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Welcome (Back) to 2008!

Alan Howe has more than 20 years of hands-on industry experience. He entered the industry in 1987 with an equipment manufacturer and has since held technical-sales and management positions with well-known companies including Jay Products and Easi-way Systems, and Tech Support Screen Printing Supplies. Howe currently works as the technical sales manager for SAATI Chem. A familiar face a trade shows and seminars, Howe has also traveled the world as a short-term missionary and is involved in humanitarian efforts locally, domestically and worldwide.

January 1987: I entered this world of screen printing at just barley the age of 20. I was amazed by the process and its variables, the technologies and fads. UV ink was just coming into its own, no one had ever heard of pure-photo-polymer anything, camera shots, cut Rubylith and the new diffusion-transfer film ruled art departments from coast to coast. And what of computers? Forget about it! Who are we, after all, NASA?

It is now 2007. At this writing, I just got home from The Printwear Show in Indy; SGIA 2007 will be done and gone when this hits the streets. Now, automatic presses are common and affordable, process cameras are historical show pieces, and 14-year-olds know more about computers and software than most adults. We expose screens in minutes, we print faster, artwork lives in files on the computer, many customers can create it themselves . . . and I am now way past the age of 20. Oh, Brave New Industry, how things have changed.

Or have they?

We fight many of the same problems, and we have the same wish-lists in shops everyday, now as then. While the answers are often right in front of us—some in new or improved forms—some just might be the answers that have always been there.

I do believe there are many solutions that can help us to work smarter, not harder, increase our quality, and make our lives easier and more profitable. The world is changing every day and information comes to us at light speed. Who can keep up?

To answer that question, I thought I’d share some of the solutions that are currently available. All new stuff? Hardly. But the reality is that many in this industry still pass by these now-commonplace innovations, choosing to remain in the year 1987. So let us take a look at a few things that I think need further consideration. Some are new, some are improved, and some may just be the answer that has always been there . . . waiting to be “discovered.”

Retensionable frames

Retensionables have been around in some form since before I knew what screen printing was. These pieces of equipment can change frustrating production in to a profitable controlled process. We have to remember that screens are “equipment.” Your screen press, that amazing piece of art, and that new dryer are of no value without frames. Frames are the carrier of the most expensive thing in your shop, the mesh; inch-for-inch, nothing costs you more. So let us not consider frames an afterthought because they are indeed fundamental equipment.

Retensionable frames allow you to stretch mesh at higher tensions than static wood or aluminum frames, but also to keep it there, then return it there again, after the mesh relaxes in production. How does printing with higher-tension mesh help you?

  • You can print at faster speeds (both manually and on an automatic) with less off contact; this allows you to have better control of your ink, using less ink and getting better coverage.
  • When printing manually, a high-tension screen allows you use less squeegee pressure, so there is less physical fatigue, and you can save those shoulders.
  • You get optimum coverage of white ink on black garments.
  • There are faster flash times because of more controlled ink deposits.

This all adds up to money and profitability. But I feel one of the most overlooked advantages of using a retensionable frame is in the mesh itself. Its life is increased (yes, increased), and not just by work-hardening. Through the continued process of relaxing and retensioning, the mesh is actually able to be stretched to higher tensions.

The coating of emulsion is easier and more consistent with a high-tension screen, without the uneven amounts emulsion commonly attributed to the bag in a low-tension static frame. An even and more-consistent emulsion coating allows you to achieve a more consistent ink deposit. Finally, capillary film is applied in a snap with a high-tension frame.

High tension and reclaim

With mesh at the high tension achieved on a retensionable frame, you will find the cleaning and reclaiming process becoming easier, faster and more thorough than with a static frame. Let me explain: Wherever two threads cross, there’s a knuckle. On a low-tension screen, ink and emulsion gets trapped in those knuckles, and more chemical and time are used to remove it. What’s more, it sometimes looks clean but there is still residue trapped and we don’t see it until after many repeated jobs of printing, cleaning and reclaiming. Those hardened residues build up behind and inside the knuckles causing the dreaded staining and ghosting.

The most common way to remove stains and ghosts is with products that abrade, score and sand the stain away, or that contain sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide which remove stains by actually removing small layers of the stained mesh, weakening it while being a potential hazard to you and your staff.

This extra chemical and process all comes down to time and money that could be saved by the proper use of retensionable frames. Even while simply making the worst job in the plant (screen cleaning/reclaiming) easier and faster may be reason enough to look at retensionables, the added saving of mesh, ink and emulsion should be icing on the cake.

At first, retensionables were considered appropriate for only higher-end shops, but that was then and this is now. Static frames (be it wood or aluminum) will be less expensive at first but, in the long run, the value goes to the retensionable. No matter what the size your shop, retensionable frames just may be the next investment you need to look at, or look at again.

Dip tanks

Speaking of reclaim, dip tanks have been around even longer than retensionable frames, so how can I include them here? Well, I’m not talking so much the tank as the process and chemistries used in the tank.

The advent of products that allow us to remove plastisol ink and reclaim a screen is a great thing in itself. But when you can reclaim (in some cases) in half the time with half the chemical for half the cost and all with increased safety, I think it is time to give this old process a new look.

The big change in the tanks is that they are now mostly made of polyethylene instead of metal that can corrode over time when exposed to reclaiming products. But new “all-in-one” or “one-step” reclaiming products are being used all over the world and very successfully. The ones from which I have seen the best results have no harsh chemicals, no flash point, no carcinogens, neither TLVs nor PELs nor SARA reportables. How can that be? They are water-based products that combine sodium pariodate (the most common reclaiming agent) and a mixture of surfactants to cut ink.

