Ready to Invest in Decorating Equipment? Here’s What You Need to Know for 2021

As we’ve headed into a new year in a pandemic state of mind, it’s usual for decorated apparel pros to review their business plans and consider adding new decorating equipment: embroidery machines, screen-printing presses, DTG printers, sublimation printers, heat presses and the like. 

However, the way you approach these investments probably will look a little different. We asked decorated apparel industry veterans to weigh in on the trends—automation, print-on-demand and more—that will impact how you purchase equipment in 2021.

A good place to start is your business plan. “Be clear about the market you’re selling to before investing in a new decorating process,” says Erich Campbell, program manager, Commercial Division at Briton Leap. “If you don’t have an audience already built or a compelling use case in mind, you’re not ready for new equipment.

“DTG is the crown jewel of print-on-demand, but don’t overlook other options for slightly less glamorous POD solutions, like tried-and-true plotter-cut materials and heat-press printing, sublimation, and white-toner transfers if DTG isn’t in your range.” Erich Campbell, Briton Leap

Decorated-apparel expert Kristine Shreve agrees, noting that you should look into the size and potential of the market you want to enter as well. “What’s the potential for the income you can make from the new equipment?” she says. “What’s the size of the area you’ll be selling into?” If it’s local, you could be limiting your sales potential.

This year, some decorators are considering new decoration methods to appeal to more customers as a one-stop shop. “If that’s the case, have a strategy in place to market your new decoration capabilities,” says Todd Longenecker, operations manager at Houston-based TM Works Screen Printing & Embroidery. “Do you have the ability to reach new customers on a national level through social media or paid advertising?”

Then, you should also examine how a potential new equipment purchase and decoration technique would fit in with your existing skill sets and job flow. “Does the new equipment or technique require education and a large learning curve or can you slot it easily into your production schedule?” Shreve says. Plus, consider your cash flow and projected sales.

A note of caution from Longenecker: It may take a couple of years to generate any substantial volume unless you already have existing customers ready to send you orders for your new decoration method. “Speak with other industry pros who’ve added similar equipment to get their feedback on how easy or difficult the transition and learning curve was,” he says. “Then learn from their successes and failures.”

WHAT IF THIS ISN’T YOUR YEAR TO PURCHASE NEW EQUIPMENT?

“If your income has taken a hit due to COVID-19, it might not be the time to purchase a new machine,” Shreve says. “At the same time, if your sales are slow and you have the cash and time, adding new equipment could make a lot of sense. There may be sales on equipment available from machine manufacturers and distributors who’ve also taken a hit due to the pandemic.” 

Lee Romano Sequeira, co-owner of Sparkle-Plenty.com, agrees that it makes sense to be cautious this year, as she’s seen too many shops buy pricey equipment and then go out of business, even in better economic conditions. “Depending on your circumstances, this may be the time to pace yourself financially,” she says. “If the market suffers another crash, those equipment payments still are due.”

Another idea, Sequeira says, is to partner up with a local shop and “rent out” their machine or subcontract your work to them. “There’s excess capacity out there in shops that can outsource, and it’s worth considering a transition from outsourcing to in-housing as part of your strategy,” Campbell agrees. “However, if you’re having capacity issues or you have markets that are begging for a product you could pivot to in-house, that’s a good argument for expansion.”

A SMART EQUIPMENT INVESTMENT CAN HELP AUTOMATE YOUR SHOP

Some shops have had to reduce their staff due to COVID-19, so some owners are looking for automation solutions related to garment decorating. It’s possible that a smart investment on your part might offset a smaller staff.

“The reality is, there aren’t many pieces of equipment that are set-it-and-forget-it, but there are things that can help,” Shreve says. On the embroidery side, investing in good digitizing can mean that you watch the embroidery machine less, as your designs run more smoothly with fewer thread breaks. An automated screen-printing press may require fewer employees to run jobs. 

Campbell agrees that while equipment does need operators to run, some purchases can be time-savers. “Look at assistance tools like embroidery hooping rigs, easier-to-operate magnetic hoops and clamps that can make items easier to prepare and take strain off of the operator,” he says. And there are options at every stage in the production process that ease labor and speed processes. Such as an automatic folding and poly bagging machine.

For example, Campbell points out that management software reduces support time and customer calls for their order status. Automated tape dispensers, folding aids and bagging machines could reduce packaging times, particularly for direct-to-customer, small-run shippers. “Heat presses with two-up stations, threading, and automatic position switching can make it possible for one press operator to run two presses more efficiently,” he says. “The goals should always be: reducing time spent at activities, taking over ‘busywork’ labor, and reducing stress and strain on the staff.”

“The right vendor is the one who’ll tell you the truth, both about the earning potential of the machine and how hard it’ll be to learn to use it.” Kristine Shreve, decorated-apparel expert

Setup is also huge here: Think ergonomic stations that reduce wasted movements and keep things clean and at hand. “This is a good time to look at how your shop is set up and invest in extra tables and stands that can help with social distancing,” Shreve says.

“For smaller shops, something as simple as an automatic ink mixer can be a drastic improvement compared to mixing by hand,” Longenecker says.

