New Buffalo Shirt Factory Goes Automatic

Neil Bolding is business support manager for Illinois-based MacDermid Autotype Inc. He’s been involved in the printing industries for over 25 years, 24 of those with Autotype and, now, MacDermid Autotype. He also has experience in production and QC functions at Autotype International in England. For the past 21 years he has worked in the US, primarily in the technical field of customer support, handling how-to questions, regulatory compliance, and also product development. In his latest position, Bolding has responsibilities for marketing and the development and promotion of the company’s products. Questions about this article? Bolding may be contacted at neil.bolding@macdermid.com

There are a lot of automatic screen-processing machines out there these days to make a pre-press manager’s job easier. Screen washing and degreasing systems, developing and reclaiming systems—sometimes it seems that the equipment manufacturers have found a way to automate just about every part of the screen-printing process.

But, as with any technology that claims to replace human effort, until an operation reaches a certain size, doing it “the old fashioned way” sometimes makes more sense than buying the latest machine. But for a growing business, it’s usually a question of when to make the change, not if.

Just a big mom-and-pop shop

Clarence, N.Y.-based New Buffalo Shirt Factory (NBSF) reached that point a few years back. This operation houses 11 automatic presses, with a capacity of up to 220,000 printed pieces a day. That kind of volume can put a lot of strain on a screen-processing department. “We process from two-fifty to three-hundred screens per eight-hour shift,” says Jim Fiorentino, pre-press manager at New Buffalo. “And we run two shifts. That’s a lot of screens.”

The company employs about 230 folks, which may seem big, but Fiorentino says it feels like an oversized mom-and-pop shop: “We’re a real close-knit group. We work hard and we hang out together, too. We mostly print T-shirts, but we also do tote bags, hoodies, basically any garment. We do a lot of quick turns. So speed and efficiency are everything to us.”

Fiorentino explains that, before New Buffalo automated its screen processing, it had a booth system that pumped screen wash into a chemical-resistant brush. The operator stood there with the brush going left to right, brushing the ink off the screen. Apart from being a slow system—it took about three minutes per screen to get the ink off—the operator had to be covered head-to-toe in protective gear. But the system worked well for what it was.

“We usually had four people per shift just working on reclamation. One of them had to peel constantly, removing the tape and the guards from the screen. Then there was a guy doing the ink removal, there was a guy doing the degreasing and stencil removing, and there was a guy pressure washing. It was very time consuming. We would do about twenty-seven screens an hour, at best. Because of the workload, the pre-press crew didn’t work a normal eight-hour day. Most of the time they had to work ten hours, or work Saturdays. It was hard on everybody, but that’s what we needed to do to keep up.”

Heading for SGIA

Fiorentino says he started lobbying company owner Jon Weiss to automate the system. Eventually, Weiss agreed to let him investigate the idea, which he did at that year’s SGIA show. “Our engineer, our screen-department manager and I all went. So there were a lot of people involved in making the decision.”

They’d had considerable discussion of the subject, so knew what they were looking for. One concern was the quality of the cleaning process. Another was screen damage. Having gone for years with old-school reclaiming techniques—scrubbing the mesh with tough brushes—they knew all that scrubbing was hard on the screens. They looked at a number of machines that used spinning brushes, and realized they might have problems with chemical carry-over. And the spinning brushes did nothing to reduce screen erosion. The other type of screen-washing system they evaluated doesn’t use brushes. The screens sit on a carriage that moves back and forth while the machine pumps screen wash at 300 psi onto the screens through dozens of nozzles. The nozzles are angled in an X-pattern, and the pressure that’s put on the front nozzle works with the pressure coming from the reverse nozzle so they balance each other out. The overall effect is less wear and tear on the screen itself. And, because there are no brushes, there’s no chemical carry-over. “We focused on one particular brand,” Fiorentino says, “because we were impressed with the thought that the engineers put into the design.”

He explains that the knowledge of the people his company deals with is key during any decision-making process. Merle Evans, NBSF’s engineer, is known throughout the industry. He tinkers with the company’s equipment and has come up with significant improvements. “Whenever we bring him to a show,” Fiorentino explains, “you can almost hear the reps from the equipment manufacturers thinking, “Uh-oh, Merle’s here. We better have our A-game together.”

In the end, the group made a very methodical equipment decision, but didn’t just jump into it even then. “It took the three of us a few months to work out all the details on what it would cost to replace the old system. When we had everything straight we went to Jon and made the presentation. He asked for more facts and, about a month after that, we were ready to make the change.”

