Printwear on Point: Mark Gervais

Printwear on Point: Mark Gervais

Joe Clarke has spent the past 47 years in the lab and in the engineering department, in pre-press and on-press, as an R&D / technical researcher and as a manager of screen print production. Clarke has held executive positions as President of M&R Printing Equipment and as Vice-President at Wilflex [Poly One]. He has been granted a growing number of print-related patents, including one for High-Shear printing with Smilin'Jack - he is a member of the ASDPT, is an Associate Editor for NBM and an SGIA Fellow.

Clarke has presented hundreds of technical papers, written a couple books and published over 600 technical / management articles for which he has been awarded five Swormstedts; the international standard for excellence in technical writing.

Currently Joe Clarke is the President of CPR, a Chicago-based corporation which manufactures Synergy Inks including NexGen; environmentally & financially responsible T-Shirt inks. For more information on CPR, visit

JOE CLARKE: It looks to me like you are the sitter for 52 autos and five kilometers of heated printing tables—damn near the diameter of the city I live in! So how do you feed a bear that size?

MARK GERVAIS: Well, we feed it often and with quite a bit. Fortunately for us, due to the nature of our business, the clients we serve and being a completely vertical garment manufacturer, there never seems to be a shortage of food!

JC: In my experience with a one-press shop, they have overseers and doers. They can grow to about three autos and life can be about the same. But, once they have four autos, some of the doers have to become overseers and, much of the time, the wheels fall off, quality suffers and productivity dwindles. Is there a secret to “train for growth” in your factory? How many layers of management do you recommend?

MG: We’re very fortunate that our upper management has supported the “printing operation” growth and kept it in line with the overall company growth—that’s a huge factor. I can only speak for the printing operation but, keeping skilled employees and increasing the technical knowledge for those who are “hungry” for it is very important.

In terms of layers of management, just due to the shear massiveness of our printing operation—our numbers are staggering, with approximately one-million square feet of facility, 13 ink rooms, 3,000 to 9,000 square feet screen rooms and we measure our daily ink usage in tons—we have several management positions; several layers. I cannot say for sure but, as we’ve grown, so have the people, the positions they hold and their experience as well.

JC: Even in China there must come a point of economies of scale, right? Is the “right number” of presses 52? Would it ever be fiscally prudent to need, say, 104 automatics? And, even if the market would bear it, how can you get more quantity from the 52 press pump you already own without sacrificing quality?

MG: I think that’s enough machines and growth for now… it is for me anyway. Since we wanted to level our growth in terms of machines and buildings, we are launching our “Machine Efficiency” program this year. It’s not that we aren’t trying to print faster, though in some cases we are. What we are really trying to do is stop less and, when and if we do, figure out how to start the presses spinning again much sooner.

We could really call it a downtime reduction program. We’ve identified what causes us to stop, the frequency of those causes and the downtime impact of those. Having done a Pareto Chart on those, we know where we need to begin and what we can do to improve.

As a good friend of ours once told us, “it’s not how fast you run; it’s how well you run fast.” We’re only making money when the presses are spinning. It’s not that we’re printing money but, it’s like we’re printing money!

JC: So tell me about coordinating the people in an operation that size; in a different country and culture. In my experience, I’ve found that different cultures are more willing to take the ball and run with it. In other words, if I put a 55 gallon drum between you and me in the hallway, you’ve got a couple options: you can climb over, you can walk around or you can move the drum.

Where do you feel your 2,000 workers fit? Do they move the drum; do they roll it out of the way? How do they deal with a barrier?

MG: Generally speaking they’re the walk around/climb over type.

JC: But in your process teaching them to fish, you want them to move the barrel the hell out of the way.

MG: Yeah!

JC: And how’s that going?

MG: It’s getting better. First ask me: how’d the barrel get here?

JC: My nature is to move the barrel—better to ask forgiveness then permission.

MG: If I don’t know how the barrel got there, another might show up. I need to look at how the barrel got there.

JC: This barrel’s not alone….

MG: (Laughs). Exactly. But the staff… they’re learning. This has just been a recent thing. I’ve been with Shenzo for almost two years but I’ve been working and living in China for a little more than seven.

JC: Shift gears a little bit. I’m looking at a piece of artwork. Who creates the art that you print? Because what I’ve seen so many times is that the art department will make a masterpiece but they won’t build it so that it’s printable. Arguably one of the most difficult things to do as a print engineer is to figure out what the sequence is. So how do you get from the drawing board from Photoshop or Illustrator. How do you get from that to a good looking shirt? Tell me the process.

MG: I don’t think we have enough time (laughs).

I do some of the artwork in my spare time, or at least when I’m not emailing late at night. I do art because I enjoy it, it’s relaxing. I just create art. Just for fun. All the pieces from me are concepts I’ve taken and worked with or created or had some play in it.

JC: Oh, really? You’re way more interesting than I thought (laughs).

MG: Yeah, I’ve become a lot more interesting on the art side now because I’m really working with digital imageries. I capture images then flip them through Photoshop retreatments and output through whatever programs I want to use to make the separations.

We’ve really made some strides in that and, basically, we really worked hard to look at the graphics that come to us from all the brands, at doing separations and setting up the sequence in the separations.

When we separate art a certain way, it has to be assembled the proper way. So, as we are separating it, we reassemble it the way we’ve taken it apart in order to be much more successful at getting the look. There’s a little bit of a method to the madness but it’s all in the way we create the layers and the separations and in knowing how to print that out of the machines.

JC: The way you describe your R&D facility to me, devoting two autos to it, it seems to be the bridge between the quality your clients need and the level of technology on your shop floor. Many smaller operations see an R&D lab as an extravagance. Any advice as to how they can justify an R&D department?

MG: This is a good question with a relatively simple answer. How can you not afford R&D? At any level/size, you gotta want an R&D. R&D is the action; the department or lab is the place and comes based on your size of operation. Hell, it doesn’t matter even if it’s not a department or lab—you need to have some R&D every day! It’s like the vitamins and nutrients to feed your printing operation and keep it healthy no matter what size you are.

You need to have a focus at whatever R&D level you’re at. It could be from trying new emulsions, inks, specialty inks, frames, printing techniques, mesh, stretching techniques squeegees, film, dot count/mesh/angle on different fabrics, separation software and all the way to platen tapes and paper. As said in Apocalypse Now, “Are you gonna’ fight (R&D) or you gonna’ surf (print)? What are you gonna’ do?”