December 12, 2021

Compare Screen Printing vs Digital Printing

Hello, today is about comparing screen printing vs digital printing. Which is better or how should they be weighed against each other, if at all possible.

What is screen printing?

Workers are printing on a Screen Printing Press
Screen Printing

Silk-screen printing is an old technique, basically, you push the ink through a prepared screen, so that the design is printed on the substrate, for us silk-screen printers, usually on a fabric.

Screen printing goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries. See WIKIPEDIA (opens in a new tab).
The process has changed, but basically, we are still squeezing ink through a screen.

What is Digital Printing or called DTG (direct to garment)?

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

Came through modification of a desktop printer, whereby we are not printing on paper, but directly on t-shirts or, in the meantime, also on fabric rolls. This development had taken off rapidly.

Let’s compare Screen Printing VS Digital Printing

The process steps of printing a t-shirt using traditional screen printing, steps:

  1. Open the design on the computer.
  2. Single colour or multicolour, it is necessary to create a colour separation first.
  3. It is required to print out your positive film separation.
  4. You have to place screen printing mesh on the frames.
  5. Coat the screen with a light-sensitive emulsion
  6. Let it dry
  7. Expose the film to the frame with the coated emulsion
  8. Wash the screen out, to expose your design
  9. Prepare the silk-screen frame for printing, taping, blocking.
  10. In the meantime, mix the colours, for your design.
  11. Set the press with the printing frames
  12. Put the t-shirt under the press.
  13. Put the colours on the frame.
  14. And print the whole thing with a squeegee on the t-shirt.
  15. In the case of multicolour, rotate several times.
  16. Remove the t-shirt
  17. Put the entire t-shirt through a dryer to fix the colours.
  18. Take the rest of the ink from the frames out of the press and place it back in the container.
  19. Clean the squeegee
  20. Remove the frames from the press.
  21. Clean the frames from ink completely
  22. Remove the emulsion from the screen to prepare the next design

The process steps of printing a t-shirt with digital printing,steps.

  1. Open the design on the computer
  2. When the t-shirt is dark, it should usually be impregnated, or you can buy t-shirts prepared in this way
  3. Place the t-shirt on the printing table
  4. Maybe, but only maybe, match the printing color tones between the computer and the printer
  5. Click print
  6. remove the t-shirt
  7. Fixation by dryer or transfer press

And the result?

Firstly Digital printing has a clear advantage in the area of work processes. As a result, We save many work steps, as the comparison above makes clear.

Now where is the crucial point, why is screen printing not simply discontinued and everything is printed digitally?

The crucial point is the cost. The cost stays the same for digital printing, from 1PC till 10000PC, whereby screen printing the cost goes down, extremely high for a single print, to extremely cheap by mass production.

Digital printing is cheaper for short runs, for sure. Traditional screen printing overtakes digital printing by the costing factor and the speed when it comes to mass production.
Where the point is that digital printing is cheaper than classic screen printing is different.
Because, It has to do with the fixed costs of your workshop, with the existing printer itself, it was costly, or a kind of DIY printer. The printing colors are much more expensive than screen printing; the maintenance of a digital printer is totally different.

Red background showing teh wordings break point

A small anecdote, a screen printer friend, had a brother digital printer, single bed loading. Yes, this could also print on dark t-shirts, so he also had the white ink on board.

The purchase cost at that time was around 20000USD; I still asked how many t-shirts he had to print to make up for his pure purchase cost. Now for his business, we calculated about 2 years. So he would work 2 years to get his ROI (return of investment). 2 Years without this printer having any problems!

Trouble free?

And of course, the problems will come, my friend started complaining that even on Sundays when he is not working he has to go to his studio to rotate the ink. Yes, you have to do that. Modern as the future is, he got this msg on his smartphone, from his digital t-shirt printer.
Not only that he was annoyed by the messages at inappropriate times. How he said, now I’m the slave of my own digital printer.

Digital Print Head

No, the print head of a digital printer, has a life expectancy of X. X stands here for printing numbers, which is usually different for each manufacturer. But x also stands for when the print head becomes clogged. Yes, as with your desktop printer, the nose of a digital t-shirt printer can also become clogged.
Cleaning the print head usually helps, but at some point, it no longer helps. But when it comes to power cleaning, it really wastes a LOT of ink.

