Contracting Print Production to Foreign Shores

Discover why the use of foreign contract-printing companies can benefit your own printing business.

Over the last few years, the garment screen-printing industry in the US has experienced a major swing in the way it sources blank garments for printing, and more importantly, from where it sources these garments, which is increasingly from suppliers in other countries. The sourcing changes are a direct response to the shrinking profit margins most US screen shops have experienced. Simply put, some garment printers are turning to foreign suppliers who can provide blank garments that are less expensive than those purchased through domestic sources. In light of these changes, many of my recent columns in this magazine have addressed issues relating to international competition and sourcing. This month, I would like to address the considerations that US screen-printing businesses should keep in mind if they want to begin contracting out some of their print production to foreign screen-printing operations. Why contract offshore? The need for a US screen-printing company to contract work out to a foreign screen shop may seem ludicrous. And presently, for many profitable US printers, such outsourcing is unnecessary. But there may come a time when pricing pressures force a shop to look beyond our shores for cost-cutting solutions. At that point, the ability to outsource some portion of print production to foreign plants that can produce the same work at significantly lower costs can be a very attractive option. I have previously addressed what it takes to remain competitive in today's international market. The tips and recommendations I've provided in the past were designed to help US shops stay profitable and avoid losing business to foreign garment-printing operations. But the fact is that there will always be offshore facilities that are capable of printing standard garment jobs at a substantially lower cost than their US counterparts, primarily due to the much higher labor rates in this country. US shops can bolster their competitiveness by improving production efficiencies and delivering high quality products. But many are finding that it's even more effective to send work to contract printers in other parts of the world and take advantage of the lower production costs these printers enjoy. With the right contract printer, the US shops are able to have their customer's orders printed, packaged, and shipped at a more competitive price that allows the US printing business to hit profit margins it would otherwise be unable to reach. Selecting a contractor US printers that are already turning to foreign sources for their blank garments may have the easiest time finding foreign contract printers. In many cases, the foreign garment-manufacturing facilities themselves have added printing capabilities. What could be easier and less expensive than having the garments manufactured and printed in the same offshore location? While you may not be interested in foreign garments, there are plenty of foreign printing operations that would be happy to take your contract work at a fraction of the price you would have to charge to print the same jobs profitably. But if you decide to develop a relationship with a print provider in another country, you need to do your homework. The first thing to consider is the expectations that your customer has about how and where his or her job is produced. Some large customers for printed garments have restrictions about which foreign countries their orders can be produced in. Frequently, buyers will set particular countries as off limits because the buyers take issue with employment practices, human rights issues, or working conditions in these countries. These are corporate policies that you definitely do not want to get caught breaking. So if you want to send a customer's job to a particular contract printer, make sure that you run your plans by the customer for approval. The next thing to consider is the foreign facility's production capabilities. Don't let a slick advertising campaign lure your contract work into a facility that can't underbase a single- color design in proper registration. I have seen facilities that boast "state-of-the-art" printing equipment, but fail to mention that their staff has no clue about how to operate it. Just because a facility has all the latest technology does not automatically make that facility good at printing. You need to ask each potential contract printer for a client list and see if you can confirm that the facility's printing performance has been deemed satisfactory by former customers. It's like requesting a resume with referrals in order to confirm that the contract operation is on the level. You should also identify the standard operating parameters employed by the foreign facility. How much detail you need is really up to you, but I recommend finding out as much as you can. The best way to get this information is to actually tour the facility for a first-hand assessment of their capabilities. Besides finding out what equipment the facility will be using, you also want to know the following: * Condition of printing equipment--Is it clean? Does the shop have regular equipment-maintenance schedules and records to back up that they are followed? * Printing assessment--What frame types and sizes, mesh counts, screen tensions, squeegees, and other standard materials are used? What off-contact distances, print speed, and other press settings are typically employed? * Curing assessment--What type of equipment is used? Is it maintained correctly? What are the operating parameters and how does the shop enforce that they are followed? * Testing procedures--Does the company have a wash-testing regimen that it follows to ensure quality results with every production run? * General documentation--Does the company have records of screen parameters and press settings for every job it produces? Does it have proper ink-room documentation that identifies color-mixing formulas and modifications? Does it retain a customer-approved sample of every print it has produced in case reorders occur? Although this list may appear to be overkill, you may easily come to regret your failure to ask these questions if a contract printer delivers an unsatisfactory job to your client. Remember that the more you know about the facility that is going to print on your behalf, the better off you will be. Know the work ethic Most off-shore screen-printing facilities have a workforce that is making pennies compared to the dollars your own staff earns. These low pay rates can make it difficult to instill a commitment toward product quality in foreign print-shop employees. You also need to find out what kind of training production employees receive. The degree of training, or lack of it, will reflect how that facility's own management perceives quality. Find out if printers there believe that their job is simply to place ink onto fabric and run it down the dryer, or if there is a comprehensive auditing system in place with which the staff ensures that all aspects of production and the product are optimized for quality. One last aspect of a foreign operation you will want to research, and perhaps the most important, is what their overall percentage is in terms of achieving quality prints. Any facility should have documented records that indicate what percentage of their output is acceptable, and what percentage is scrap. The contract facility must be willing to provide this information on an ongoing basis. Knowing as much as you can about a foreign contract facility is the best way to protect your own business from embarrassing and costly mistakes. But with careful research, you can find dependable off-shore garment printers who can help keep your business in the black and your customers satisfied.

View more from this Screen Printing issue