Compare Screen Printing vs Digital Printing

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing, also known as silk-screen printing, is an age-old technique where ink is pushed through a prepared screen, resulting in the design being printed on the substrate, typically fabrics for silk-screen printers. This method dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries (for more information, refer to WIKIPEDIA). While the process has evolved, the basic concept remains the same: pushing ink through a screen.

Workers are printing on a Screen Printing Press

What is Digital Printing or DTG (Direct to Garment)?

Digital printing, also referred to as DTG or direct to garment, emerged from the modification of desktop printers. Instead of printing on paper, this technology allows for direct printing on t-shirts or fabric rolls. It quickly gained popularity due to its convenience.

A Digital Printer T-Jet standard and T-Jet 2

Let’s Compare: Screen Printing vs. Digital Printing

The process steps for printing a t-shirt using traditional screen printing are as follows:

  1. Open the design on the computer.
  2. For single or multicolor designs, create a color separation.
  3. Print out the positive film separation.
  4. Place the screen printing mesh on the frames.
  5. Coat the screen with a light-sensitive emulsion and let it dry.
  6. Expose the film to the frame with the coated emulsion.
  7. Wash the screen to expose your design.
  8. Prepare the silk-screen frame for printing by taping and blocking.
  9. Mix the colors for your design.
  10. Set the press with the printing frames.
  11. Place the t-shirt under the press.
  12. Apply the colors onto the frame using a squeegee.
  13. Repeat the process for each color in the design.
  14. Remove the t-shirt from the press.
  15. Pass the t-shirt through a dryer to fix the colors.
  16. Clean the squeegee and remove excess ink from the frames.
  17. Clean the frames thoroughly to remove any remaining ink.
  18. Remove the emulsion from the screen to prepare for the next design.

On the other hand, the process steps for printing a t-shirt with digital printing are as follows:

  1. Open the design on the computer.
  2. If the t-shirt is dark, it may need to be pre-treated or purchase pre-treated t-shirts.
  3. Place the t-shirt on the printing table.
  4. Optionally, adjust the printing color tones between the computer and the printer.
  5. Click print.
  6. Apply fixation using a dryer or transfer press.

And the Result?

Digital printing has a significant advantage when it comes to work processes, saving numerous steps compared to screen printing, as demonstrated in the above comparison.

Now, the crucial point where screen printing cannot simply be replaced by digital printing lies in the cost factor. For digital printing, the cost remains the same whether printing one or ten thousand pieces, while screen printing becomes extremely expensive for a single print but significantly cheaper for mass production. Therefore, digital printing is more cost-effective for short runs, whereas screen printing surpasses digital printing in terms of cost and speed for mass production.

The difference in cost between digital printing and classic screen printing is due to various factors. It involves the fixed costs of your workshop, the cost of the printer itself (which can be expensive), and the significantly higher cost of printing colors compared to screen printing. Additionally, the maintenance requirements for a digital printer are distinct from those of a screen printer.

To illustrate this, consider the example of a screen printer friend who owned a digital printer for single-bed loading. This printer could also print on dark t-shirts and had the white ink option. The purchase cost at the time was approximately $20,000 USD. I asked my friend how many t-shirts he had to print to recoup his investment cost. Based on our calculations for his business, it would take around two years. He would need to work continuously for two years to achieve a return on his investment, assuming no issues with the printer. However, problems eventually arose. My friend complained about receiving ink rotation notifications even on Sundays when he wasn’t working. This made him feel like a slave to his own digital printer.

The print head of a digital printer has a limited lifespan, which varies depending on the manufacturer and the number of prints. Like a regular desktop printer, the print head of a digital t-shirt printer can become clogged. While cleaning the print head usually helps, there comes a point where it no longer resolves the issue. Power cleaning, a more intensive cleaning method, consumes a significant amount of ink. Problems often arise when using the white ink option due to its high pigment load, which tends to settle and can be harsh on the print head. Digital printers prefer continuous operation; any downtime leads to problems.

So, when does screen printing become more cost-effective than digital printing? There is no clear answer as it depends on the average quantity of prints. Each business must assess its needs carefully. If you receive many requests for single design printing or require small quantities with a high volume of orders, digital printing can be beneficial. However, if you are a traditional screen printer and only occasionally receive small orders, it’s essential to consider the return on investment (ROI) and explore alternative digital options like digital laser transfer printing. The market offers excellent solutions, even for printing on dark t-shirts, and the investment required is relatively low compared to direct-to-garment (DTG) printers.

