People in Print

DTG printing: choose your own adventure

by FESPA Staff | 19/12/2023
DTG printing: choose your own adventure

We speak to M&R’s Zac Biberstine and discuss the company’s Polaris high-speed DTG printer.

Earlier this year, at the FESPA Global Print Expo 2023 in Munich, one of the many international exhibitors in attendance was Zac Biberstine, EMEA Technical Director of US print machine manufacturer M&R. 

At the time, Zac was on hand to guide other visitors through the capabilities of M&R’s Polaris direct-to-garment high-speed printer. Featuring 12 different hardware and software systems, and a 16 station indexer, the Polaris is able to pre-treat, heat press, quartz flash and digitally print garments, M&R says, at “industry-leading speeds, with exceptional print quality”.

Away from the excitement of FESPA Global Print Expo, we spoke to Zac about how the Polaris achieves this.

Tell us about your own background. Before this role, you worked for adidas – how has that experience affected your work now with M&R?

Most big brands don’t own their own manufacturing, they sub it out, but adidas still had its own facility in the Midwest. I went there to creat an R&D department in order to test equipment, process, material, product – anything that had to do with garment decoration. 

I started looking at digital printing. Brands like adidas weren’t doing customised work at the time, they were still doing 2,000-piece average run sizes. But I started with digital printing and familiarised myself with the big brands in the industry. I’ve owned most of the machines on the market – at adidas we would bring them in, put them through their paces, and find out what worked and what didn’t.  

The reason I am now at M&R is because I have several years of experience regarding what is available on the market and what the market is looking for. At M&R, we have many people with experience of being on the customer side; people who understand what is required and also what is not being fulfilled by manufacturers. Therefore, we are the voice of the customer. We can help M&R build what customers really want and find the middle ground between an engineer saying how something should be made, and a customer saying how they actually interact with the machine. 

Tell us about the Polaris and why it is so special.

The Polaris really offers you the flexibility to do whatever you need to do. Everybody is used to a machine being set up and being told: here it is, this is how it prints. 

But with Polaris, it can use different colour profiles, different heat settings and different pre-treatments, yet none of it changes how you interact with the machine. All this work is executed ahead of time by building files and linking the SKUs to the profiles and the data. 

We have customers who use these machines to print batch orders – they print 1,000 units of the exact same thing because the machine is capable of executing this. Or you can just as quickly print 1,000 garments each with different graphics. It really is built to be flexible for your business and allows you to use it in any way that works for you.

Where does the Polaris fit into the market?

To answer this properly, it is important to take a step back and look at what has been offered as options to garment decorators in the past. 

Screen printing was excellent at printing thousands of units with low numbers of colours, and was fast and cheap. Digital printing could achieve the things that screen printing couldn’t do in terms of high-detail. However, it wasn’t fast, it was rather limited regarding the types of garments you could use, and it was a bit expensive. Therefore, hybrid printing with a screen-print base and a digital layer on top of that developed something that offered the best of both worlds, with high-run sizes but also high detail, and also fairly fast. 

Everyone was interested in finding a way that we could print digitally, but with an industrial version of the machine. Something that is fast, robust and that allows us to work in the mind space that we used to work in with screen printing. 

How do we get from the one-off, artistic, high-detail approach of digital to the mass-produced low cost and high speed of screen? 

Polaris is at that point, where we have created a digital machine that services a market that is on-demand. It is fast, high-quality and cheap. It is simultaneously achieving everything that we require. The Polaris allows customers to reach speeds that match screen-printing methods. In some cases, the Polaris can print over 300 units an hour but still prints in super-high detail. The machine is built to run all day.

One interesting feature of the Polaris is its barcode scanner – how does that work?

The barcode scanning system allows us to have API integration into other people’s systems. That means that we are printing garments and graphics with a full set of information that is tied purely to that SKU. 

The Polaris machine is driven by JSON file set-up, which means that every single aspect of the set-up of the Polaris machine including all ancillary units around the base of the machine are all driven by this one file. This includes its heat press, pre-treatment machine, two flashes, heat press, white unit, flash, optional heat press and colour unit. This file defines how much heat and pre-treatment is used on a garment. 

If I barcode-scan and I load a shirt, and then I barcode-scan and load another shirt, the data that is tied to the first shirt is completely separate to from the second shirt. The first garment gets a first flash on for five seconds, but the next garment with its different set of information can have a different temperature and a different time under the flash. Every single piece of data is barcode driven and it’s independent from one pallet to the next. We can integrate with whatever barcode system companies are using. 

People who are already in the made-to-order business or the print-on-demand business almost always have their own system. They already have barcodes on t-shirts that they use to drive their business with things like tagging and shipping information. But that independent barcode can also determine what graphic is going on the t-shirt, how much ink is going down, how long and how many times it uses the heat press. It’s not just a tool to help drive the machine, it’s something that helps us to integrate the Polaris machine with the pre-existing business. 

Tell us about the pre-treatment capabilities of the Polaris and how it can achieve high-quality print.

When you are printing digital inks that are jetting through Ricoh GEN5 print heads, the size is small enough that you’re not able to jet resins and binders or any of those heavy or thick things. Currently, almost all digital printing has to have pre-treatment – whether the garment is pre-treated, or whether you are putting a pre-treatment on the surface for the inks to sit on top. When we’re printing at the highest detail, it is crucial that the ink to sit on the surface. 

There are some people in the industry who wet pre-treat and there are others who dry pre-treat. With the Polaris it is a dry pre-treatment. We spray it on wet and we keep it right on the surface. We flash it so it stays there and it’s a thin layer so that, when the ink comes down, it sits on top of the pre-treatment and it binds to the shirt instead of soaking in. If you spray digital ink onto a wet pre-treated surface or a non-pre-treated surface, you can see it starts to penetrate and you begin to lose the vibrancy and the detail. 

Our pre-treater has a light and a dark channel that allows you to separate the way pre-treatment reacts on different garment colours and surfaces, so we have slightly more flexibility with what we can run through there. 

You mentioned earlier that the Polaris can run at high speed all day, but you can also adjust things spontaneously – can you explain this further?

The Polaris has an operator station and there is a server, and both are in proximity to whoever is loading the machine. There are independent computers on the print unit, but the person who is running the machine has a lot of options. There is a physical control panel with the HMI: that controls the base unit, the way that it indexes, its movement, all those sorts of parts. Everything else is supplementary to that and it’s our way of giving our customers options around how much or how little they want the operator to do. 

If you just want the operator to turn on the machine, load a garment and then let it go, then you can do it. But if you want the person who is running the machine to be able to pull the files, check the quality, intersect the skew of what is expected with what it is, they can do that, too. We have customers who barcode-scan and their user interface appears and shows what the graphics should be, shows the placement and the details so they can double-check it before they put it on. 

It’s our way of offering our customer a ‘choose your own adventure’ interface. They can have all the information at their fingertips, or they can have somebody just there to load and go. 

That leads us onto colour management – can that be done on the go?

Colour management is built into the system. We have the same sort of colour libraries, and colour replacement, and the ability to profile as can be done on most other digital machines. 

We use Caldera and through that the customer can either take what is provided out of the box, or they have the ability to set up their own profile on this machine and print to their specific colours. 

We have customers who do branded and licensed work who all have different requirements. I worked in the branded licensed athletic space for years and I know there are teams who use the exact same Pantone colours as each other, but who expect different outputs. That’s just the reality of the world we live in. With Polaris, you have the ability to do that and create your own colour replacement libraries for not only your garments but also your customers. 

To discover more about M&R’s Polaris machine, visit mrprint.com/polaris 

 
by FESPA Staff Back to News

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