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Baubles, Bangles, and Bolt-Ons

Review the range of add-ons for automatic garment presses available today and where you can get them.

The automatic garment press is a serious tool on its own, but many garment screen printers have found that accessorizing a machine with the right add-ons can yield a truly customized production powerhouse that closely fits their needs. The number and type of accessories available for automatic presses is extensive and growing all the time.

Just a few years ago, only a couple of manufacturers dealt in flash-curing units, unique platens, and other add-ons. We now have many different sources. They include companies that manufacture presses (identified as "machine manufacturers" in the following sections), companies that build presses and equipment that will fit other manufacturers' presses ("other manufacturers"), and those that specialize in making add-ons for presses but do not manufacture presses ("aftermarket").

Our focus here will be on the different types of accessories that can improve your automatic press's productivity, expand its capabilities, and enhance efficiency on your production floor. Each category presented in this article will identify the types of manufacturers that produce these devices and discuss the functions and features of the equipment. Let's start with the most common and crucial types of accessories.

Flash-curing units

Sources: machine manufacturers, other manufacturers, aftermarket


I doubt anyone would consider buying an automatic press without at least one flash-curing unit. The types available have increased dramatically in the past few years. There are infrared (IR) on/off flashes, IR thermostat-controlled flashes, and quartz flashes. There are flashes that fit in the head itself (Figure 1) and types that sit on a stand and do not attach to the press. And some flashes can be integrated into the press's control system.

Flash units are almost as important as the printing press itself. And, in my opinion, you should buy the best that you can afford. A cheap flash on a $100,000 press does not make much sense, though I've seen expensive machines with inexpensive manual flashes stuck into a print station. This type of on/off unit requires the printers to remember to rotate the platens out from under the flash every time they stop to avoid burning a shirt or a platen.

I believe that full-featured quartz units are the absolute best. They rely on a set of quartz bulbs to blast the print with an intense shot of heat and then turn off. The biggest advantage to this method is that it offers infinite control. You can prevent platen overheating and problems with polyester more easily with a quartz flash. The flash doesn't need the extra mechanical features to help it move out of the way when the press stops because the quartz tubes actually turn off rather than emit residual heat like an IR flash does.

Another advantage of some of the quartz units available from press manufacturers is the ability to program the flash function into the press's operation. Operators can set heat intensity and dwell time on the fly from the master panel. This feature can be a big time saver, and it allows the operator to fine tune the unit to minimize heat and over flash.

High-end IR units are a good choice for printers who don't handle a lot of different fabrics. These units have temperature controls, are usually tied into the press controller, and move out of the way when the dwell time is reached. If you never print on polyester (be careful of the word never), IR technology may be fine.

The standalone IR flash is at the bottom of the list. It's not designed to work with a specific machine, and some are actually made for manual presses. These devices make fine fill-ins, but they're really not the best for use as production units.

The ideal flash for you is the one that works most effectively on the substrates you use and does not slow you down. Quartz flashes are more likely to function with minimal cool-down time until the next color. So if you foresee the need to print with all the heads and will not have room for a cool-down station, then quartz is the way to go.

Suppliers AWT World Trade (www.awt-gpi.com), Graphic Process Automation (714-899-3020), Lawson Screen & Digital Products (www.law sonsp.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), MHM North America (www.mhm-hirsch.com), Schenk USA (www.schenkusa.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com), Workhorse Products (www.workhorse products.com).

Specialty platens

Sources: machine manufacturers, other manufacturers


Most machines come with one set of adult platens. If you print more than just adult T-shirts, then you will most likely need some additional sizes and types of platens. Dozens of types are available. Some of the most common include youth sizes, sleeve, leg, multi-sleeve, multi-leg, jumbo, all-over, hold down (jacket type), and vacuum. Some of these platens are essential even for the most basic setups. I think it'd be difficult to work without at least a set of smaller youth platens and even a set of basic sleeve platens.

Some shops take highly productive use of platens to a new level. One shop I visited printed two shirts at a time in a single pass at each station. Double-sleeve platens allowed the staff to load two shirts at a time and use a double image on each screen. Loading took slightly longer than putting one shirt on a platen at a time, but the overall productivity was at least 50% higher.

