Take Your Show on the Road

If you find the right niche, onsite on-demand screen printing can be very rewarding.

A student in one of my screen-printing classes recently shared her plan to become an on-demand screen printer servicing the forest fire market. It’s not the first time I’ve heard about this very specialized niche either.

These ultimate onsite, on-demand printers pack a compact screen-printing operation in their trailer, and then set up shop in a parking lot where firefighters from around the country gather to fight the current blaze. And nearly all those firefighters want a commemorative shirt to take home after the fire is under control.

I’m not advocating that you chase forest fires for your on-demand business, though obviously more than one screen printer felt it was a worthwhile endeavor. What I am advocating is a new slice of the garment marketplace available for screen printers who want to take their show on the road.

While we screen printers might take for granted the process of screen to shirt, the public is fascinated to see color upon color as we produce a finished garment before their eyes. A crowd will gather every time you print a shirt. If you do it with a little flair, the bigger the crowd.

The first advantage for the onsite screen printer, your inventory is blank garments. This product can easily be put back into stock or transported on to the next event if there are leftover blank goods at the end.

The number and types of events is limited only by your imagination. Music festivals, corporate events, street fairs and county fairs are just a few examples. And by printing onsite, you’re selling more than a T-shirt, you’re also selling the experience.

Whether you print from your trailer or print at an onsite venue, you’ll need a vehicle to transport both equipment and inventory. For fairs and festivals, printing inside your trailer will cut down on your setup and breakdown time.

Most onsite operators will use four-color press to save space. Your options would be to set up four one-color jobs to offer a choice of shirts, all the way up to a spectacular four-color print.

You’ll need a flash if you plan to print dark colors. Some operators, to save space, will use the flash unit to cure the shirt as well, but this is time-consuming and inefficient. Your best bet is a compact conveyor dryer that will have the capacity of about 48 pieces per hour.

Assuming that at least some of your events won’t have electricity readily available, you’ll need a generator capable of powering your dryer and any other electric equipment.

To keep from having your sales day end abruptly, it’s always a good idea to have a duplicate set of screens taped and ready. There are a dozen ways to ruin a screen accidently, so be ready for that eventuality.

Your first competitor will be the vendor who arrives with preprinted garments. They’ll generally be limited to a few garment options and tend to run out of inventory toward the end, in the attempt to guess at the number of pieces sold and a desire to not have useless product left over at the end.

Direct-to-garment printing can compete head to head with an on demand option. In fact, DTG offers the opportunity to offer unlimited graphics and even photos taken at the event. The drawback is in print time, up to three minutes on a dark shirt, plus an additional 1½ minutes to cure. And, DTG machines are far more susceptible to environment concerns – heat, cold or low humidity – that may cause production issues. Once you stop printing to do a head cleaning or other service on the machine, the crowd disperses.

Transfer decorators also compete with inventory being blank until you decorate it at the event. While a screen printer can either print the transfers themselves, or job out to one of the many transfer houses, the act of putting a transfer on the shirt and heat pressing isn’t as interesting to see as direct screen printing or direct-to-garment decoration. And transfers, depending on the quantity, can be expensive to buy or time-consuming to print.

Onsite and on-demand screen printing is not only a viable option, it can open new doors and opportunities to expand your market. Besides selling event shirts, you’ll likely meet new customers for your day-to-day business there as well. And going on the road with your business can be an adventure in and of itself.


Terry Combs is a 35-year veteran of the garment-printing industry and has managed production shops large and small across the United States. He has written hundreds of management and technical articles for garment-printing publications and spoken at industry events worldwide. He’s in sales and training with Equipment Zone, Franklin Lakes, NJ, working from Scottsdale, AZ.