Heiner Rupperath, sales and product manager for industrial printing machines at Brother, discusses how to print on products other than T-shirts

Once you‘ve established how to print on T-shirts with your direct-to-garment printer, it‘s time to take the next step and discover how to make printing on shoes, caps, bags and other substrates as easy as possible. Due to the growth in the number of shops, especially online, that provide printed and customised T-shirts, it has become a challenge to increase your sales, especially during the colder winter months when T-shirt requests naturally decrease. One possibility is to set yourself apart from your competitors by extending your product range. The main question we get from people who want to take this step is: “Isn‘t it difficult to print on shoes, caps, trousers and other substrates?“ Followed by: “Doesn‘t it take too long to fix the garment on the flat printing platen?”

The answer is yes and no. It does take more time, especially in the beginning, and practice is needed, but by using the proper tools, which are already available in the market, and by following the manufacturers‘ advice, the production time can be reduced drastically and the return on investment can be higher than when selling printed T-shirts. While the preparation of a shoe, for example, may take longer than preparing a T-shirt for printing, the advantage of enlarging your available product range speaks for itself and there are numerous tools that will help speed up the printing process and ensure that the print is exactly where the customer wants it and is of a perfect quality without a big mass of ink mist, misprints or damaged machine parts. Maybe you‘ll produce lower quantities of these objects than of T-shirts in the same time, but a unique print on an exclusive item like a leather bag or a canvas shoe will allow you to achieve a higher profit.

The right tools

To print on these products, your DTG printer has to be flexible in terms of the range of print platens it can accommodate. You also have to be able to lower the platen to ensure that the material does not touch the print heads. At the same time, you must ensure that it isn‘t too far away from print heads: if the material is too far away from the print head, the image might not look sharp and will create ink mist, which can make the inside of the machine very dirty, which, in turn, can cause serious damage to the electronic parts and encoder strips. (Some manufacturers produce machines where these sensitive parts are properly covered.) A frame or other method to fix curved or uneven material will also be necessary. It is important to make the substrate flat and ensure it doesn‘t move during the printing process. This is vital in order to secure a good print quality and to prevent any possible damage of the print heads. The process of finishing is flexible: using a tunnel dryer, a heat press or even a heat gun to dry the inks on the different materials should be possible. There are special dryers available, such as those for shoes, for example, and heat press platens for caps and shoes to increase the precision of the drying process.

Ink coverage

The ink volume needed to reach a certain print quality, ie the coverage of inks, will be different for each material you might want to print on, such as cotton, canvas, jeans, leather and even silk. For example, a hoodie with thick, cotton material and long fibres needs more ink in order to ensure a good coverage of the colours, especially on dark garments where you need a white underbase. On the other hand, a garment made of silk needs a very low volume of ink. If you use too much ink, the image will start to bleed and the sharpness of the image will be compromised.

DTG printers such as the Brother GTX can be used to print shoes and many other products

It‘s also important that the ink has good washability and a wide colour range to ensure a high quality print result on the different surfaces. There are manufacturers who already offer positioning tools like camera systems or projectors to show where the print will be and to prevent misprints – this makes the operator’s life easier. Examples include AccuLine from Brother, Envision by Brain Industries, and Smake Easy Positioning System. Also, there are different platens available that optimise the print process. These include, but are not limited to:

■ Shoe platen 
■ Baby and youth platen, for small sized garments
■ Cap platen
■ Zipper or button platen, for polo shirts, hoodies, etc
■ Sock platen
■ Sleeve platen, (for sleeves and trousers)

Once you’ve mastered these tools, there are other creative ideas you can apply to increase the fashion value of your products, such as combining DTG printing with embroidery, special foils or rhinestones. Given the technology that’s now readily available, it has never been easier to create something different from your competitors.