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Redefining Form and Function at Joliet Pattern

(January 2004) posted on Mon Jan 12, 2004

Learn about this successful company's uncommon approaches to process improvement, training, and more.


By Ben P. Rosenfield

click an image below to view slideshow

Screen printers are known for devising unique solutions that turn seemingly impossible decorating challenges into production realities. And few shops demonstrate this quality more clearly than Joliet Pattern, a multifaceted display and promotional-graphic company located just outside Chicago in Joliet, IL. Taking innovation to a whole new level, company owners Andy Wood and Bob Benbow have let a dedicated production staff reengineer equipment and reinvent the production workflow to satisfy a diverse group of clients that includes leading fast-food companies and giants of industry. Along the way, Joliet Pattern has built an impressive arsenal of capabilities, from filmless digital prepress and wide-format digital color printing to distortion screen printing and complete fulfillment services.

Seven decades in the making

Wood's grandfather, Andrew Dillman, opened Joliet Pattern in 1936 with six employees. The company crafted machinery patterns, templates, and prototypes for the local steel industry, which used Joliet Pattern's handmade hardwood patterns to produce molds for casting steel products, such as gears and other machine parts.

When Dillman handed the company over to Wood's father in 1962, the natural progression of the steel market led Joliet Pattern into the product-sampling business. The company began to focus on creating product-sample displays for manufacturers such as Owens Corning and Alcoa, both of which still do business with Joliet Pattern today.

Wood, who has a background in art and graphics, took over the company in the early 1980's. Responding to customer requests for more elaborate graphic decorations on their displays, Wood expanded Joliet's capabilities into graphic production. "That was the starting platform for the existing business," he says.

Today, the bulk of Joliet Pattern's clients include highly recognizable names, such as McDonald's, Coca Cola, Microsoft, Dairy Queen, Disney, Alcoa, Owens Corning, and Reynolds. To keep these sophisticated and demanding print buyers satisfied, Joliet has made it a priority to stay on top of new technologies and production techniques. Wood says the company spends 15% of its production time experimenting with inks, substrates, and printing methods in order to continually raise the bar on quality and efficiency. "We don't want to be followers," Wood says. "If you follow or stand still these days, you run the risk of staying one dimensional and failing."

A pattern of progress

Joliet Pattern's progressive attitude came in handy when some of its customers urged the company to invest in an all-digital prepress workflow, including filmless screen preparation. These customers, who had already convinced their offset-printing vendors to do the same, told Wood that they would only buy from graphics producers whose prepress technology could ensure consistent and accurate color reproduction, regardless of the printing method used. For Joliet Pattern, that meant purchasing a large-format Lüscher JetScreen computer-to-screen (CTS) imaging system that would accommodate screens as large as 8 x 8 ft (Figure 1). Along with the JetScreen, Joliet added the Proof Yourself! PDF-based RIPing, preflighting, and proofing package, which bundles proprietary software with an Epson Stylus 2200 desktop inkjet for printing proofs. Recently, Wood further expanded the company's file processing and proofing options by adding Wasatch SoftRIP SP software and an Epson Stylus Pro 9600 inkjet for generating color proofs up to 44-in. wide.

Wood admits that the transition to filmless screen preparation was not without challenges, but he explains that Joliet quickly realized benefits from the new technology that went beyond improving color accuracy. "It seemed to be the natural evolution of our industry, and it addressed a concern of mine, which was the constant disposal of films with heavy metals in them," he says. "We were paying special waste carriers to dispose of those films for us."

In order to achieve accurate proofs and predictable color in production, Joliet's production crew went through the tedious process of profiling each piece of printing equipment so that its output would conform to ICC color standards. The staff "fingerprinted" each device using every combination of inks, substrates, print settings, and environmental conditions likely to be faced in production. The color-correction curves that resulted from this effort can be recalled and applied through the RIPs that drive the CTS system, proofing systems, and large-format production inkjets, ensuring color consistency no matter how the image is printed.

Not all areas of Wood's prepress operations rely on high-tech solutions, however. For example, screen coating is still a manual process at Joliet Pattern, both because of Wood's faith in the skill of his coating personnel and because he feels the cost of automatic coating equipment isn't justifiable for the volume of screens his operation uses. "The three people here who share the duties of coating have a touch for what they do," Wood explains. "And the fact that I don't turn 100 screens a day means that [automatic coating] would not be profitable for me."

