Costly crimes to avoid in production

Seven Screen Print Sins

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

At times, we can make the least informed decisions even if it is with the best of intentions. Sometimes we take these missteps so many times they turn into habits. Then, finally, we humans adapt and they become the status quo. Case in point: after years of blithely kicking the (techno-fiscal) can down the road, it has become brutally apparent that we’ve been giving away the screen-printed T-shirt business to off-shore companies and to the digital realm.

Our misguided efforts with respect to training, consumable selection, press staffing, lack of systems, and so on, force us to throw money at the problem. While the adage “throwing labor at the problem” is precisely what goes on in developing countries that, at least for the time being, can afford to operate inefficiently. But we can’t and we don’t want to drop our quality standards.

Further, too many screen printers have allowed their vertical-manufacturing inefficiencies to pave the way for digital—even in situations where the order quantity far exceeds digital’s cost effectiveness. And, if we continue down the same inefficient manufacturing path long enough, the rules of engagement will change in favor of digital imaging and it will be too late for us to recover.

But there’s hope for those who want to remain a part of or, better yet, a leader in our vertical manufacturing businesses. A step in the right direction is a step away from the seven deadly sins of T-shirt printing.

The 7th Deadly Sin

The purchasing agent’s mentality (P.A.M.) paradigm implies that an employee’s personal performance evaluation and subsequent compensation are based on how little is spent on consumables. Taken to the extreme, this is the best way to curtail quality and productivity, and to eliminate the chance for predictability and consistency.

The price of films or files, frames, mesh, stencils, blades and ink are conspicuous, but these core-components constitute a measly 5 percent of the total cost of printing a T-shirt. The only paramount costs in our business are the shirt itself and the cost of the time it takes to print it. Therefore, our success invariably hinges on just how well we put that time to use.

To gauge the combined cost of the core-components and the cost of conversion is the only sensible method of cost analysis. To do so, we must evaluate the cost-per-print. We would do well to change our print cost-analysis immediately—because committing this seventh deadly sin keeps us from developing a cohesive system of printing.

The components of the printing process—including frames, mesh, emulsion, ink, squeegees and many more—should be considered as a system of integrated parts, rather than as isolated variables. (All images courtesy Lon Winters)

The 6th Deadly Sin

It is ludicrous to think the screen guy can pick an emulsion that fits the mesh that the press operator insisted upon in order to create a path for an ink (which the boss bought on a closeout deal) to be printed with an old-fashioned blade. And then we have the naiveté to deem this amalgamation a “system.” But what we really need is an integrated system.

All too often we buy products that are good for our business’ priorities instead of what’s best for our customer. Then, ironically, we insist upon producing top quality images… for the good of the customer, of course.

In order to achieve top quality, our systems must originate with the following three criteria:

1) The requisite wet-ink-film-thickness,
2) The open area of the mesh, and
3) The registration tolerance of the image.

Consider whether the products and processes in play support these requisites. If not, neither our customers nor our corporate bank account is benefitting.

In addition, when the components and processes are selected as isolated variables rather than as part of a system, far too many images becomes “research projects” on press and then there is no way to communicate or demonstrate standard operating procedures (SOPs) to the staff.

The 5th Deadly Sin

On-the-job training is shop-speak for “we didn’t take the necessary time to train them properly.” There are three elements in the screen-printing process; shirt, pump and ink. We must construct a screen-printing “pump” for each job we print.

Our pump is comprised of: film or file, frame, mesh, tension, stencil, application, exposure, developing and drying, the fill (or flood-bar), and, finally, the printing blade and its angle, pressure, speed and gap. These comprise a fairly complex sub-assembly—one that everyone in pre-press and production should comprehend its proper use… and potential abuse.

Many of us are weak in print-engineering and are armed with minimal test equipment. This leaves us with few or no standards which renders the system unpredictable. Lack of predictability and consistency make the process difficult to describe, even if and when we’re willing to take the time to train.

The typical, but costly, solution to a poorly-trained staff is to instate multiple layers of management to keep an eye on those incapable of making informed decisions with respect to the pump for the variable ink which runs through it.