Suppose you are a large printing shop looking to expand your options by adding digital printing. In that case, it can be advantageous for short print runs and to offer high-definition prints as an added value for your customers. By combining traditional screen printing for the under-base and digital printing for high-resolution details, you can provide special effect printing alongside digital printing. This unique combination sets you apart from competitors. However, it is crucial to evaluate the cost and requirements of your shop and consider the ROI. Calculating and assessing the ROI is always important for any business decision.

Digital Printed Design on White

Personal Experience:

I have firsthand experience as a digital printing pioneer in my country. I started with the T-Jet Standard printer and later added the T-Jet2, which allowed printing on dark t-shirts. While I encountered minimal issues with the T-Jet Standard due to its CMYK color printing, the T-Jet2 with its white ink option proved to be a poor investment. The printing cost for black t-shirts was exceptionally high, and my customers were not willing to pay that amount for a single print. It is crucial to evaluate the buying power of your market and determine if there is a demand for your services.


Lastly, if you are considering a digital printer for creating samples in screen printing for your clients, I would advise against it. A digital printer with its high DPI (dots per inch) rate cannot accurately replicate the results of screen printing. The fine details are challenging to reproduce, and color matching becomes another hurdle. The colors of the digital sample will not perfectly match the colors in your screen printing production. However, attaching a digital printer to an automatic screen printing machine makes sense if you want to offer high-resolution images to your customers. In this setup, the automatic printing machine handles the under base, while the digital printer adds the color on top.

MHM Digital V Pro – suitable for halftone printing as well as solid printing

Large-scale digital printing machines costing over $500,000 USD are designed for online shops specializing in on-demand t-shirt printing. These machines cater to a high volume of t-shirt designs and fulfill orders as they come in. They are particularly beneficial for online platforms like Amazon and eBay. However, these large-scale digital printing machines are not suitable for every business due to their significant cost.

To summarize the differences between screen printing and digital printing:

Screen Printing:

  • Screen printing becomes cost-effective when printing in large quantities.
  • It allows for the application of special effects.
  • Automatic screen printing machines enable high-speed printing.
  • The process involves several steps compared to digital printing.

Digital Printing:

  • Digital printing is more cost-effective for small quantities, up until a certain threshold where screen printing becomes more economical.
  • Special effects can be achieved through hybrid machines that combine digital and screen printing.
  • Digital printing is slower compared to screen printing.
  • The printing process involves fewer steps.

A hybrid printing machine in screen printing combines both traditional screen printing and digital printing techniques. The choice between the two methods depends on your specific needs and demands. I would love to hear your thoughts and answer any further questions you may have.

What is a Hybrid Printing Machine

A Hybrid printing machine in screen printing combines both traditional screen printing with Digital.

What is better screen printing or digital printing?

When comparing screen printing and digital printing, it’s important to consider your specific needs. Screen printing is ideal for large quantities, high durability, and simple designs with few colors. On the other hand, digital printing is better suited for smaller quantities and more complex images. Ultimately, the choice depends on factors such as volume, design complexity, and desired durability.

Does digital printing last longer than screen printing?

Digital printing may not last as long as screen printing, especially if you wash your clothes frequently or use hot water. Unlike screen printing, digital prints can deteriorate over time, losing their color and vibrancy. For longer-lasting prints, ensure proper washing and care methods.

Is screen printing better quality?

Yes, screen printing is renowned for its excellent quality. The prints feature vibrant and long-lasting colors, while the durability is unmatched. For optimal outcomes, it is recommended to use screen printing for simple designs with limited colors and intricate details. Elevate your printing game with screen printing technology.

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As a German resident of Mauritius with a loving wife and two children, I bring more than 35+ years of experience in the screen printing industry. Although English is not my first language, I use advanced artificial intelligence to optimize the clarity of the content, and re-edit so that the factual content is accurately reflected to my knowledge.

2 thoughts on “Compare Screen Printing vs Digital Printing”

  1. Hi Stefan. Thanks for a great article. What method of printing would you recommend for a beach towel? I’m about to launch an Airbnb business here and thought it might be a nice touch to have personalised beach towels. I’m working on a design which will probably incorporate three colours that cover the entire towel. Is this something you can help with, or perhaps you could recommend someone?
    Jane Forster


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