At TM Works, after reducing staff during COVID-19, when business picked back up Longenecker says they cross-trained employees to do more with a leaner team. Since the shop does a lot of high-volume contract decorating, the workload can fluctuate from month to month, making staffing production a challenge. “This forced us to research ways we can be more efficient and look for upgraded equipment,” he says. “We need machines that can help us produce faster to minimize overtime or labor costs.”

For example, Longenecker has looked at M&R’s Digital Squeegee, a hybrid printer that mixes DTG with screen printing on a traditional 14- or 16-color press. “This machine can print about 400 shirts an hour and drastically cuts your setup times,” he says, noting that an operator can set up full-color simulated process jobs within the same time you set up four screens. “The point is, with certain machines, you’ll save money and labor on reduced setup times because you won’t be shooting or reclaiming as many screens or mixing as many inks. You’ll also save on other consumables like emulsion and block out.” 

You can also consider investing in computer-to-screen (CTS) imaging technology, which can speed up your screen-printing setups. 

IS POD THE NEXT BIG WAVE?

Print-on-demand and direct-to-consumer fulfillment is a shift that many decorators have had to make. Certain equipment purchases might help with that mode, especially since online ordering will stick around.

“Direct-to-garment printing is probably the best option here,” Shreve says. “While it does have a learning curve, it’s probably the best way to print one-offs. This may also be the time to level up on website software and your setup. Shops that allow customers to design their own products online have the advantage in this market.”

Quick case in point as far as investing in the right machine for POD: Some years ago, TM Works invested in a Brother GT-541 DTG printer. “It’s been great and we’re still using it today,” Longenecker says. “But then we added another DTG machine for darks, but it was a headache. We spent more time cleaning clogged print nozzles and troubleshooting pretreat levels than we did printing shirts.” 

However, on the positive side, TM Works then expanded its capabilities with heat transfers. “It was an easier transition and we had a lot of support from our supplier to walk us through as we learned,” he says. “It’s been a good addition and our customers benefited from our new decoration method.”

Besides DTG, Campbell says shop owners can also look to other POD solutions like plotter-cut materials and heat-press printing, sublimation, and white-toner transfers. “The other smart POD purchase outside of equipment is decoration-specific online store and order management software,” he says, “that may either help with basic personalization or even online customization and art output for production. You can also use it to streamline  collecting, transmitting and maintaining order information.”

HERE’S WHAT TO ASK YOUR SHORT-LISTED EQUIPMENT VENDORS

Most likely, if you’re interested in adding to your shop, you’ve got a short list of vendors and equipment. Whether you “met” the vendor at an in-person or virtual trade show, or got a glowing recommendation from a fellow decorator, you still need to do your due diligence to make sure you select the right vendor and machines to hit your shop’s 2021 goals.

“Have a strategy in place to market your new decoration capabilities. Do you have the ability to reach new customers on a national level through social media or paid advertising?” Todd Longenecker, TM Works

“The right vendor is one that will tell you the truth, both about the machine’s earning potential and how hard it’ll be to learn to use it,” Shreve says. That being said, here are 8 questions you should ask your potential machine vendors.

1. How many pieces can I imprint in an hour? If you’re running a decorating shop, you know that time is money. You also know that your production speed and costs affect your overall revenues and profits. The more pieces you can print or embroider in an hour, the more profit you’ll make.

Ask: What are this machine’s estimated print or stitch times and productivity?

2. What routine maintenance should I expect? How about repairs? Some types of decorating equipment will have a more demanding maintenance schedule. Plus, the number of the same types of machines you have may require more dedicated weekly cleaning and maintenance time. You’ll need to factor those into your production schedule and labor costs.

“Which company can get your machine fixed if it goes down?” Longenecker says. “The bigger companies have technicians who can fly to your shop and get you up and running quickly. Otherwise, you’re the technician under the press on your cell phone trying to figure it out. Also, your local or regional ink supply company may have resources to help. You may also have a local technician everyone uses.” 

Ask: What’s a realistic cleaning and maintenance schedule for this machine? Who’ll support my equipment? How do I arrange repairs and support? What are my costs for repairs and tech visits?

3. How much experience do you have in this space? When you’re evaluating vendors, look for a company that shows a proven track record of what it takes to build a quality embroidery machine, screen-printing press or direct-to-garment printer.

“You’re better off with more established companies that have proven over time their machinery is reliable and they have the resources you need to keep it up and running,” Longenecker says. “Less expensive startup equipment companies or those based overseas may not have the resources and support when you need it.” He notes that a competitor bought decent machines from a smaller, overseas company, but had to wait weeks to get replacement parts. 

Translation: Only include established companies with a national footprint on your shortlist. Companies with an impressive track record are more likely to be around for the long haul. Plus, when a company works nationwide, it’s more likely to have that coast-to-coast sales and support team. Some machine vendors have a 24/7/365 helpline, ensuring that you reach a real, live human on the phone, so you’re never left in the lurch.

Ask: Tell me how long you’ve been in business and how you’ve contributed to decorating shops’ success.

