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Troubleshooting in Toyland

(December 2006) posted on Thu Jan 04, 2007

Roberts recalls his visit to a screen-printing shop far north of the Arctic Circle, where the staff scurries about in a mad rush to get jobs printed in time for delivery to its young and eager customers.

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By Gordon Roberts

Several hours later I find myself on a crowded platform shaking the hand of a very small gentleman dressed in green pajamas and an enormous fur coat. He politely inquires about my journey, and soon we are off across the frozen wastes towards the workshop. He fills me in on the problems, and I hear the familiar litany of woes: Nothing registers, the screens break down, the prints look terrible, the colors don't match, and the artwork doesn't line up. What's to be done? Our journey takes us past the new video-game factories and the gleaming, new computer facility, and it's soon very obvious where Santa has been investing his capital of late. This becomes even more apparent when we pull up in front of a large, slightly decrepit, shed-like building, and I get a whiff of that familiar, lacquer-based odor that signals our arrival at the print shop.

The gift of control

I've made a good living over the years from situations just like this, but I've never felt pressure to succeed the way I felt it when I walked onto the shop floor that afternoon. Little people scurried everywhere, and automatic machines clanked and sputtered as far as the eye could see. Every imaginable substrate was being printed—from sweats with flashing Christmas-tree designs to membrane switches for the newest game consoles. No sooner was one job completed than a small army of elves descended on a machine to break down and set up for the next run.

Elves were exposing screens on the largest vacuum frames I had ever seen, while other screens were lined up for hundreds of yards, waiting for the scoop coater or the dry-film applicator. How they ever keep track of all this I'll never know. According to the production-control log, the shop would have to continue operating this way 24 hours a day until Christmas.

I'll let you in on one of the oldest secrets that we learn early on in the consulting business: It's never one big problem that needs solving. In fact, it's almost always the same bunch of little problems that printers can easily correct with a tension meter and a squeegee sharpener. I set to work, ordering a new tension meter for overnight delivery (the old one was broken and sitting in the bottom of a rusty filing cabinet), and had the shop's staff strip the old, worn blades from all the squeegees and replace them with good, sharp stock.

By the second day, we had done our exposure tests and the screens were no longer breaking down. The elves were once again into their uniform tensioning cycles. The jobs began to line up on the printer, but this time the images were sharp and consistent. I backed off the squeegee pressure, the screens stopped breaking on the presses, and the workflow began to pickup.

Why is it that the fundamentals are the first things to be neglected when the pressure is on? I'm not complaining, of course. I have a family to feed, but it would be nice to have some really high-tech problem to solve once in a while.

I had written my report by the end of the week, and the managing elf transferred my recommendations to his wish list and submitted them to his superiors for approval. Maybe by this time next year we can get some UV-curable inks into the mix and speed up the throughput. A new squeegee sharpener also would really make a difference. I caught a glimpse of the big man himself in the corner office on my way back to the bullet train. He was already checking his lists and looked up approvingly. Then, Santa asked me about Christmas wish for the year.

I suppose my wish should have been for all screen printers to finally learn the importance of understanding and applying the basics. However, I knew if my wish were granted, I'd probably be out of a job. So, like many screen printers before me, I took the easy way out. Yes, that plasma screen will look so nice hanging over the mantelpiece, next to the stockings, come Christmas morning.


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