Wood's decisions about adopting new technology aren't made solely on the basis of cost versus benefits. He also believes that too much automation--too many bells and whistles in one place--has the potential to make workers "mentally lazy." So he generally shies away from production equipment (especially screen-printing presses) with microprocessor controls and tracking features. Wood insists his workers stay sharp by analyzing situations rather than relying on computer-generated status reports. His philosophy is that just because a machine says a job is going according to plan doesn't make it so. "When you try to constantly prove the importance of thinking to employees and the value of their own minds and then you hand them a tool that can make them mentally lazy, it can be contradictory," Wood says. "Forcing employees to pay attention better ensures that you'll avoid problems."

Encouraging employees to think for themselves and take risks has produced some real breakthroughs at Joliet Pattern, such as a totally unconventional approach to UV curing that has delivered major benefits to the company. Ideas from employees led Joliet to completely revamp all its 48- and 60-in.-wide American Ultraviolet curing systems, from their power-delivery systems to their bulbs (see "UV Curing: Re-Engineering Dryers for Peak Performance" by Bron Wolff, Screen Printing, Aug. 2000, p. 32).

The idea emerged in response to a problem the company had as a result of its location near other manufacturing facilities with big electrical-power requirements. During peak power-usage periods, Joliet experienced brown outs (voltage drops) and other power fluctuations that caused its curing equipment to perform inconsistently and unpredictably. To solve the problem, the company installed step-down transformers to regulate incoming voltage and keep power levels stable.

This change prompted further investigation of the UV-curing equipment and led to some revolutionary new ideas about how the curing process could be enhanced. Wood's innovative staff developed ideas for modifications that could be made to various curing-system components, particularly the bulbs and ballasts. They took their ideas to skeptical equipment, bulb, and ballast manufacturers, who helped them experiment with various modifications. Over the course of about a year and a half of trial, error, and expense, Joliet and its suppliers came up with curing systems that would deliver a full cure at power levels other printers use when their units are in standby mode. "That's what you turn the lamps down to when you go on a coffee break," Wood explains. "We're curing there and we're saving on overhead by being able to run less wattage."

But the benefits go beyond dollars saved. Running the modified lamps at lower wattage levels results in much lower temperatures within the curing systems. The cooler environment protects more sensitive substrates from damage. It also prevents UV inks from "baking" onto the surface of the substrate and becoming brittle. This is especially valuable for thermoforming and distortion-printing applications in which the inks must bend and stretch. "The [curing systems] brought us the ability to distortion print and stretch UV inks 12-14 in., and they allow us to print thin vinyl substrates that will shrink if they get too hot," Wood explains.

Investing in digital output

Putting new ideas into practice pays off at Joliet Pattern. Another example is the plant's addition of digital-imaging capabilities. Even though the company relies heavily on conventional screen presses (Figure 2), including four 38 x 48-in. M&M flatbeds, a 48 x 96-in. M&R Patriot, a 56 x 72-in. Sias Serifast two-color inline system, and two 38 x 50-in. six-color M&R Conquest carousel graphics presses, it adds another dimension to its capabilities with two high-speed, solvent-system piezoelectric inkjet printers (Figure 3). These machines include an eight-color VUTEk 3360 EC for prints up to 120-in. wide and an eight-color VUTEk 2600 that supports a maximum print width of 80 in.

"Screen printers who aren't investing in digital right now are going to have a hard time competing," Wood says. "If you have a customer who is ready to write a six-figure purchase order and only needs a prototype to show the boss, you want to get that in their hands fast." Wood also subjected the VUTEk printers to the profiling process, which facilitates accurate color matching between his digital and screen presses. This gives Joliet the ability to service short-run jobs on the digital equipment, as well as print sample pieces that will go to full production on the company's screen presses.

The company's talent for innovation is also being applied with the VUTEk printers. Joliet's staff is currently experimenting with the ability to digitally print directly on thick semirigid substrates, such as 20-mil translucent polycarbonate for backlit applications. If the experiment succeeds, Joliet will be able to eliminate additional laminating steps from short-run backlit signage orders.

Digital technology is also helping to expand the capabilities of other production processes at Joliet Pattern, such as vacuum forming and thermoforming. Wood's digital-printing specialists are using the VUTEk machines to create test prints on semirigid styrene and are planning to use the output in low-relief vacuum forming, a process that produces complex depressions and detailed forms in printed substrates without stretching the inks too much.