4. What kind of training, support and warranty do you offer? Ask what happens after you sign on the dotted and taken delivery of your machine. Does a rep visit or Zoom into your shop to train you and your staff? Can you reach someone 24/7 if you have a question or an issue? Is there an online training center where you can learn to use the equipment or troubleshoot problems, along with training tips to help you get ahead? What about the warranty?

“Vendors with good training programs available and a staff who knows the machines, because they’ve used the equipment, are invaluable,” Shreve says. “Never underestimate the value of a sales rep and training staff with hands-on knowledge.” 

Campbell agrees. “Find out from other decorators how the support and training runs, and how the company handles problems,” he says. “Look for engaged communities of users, too. Unofficial support can sometimes be your first source of information, especially on off-hours and when support staff are unavailable.”

Ask: What kind of training and warranty will you give me with my machine purchase?

5. What kind of add-ons and supplies do you offer? Depending on the machine you’re buying, there will always be accessories, add-ons and supplies to buy. For example, for a DTG printer, the wider variety of platens and accessories you have, the more flexibility in print sizes and items you can offer. A question to ask here: What’s the maximum printing area?

If possible, try out the inks your short-listed printing supplier recommends (or stocks) for washability and durability before you buy. Another thing to note: While some screen-printing and DTG inks may contain phthalates, PVC or other chemicals, many manufacturers are OEKO-TEX 100 certified—that means the water-based inks, cleaning solutions and overall processes are environmentally (and people and animal) safe.

Ask: What can I expect for printing costs, including ink, pretreatment and other supplies, per garment?

6. What financing options are available? Any imprinting equipment that you plan to add to your shop will be an investment, so take advantage of your financing options, to lease or buy, to see what best fits your needs. Some vendors will offer financing options directly; other times, you’ll need to talk to your bank to figure out the best route for you.

However, consider this: Can you estimate your ROI for the machine six months or a year out? If you know how many garments you can imprint in an hour, and you have a good idea of how many you can sell consistently, you’ll know how fast you can recoup your monthly machine investment, plus a profit. Taking it a step further, see how much you can upcharge for certain types of garments, like if you concentrate on selling premium tees or hoodies. That way, you can make more per garment as well.

And one other word of caution: Don’t fall into the trap of price shopping, just like you dissuade customers from customers coming into your shop looking for the lowest possible price. Yes, you’ll be working with a budget, but that’s why you use financing plans and realistic ROI projections. If a vendor offers you a too-good-to-be-true cost savings, it probably is and will cost you more in the long run. Planning to invest the right amount of time training your staff on the new equipment and selling the right volume to start making a profit are more important than saving pennies upfront.

Ask: What’s your best financing plan for my specific needs?

7. Can you grow with my shop? It’s ideal if you can find a vendor partner who can grow with you, especially if you plan to diversify your services in the future. You may be just starting out with embroidery or expanding your embroidery offerings. However, in the future you may want to expand into screen printing. Talk to your vendor about what else they offer and how they’ve helped other clients like you reach their new revenue goals.

This is also a good place to mention customer reviews. “Make sure you ask for multiple referrals from the company providing the machinery to get real feedback from current or past customers,” Longenecker says. Plus, whether you read reviews online, ask in a Facebook group or ask another decorator, individual shop reviews will often tell you more than aggregated customer data. Always do your independent research on vendors and machines you’re interested in—remember also that a great vendor may also offer several machines, and one machine may rise to the top of the recommendations.

Ask: How have you helped other shops like mine grow and achieve their revenue goals?

WHAT TO DO TODAY TO GET STARTED

Keep these three steps in mind.
1. Decide if you want to buy. After you review the considerations above and your personal shop goal’s, see if you still want to expand your current decorating offerings or add a new one. Then, start making a list of your top manufacturers and models. Use our list of questions to help you narrow down your choices as you chat with vendors and do your research before you pick the ideal machine for your needs.

2. Don’t stop marketing. “When times are tough, people start relying on existing customers and writing orders, retreating into the labor of decoration,” Campbell says. “Don’t forget to work on your business, keep looking for problems you can solve for potential customers, and never stop sharing and presenting your business to your audience of potential buyers.”

3. Revamp your shop’s processes. Longenecker points out that if you realize you’re losing a substantial amount of press time because of poor communication, screens that haven’t been replaced or retensioned, or ink that’s not ready, or shirts not pulled in time, do some internal cleanup. 

“How efficient is it to drop ink on the floor just to step in it and spread it all over the floor?” Longenecker says. “What message are you sending your customers about the quality of your production? Now is a great time to train your employees on how to do it right and be profitable, so you’re ready when this bad pandemic movie finally rolls its credits.”

#ABDECORATINGTIP
This decorating tip is about prepping before you purchase a machine. Todd Longenecker, operations manager at TM Works, cautions decorators to first make sure that your shop building has the electrical capacity to handle the power requirements for any new equipment. “Otherwise, you may spend thousands of dollars converting your power for equipment that sits idle because you didn’t do your homework,” he says. “Also, don’t be that person who buys equipment that doesn’t fit through your overhead doors, so always measure.”

SHOP alphabroder USA and alphabroder CANADA BRANDS TO FIND STYLES OF THE MOMENT.

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