Finding the right chemistry

But just buying the new equipment didn’t immediately solve all of New Buffalo’s screen-processing issues. One change often leads to more changes. “At the time, the manufacturer recommended we use Brand-X chemicals in the new equipment, which we did. We’d been using different chemistry, but we took the manufacturer’s recommendation and changed over, figuring they knew best about what would work with their equipment.” It quickly became apparent, though, that there were serious problems—days when Brand-X just wasn’t doing what it should have been doing. It was temperamental to work with and, at one point, Fiorentino actually called the company’s tech support and asked if they had changed the formula. Its performance was that different from one day to the next.

“We can’t afford inconsistency or downtime, so I started looking for alternatives to run in the new machines. I’d developed a fairly close relationship over the years with a rep from one of Brand-X’s competitors and, when I told him what was going on, he naturally suggested switching to not only his company’s reclaim chemistry, but it’s stencil emulsion too.”

Fiorentino explains that, after making this switch, the results got better almost immediately: “Degreaser’s degreaser. We didn’t really expect to see a lot of improvement there, and we didn’t. Then we replaced the stencil remover, which is always a balancing act for the screen-making department. If you mix it wrong you get bad results. First we tried one-to-five. It was too strong and it destroyed our water system. Then we went to one-to-one and it was still not right. We called the tech support chemist and sent them a water sample. On their recommendation, we finally wound up at one-to-one-two-five, which is pretty incredible.”

One benefit Fiorentino saw right away was that the concentration of the stencil remover gave him considerably more chemistry mileage. He has also experienced that the screen wash is lasting longer in the unit. The screen-reclaiming chemistry he settled on is formulated to be used over and over again; the ink settles out of the solution to the bottom so it’s easier to filter and easier to recirculate in an automatic system.

Another reason the stencil remover performs well for New Buffalo is the emulsifier formulated into the screen wash. This is important because, if mineral spirits or another solvent is used on the screen to remove the ink, when you then wet the screen to apply stencil remover, it typically beads up and runs off like water does after you wax your car. Adding emulsifiers to the screen wash helps it to mix with water to make it ready for the next stage. So the screen wash works better, which means the screen comes cleaner, faster.

For New Buffalo, the experience of changing chemistry was definitely a positive one. “No water systems crashing, no screens blocking up, cost savings due to the extremely powerful stencil remover. And these chemicals are very forgiving. If we under-expose or over-expose the screens we can still get away with it. And I can stretch it out. I used to change the system every twenty-two days, but I’ve been able to go to twenty-eight days, way past the point where it should fail.”

The price of change

But did the change from manual to automated reclamation actually save money at New Buffalo? Says Fiorentino: “After the machine got up and running we experimented with many different options. At first we figured we should be able to eliminate two of the guys, because the one in each shift who was peeling before was now loading or unloading. So we cut it back to five people, three on the day shift, two on the night shift. Eventually, we got it down to where it is now, four guys throughout the day. They work mostly eight hours, but sometimes we’ll push it to ten. We’re just running one shift now and doing about three-hundred screens a day. The only time the reclamation crew works overtime is when we’re running large-format screens or we have specialty screens we need to process. But for the most part they’re able to keep right up with our exposure teams.”

Bottom line, Fiorentino has the ability to process more screens. Right now, he only runs one reclaim shift, but has the option of running two if needed. He runs two shifts for exposure and the one reclamation team is able to keep up with both his exposure teams. He says he couldn’t have done that before the automated system was brought on line. While New Buffalo is still in the process of evaluating the new system in terms of its overall economy versus the former manual system—weighing such factors as reduced manpower, increased equipment maintenance, and dramatically different chemical usage—it is likely their new methods will do better than break even. But, beyond the matter of sheer cost, the real value in automating was that it gave New Buffalo the ability to increase its capacity.

Having been through the process of running a busy manual-reclamation operation and then experiencing the change to automation, Fiorentino says he learned some valuable lessons. For one, running a manual operation is fine as long as you don’t need speed. New Buffalo has increased its production every year by 10 percent and had reached a point where it was at capacity. It just couldn’t do any more by hand, requiring people coming in on weekends just to keep up. The company is up to about 68,000 screens a year now and it just wouldn’t be possible to do everything manually.

“If you had to do more than three-hundred screens a day you wouldn’t want to be doing it by hand,” Fiorentino concludes. “People do it. But you’re talking wear and tear on your personnel. Plus, we’re in Buffalo so it gets pretty cold. And nobody wants to be working in water when it’s cold.”