A Screen-Printing Roundup
MacDougall looks at 2012 as a year of growth for screen printing.
2012 has been an interesting year. Against a backdrop of continued recession in most national economies, rising unemployment, political insanity, and the imminent demise of the world predicted by the Mayans—screen and specialty printers seem to be bucking the trend.
A quick glance at industry stats from SGIA (Financial Outlook and Business Growth Reports, sgia.org) show the three main segments (graphics, textile, and industrial) all growing robustly, increasing business, hiring more people, and over half of those surveyed saying they will be buying new equipment next year. How can this be? Don’t screen printers listen to the news? Obviously not—they are too busy printing!
Why do things continue to improve? I can only speculate and observe what is going on in some of the shops where I have had the opportunity to work with the owners to help them realize their dreams and build their businesses while so many others in retail and manufacturing face economic hardship.
Kyle Robinson of Print My Threads in Ashland, KY is a prime example of the DIY mentality that has been a mainstay of screen printers over the last 100 years, and the movement which is jumpstarting a lot of small businesses over the past ten years. Starting in a converted garage at home with used equipment, in two years Kyle has moved into a storefront, bought a DTG press to go with his six-color manual, added two employees, and doubled his 2011 sales in the past six months.
Ashland and the surrounding region are typical of many resource towns. When the local oil company relocated offshore, the population dropped by 50% and the economy went into a tailspin. Kyle and others like him have been taking advantage of the low rent and internet marketing to establish himself as a main regional supplier, and also to tap into sales across the country. His strong commitment to using water-based inks and offering eco-friendly materials has given him a decided advantage and an angle that differentiates his product from his competitors.
Areas of growth
One of the most exciting areas of screen printing growth has been the industrial sector. I have two projects I’m working on this year that I can talk about in general terms, and I think they represent some trends in our sector that see screen printing transcending the typical signage and T-shirt applications, and spreading its wings as a technology. Company A is a Midwest manufacturer of electrical cable, who has faced a constant hammering from offshore suppliers but managed to maintain and grow sales by offering customized solutions, quick turnaround, and personal service. Sometimes it’s hard for us within the screen-printing world to realize, but most outsiders have no clue that we can print on just about anything.
Company A has been engraving many of the components that go along with their cable, but have been less than impressed with the result—limited graphics and typefaces, damage to the surface coating, and slow production speeds. What works for the onesey-twosey orders doesn’t translate well when customers need 100 of an item. Enter screen printing. With durable inks adaptable to most surface coatings, an ability to customize lettering, layout, and logos for their customers, plus the flexibility to print a range of sizes and shapes, screen printing will provide an in-plant solution that gives them and their clients a better product at a lower price.
Company B represents the brave new frontier for future-tech industrial applications that have placed screen printing as a manufacturing process into so many of the products we use every day and take for granted. In this case, my clients have invented, tested, and prototyped a new type of fuel cell. Unlike the hydrogen fuel cell invented by Ballard in Vancouver, BC (another screen-printed product), which needs an expensive fuel to produce energy, these new cells can use a range of readily available combustibles, and deliver up to 4x the energy when compared to conventional coal- or gas-fired electrical plants. Screen printing has become the go-to technology for surface coating exotic reactive materials in a production situation. Scientists, inventors, and manufacturers are slowly responding to the realization that the same basic process used to make shirts or election signs, when enhanced by modern equipment and automation holds the key to rapid and economical manufacturing of a range of new products. What I really like about Company B is their determination to produce these new cells in the U.S.
While governments and economic experts sit around and whine about the loss of manufacturing jobs and prop up large corporations who are shedding workers like snakes lose skin, the general population seems content to spend their declining income on more and more disposable crap imported from offshore while texting updates about their latest meal on their latest electronic gadget. The financial services sector, which sucks money from the economy and produces nothing but paper while lining the pockets of a select few, has replaced the mosaic of smaller locally owned companies that gave people jobs and stability and powered growth in North America over the last 200 years.
Meanwhile, screen printers quietly go about doing what they have always done: Making things using their skills, their tools, their imagination, and raw materials. It’s called secondary manufacturing. Literally it is hand making, and the basis of all strong economies, locally, regionally or nationally. We used to do that really well here in North America. Screen printers still do.
Andy MacDougall is a screen-printing trainer and consultant based on Vancouver Island in Canada and a member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology. If you have production problems you’d like to see him address in “Shop Talk,” e-mail your comments and questions to email@example.com.