A little ink + a lot of innovation = Pad Printing: Packed with Possibility

If the custom-clothing industry held Olympic Games, screen printing and embroidery would represent track and swimming for their foundational functionality.

Pad printing, then, would correspond to the lesser-known synchronized diving for its precision and minutia.

While no gold medals were awarded to the latest pad-printing sensation this past summer, the decorated-apparel game and the Olympic Games may very well have intertwined in a different way.

With, no doubt, all kinds of patriotic product for sale, and some tagless-labeled uniforms to ensure Michael Phelps didn’t slip into someone else’s Speedo, pad-printing most likely made its mark behind the scenes in Beijing. And swimwear is just one wearable in many now being labeled, sans tag, according to Annette Sharon, Pad Print Machinery of Vermont.

“Garments are another growth area for pad printing,” Sharon reports. “We’ve seen more tagless labeling of products as diverse as women’s undergarments, sleepwear, hospital-patient gowns and, of course, T-shirts.”

No tag is the new tag

Garment tags are dead . . . or at least on their way out, pad-printing players tell Printwear. And with its detailed image area and accurate ink distribution, pad printing is just right to fill the void.

“As it relates to apparel, tagless printing is up and coming, and beginning to take over for heat-transfer labels and tags,” remarks Inkcups Now’s Ben Adner. “The advantage is that there are no sewn-in tags, so you can get that soft hand.”

Along with such better feel, Adner sees the market converting to this type of apparel label for its washability and distressed affect, among other advantages.

“People can all of a sudden brand their own products,” Adner mentions.

The tagless movement’s marketing capability can also be beneficial in the decorator’s corner, remarks Jim Black at All American Supply.

“We sell pad-print machines to screen-print and embroidery shops looking to add their own brand to the garments they print,” Black points out, adding, “Many customers buy pad printers because their customers want them to provide one-stop shopping and printing for their other promotional products, such as pens or travel mugs.”

Taking over for its obsolete and pesky predecessor, the tagless label does a better job of displaying size and laundering specifications, seamlessly going where itchy and irritating tags went before it.

“The neat thing about using pad printing to do branding on garments is that it’s flexible enough to reach areas like the inside neck, back and sleeve for logos or care information much faster than other technologies like screen printing or heat transfers,” Black explains.

This technique’s flexibility in marking otherwise hard-to-print, uneven and curved surfaces make it a natural for replacing labels on non-wearables as well, adds Sharon.

“Even with beverage bottles,” she remarks, “pad printing can help the bottom line through efficiency with fewer steps to print, and savings in resources and waste.”

Direct-product printing is currently on the rise for items of this nature, Sharon says, as people are looking to reduce cost and waste associated with labels. In addition to plastic beverage containers, she also names personal-care products as good candidates for alternative labeling.

Moving from the inside out, pad printing is also capable of placing logos on pocket Ts, caps, jackets, rental garments and hospital supplies, Sharon notes. But whatever the product or location, pad-printing innovations serve to streamline the process.

Automate, update, abbreviate

As for pad printing’s pre-press aspect, laser technologies can now etch a cliché (the discipline’s counterpart to screen-printing’s screen) faster than you can say ten clichés, or in about two-to-three minutes, according to Adner.

From computer to cliché, lasers etch the graphic right into the plate. Automating the pad-printing process in this way not only makes for a speedier set-up, it also enables decorators to further the use of each plate, getting more for their money in cliché terms.

“With a laser, you can get as many as four images per plate, whereas with traditional photopolymer, you put your piece of film on it, you expose it, and you’re done,” asserts Adner. “Laser plates are not photosensitive, so as long as you’ve got a blank spot on your plate, you can reuse it.”

Etching four images into these double-sided plates expands capabilities and increases cost efficiency; what’s more, the lasers can also be used to engrave product directly, according to Adner.

Still, though it takes longer, the good ol’ print, coat, expose, wash-out way of making clichés is still an adequate solution. “For those with smaller operations at the other end of the spectrum, we are selling more of our portable UV exposure units for etching both water-wash and alcohol-wash polymer pad-printing clichés,” Sharon reports.

