By Cassandra Balentine
If you’ve noticed the acronym “DTF” trending in the print industry lately, you’re not alone. Before you turn to Urban Dictionary, we have the scoop. The term describes the process of direct to film—DTF—printing, which is the process of printing to film, applying a transfer layer/powder, and transferring the image with heat to a variety of substrates.
Rob Simpson, Americas business leader, DuPont Artistri Digital Inks, explains that DTF applications emerged around 2018. The process combines the digital advantages of direct to garment (DTG) printing with the application benefits of screenprint transfers.
It seems more recently, the buzz surrounding this particular process has grown. “We believe the rapid application growth seen recently is attributed to the ease of use of the printing system, as well as the expansion of substrates not easily served with DTG technology,” shares Simpson.
For example, he says DuPont Artistri inks are successfully used with the DTF application on cotton, cotton/poly blends, polyester, leather, wood, and corrugated with many others in development.
Tim Check, senior product manager, Epson America, Inc., points out that similar to comparing DTG to screenprinting for printing directly on garments, DTG transfer printing—otherwise known as DTF—is comparable to producing screenprint transfers. “Digitally producing a garment transfer enables garment decorators to supplement the range of materials they can embellish for customers—ranging from 100 percent polyester garments to irregular shaped items like shoes and gloves.”
Check adds that DTG transfer printing is gaining attention in the decorator industry as a cost-efficient way to produce full-color transfers with minimum quantities and low investment cost. It allows professional printers to expand their offerings and open up new revenue models.
Taylor Landesman, VP, Lawson Screen & Digital Products, Inc., agrees, noting that DTF is a hybrid type of transfer gaining popularity for garment decorating. “Similar to a screenprinted heat transfer, a DTF transfer can be applied to cotton and/or polyester garments. It has an advantage over DTG in that a DTF can be applied to polyester garments. It also adds the ability to be pressed onto a black polyester shirt to mimic sublimation.”
Juan Kim, CEO, VALLOY Inc., sees the key benefit of DTF as the easy application of a hot melt layer after printing. “Hot melt treatment is something garment decorators in old screenprinting technology are familiar with. Now digital printing and inline hot melt powder coating provides great flexibility to the same players.”
“I believe DTF has its place in the apparel world especially when you’re printing on fabric like nylon and polyester. It is also much easier to use DTF printing when you want to print your design in awkward areas of your apparel, like a shirt tag or under arm design,” adds Haziel Mitchell, sales and marketing director, Ricoh DTG, a division of RPSA, Inc.
Above: Current Epson SureColor F2000 or F2100 DTG printer owners can use the printers to produce DTG film transfer applications.
Understanding the Process
With DTF printing, pigment inks are printed to a coated film and an adhesive layer or transfer powder is applied and then dried or melted under heat. From there the printed image is transferred with heat to the desired substrate or stored for later use.
“Using a DTG printer like the Epson SureColor F2100, a coated PET transfer film is placed on the print platen. The image is then printed with the under base and color top layer printed in reverse so that the color is applied first followed by the white under base layer. While the ink is wet, the film is removed, and an adhesive hot melt powder is sprinkled on. The excess powder is removed, and the printed film with hot melt powder is cured with radiant heat. At this stage, the DTG transfer is now ready to use,” says Check.
To apply, the transfer is paired with a porous object, like a polyester t-shirt, and then heat pressed. After cooling the transfer film is removed, leaving the image fixed to the object.
Most often, special inks are not required of DTF applications. According to Kim, the process typically requires color and white textile pigment inks.
Kimberly Daugherty, president, Advanced Color Solutions, notes that while there are many inks this process can work with, pigment water-based inks are desired for their soft hand and vivid color.
“DTG inks like Epson’s UltraChrome DG ink are designed for vibrant color and high wash-fastness. The same print system for printing directly to garment can also be used to print directly to the film to create transfers without the need to change inks,” says Check.
Simpson adds that DuPont Artistri inks are designed and proven to work in both DTG and DTF applications. “Artistri inks deliver the new DTF applications the same leading quality, consistency, and end user properties that DuPont is known for in the DTG segment.”
Landesman points out that there are specially designed aftermarket DTF printers and inks that repurpose existing printers, however, many printers and OEM inks naturally work with DTF.
The Learning Curve
Undertaking a new process almost always comes with some trial and error, but thankfully those that go from DTG to DTF find the transition simple and easy.
Kim says there is nothing special to know if you have a DTG background. The only difference is that it’s typically roll-to-roll printing and includes the secondary process of heat transfer.
“There is a very small learning curve to go from DTG to DTF printing,” asserts Landesman. “If people have experience with heat transfers, applying vinyl or DTG, then they will be familiar with 90 percent of the DTF process.”
It is important to note that while it’s not difficult to master, you should expect a little learning curve. “A good understanding of the process will help greatly with adjusting the graphics to be suitable for printing,” says Check. “In addition, the adhesive powders need to be applied properly to ensure the printing operators health as well as the performance of the equipment. It is important to establish safety procedures and mandate that personal protective gear is properly utilized by staff to minimize possible health risks.”
Simpson adds that the biggest difference is that DTF uses much less ink per print than DTG and eliminates the need for pretreated fabric. “DTF also adds two variables to the printing system versus DTG, the film and adhesive. A trained application specialist being on site during initial testing speeds up the evaluation and improve success.”
For Karl Tipre, founder/managing partner, DTG Connection, the learning curve is related to the design of the graphic. “When printing on film, it is easier to see poor graphic quality because the ink doesn’t bleed into fabric. This also means a good graphic may look even better. Also the graphics need to be reversed or mirrored to print. This requires understanding on how to use a graphic program to adjust the graphics.”
Many print providers are well poised to take on DTF. “Garment decorators using DTG print technology are in a great position to add DTG transfer printing to expand their customer product offerings,” shares Check.
“DTF printing applications are ideal for print service providers with an early adopter print mentality,” notes Simpson. “The applicability to a wide array of substrates, coupled with improved ease of use, and lower ink consumption creates a strong value proposition for interested print providers.”
DTG transfer printing is well suited for small-run work, especially for jobs that call for large amounts of color, offers Landesman.
The decision and cost to invest in DTF varies by print provider.
In terms of consumables, the two main components for DTF are the powder and film. “Both of these are inexpensive. Ink costs vary by system,” offers Landesman.
Kim stresses the importance of the right film. Less expensive films may not allow hot separation—the removal of film after transfer while it is still hot. Better film allows hot and cold separation—the removal of film whether hot or cold after transfer, which makes the production rate higher.
Check says the costs of DTG transfer printing is comparable to typical DTG printing. He notes that DTG transfer printing will typically uses less ink and fabrics do not need to be pretreated, however those savings are offset by the price of the transfer film.
When it comes to equipment, based on what you already have in house the investment is affected tremendously.
For example, those with a printer in house capable of DTF work would only need to purchase consumables, which Landesman points out could be as low as $30. However, for print shops that need a DTF printer, printers range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
Kim estimates that a total investment if an entirely new printer and all the consumables are needed is close to $50,000 USD.
A popular spin on DTG, DTF offers expanded substrate compatibility, ease of use, and reduced ink consumption, making it an attractive solution for those in the décor and garment decoration space.
Sep2022, Digital Output