Direct-to-Garment printing is not a new technology when it comes to customized apparel. Existing in the marketplace for roughly twenty years, the history of DTG is marked by innovation designed to unlock new corners of the apparel printing industry. Long gone are the days when you couldn’t print on black fabrics, or you were forced to spend your time manually applying pretreatment. Happily, Ricoh has brought its newest innovation to market for the masses, with their brand new Ri4000 featuring the ability to print direct onto polyester garments.
Polyester has historically proven difficult for DTG technologies due to the qualities of the material. Spin the polyester one way and you’ll end up with a windbreaker straight out of the early 1990’s, a material boasting to be nearly air-tight and water resistant, a nightmare for a printing process that requires absorption into the material. Fast forward to the 2010’s and you’ll find polyester spun in completely the opposite direction with high-end athletic companies like Nike and Under Armour marketing the material as a lightweight fabric purposefully built to pull moisture off your body, transporting the moisture through to the other side of the fabric to keep the user dry while they workout. Once again creating a nightmare scenario for the inks commonly used in DTG printing, having the ink land on the fabric which would immediately bleed and pull the ink through to the opposite side of the shirt before it could be cured.
Polyester was no friend to DTG. With other printing methods dominating this section of the market, all of them capable, none of them perfect. Heat Press Transfers would lead to cracked images and an unpleasant feeling of the image sticking to the body if you were sweating due to a loss of the materials breathability. Sublimation Printing would get around the breathability issue, and allowed a crisp image, but a lot of material waste came with the process, not to mention the process could only be done on white polyester – if you wanted a black shirt, you needed to take a white shirt and print every inch of the fabric. Screen Printing works(ed) very well, but setup time and colour restrictions would limit an end user who only wanted a couple shirts or a full-colour CMYK image. One solution was widely available, as Kornit had a DTG printer capable of printing on polyester, but the up-front investment for the machine was so great that only the highest-volume shops could consider the equipment.
Just about every DTG printing manufacturer found their workarounds to the problem. A new pretreatment designed for polyester which, combined with a talented machine operator who could manipulate the heat-press, could slowly but surely get an image on polyester. DTF modifications that would allow printing direct to film sheets that could then be pressed onto polyester, something that the Ricoh Ri1000, 2000 & 4000 models can all do. However, Ricoh wasn’t satisfied with the workaround, and got to work developing a machine designed specifically to print on the difficult substrate.
Their hard work culminated in the aforementioned Ri4000. A purpose-built machine that solves the problem of ink bleeding through the polyester garment. Ricoh developed a thinner pretreatment and ink that would be able to settle into the notorious fabric. What about loss of breathability when pretreatment is applied to polyester? Ricoh installed a printhead dedicated to the pretreatment, precisely applying the pretreatment only in the areas that the image is about to be printed. Long drying times manually drying pretreatment on a heat press? Ricoh installed a wet-to-wet printhead for the inks so that they could lay down the image immediately after the pretreatment is applied.
The Ri4000 is undoubtedly a thing of beauty, but as the saying goes, you can’t be everything to everyone. The production time is about 8 minutes per shirt, admittedly slower than production times for those who choose to offer Direct to Film printing and heat-press applications. Many DTF printers can print approximately 100 images per hour, with about a minute to finish the shirt on a heat press. Add in about 15 seconds per image to cut it out of the film, and you’re looking at 100 shirts being done in just under four hours. Compared to a little over 12 hours on the Ri4000. From a labour standpoint, there’s an argument for DTF to be used on polyester, especially in bulk orders, or shirts that are being used for a single event.
On the other end of that end-user spectrum stands the customer looking for a high-quality shirt that offers maximum breathability that they can use at the gym multiple times a week for years. That customer will appreciate the tactile feeling of the DTG process and will happily pay a higher price for a shirt that feels good, looks good and lasts. Not to mention the Ricoh Ri2000 is capable of printing up to 50 shirts per hour on a 50/50 cotton polyester blend, allowing you to offer your customers a shirt that feels softer than DTF, while retaining athletic performance, all while finishing the 100 shirt order in two hours. The Ri4000 may not be able to do everything, but it’s nice to know that Ricoh can.
The Ri4000 was unveiled to the world in October at the Printing United tradeshow, putting all other DTG manufacturers on notice. Simultaneously they showed other Printing Processes that they could offer a softer and more breathable finished product than DTF, with dramatically less labour and waste than Sublimation Printing, and all for 1/20th the price of the Kornit. Ricoh thought they launched a shot across the bow to all DTG manufacturers in Atlanta. What they actually did was set a new benchmark in the polyester segment of the Apparel Printing Industry.
If you would like to see the new Ricoh Ri4000 in action, please let us know, we would be happy to host you at our offices for a demonstration.