And imagers sticking to traditional pre-press technique can still take advantage of other pad-printing advancements.

“We are continually researching new pad materials to offer our customers who need to print non-standard inks,” states Sharon. “Likewise, we are always seeking out new inks for customers who have challenging substrates to print.”

On inking differently, Black brings up specialty inks to match specialty substrates. “There are new inks available for previously hard-to-print materials like the soft-touch finishes on many promotional products,” he says.

Adner discusses special-effects dimensional inks and those made for trickier applications. “When you print metal,” he remarks, “it’s very hard to get the product to dry fast enough so you can print and pack right away. We have an ink, which prints at a low temperature, that you can pack eight minutes later as opposed to a half hour or sometimes a couple days.”

Small tweaks are always being made here and there to improve usability, according to Adner, who names durable printing pads that facilitate ink transfer, ink cups for faster cleanup, and printing-pressure regulation mechanisms as a few examples. To the list of the latest pad-print updates, Sharon adds: “As far as pad-printing machines, speed and precision are key, and newly-refined drive and motion-control technologies are allowing us to offer pad printers that can be placed in-line in manufacturing facilities, reducing both time and labor costs. We also have pad-printing machines that can be diagnosed over an Internet connection, then have new software or programming downloaded to them.”

Expanding business, however, doesn’t always involve the latest and greatest equipment and supplies. And this is especially true for pad printing in all its experimental glory. “People often think of golf balls and computer keyboards when they think of pad printing,” Sharon shares. “But the uses are as varied as the needs to decorate, from curved coffee mugs and indented dial faces to three-hundred-sixty-degree catheter printing and recessed surfaces of collectable toy cars.” Interest in pad printing, she says, is growing beyond product decorating, entering arenas such as adhesive and lubricant placement, as well as conductive compounds for electronics. “For example,” she explains, “if you were gluing together the two plastic pieces of a disposable cell-phone case, pad printing the adhesive is the fastest method to get the material around the edges of the case.

“As for lubricants,” she continues “because pads come in many different sizes, shapes and flexibilities, a pad could be designed to print an exact amount of lubricant down into a space that would be difficult to reach by hand, much less precisely.”

Pad your wallet

With automations and continuing developments, pad printing is now even more conducive to short runs, an important aspect to the practice, our sources emphasize. Small-quantity sprint printers are big winners at the decorated-apparel games, able to compete with the promotional-product marathoners.

“Larger manufacturers will have a minimum,” All American’s Black reports. “If a local embroiderer or screen printer is willing to do one-hundred pieces, he could usually charge a premium and people are happy as heck to give him that business.”

With required quantities as high as 500 pieces and customers with a need for far fewer, pad printers can fill these gaps and save clients from having to offload leftovers on neighbors, friends, kids and random strangers who like stuff.

A different kind of contender gaining on pad-printing’s popularity for customizing non-wearables is direct-to-substrate decoration. “I think pad printing is very strong for years to come in one- and two-color printing,” Adner offers.

When colors are minimal, he says, pad printing is much faster, easier to set up, and simple to operate. “However,” he admits, “when it gets to a multicolor or four-color process, there’s a fair amount of pre-prep. You need plates, screens and then getting the image registered on the press takes some time and expertise,” he continues. “It could take a half hour, it could take an hour for a tough graphic. So those multi-color images, when you opt for digital with no pre-press or registration worries, that’s where I think direct-to-product really kicks in.”

With pad-printing’s ability to print around curved surfaces or into concave/convex areas where inkjets can’t reach, combined with direct-to-substrate’s capacity for one-off full-color jobs, the two can clearly coexist, in Black’s opinion.

Although the world’s best decorators will never meet and compete in the decorated-apparel Olympics, embellishers can be found exhibiting their skill over every season, year after year, throughout the world. And pad printing, it seems, will always have its event.