performance factors. Tests include evaluating ink consumption on standard test files in DTF and DTG modes (if supported), image quality analysis in the different quality settings, and the associated productivity impact going up in the quality stakes and of course washability performance.


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

The next 12 months are going to be huge in the DTF space as more blue-chip vendors enter the fray and market share in this space will be up for grabs. We expect to see more feature/benefit and quality driven positioning being utilised as the major vendors look to differentiate themselves from the current Chinese-driven status quo, creating a new premium tier.


DTF technology is still very much in its infancy, which is always one of the most interesting times to be an industry observer as game changers can emerge overnight from all angles. Keep checking in as we report on the latest movers and shakers.     


Log in to the InfoCenter to view additional show reviews and research on garment printing through our Functional & Industrial Printing Advisory Service. If you’re not a subscriber, just send us an email at sales@keypointintelligence.com. You can also contact david.sweetnam@keypointintelligence.com if you are interested in learning more about our direct-to-garment or direct-to-fabric testing program.