Printing Apparel: A Great Opportunity for In-plants
Over the last few years, many print service providers have added additional services beyond their main offering to increase revenue. The trend was growing before COVID, but the pandemic seems to have accelerated it.
This point is no less true for in-plants. While there are many potential new services they can add, one that stands out is garment printing. According to IPI research, 13% of in-plant respondents are now doing in-house garment printing, up from 11% in 2020. And those that do it say it’s yielding benefits.
We spoke with three in-plants that offer garment printing using a variety of methods. Read their stories to learn about the various options, benefits, and even challenges of printing apparel.
Some in-plants, such as Encompass Health Print Services of Birmingham, Alabama, have offered garment printing for years. According to Danny Kirkland, national director, the shop added the capability in 2013.
“Our mission is [being] the print provider of choice for Encompass Health,” he says. “We try to print everything in-house, from business cards to T-shirts.”
Print Services uses heat transfers internally (it outsources silkscreen services), utilizing two heat presses and transfers from Stahls’. The investment, according to Kirkland, only ran the company about $10,000.
“Heat transfer is the least expensive [way] to get into the market, as well as looks exactly like our silkscreen high-volume shirts that we outsource,” he states. “It was important that the ink and print look the same.”
While Kirkland estimates that apparel decorating only makes up about 10% of Print Services’ business, he anticipates it increasing as the parent company grows organically.
Adding apparel decorating services isn’t for everyone, but Kirkland feels it has benefited his in-plant.
“We save the company $200,000 per year and keep control of what the branding is on these items,” he says. “It’s one more item that we can offer to help the hospital self-serve. Keeping work within the company reduces accounting expense, cost of goods, and branding.”
That doesn’t mean the in-plant hasn’t had some challenges. Print Services didn’t originally pursue the heat transfer route, which led to some pain points.
“When we started, we purchased a DTG [direct-to-garment] machine,” he states. “It was horrible. It would cost us a fortune. We had to pretreat the shirts, and the ink would look weak even with under-print, and [it] was so slow.”
That experience, along with other setbacks, led Print Services to heat transfers.
“The trick was trying to find a printed product that would look like a silkscreen shirt that the customers were used to receiving already,” says Kirkland. “It just continues to add one more element to the overall solution to be the print provider of choice for Encompass Health. Cost savings alone is enough value, but soft advantages are turn time control, quality control, and added skillsets to our staff.”
HUB Print & Postal Operations, the in-plant serving the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York, has offered in-house screen-printing services for seven-plus years. But the business’s apparel services have become more robust, and now its technologies include heat printing and dye-sublimation. Mary Ellen Gauntlett, director, recalls how it’s changed over the years.
“It started out very small and came with a real learning curve,” she says. “We are very proud of our operation today. We produce thousands of items for many groups and departments, and for customers that are not part of RIT as well.”
HUB Print & Postal Operations uses an Anatol Volt 10-station/eight-color screen-printing press as well as various heat printing and dye-sublimation systems.
“We added heat printing a couple of years ago in order to accommodate small orders, as well as to run a program for made-to-order garments for an on-campus department,” Gauntlett states.
Gauntlett says garment printing accounted for about 10% of the in-plant’s total business in the past fiscal year, but it’s a number that’s grown.
“Garment printing has gone from literally nothing to accounting for a substantial part of our revenue,” she reveals. “Although we, like everyone else, saw our business nosedive during the COVID years, it has started to rebound in dramatic fashion.”
As mentioned, the initial learning curve did pose a challenge. Gauntlett also notes there have been a few other issues her shop has dealt with as the program grew.
“Working through supplier issues [e.g., who and for what product], buying properly, and figuring out pricing were pretty daunting in the beginning,” she notes. The in-plant also found its needs changing when it made the leap from a manual screen-printing press to an automatic.
“Hiring a great screen-printing operator — that was a huge step forward for us,” she says.
Despite those hiccups, she feels building the garment printing side of the business has been great for HUB Print & Postal Operations.
“We have been able to grow our in-house service, as well as procuring products from a wide range of vendors to meet the needs of our customers for branded goods, swag, mementos, awards, [and] commemorative gifts,” Gauntlett says. “The opportunities for us to provide properly branded, fairly priced items has had an extremely positive effect on our standing and reputation within RIT, as well as with non-RIT customers.”
Gaining Momentum in Canada
Though some in-plants have offered in-house apparel decorating for years, others are fairly new at it. Printing Services at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, added its dye-sublimation printer (a Sawgrass SG800) in 2018.
“We purchased the dye-sublimation equipment in order to produce the university name badges that we had been outsourcing,” explains Judy Peace, manager. “We added other merchandise items at that time to better utilize the equipment. We sell mugs, ornaments, tumblers, slates, coasters, T-shirts, hoodies, aprons, and pillowcases.”
But since dye-sublimation can be a limiting process, the in-plant took on an additional technology.
“Because dye-sublimation only works well on white or light-colored 100% polyester, we’ve started printing on HTV [heat transfer vinyl], which now allows us to do dark colors and cotton apparel,” says Peace. “Since then, we have seen a small growth in garment printing.”
Despite these services only accounting for a small chunk of Print Services’ business, Peace feels it’s gaining momentum.
“Now that we’ve added the printable HTV, I think the garment printing will grow a bit,” she states. “We’ve added the printable HTV on our HP 316 latex printer because that can be used on dark fabric and any type, so it’s not just limited to 100% polyester. We also do just straight HTV vinyl cutting.”
These services have been beneficial because of the demand for one-offs. “People like the fact that they can come and order one-offs,” says Peace. “It’s convenient for them and more economic for them when they only want a few shirts or one item from the dye-sub merchandise.”
Peace feels supply chain issues have been the biggest challenge lately. “We use a few different suppliers, but it seems that stock is very limited,” she observes. Luckily, the in-plant has been able to deal with that challenge. “We only order as we need. For example, when the library orders six dark green shirts and provides the sizes they need, I often have to check out several sources because stock seems so limited since COVID,” she says.
Peace is confident these challenges won’t stop the shop from pushing forward, however.
“Although it’s not a big business for us, I think adding the garment printing has been beneficial to us,” she says. “Adding garment printing and other dye-sub merchandise just helped with the ROI on the equipment because now it’s used for more than just name badges.”
Related story: Textile Printing: A Significant Opportunity for In-plants