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Speed, Print-on-Demand, Customization, and Versatility 

What to consider before making the move to direct-to-film printing.

Companies around the globe are developing new printers, inks, films, and much more for Direct-to-Film (DTF) printing. As a result, more and more printers and decorators are beginning to implement DTF as an alternative option within their businesses. You’d be hard pressed to attend an industry tradeshow today without seeing dozens of booths with something to offer in this space. So, why is this innovative technology developing so quickly, and what’s important to know when incorporating DTF as part of your business? 

First, let’s define how this technology works. DTF printing is when a heat transfer is created by applying ink through printheads onto sheets or rolls of film, which are then backed by a powdered or printed adhesive and cured in a dryer. The printers themselves range from small desktop models that print onto single sheets of film to large roll-to-roll machines that incorporate built-in powder shakers and dryers. Many of the original DTF printers were altered DTG machines or made custom by DTF pioneers. There are still several sellers offering these machines, but many companies are now manufacturing printers made specifically for DTF.

Speed + Customization

This technology is growing so rapidly due to speed and customization capabilities. A DTF printer can create custom transfers efficiently in very small quantities, but it’s also fast enough to print a high volume of transfers in a short amount of time. Compared with traditional screen-printed transfers, the setup time for DTF is significantly shorter. Imagine having a job that required printing 2000 custom transfers where each individual transfer was its own unique design. This would be completely unfeasible with a traditionally printed transfer. With DTF, this job (other than the artwork design phase) would not take much longer to print than a job with 2000 transfers of the exact same design. This level of customization is unprecedented, and it’s allowing shops to take on jobs that, in the past, would not have been profitable. DTF is also allowing shops to print on-demand for their customers, which is often a sorely needed service.

Due to this level of speed, when going from DTF transfer printing all the way through to a decorated product, the heat press can potentially become a bottleneck. This is because the DTF system can print transfers very quickly and with relatively little labor. The transfers can begin piling up faster than your heat press operator can apply them. This is where an automatic heat press​​ – especially one with multiple lower platens – comes in handy. The operator can then keep pace with the speed of the DTF printer. 


In addition to the efficiency and level of customization available from DTF, the transfers made are also versatile. These transfers can be applied to numerous types of substrates and materials. The manufacturers of these printers are also experimenting with inks in order to expand this versatility and increase the durability and opacity of the finished product. Some manufacturers are predicting that DTF can surpass screen-printed transfer quality within the next few years. However, it’s important to note that DTF quality is still not on par with screen-printed heat transfers and application can be more finicky than with a traditional transfer. Your heat press will need to have extremely even heat and pressure. A heat press that’s ideal for DTF would be an automatic, dual shuttle, swing-away. These types of heat press machines are generally able to achieve much higher and more consistent levels of pressure than a sliding dual shuttle heat press or a rotary heat press. Because they have two lower platens rather than four to six (like a rotary), the lower platens stay much warmer while in use, which leads to more consistently great applications and fewer misprints.

Things to Consider

Before you take the leap and invest in a DTF system of your own, there are some things you need to know. To achieve high-quality, consistent results, a tremendous amount of upfront R&D is required. Many videos shared online show DTF machines churning out transfers that are immediately ready to press onto apparel and products. What these videos don’t necessarily talk about are the long hours of testing that go into honing the settings on the printer, getting the powdered or printed adhesive just right, building a room that keeps the machine at the ideal temperature/humidity, and maintaining the machine and printheads. Investing in a DTF machine might also mean building a controlled environment for it and hiring a dedicated person to maintain and operate it. Lastly, not all DTF systems are equal and not all of them are backed by a service program or warranty. This is getting better every day as manufacturers and dealers implement new programs and train their techs, but it’s something to keep in mind before making a purchase. It’s also the reason many have been holding off on diving into DTF while they wait for some of the big-name brands to develop their own solutions.  

By Greg Farmer
Insta Graphic Systems

Greg Farmer has a fashion industry background with experience in both apparel and accessories. He joined the Insta Graphic Systems sales team in 2021 to handle North American accounts and is based in the greater Dallas, Texas, area. Greg is keenly interested in the rise of DTF and all that it means for the Industry.

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