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Digital vs. Screen and the Dilemma of Process Improvement

(June 2012) posted on Tue Jun 26, 2012

How will screen printers can take a leadership role in improving quality and integrating into a more digital-oriented advertising world?

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By Mark A. Coudray

On the set-up side of things, the more control we have over ink flow and press set-up, the faster we’ll come up to color and fit. The work to achieve this was done way back in the mid 1980s with high tension mesh and thixotropic UV inks. Ink shear became a very predictable model. Sadly, many companies are still fighting this battle when it should have been history two decades ago.

What has kept the screen-printing industry from succeeding at optimization has to do with resistance to change. The old model is based on years of experience being rewarded in a high hourly wage rate. This high labor cost caps how much we can save through increased efficiency.

Color management was introduced as a method of control to combat this problem. The result is that ICC color management has commoditized output quality. If you’re using a digital printer, and have properly profiled the press, ink, and substrate, the results will be the same if the operator is paid $25.00/hr or $2.00/hr. This means whoever has the lowest labor cost is going to get the work, unless you can change the equation. This will be a very important part of what I will address shortly.

When a market is growing there’s little motivation to curb costs or to optimize. When the market plateaus and begins to decline, the focus is on cutting costs and improving efficiency. This is an effort of diminishing returns. For screen printing the problem is that the expensive, experienced technicians (pressmen) have an analog paradigm. It has always been hard to get them to embrace controls and standardization at the core of ICC, G7, or any other standards-based system.

The reason is simple, once a system is controlled, the value of having skilled technicians diminishes. Look at what has happened to litho. It has so focused on setup and cost reduction that it’s now able to compete with screen, especially in large format. The run sizes have dropped to less than 1000 sheets on presses fully capable of running 18,000 impressions/hr all day long. Electronic prepress, direct-to-plate, and full color management have driven the cost and economic run length (ERL) down, down, down. But this industry segment is still collapsing. Why? Because they need to be competitive at a unit of one.


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