I've used sleeve platens as a fast way to print logos on shorts. They fit right, load quickly, and unload even faster. Hold-down platens can be handy not just for jackets, but also double-layer garments like two-sided jerseys. While production speed would be slower than normal due to longer loading times, putting the job on an automatic press would still be much faster than using manual equipment.

The vacuum hold-down platen is one of the most recent innovations for the garment press. They're normally found on graphics presses, where they secure non-porous substrates. But these platens also are great for the garment printer who prints heat transfers or takes on the occasional graphics job that will fit on an automatic garment press.

Suppliers Action Engineering (www.actionengineering.com), AWT World Trade, (www.awt-gpi.com), Lawson Screen & Digital Products (www.lawsonsp.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), MHM North America (www.mhm-hirsch.com), Schenk USA (www.schenkusa.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com), Workhorse Products (www.workhorse products.com).

Registration devices

Sources: machine manufacturers, aftermarket


Registration devices are a great boon to productivity, especially for high-volume shops. If your print runs last all week, the value of a registration device will be modest at best. However, for the shop that prints two to eight jobs per press per shift, a registration system may actually make it possible to increase the number of jobs per day.

Most registration systems rely on fixed pins for quickly aligning film positives to screens prior to exposure and for aligning the finished screens accurately on press (Figure 2). Good registration systems are available from a variety of sources. Most machine manufacturers produce systems that work well on their own presses, and a few companies offer registration systems that work on many different brands of machines.

Suppliers AWT World Trade, (www.awt-gpi.com), Lawson Screen & Digital Products (www.lawsonsp.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), MHM North America (www.mhm-hirsch.com), Stretch Devices (www.stretchdevices.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com).

Detectors and pedals

Source: machine manufacturers


Detectors and pedals aid productivity by allowing a press to keep running when something goes wrong with the loading process. The first type is the detector that mounts on the floor under the first printhead and senses when the platen does not have a shirt on it. The drawback to this type of device is that it relies on the part of the shirt under the platen to block the reflection of the platen back to the detector. That means the floor-mounted device won't detect piece-goods misloads.

A foot-pedal device may be a better option for those who plan to run a lot of piece goods. On these units, the operator simply depresses the pedal when nothing is present on the platen that is cycling toward the first printhead.

Suppliers AWT World Trade, (www.awt-gpi.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), MHM North America (www.mhm-hirsch.com), Schenk USA (www.schenkusa.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com), Workhorse Products (www.work horseproducts.com).

Specialized squeegees, floodbars, and floodbar wings

Sources: machine manufacturers, aftermarket


None of these items is essential for a new press; however, they can improve productivity or print quality with certain applications and inks. The floodbar-wing attachment is the most common of the items in this category. This device usually attaches to the ends of a standard floodbar and prevents ink from accumulating on the sides of the screen by directing the ink back into the print area.

The low viscosity of water-based inks contributes to their tendency to quickly head for the sides of the screen. High-viscosity inks, such as high-density formulations and certain specialty plastisols, also have a propensity for moving quickly to the sides of the screen. The price of floodbar wings is moderate, which makes payback quite reasonable.

Certain aftermarket floodbars have angled ends that accomplish the same task as the wings. Here, the ends of the aluminum are angled forward to push the ink back towards the center of the screen on each stroke.

Some floodbars help to roll or move the ink in a way that improves the performance of the squeegee. The most common use for these bars for garment printers is to improve the flood with white plastisol underbases.

You can also find aftermarket squeegees that are designed to improve the ink transfer through the mesh. As with the floodbars that roll the ink, these specialized squeegees are used most often by garment printers to improve the transfer of white plastisol underbases.

Suppliers AWT World Trade (www.awt-gpi.com), Graphic Process Automation (714-899-3020), Lawson Screen & Digital Products (www.law sonsp.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), MHM North America (www.mhm-hirsch.com), Schenk USA (www.schenkusa.com), Stretch Devices (www.stretchdevices.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com), Workhorse Products (www.workhorse products.com).


Laser alignment

Sources: machine manufacturers, aftermarket


Laser pointers are now more reasonable in price than ever and are a very good addition to automatic presses. Their main purpose is to align cut pieces, but they can also be used to position finished garments (Figure 3) for tight location printing, such as lining up a left chest print even with a placket button hole. Before lasers, you'd have to place a raised surface on the platen for such applications. Loading involved feeling the spot and positioning the shirt. The process was much slower than using lasers and not as effective.

