A Look in the Rearview Mirror

Screen printing was born, then it exploded, and now it is being displaced. Or is it?

It seems a bit crazy, writing these words before the New Year, to think that by the time you read them you’ll be well into 2015. But columnists have editors, and editors have deadlines, so I’m playing along and pretending it’s the future now even though it’s the past. A good start for this month’s topic, because I want to revisit the past and look to the future. (Confused? I know I am.)

100 years ago: Screen printing emerges as a distinct printing technology, offering an alternative to one-at-a-time handmade display signage and lithography, the leading automated full-color printing technology of the time. (If that sounds a lot like a description of digital’s attributes, you’re absolutely correct. The history of printing is one of specific methods being replaced by the next, better, and faster one. Fortunately for screen printing, and unlike other methods like etching, woodblock, letterpress, and lithography, screen printing was never limited to just imaging paper. )

80 years ago: Paul Eisler starts playing around with printed circuits, sparking a revolution in the emerging consumer electronics industry that would really start to kick in 30 or 40 years later. Was it disruptive technology? You bet. Look up proximity fuses and who won World War II. If you’re reading this on a computer screen, iPad, or smartphone, say a word of thanks to Paul Eisler and screen printing, because his invention helped make these devices possible.

55 years ago: The T-shirt printing business emerges and really takes off with the introduction of the multicolor rotary T-shirt press. Printing images on underwear – this is an industry? Absolutely. Combined with printing on yard goods and clothing manufacturing, it’s worth approximately $1 trillion worldwide, according to a 2013 InfoTrends report. (Incidentally, that study tagged wide-format digital printing at $10.3 billion, or 1.5 percent of the textile market. But hey, it’s growing!)

35 years ago: I started screen printing. (Technically speaking, it was really 44 years ago, in high school, but I only did it once and didn’t inhale.) My real introduction, as part of my job as advertising manager for a chain of automotive stores, was making show cards with McGraw indirect film, washed out in the ladies’ bathroom sink. That purple stuff got under my skin, and I’ve never really washed my hands of screen printing, like thousands of others.

30 years ago: The industry was in the middle of a renaissance. Major advancements in materials and machines, along with a new breed of better educated printers, meant the process was being treated as a technology instead of a craft. US, Canadian, and European screen printers were going crazy as advertisers used screen printing to image everything from beer glasses to CDs. The introduction and refinement of automatic full-color print lines and faster-curing inks meant expansion and increased profits for everyone.

20-25 years ago: The first wide-format digital printers were shown at trade shows in the US and Europe. Over the previous decade, digital technology had virtually wiped out film-based prepress, leaving a pile of waxers and process cameras in dumpsters. Screen printers welcomed the digital advances and quickly adapted. Typesetting on computers eliminated Letraset. Photoshop, Illustrator, and CorelDraw made multicolor art prep and separations a snap (even when clients started showing up with art files in Word). Inkjet positives got rid of the darkroom. Wide-format printers made short-run, full-color displays affordable. The graphics and sign markets exploded.

10 years ago: The smart guys in the room declared screen printing was dead, replaced by digital printing. There certainly were lots of new players in the graphics industry eager to exploit the dream of push-button, low-skill printing. The name of our association changed in order to accommodate the new digital overlor…er, to serve the bigger “specialty printing” family. T-shirt printers were told that within a few years, DTG printers would do the same thing to them. And strangely, the screen industry continued to grow until the recession. I found these stats from the US government census, so I’m going to assume they are true:
• In 2002, the US commercial screen-printing industry (NAICS 323113) was valued at $7.06 billion, with 4417 businesses and 69,179 people employed.
• In 2007, just before the recession, it was $8.89 billion, 4789 shops, and 72,213 people employed.
• By 2012, it had recovered to $7.15 billion, with 4494 establishments and 57,473 workers.

Remember that we didn’t get a government bailout to recover from the recession. We did it ourselves. So is screen printing really dying?

The outmoded NAICS classification distorts the true size of the industry. The numbers above don’t include all of the industries that we know do screen printing in house (electronics, medical, solar, automotive, aerospace, etc.). Include the screen printing that is integral to all of these growing fields and maybe the process will get some attention and awareness, in the form of much-needed educational and technical support.

The numbers also don’t include the tens of thousands of young creatives embracing screen printing in their small business startups, in garages and basements across the land. Job growth in North America is not driven by the “big boys.” Small enterprises create the bulk of new jobs.

Some things to consider as we go “back to the future” in 2015.

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