Wood explains that configuring distortion art for conventional screen printing can take as long as a week. His staff must RIP an image file and output it onto a screen with the JetScreen, expose and develop the screen, print and cure the part, then distort the part on the forming equipment. Finally, Joliet's designers must evaluate the grid that is printed along with the image on each prototype to determine how the art will move during distortion. Once they map the art's movement, the design itself is distorted and the cycle is repeated until design elements align properly with the distortions on the substrate.

Using the VUTEk printers to create the test prints for distortion applications also would free up screen presses to print other jobs. "If I lock up a press just to work a distortion out, that cost has to go into the finished product," he explains. "If I can knock that cost out of production, then digital technology will give me the ability to make the product less expensive."

Wood, always interested in purchasing equipment that has potential to "overtly make money," is presently looking into flatbed UV inkjet printers. While he believes flatbed technology is impressive, ink and speed limitations keep him from putting one on the production floor. Distortion printing is an important part of Joliet's production mix, and the company has worked very closely with screen-ink manufacturers to get inks with just the right characteristics. In contrast, he says the ink systems used in the flatbeds resist stretching, prevent distortion, and are prone to cracking and shattering in his forming applications.

Training and maintaining employees

The art of distortion printing is but one skill in which the workers at Joliet Pattern are trained. Wood makes crosstraining all the company's employees a priority, and he believes doing so is a solid way to demonstrate to employees their value to his operation. Wood backs up this method with another, less conventional practice: He refuses to lay off workers, even if his bottom line suffers. "Over the years, I've watched our competition become more reliant on temporary help and more hard-hearted about laying people off," he says. "Keep employees, and you're poised to act when the economy turns around."

Wood also believes that keeping workers educated about the health of his company breeds a tremendous amount of loyalty. During one economic downturn, Wood notes, "They knew I was borrowing money to keep them employed. When we came out of that, no one complained when jobs got tough or there were several customers to satisfy all at once. You pay to keep your talent."

Crosstraining keeps things interesting for employees, especially considering the diverse range of equipment and processes on which the company relies. In addition to the prepress and printing equipment mentioned previously, Joliet Pattern's 70,000-sq-ft facility houses tools for cutting, including three 72-in. guillotine cutters and one 40 x 96-in., one 36 x 48-in., and four 24 x 30-in. diecutting systems. It also features a three-axis, 60 x 60-in. Thermwood router, four 28 x 36-in. radio-frequency sealers, a Weldmaster thermal-welding system for banners and other materials up to 21-ft wide, and three sonic welders. The company's MAAC thermal- and vacuum-forming equipment includes one unit for 48 x 72-in. sheets and supports draw depth up to 50 in. and two units that can handle 30 x 40-in. sheets with a 20-in. draw depth. Other finishing equipment includes a 60-in. SEAL laminator, three punch presses, six hot-melt glue machines, and nine rivet machines.

Wood recently added a Corotec corona-treatment system that Joliet uses to maintain high surface energies on plastic substrates up to 60-in. wide and ensure good print adhesion. Many of the jobs the company produces are targeted for outdoor use or other demanding environments, so Joliet has also invested in a QUV Accelerated Weathering system and Thermal Shock unit, manufactured by Q Panel Co. Finally, to meet drop-delivery deadlines in fulfillment programs, the company rents an 8000-sq-ft warehouse from which it ships client orders.

Joliet Pattern's equipment and its employees' skills are dedicated mostly to producing signage and P-O-P graphics, including--and certainly not limited to--backlit drive-through and in-store menus, danglers, banners, inflatables, and large-format brand-identity pieces (Figure 4). The shop's work has been recognized in several national printing competitions and has been awarded numerous industry accolades, including the prestigious Point-Of-Purchase Advertising Institute (POPAI) Award, and has actually bettered its offset-printing competition.

The shop also produces product-sample kits. An example of this is a display the company produces for a vinyl-siding manufacturer. Joliet Pattern prints the display materials, assembles them, installs product samples provided by the manufacturer into vacuum-formed bases that Joliet produces in house, packages the displays, and ships them to the customer. According to Wood, almost all of the orders Joliet Pattern receives come from brokers, design houses, ad agencies, procurement companies, and other P-O-P manufacturers. "We work well behind the scenes," he says.

Staying in the lead

Taking chances on new technologies and reinventing old ones may seem a risky way to improve product quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. But it's a formula that has proven successful at Joliet Pattern. Wood points out, however, that none of it would be possible without "a workforce that is talented and dedicated through good and bad times, tremendous customers who are willing to test new technology, and an understanding bank." With this kind of support, Joliet Pattern is poised for a profitable future as it redefines what it means to be a screen printer.


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