You Can Print On That?
Two shops explore the possibilities of direct-to-object printing – from beer to ceiling.
The beginning of the story is one we’ve heard before: Empire Screen Printing was born in a garage in 1960. James Brush’s operation was a one-man show; he’d spent time in the industry, seen how other printers operated, and decided he could do better.
But the evolution of the story is truly unique. As the Onalaska, Wisconsin-based company approaches its 60th anniversary, its 150,000-square-foot facility is bustling with screen, digital, and flexographic printing operations – 75 percent of which use UV LED curing technology. Empire builds all of its own screen-printing equipment and has paved the way for other companies striving for LED-based operations – so much so that they open their doors every other year for a national sales meeting where industry folks (even competitors) can come explore best practices.
Sustainability was the main driver behind Empire’s emphasis on LED. “We feel it’s the right thing to do,” says Doug Billings, VP of sales and marketing. “LED is the way to go from a sustainability standpoint.” But the company’s transition to UV LED technology has opened up doors on the creative side, too: “We can print on objects up to about 2 inches thick,” Billings says, “so we literally could take a door off its hinges and print right on it. It really comes down to how the ink works with whatever the material is.”
Empire’s digital operation contains a number of Mimaki UV LED roll-to-roll and flatbed printers, including the JFX500-2131 model. “We’ve printed on neoprene, ceiling tiles… We’ll try anything just to see if it works,” Billings says.
The “sky’s the limit” mentality could be risky, of course, so Empire’s research and development team is the first to test and approve the use of any new material. Once the R&D squad takes a look and ensures there won’t be ink adhesion issues or – the worst nightmare – damage to the printer, the material goes on an approval list that the sales team can promote.
Billings has found that their point-of-purchase customers are the ones who often keep the sales team on their toes; for other markets, sometimes the “show-and-tell” method works best to steer clients toward more creative ideas.
One of Empire’s fun past projects involved imaging wooden crates for a brewery over the holidays. The brewery offered a specialty winter beer and, for select customers, they sold it in vintage-inspired, customized crates. Other direct-to-object projects include printing onto home plate-shaped awards for the local minor league baseball team each year.
One exciting client came by way of a former employee who reached out and inquired about imaging ceiling tiles. “Most ceiling tiles are white and boring, and nobody really thinks of them,” Billings says, but this customer was thinking out of the box and all the way back to the 1800s. They sent in artwork designed to mimic the tin tile squares of olden-day saloons. Billings recalls the R&D team worried the tiles – 24 x 24 x 0.75-inch acoustical panels – would be too porous to offer full ink coverage, but they withstood the test and the result was pretty convincing. “It gives it a really cool, dimensional look,” says Billings. Empire has gone on to produce several product ranges for the client, from pewter- and gold leaf-inspired tiles to driftwood, cherry, and more. There’s no question these ceilings are anything but boring.
Leave No Sign Uncustomized
Screen Printing squeezed in a phone call with Kelly Spurgeon while the owner of Advantage Graphics and Signs had a break between installs for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. She’s certainly come a long way since founding Advantage in 1992 on the back of the groundbreaking technology of the day: the vinyl plotter.
In those days, the skills needed to succeed were artisanal: hands-on painting, cutting, fine-tuning. But as we know, digital printing changed everything – “and it happened very, very quickly,” says Spurgeon. “Today, you see large super graphics on the side of 60-story buildings. It’s just common now.”
One might say what you need to succeed today is first and foremost a cutting-edge mindset, and Spurgeon prioritizes that in her business. She seems unfazed as she talks about the company’s transition to digital; it was adapt or die. “It involved keeping up education-wise, taking courses, and bringing in new equipment so that we could be that leading edge that we’ve always tried to be.”
Advantage turned to direct-to-object printing as one of its newest adaptations with the purchase of a Roland VersaUV LEF-300 flatbed a little over a year ago. Spurgeon noticed one of their key customer bases – companies that manage office buildings, apartment complexes, and the like – was craving more customization. “The expectations of our customers increase as technology increases,” she says.
One of the areas in which they saw an opportunity for customization was ADA braille signage. Spurgeon says direct-to-object printing “opened the doors with design concepts” in that area. In the past, ADA signage was nothing more than a background in one color and some verbiage in another, with the braille beads blending into the background. To say digital printing expands the possibilities for this application is an understatement. “It makes these types of signs much more exciting,” Spurgeon says.
“That’s kind of our niche,” she adds. “We’re looking to push the boundaries of what the equipment can do, and in that way, it allows for our creativity to come out.” Advantage has also printed on cups and covers for iPads and books.
Efficiency is another benefit to direct-to-object printing. The old process of laying down braille involved harsh chemicals and was labor intensive, says Spurgeon. Now, “once you have your layout in and the parameters set, the machine just does the work, so the employee can go and work on other projects at the same time,” she adds. “In that way, it saves a ton of time.”
Prototyping can be another huge advantage of the technology. “When we provided prototypes in the past, it was a very expensive process,” Spurgeon says. Now, “we can create just one without a huge amount of cost involved, so the customer feels confident going into the project.”
At the end of the day, it’s about more than keeping up – it’s staying ahead. “Everything is bright and colorful and designed in our world today,” Spurgeon says, “and the signage that we see needs to follow suit. A picture’s worth a thousand words.”