The 4th Deadly Sin

Ink without specs is the ultimate paradox—the product is never going to be exactly the same or completely stable due to time, temp and a myriad of other influences. Yet when this mystery-ink arrives via UPS, there’s nothing in the box specific to the lot number therein to tell us anything about its application properties. Or, if there is, we don’t read it. So we know nothing about its specific flow, tack, thickness, matte-down, opacity, gel, color or gloss… yet hope prevails that the printed shirt will “look the same as last time.”

Even if we have an integrated system, this ink issue is the deal breaker—the ink varies and if we don’t know how much it’s varied per parameter, we should never expect consistency. It would be prudent to get a detailed specification or a certificate of analysis (CofA) on every core component in the process. However, though we must accept the garment and can optimize the pump, we have no more influence over the ink than we do the weather which reportedly affects it. To proceed without knowing what the ink might do today ensures the proliferation of the third deadly sin—inconsistent and low output.

The 3rd Deadly Sin

We know some of our core components may not function so well, but it is very likely none of them were designed to fit together. This reality keeps each print something of a mystery to the staff, so we investigate each of the phases of printing through trial and error each time we go to press.

The greatest misconception here is “slow and steady wins the race.” This just is not so! Quality components and a system of printing allow screens to set up in two-minutes per color. The proper blades and press settings prevent stoppage to clean-up the blur, and the highest-quality images can invariably be printed at top stroke speeds. Predictability, consistency and maximum output (all at the same time) are the hallmarks of well-orchestrated manufacturing. These are well within our reach if only we hadn’t committed all these sins.

The 2nd Deadly Sin

Accurate pricing creates a catalyst for survival, growth and development of the company. Unfortunately, if the printed output is unpredictable and inconsistent, we can only price after the fact. Ever notice we seem to have a knack for “winning” the bids we’d rather be spared and yet we suffer a backlog of the most complex work in the business? Anomalous and reactive pricing results from operational imprudence, but our pricelist always mirrors the financial health of our organization.

The high end of pricing should approach whatever the market will bear, but the low end must be based on the required activity to produce the job. Activities create costs and, as such, must be accounted for on the price sheet. The problem is when our activities vary (due to sins seven through three) per job.

To isolate the problem, rank each job by giving it a relevant value based on its complexity. A job that ranks “three” may be a one-color, medium size on a light background with no special effects. Scale up to the most complex on our equipment and rank an eight-color, two-flash, oversized image on a ‘blackground’ with a gel-inlaid a “43” on the complexity scale. If you notice we’re doing lots of “43s” but too few “threes” and would like to upgrade the matrix—talk to the boss who’s embroiled in finding salvation right now.

The 1st Deadly Sin: Bottom-Line Management

Ever notice the precise quality of the printed image varies with the date and the time of day? The message from corporate may be modified to; “we take whatever time it takes to do it right… unless we’re out of time.” This is hardly an opening line for a mission statement, but it sounds more typical then we may think.

Let’s play out the scenario. By month’s end, the boss looks at the books and sees too much red ink. The easiest reaction is to cut overtime, reduce labor, eliminate R&D and training expenses and, most notably, cut the core component costs. At face value these actions seem to constitute the conduct of an astute businessperson.

This error in judgment is not due to arrogance or complacency; rather, it is our fundamental misimpression of costs that is to blame. With these expenditure “reforms” in place, the raw material costs (about 5 percent of the total) will go down and the conversion cost (about 95 percent of the total) will go up. Yet the boss still insists on impeccable quality at the end of the dryer… and the beat goes on.


Can you remember a time, not too long ago when KINKO’s charged $3 each for a color copy on 8.5" X 11", #50 offset sheets? Nowadays the proliferation of equipment and maturity of the market has this cost down to pennies a print. Similarly, we may enjoy another five years of the digital direct-to-garment honeymoon, wherein the pricing and profits are suitable. But, unlike screen printing, it won’t take long for the profits to erode. The kicker is: cost-inefficient screen-printing will make digital printing a more and more viable alternative.

The impetus for the off-shore emigration from the U.S. to developing countries has been for lower labor costs. Most of the U.S. T-shirt ventures off-shore have been veritable train wrecks. But each of these countries want to help feed our insatiable appetite for buying stuff and they will continue to export to the U.S. en-masse.

We cannot compete domestically unless we increase our efficiency in a market with shortening run lengths. The only answer is to improve efficiency. The way to begin is to avoid these seven deadly sins, starting with the first.