The Digital Decision

Direct-to-garment and dye sublimation printing have grown by leaps and bounds, but many screen printers still ignore these burgeoning technologies. By Theresa Hegel

A decade ago, Brian Conway noticed a trend. The owner of contract shop A.I.R. Conway (asi/700040) in Collingdale, PA, found that more and more of his clients were clamoring for full-color, high-quality artwork, but they wanted it in smaller and smaller quantities. At the time, A.I.R. Conway offered 500-piece minimums, plus expensive screen and film charges, for process screen-printing jobs.

To fill that growing gap in service, Conway invested in a direct-to-garment printer from Kornit (asi/14972). The investment has paid off. "It's opened up the door to a lot of new customers," Conway says. "Our customers can sell better to their customers. They don't have to turn anyone away anymore." The digital side of A.I.R. Conway's business has been steadily rising, with an average annual growth rate of 30%. "We are very busy with the digital. We run hard eight hours a day," Conway says, adding that his company is considering purchasing another DTG printer in the near future.

Screen printing is still the company's bread and butter, but DTG is the jam on the toast – making up about one-fifth of A.I.R. Conway's overall revenue. Conway says he doesn't expect "quality-driven digital" to overtake "quantity-driven screen printing" anytime soon. "It can't hold the throughput that screen-printing presses can hold," he says. "It's just a nice little niche where people can get the 12 pieces they want and not be rocked with expensive fees."

Digital decoration technologies like direct-to-garment and dye sublimation printing are rapidly improving. End-users gravitate toward their full-color and low-minimum capabilities. And yet, Conway's embracing of digital printing is unusual in the screen-printing world. In the 2015 Wearables Sales Forecast, half of distributors that do no decorating in-house sell DTG and sublimation to clients, but the number of screen printers who offer those digital technologies lags behind significantly (see sidebar). "The old-guard craftsman printer who's been pulling a squeegee for 20 years doesn't understand the benefits. I'm not saying it's better, just different," says Marshall Atkinson, chief operating officer of Milwaukee-based Visual Impressions, a contract decorator that offers DTG in addition to screen printing and embroidery. "The technology isn't going to go away."

The good news is these technologies can work side-by-side with screen printing, patching the gaps where screen printing isn't as effective or proves too costly for customers. Adding them can turn a deficient decorator into a diversified one.