Growing Pains for Direct-to-Film Technology

We’re seeing similarities to the early days of direct-to-garment

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07/12/2022

Johnny Shell

 

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Direct-to-Film (DTF) transfer technology continues to grow at an enormous rate and is poised to displace a notable share of apparel that is currently produced by direct-to-garment (DTG), given the ease of use and ability to decorate a wide range of fiber types. Without question, the adoption rate of DTF is unlike anything the decorated apparel industry has seen in the last 30 years (when the first DTG printers were developed).

 

In 1994, a company called Embleme began printing t-shirts using inkjet technology as part of a government sponsored project in France. The D’TOPE DTG printer used continuous inkjet heads by Imaje (now part of Markem-Imaje, a Dover Company) to jet UV curable ink onto a t-shirt. While the project was ultimately abandoned due to funding cuts, in 1996 the first DTG printer (Revolution) was introduced to the market by DIS (Bradenton, FL). By 2004, DTG printers were available from several OEMs, and DTG was off and running a mere ten years after the very first DTG printer was developed.

 

 

Printing transfers onto film is nothing new; it’s been done for years via screen printing in the decorated apparel market, but the make-ready that’s involved, the color limitations, and difficulty printing photorealistic images makes screen printing transfers more ideal for simple text and graphics. DTF allows printing a full range of graphics—from simple white text to photorealistic, full color images. I’ve seen a similar (yet drastically compressed) path of milestones and hurdles that have impacted DTF that are much like the early days of DTG.

 

Early Woes

Early DTG inkjet printers were not designed for the long-term or to withstand the high demands of the apparel industry, nor were they designed for printing on a variety of substrates and fabric colors. Your choices were white cotton in those days…and that’s it. The early DTG printers used inkjet technology that was designed to print office paper, not clothing. The ink used in these early machines would fade after several laundry cycles, and the printer resolution was low.

 

When white ink was first introduced, it brought more headaches with printers functioning incorrectly as well as additional requirements and variables associated with pretreating the shirt. These factors led to poor results and frustrated users who had hoped this new technology would be an alternative to screen print—but only found disappointment instead. It’s been a long and difficult road for DTG, but the technology has matured into a viable platform to print apparel.

 

One of the biggest issues with DTF printers are the number of vendors offering DTF solutions. Most all DTF vendors are in China, which makes technical support challenging, and machine quality is frustrating. While there is no doubt that some of these printers can produce amazing results, they also have their drawbacks. Most DTF inks are also made in China, where quality and consistency standards are questionable—especially white ink. Like the early days of DTG, most DTF printers are modified Epson print engines, or use Epson printheads so ink quality and consistency are extremely important.

 

Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

The future of DTF transfer looks bright, yet OEMs are slow in reacting to market opportunity for a purpose built DTF printing system (printer, powder coater, dryer) where the materials (film, ink, powder) are optimized and take the form of a true all-in-one solution…not a hacked together system as was the case in the early DTG days (and somewhat the case with today’s printers from China).

 

While there are still some growing pains associated with the DTF process, there are plenty of opportunities in a booming market. Eastman Kodak Company recently entered the DTF market by launching its KODACOLOR Film-to-Fabric ink system that includes powder adhesive, PET film, and ink specifically designed for DTF transfers. STS Inks (Boca Raton, FL) offers a printer using Mutoh’s VJ-628, powder adhesive, and PET film branded with the STS logo. Many direct-to-garment OEMs like Epson and Brother have promoted the ability to print DTF transfers on their DTG devices using cut-sheet PET film and their existing DTG inks.

 

We are a little more than two years in to the DTF experiment, so here’s hoping it doesn’t take OEMs nearly a decade to jump on the bandwagon, as was the case with DTG.

 

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