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Screen Printing: A Technology at a Crossroads

(January 2016) posted on Mon Jan 11, 2016

A word from the editor as we examine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the industry.

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By Steve Duccilli

Our special "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" issue brings industry experts together to consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to screen printing. Here, our editor-in-chief discusses how these four forces have brought us to a turning point.

I heard my first eulogies for screen printing in Düsseldorf, Germany, at drupa 1995. Two exhibitors gave me previews of digital printing systems they were developing, predicting that in short order, they would wipe out every screen printer who didn’t buy one.

It didn’t quite work out that way. One of those machines never made it to market; the other, featuring a then-radical design with a full-width array of inkjet heads, found a limited niche in outdoor advertising. But the death talk surrounding screen printing would intensify. Within a few years, conventional wisdom both inside and outside of the graphic arts was that inkjet had sent screen printing to the scrap heap.

It’s interesting, 20 years later, to consider what’s actually transpired.

In wide-format graphics (P-O-P and outdoor advertising), inkjet has overtaken screen, though it hasn’t displaced it. The tipping point came around the time the recession was waning. In its 2015 Wide Format Graphics Forecast, IT Strategies estimated the 2014 technology split in this sector to be 75 percent offset, 16 percent inkjet, and 9 percent screen. (I should stress that this data refers to print volume, not revenue or profitability.)

Textile printing, where inkjet actually emerged a few years before the first wide-format systems came to market, is another story. At its SGIA 2015 press conference, DTG manufacturer Kornit cited a report from the UK research firm Smithers Pira estimating that inkjet’s share of textile printing is currently 2 percent. That figure holds for roll-fed textiles as well as finished garments.

What about industrial imaging – the vast, often mysterious world of functional and decorative applications where printing isn’t a business but a step in manufacturing something else? No one knows for sure, but in most segments, inkjet hasn’t yet outgrown research and prototyping work into full production environments, and has barely made a dent in screen or the many other analog processes used in these fields.

Against this backdrop of data points that don’t support the degree of technology disruption that many believe has occurred, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the process for which this magazine was named in this special edition. Not because we’re championing screen over inkjet, but because this is a fascinating time to be a specialty printer regardless of which technologies you use, and this one happens to be misunderstood.

We chose a SWOT theme (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), not to dredge up bad memories from marketing courses you may have taken, but to stress that screen printing as a technology is not defined merely by its limitations. We’ve asked some of the most respected experts in the industry to share their thoughts about a specific SWOT angle, with in-depth articles on trends amplifying those sentiments. Together, these pieces portray a technology at a crossroads – shedding core markets that date to the origins of the process on one hand, while playing a vital role in fundamental transformations taking place in our society on the other. Quite a different position than I would have imagined for screen printing in Düsseldorf 20 years ago, and worth keeping in mind as we prepare for another drupa next May. 

For more from our "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" special issue:

Why Industrial Applications Hold Tremendous Promise for Screen Printing, Mike Young
Screen Printing: King of Textiles, Charlie Taublieb
The Future of Functional Printing, Wim Zoomer
A Partial List of Industrial Applications for Screen Printing, Wim Zoomer 

The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts, Tamas S. Frecska
Why Web-to-Print Software Matters for All Printing Businesses, Eileen Fritsch
A Sampling of Web-to-Print Software, Eileen Fritsch

What if Screen Didn't Exist? Andy MacDougall
Are Screen Printers Part of the Maker Movement? Kiersten Wones

Threats to Screen Printing, Inside and OutMark Coudray
Digital Ceramic Printing: A Logical Success, Sophie Matthews-Paul


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