Here’s how it works: The concentrate is combined up to three parts with water in a tank. Remove all screen tape and scrape as much ink as possible out of the screen. (This is a key point: Ink is money so get as much out as possible. Additionally, the more ink left in, the more chemistry and longer time is needed—this will cost you money too.) Place the screens in the tank for usually no more than a minute or two. Remove and pressure wash the emulsion and ink residue off both sides with no scrubbing. When this is done a very safe non-caustic ink degradant is applied with a hand scrub to mesh and frame. It is then pressured washed off, from both sides. This removes any potentially staining ink and emulsion residues, while also degreasing the mesh. After a quick flood rinse the screen is clean and ready to dry. Most screens are done for pennies a screen.

Some fear this process will result in a mess of emulsion and ink at the bottom of the tank but, since the screens are left in solution for only a short time, the emulsion is merely softened so very little residue comes off in the tank. When used properly, most users are amazed at how little is left in the tank. The tanks can be re-charged from time to time when needed by adding a little more product and water, so a user can go—in many cases—as long as a year-and-a-half without changing out the whole tank.

In many plants, dip-tank use has turned the slowest, hardest job into the fastest, easiest one, with a start-up cost that, in many cases, is less than what it would be for the cost of your current reclaiming process, but also allowing you to get more screens reclaimed per gallon, with safer chemicals and, of course, saving your mesh by reducing (if not eliminating) caustic, mesh-wearing stain removers. Remember, screens are equipment!

We are always looking to cut corners and save time and money. While none of the new chemistries are true one-step solutions and there are no corners to cut in proper screen preparation, this gives us a way to combine processes while turning one of the most time-consuming jobs into less of a chore.

Doing the digital shuffle

While I have repeated the phrase about screens being equipment and needing to be treated as such, it is these very screens and the screen-making process that can sometimes present the very barriers we face and have come to accept: “Oh, if I could only print eight, ten, twelve or twenty-four more colors . . . but my press is only capable of four.” Or: “That six-color design looks so cool but the customer only wants twelve shirts making the screen cost way too much.” And my favorite is when the customer comes back and says: “We loved the shirts! The job was wonderful! Can I get three more?” Ugh! Our answer to these is a flat-out no, or a yes followed by: “And your price will be $89.50 per shirt!”

The constant constraint of screen printing is that it takes the same amount of time and effort to set up a job to print one shirt as it does 1,000 shirts. And, second, that you are limited by your press’s color capacity.

Well, in 1987 this was just a case of “it-is-what-it-is.” Nothing we could do about it except dream and wish for a solution. But now, in the hazy future that has become the very real present, there are some advancements that have become a major part of our industry.

To what do I refer? Digital technology is what, both direct-to-garment and via digital transfers. These methods have been around for a few years now, and they are here to stay. And they are methods that could be just the thing to make your shop more profitable.

I can hear you now: “But we are screen printers!” True, but we’re not just screen printers, we’re garment decorators. We do whatever it takes to produce high-quality garments with a reasonable production cost so we can sell them at a good profit margin. This is not only performed via screen printing, but with embroidery, heat-applied transfers, sublimation and other digital transfers, and inkjet directly to garments. You may have all of these in your shop or you may farm them to others, but most shops have many sources of production.

So, garment decorators . . .

Digital direct-to-garment technology lets us produce multi-color designs on garments without the cost of screens. There are very few limitations to how many colors can be printed, the repeatability is remarkable and consistent, while the production cost is consistent and affordable . . . whether it is 200 shirts or just one.

Since full-color artwork is generated with programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator or Corel Draw, the art is kept on file in your computer. The image is sent from your computer right to the printer. (Many digital garment printers also require the addition of a Rip software.)

The image is printed on the garment in full color with water-based textile inks specially designed for inkjet garment printers. Because of the minimal amount of ink needed, there is an extremely soft hand with a matte finish. The garment is then cured, usually with a heat press, but conveyor dyers are also being used, and new ones are being developed to work specifically with this process in mind.

Most garments print in a few minutes but some print in less than a minute, all depending on the size and design of the image, as well as the machine. While printing with light ink on dark shirts is still in its infancy—being considered a specialty and, in most cases, quite expensive and difficult—the quality and detail of designs printed on white and light-color garments is amazing, as well as profitable. There is an estimated production cost of around $3 per garment, including the cost of the garment. Many shops will print one shirt with a minimum retail price ranging from $19 -$35 and, because of the amount of colors and detail in a design, orders ranging from 12-300 pieces can be performed with significant profit margins.

Given repeatability of orders, even if only of one shirt, multicolor runs with large profits and the ability to create with full color unconstrained by capacity of the screen press or quantity of the order, not to mention no screen cost and rapid set-up time, ROI on such equipment can be quite rapid.

While there are differences (some say limitations) when compared to screen printing, remember that we are not necessarily comparing or seeking a replacement for screen printing. But this could be the opportunity to capture a market that was previously unavailable to us.

Garment decorating and screen printing have been around for thousands of years in some form or another, but let us not behave as if it was thousands of years ago. It is nearly 2008! Let us take advantage of the advancements and technology we have at our disposal now, while looking forward to what is to come in next few years.

Please excuse me, now, while I put my Flock of Sea Gulls live album on the turntable. I hope I still have a needle in the thing!