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Campus Ink

Veering away from traditional decorating processes, this early adopter has embraced DTF transfer technology.

By Marcia Derryberry, Contributing Writer

With deep roots in screen printing, Campus Ink has been servicing mainly colleges, universities, the Greek community, and collegiate licensing since 1947. When the pandemic hit in 2020, CEO Steven Farag, who joined the company in 2015, knew it was time to change gears. 

Business was declining because colleges shut down and canceled their athletic, fanwear, and other activities’ meetings and events. With locations in Chicago and Urbana, Illinois, the company’s executives decided to add heat pressing during COVID through heat-applied graphics and direct-to-garment (DTG) printing. That decision was made mainly because the firm was producing thousands of printed masks. The company currently runs 12 pneumatic heat presses to keep up with demand.

“We started by buying a direct-to-garment machine in the technology’s early years, but the problems the machines had such as the clogging issues with white ink and print quality issues made that short lived,” says Steven. “It just wasn’t working for our business. I realized that DTF technology had improved tenfold and we started making direct-to-film (DTF) transfers on the DTG machine.”

So Steven spent some time researching DTF machines and their benefits and decided it was a decorating process that might be the perfect fit for Campus Ink. “I’m pretty active in the screen printing community and have my ear to the ground when it comes to new industry technology. I knew early on that DTF was bubbling up and happening.”

“I decided to pull the trigger three years ago and bought our first DTF machine. We just bought our sixth machine, turning much of our screen printing business into using the DTF transfer process,” he adds. “The main advantage of DTF is the ability to do one-offs quickly and the high color count and photographic quality that’s possible.”

Pioneers in the space, the company tried several machines from different manufacturers. It has three of its six DTF machines running nonstop and prints anywhere between 200 to 300 completed and applied transfers a day. Nearly all of Campus Ink’s new business comes from its NIL store, which prints the name and likeness for college athletes on a variety of substrates. This niche will add $7 to $8 million of new revenue this year, Steven says. So, the company is getting its ROI on the DTF machines pretty quickly.

Quality and Savings

“Decorators still get a high-quality piece and no longer need to burn screens, like you do with screen printing,” Steven says. “So we’re able to produce a 24-piece job for a sorority or fraternity that might be four or five colors and not stress about all the messy and expensive factors that go into the screen-printing process. It has brought down costs and eliminated a lot of waste. So while the quality is great, I’d say it’s comparable to a multicolor screen-printing job. For those smaller orders, DTF definitely fills a void and serves a very specific purpose.”

“We do individual names and numbers, a lot of which are produced on polyester jerseys,” Steven continues. “And DTF is super easy to do, meaning the barrier to entry in teaching a new employee how to heat press is much easier than screen printing.”

According to Steven, his customers are told about the DTF process and the difference between it and screen printing –  mainly the difference in the print’s hand because DTF feels a bit more stiff like a transfer instead of being soft like screen printing yields.

“We consider ourselves to be the decorator experts so we let our customers know the way we’re going to decorate the products. Most do not completely understand the process, but for our customer type, it works really well. We know our customers and who would accept DTF as a decorating process and what T-shirt brands they might or might not prefer for this process.”

Be Wary When Beginning

What are the challenges when it comes to bringing DTF machines in house? Mainly the fact that its brand-new technology and support is still growing, Steven says.

“The United States market is still adapting to it when it comes to ink and consumables and standardizing all of that,” he says. “So there’s definitely a little bit of a trial-and-error effect, whether it’s maintaining the machines or figuring out the different software’s understanding of the language barriers because the machines are coming from overseas. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.”

Campus Ink has created lots of transfers and Steven and his team spent hours trying things out. You have to definitely be slightly more tech enabled and be willing to jump in, he adds. “Be careful because it is a brand-new technology and it definitely has a learning curve,” he adds. “Smaller shops might think, ‘Oh, I’ll just buy this machine and print it myself.’ But you really have to understand that buying the machine means you’re going to be hiring an employee that’s going to be using it full time.”

“You’re investing in a lot more than just the sticker price of the machine. So I always challenge shops that ask me whether they should have one or not. I’ll ask them right away, ‘How much are you spending on transfers?’ Because you need to stay in your niche and if you’re not good at producing DTF, you’re not ready to jump into it.”

For newcomers entering the space, the lesson is to do your homework, make sure you’re ready for it, and know there is going to be a learning curve. That being said, the positive of DTF is that it gives you another opportunity to sell and grow a segment that might have had high barriers to entry or high costs. So definitely do your research, take your time on making that decision, and make sure you have a team that’s there behind you listening to support you.

Future Predictions

Where does Steven see this technology in the next year or even five years? “More people are heat pressing; that’s what I see,” he says. “Lots of people are entering the space, taking a risk on new equipment and jumping in. But now, what we’re starting to see is bigger companies coming into it – whether that’s Mimaki, Roland, Brother, or M&R – so I think it’s similar to how DTG was when it first came out. DTF is going through that same evolution.”

“I don’t think screen printing will ever go away,” he adds. “But there’s definitely an increased acceptance for transfers. Hopefully, over the next couple of years the machines are more stable and more plug-and-play ready. That will make it a little bit easier to install DTF equipment into your shop.”

Marcia Derryberry is the former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conference program. She now owns her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications in McKinney, Texas.

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