If you infrequently run piece goods or tight position prints, then you probably won't need a laser system. However, with the drop in prices, and with the ability to add the systems later, they can be a valuable add on.

Suppliers Laser Targeting Systems (www.lasertargetingsystems.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com).

Adhesive applicators

Sources: machine manufacturers, aftermarket


Adhesive applicators (Figure 4) provide a hands-free method of applying adhesive to platens. They can be a great labor reducer and improve productivity during the press run. The applicators work in one of two ways: They can be set to spray the platens every so many revolutions, or they may be activated manually with a foot pedal.

Applicators are most valuable to shops that focus on high-volume production or adhesive-intensive fabrics like fleece. Adhesive applicators have one significant downside, and that is they must be kept clean and serviced daily. In shops where printing goes right to the closing bell, someone must still stay and make sure the unit is ready for the next day. I've seen many applicators disconnected and sitting on a shelf because they were not maintained properly.

Suppliers Albatross USA, Inc. (www.albatross-usa.com), M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com), Tekmar (www.tekmarltd.com).

After-flash cooling devices

Source: machine manufacturers


After-flash cool-down systems come in two types. The most basic is a fan system that blows air on the print between the flash and the next printhead. At least one model comes attached to the side of an IR flash unit. A more sophisticated device uses a mist of water mixed with a minute amount of silicone to cool the print as it leaves the flash unit. This type of system is portable and can be easily moved from one location on the press to another.

Cooling units are designed to reduce the need for empty printheads, also known as cool-down heads, after a flash. The cool-down head is one of the reasons that presses have grown so large in the last ten years. Press speed suffers when a print has two or three flashes and no cool-down capacity. So, if you have a 12-color press and need two flashes with cool downs, you would sacrifice four printheads in order to maintain higher production speed. Cool-down devices would give you back two heads and the production speed you expect.

Suppliers M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), Workhorse Products (www.workhorseprod ucts.com).


Transfer devices and film applicators

Sources: machine manufacturers, aftermarket


The transfer head is a relatively new trend in press add-ons. This feature allows for the introduction of foil and other transferable materials, such as flock paper, into the automated printing process.

The film applicator works in advance of the transfer head, alleviating the need to have an additional person stand there and put the film in place.

Transfer heads, with or without the film applicator, improve overall productivity compared to using a separate transfer machine after printing. However, these systems slow down production speed significantly, as the transfer itself consumes time beyond what elapses during the print stroke. But when the graphic requires printing after the application of foil or flock, only an on-press transfer device will work.

Suppliers Graphic Process Automation (714-899-3020) , M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com).

Laser cutters/abraders

Source: machine manufacturers


At least one manufacturer offers a laser system that is powerful enough to actually remove fabric from the substrate. This device can be set to cut clear through the fabric or just abrade the surface. A number of effects are possible. The machines are quite fast and very expensive. The manufacturer once told me that laser power is sold by the watt—and every watt costs more.

Supplier M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com).

Unloaders

Source: machine manufacturers


An unloader takes the finished garment or piece good off of the platen and drops it onto the dryer belt. These devices are quite expensive, but they eliminate one person from the operation. Unloaders work best when the presses to which they are attached print the same type of substrate over and over. If the job involves lots of changes in substrate, say from adult T-shirts to youth T-shirts and then to piece goods with platen changes in between, then the time that the machine might save is lost in press and loader setup.

Using an unloader may allow you to move staff to other areas of the shop, but you lose a set of eyes on the print. If something goes wrong, like a lint block or screen-ink starvation, you may not catch it until the garments exit the dryer. This delay can result in the loss of numerous shirts before the mistake is caught. The shops that use these devices successfully train their press operators to look at shirts coming off the unloader, not just at the shirt they're loading.

Supplier M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com).

Flock machines and vacuums

Sources: machine manufacturers, aftermarket

Flock has been around for a long time, but adding flocking to the automatic garment press is one of the newest trends in textile printing. In the past, automated flocking was the territory of dedicated flocking presses. The machines were extremely costly—up to five times more expensive than a good automatic garment press.