And especially when the digital t-shirt printer, with the white option, comes very often to problems.
Why? Well, white ink has a high pigment load, and these pigments need to be moved, as they have the tendency to settle, and the white ink, has a harsh chemical component, which is quite aggressive to the print head.

Digital Printed Design on White

Digital Pinter loves to run, preferably every day at all times. Standstill means problems.

Brake point, Digital printing vs screen printing

So where is our cost point where screen printing overtakes digital printing? When will screen printing be cheaper than digital printing?

Well, there is no clear answer, because everyone has to see in what quantity you print on average.

Think different; consider your needs first.

If you are a sales shop, who have many requests on single design printing, or even for teams, Digital would be useful. If this is your highest income, small quantities, and you have a big volume. If this will be your daily bread, Yes why not.

If you are a traditional screen printer and have on and off the request to print a small number of t-shirts. I would really consider the ROI and perhaps even look father to other digital options, like digital laser transfer printing. We have brilliant options available on the market, even to print on dark t-shirts. This would give you the option to serve your clients, with single design printing on t-shirts. And your investment will be compared to DTS, really low.

You are a big printing shop and like to add digital printing to your options. A) to be able to print short runs B) to get the definition from the digital printer, as added value for your customer.

Yes, as you will already have the request from your client, why not. The advantage, of the mix from screen printing and digital printing, is that we screen print in the traditional way the under-base, and on top, we finish with the high resolution of the digital printer. The white ink problem, you don’t have, as you print only the CMYK colors. And you have a bigger advantage over your competitor, as you could combine, special effect printing, with digital printing. I think this is really something extra; this brings you forward. But still, check out your shop and balance the request you have to the equipment’s cost. The ROI is always an important factor in business, what needs to be calculated and evaluated, to your own running business today.

Return on Investment (ROI)

ROI tries to directly measure the amount of return on a particular investment, relative to its cost. To calculate ROI, the benefit (or return) of an investment is divided by the investment cost. The result is expressed as a percentage or a ratio. source investopedia.com (opens in a new tab)

My own experience

I was at this time, a pioneer in my country with digital printing.
Had first the T-Jet standard and later I added the T-Jet2, some of you may remember the first models, on the market.
The t-jet standard only printed on white or pastel-colored t-shirts.
T-Jet 2, already on dark t-shirts.
I usually had no problems with the T-Jet standard, since it only printed the CMYK colors. The T-Jet 2, with its white color, was a bad investment for me. Why? At that time, the cost of printing, from a black t-shirt, was so high, my customers been not prepared to pay the cost for a single print. Please look at your market, the buying power of your clients, and always ask yourself, is there a market for me.

And last, when you think about a digital printer to print your sampling in screen printing, your client. Let me tell you, forget about it. A digital printer, prints with a high DPI rate, cannot reproduce in screen printing. It is just too fine! And color matching is another story; you won’t be able later to match the colors from the digital sample to your screen printing production.

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

When automatic screen printing machines can attach a digital printer to the automatic printing machine, this makes sense, when you want to offer, high-resolution images to your customer. The under base is printed with the Automatic printing Machine. You can see the white under base in the video and then on top, the digital printer adds the color to it.

But why they build these huge machines in digital printing, which cost more than +500.000USD?

Aeoon KYO12 - FESPA 2015 Cologne

Simple, this is very interesting for T-Shirts Printing online shops, with a high turnover on T-Shirts designs on demand. They printing as the orders gets in. Interesting for Amazon, eBay you name it.

Screen Printing vs Digital Printing summary

Screen Printing

  • Printing is cheaper as from x amount on
  • We can screen print special effect
  • Screen printing is high-speed by automatic printing machines
  • We have many more steps to do as digital printing

Digital Printing

  • Digital Printing is cheaper than the first T-Shirt until it gets to X amount, where screen printing takes over.
  • We only can print special effects, by digital screen printing Hybrid machine setup.
  • Digital printing is slower.
  • Much fewer printing steps

What is a Hybrid Printing Machine

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

I hope this helped you understand the difference between both, as you can see, it’s up to your own needs and demand. Let me know what you think, or if you have any questions.

More on How to Screen Print

I am a German national living in Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean. I have been in the screen printing business for over 33 years and I am married with two children.

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