The new generation of flock machines offers independent heads that slide into a printhead location. The units look similar to a large, standalone flash unit, and they're an efficient way to add flocking capability to your press. However, when you buy a flock head, you also have to get the vacuum system to clean up the excess flock that drops on the substrate. Most of these vacuums sit at the end of the dryer. The dryer tenders simply slide the entire substrate inside the vacuum chamber to remove the excess flock. These vacuums are extremely powerful and are necessary to make the garment saleable. At least one manufacturer sells a vacuum system that sits in the press and functions much like a squeegee, except that it vacuums a surface that has just been flocked.

Suppliers M&R Sales and Service (www.mrprint.com), MHM North America (www.mhm-hirsch.com), Schenk USA (www.schenkusa.com), TAS America (www.tasamerica.com).

What to buy and how to decide

Now that you know all about the add-ons that are available, how do you decide what to get? Well, it's a little like deciding which press to get in the first place. You have to consider your market, your financial position, your growth potential, and the longevity of the process you're considering.

Every screen-printing business is different. No surprise there. A shop that specializes in the ad-specialty market doesn't need the same press and add-ons that a large contract shop needs. Printers in the ad-specialty market won't likely ever need an 18-colors press. And it's easier to contract out the one flocking job a year they get. At the same time, the large contractor probably won't consider the eight-color automatic that may be perfect for the ad-specialty printer.

You need to closely consider what market you want to sell to and make sure that the add-ons that you buy will help your business potential and pay their own way. If you buy an unloader and your average job size is 500-1000 pieces on a variety of garments, you have probably wasted a lot of money. On the other end of the spectrum, if you print huge runs and do not consider an unloader, you are probably missing out on a cost-saving opportunity.

Growth potential and longevity

Garment screen printers tend to focus on increasing capacity more than replacing old machines when they buy equipment. Then they worry about whether or not the purchase will pay off. Market research can help you decide what to buy. The easiest and probably the best way to go about your research is to talk to your existing customers. Ask them what their plans are for the future and what they would like to see in the way of special features, number of colors, and capacity.

When you have the numbers and comments from a good representation of your customers, take about half the number and work from there. This conservative approach will help to moderate the tendency of people to be overly optimistic. For instance, if a customer tells you he is going to double the amount of work he gives you in the next year, take it with a very large grain of salt and assume a 50% increase. Remember, he is also relying on what his customers and sales people are telling him.

Also consider not just the growth potential of a process, but also how long its popularity might last. For example, is flocking here to stay, or will demand for flocked products die out in a year? And, if it does die out, what else could you do with the unit to help keep it productive and valuable?

The example I always use in these cases is belt printing. I was one of the people who bought a belt printer back in 1990. It was a huge investment. I looked at the T-shirt belt market and thought it was probably a two- to four-year fad. Well, the belt shirt fad didn't even last a year. But the other options that I had come up with for that purchase began to pay off handsomely. I printed towels and piece goods on the press and was able to keep the machine a viable addition to the operation.

Financial position

Make your wish list and then decide whether or not you can afford everything you want. If your analysis of the potential is accurate, and the productivity improvements are possible, then it should be a simple matter. Ah, if only that were true. Anyone who has ever bought a major piece of equipment will tell you that it's probably the hardest thing you can do in business.

My advice is to decide carefully but then buy up as much as you can. Always buy as much as you can afford without risking the company on your decision. Just about everyone I have ever talked to who bought down instead of up regretted the decision.

For example, I can't even count the number of printers who have told me that they bought the wrong press or flash. They did so because it was less expensive. One printer recently told me that his decision to buy down had probably cost him two to three times the value of the purchase in just two years. He said that the lower productivity, print quality, and missed opportunities had really hurt his potential. Always buy the very best that you can afford. Do not skimp.

Perhaps the most important recommendation I can make is to attend industry trade shows. The manufacturers have these machines and add-ons set up, so you can actually see them working. Then, when you get closer to deciding, try to get into a shop that actually uses the equipment in production. A trade show is a nice place to check out to the variety of products available, but a real shop is where you'll figure out whether these tools work as advertised.



About the author

Mike Ukena is a 15-year screen-printing veteran who has owned a textile-printing company and worked in technical services for the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Int'l as the director of education. A member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology, Ukena is a frequent speaker on technical and management topics at industry events. He is currently a technical sales representative for Union Ink Co., Inc.

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