Screen Printing Trends
Leaders in the field reveal what they think about the challenges ahead for the industry.
The origins of screen printing can be traced back to China’s Song Dynasty, a period covering the years between 960 and 1279 AD. The printing technique was introduced in the Western world in the 18th century after silk became a more popular trading commodity. The rest, as they say, is history. Other forms of printing have come and gone during this time—the linotype machine, for example—while screen printing continues to evolve to meet the needs of modern society. But that doesn’t mean that the evolution will continue as it is today and that the future is assured.
We’ve asked several industry experts to give us their take on where screen printing is headed for the coming years and what factors will likely shape its future. Their experience covers a broad range of subsets in the industry so we were able to get a panoramic view of the landscape that is just over the horizon. Commercial and industrial printing dominated the conversations, but experts also commented on screen printing’s continued relevance in the arts community and for do-it-yourselfers. You may agree or disagree with their insights, but you’ll probably agree that it is a useful conversation to have.
As a consultant to screen printers throughout the world, it is Mike Young’s job to find ways that the industry can remain relevant and necessary in the face of newer technologies and processes. He’s been at it for more than 40 years and recently spent two months studying the matter in over 28 marketplaces. Young believes that screen printing must continue to evolve to meet new needs and demands as they develop.
“The challenge, as I see it, is acquiring quality, up-to-the-minute screen making techniques and advance process training. This is specifically to meet newer complex and demanding screen-print requirements that manufacturers need to fabricate a finished product; something that is widely inadequate or entirely absence. To meet these exceptional and intrinsic printing obligations, oftentimes, either as a three-dimensional coating requirement or precise uniform ultra-thin deposition; the screening process is taken to a new plateau in execution and performance, but the industry at this level sadly lacks the necessary skills to reach quality objectivity in an acceptable comfortable and profitable manner,” Young says.
In terms of digital, Young doesn’t view it as a battle of supremacy, but an opportunity to coexist together, playing off each other’s strengths. This will happen, he believes, once the market corrects the practice of inexperienced parties using digital printing to win jobs by selling below unit cost.
“This must come about if both imaging technologies, screen and digital, are to get along together in a way that is profitable for both printer and customer. The marketplace will change of course, some wanting more of ‘this’ and less of ‘that’ but there will be no outright disappearance or significant changes to current methods or known/accepted technologies of today,” he says.
Talking to industry veterans, such as Young, is a proven way to gain a glimpse into what may lie ahead. Yet one thing is certain, without the next generation of screen printers poised to take their place, there will be no future. A school in Springfield, Illinois is helping to prepare that next generation.
Ryan Moor started out in screen printing back in 1999 when he began making T-shirts to promote his band. He went on to found Ryonet Corporation in 2004 to provide tools and educational materials to screen printers, and has posted over 500 instructional videos on YouTube. From his perspective, the future will belong to those commercial printers who focus on process management through the use of software.
“I think the biggest challenge in our industry is organization of production and data. Screen printing is a very production-oriented process with a lot of flow to it. There are not a lot of tools for printers or knowledge on how to systematize their businesses,” Moor says.
His team works with clients to develop software solutions for their particular needs and then provides the necessary training. In terms of marketing, Moor believes that some tried-and-true methods have reached the end of their useful lives, while other traditional means will continue to be effective.
“Yellow Page advertising is dead. Online and social media advertising is the way to proactively advertise. However, it still doesn’t replace building customer relationships through visits and good service,” he says.
Others, however, think there will still be a need for screen printing. Art Dobie is a technical manager for Sefar, Inc. and a member of the SGIA’s Academy of Screen Printing Technology. Sefar is a manufacturer of precision fabrics from monofilaments for the screen printing and filtration markets. He agrees that digital will continue to take over market share in shorter-run printing applications, but that it will have trouble gaining ground in other areas.
“In my opinion, the biggest impact for the future of screen-printing will be in industrial applications. Most industrial, electronic, and functional printing applications involve materials which have comparatively higher solids content and require thicker wet ink deposits. Screen printing matches up better with the requirements of these types of applications than most other printing methods,” Dobie says.
Fujifilm North American Corporation
Larry Hettinger is a product marketing manager in the graphic systems division for Fujifilm North American Corporation. He believes one of the biggest challenges that screen printers must address is the ability to provide short-run display graphics cost-effectively and with quick turnaround.
“Print buyers are striving to reach niche markets through versioning and personalization, as well as responding faster to changing market conditions. Niche markets will typically require shorter runs and be more cost-effectively produced using digital technologies,” Hettinger says.
While he sees niche markets as a growing industry segment, Hettinger believes that the best opportunities for maximizing revenues will be those projects that play to screen printing’s strengths: long-run jobs that require high coverage and maximum ink coverage.
“Fujifilm is developing new inkjet printers, inks, and workflow software to cost effectively and efficiently produce multiple version, wide-format display graphics to respond to these changing market conditions. We are also developing improvements in screen inks to respond to new substrates, improve productivity and throughput, and reduce cost,” he says.
Technology continues to propel the screen printing industry in new directions and being an active adaptor will certainly be a factor for those who hope for continued success, or at the very least, viability. MacDougall is an industry consultant and trainer, and author of the book, Screen Printing Today: The Basics. He believes that practitioners and business owners need to begin thinking of screen printing itself as a technology.
“In North America, the majority of printers and most of the public still view it as “silk screening,” some hand method used to make T-shirts and art prints. Solar cells or touch screens or fuel cells? They don’t have a clue that these are screen-printed products,” MacDougall says.
He believes that expanding into industrial applications and 3D product printing will present opportunities for screen printers willing and able to make the investment into new technologies.
As with many industries, screen printers will continue to compete with cheap labor overseas. Automation and communication will allow domestic operators to compete on price, but MacDougall cautions against chasing big orders by getting into bidding wars that often result in razor-thin margins, along with the very real possibility of getting undercut on subsequent jobs, no matter the quality of service provided.
“A customer that forces you to do that will drop you in the end because they don’t respect you. The landscape is littered with companies, and not just screen printing ones, which play this game. Screen printing as a commodity should be dead,” he says.
Remaining viable in the future may require diversification into different market segments. MacDougall says the opportunities exist, but aren’t always recognizable to printers who lack vision or the proper training to move beyond their current market and operational parameters.
“Screen printing has always been a specialized process, a hybrid of printing, decoration, and manufacturing. If you are in one area, look into others. For example, one of my equipment clients is a monster big freezer/cooler door manufacturer. They use screen printing to apply electrical heaters, and to apply black mask to hide the edges—basic industrial screen printing. Nobody thinks about it, but everybody sees it every day. With slight modification, they could be adding a custom logo to the glass, or adding other decorative touches or art. This would set their product apart from their competitors, and help their supermarket door customers enhance the in-store experience and push their brand. It also adds another profit source for the screen printer,” he says.
As for his own business, MacDougall will continue down the path he set out on when he decided to branch out into both equipment sales and consulting. The Internet has allowed him to reach an international customer base from his rural location where he spreads the word on how to be a successful screen printer.
“Interest in screen printing continues to be strong. So we service people trying to learn and grow, be it some kid in the basement printing rock posters or T-shirts, or a scientist commercializing a new fuel cell concept. As far as actual printing, we hardly do any typical commercial work anymore, and concentrate on fine art printing. Why print for pennies when you can make things that are worth much more? And don’t get thrown out because the sale is over. The industry should recognize there are probably more low-tech fine art and craft printers now than ever before. They keep a lot of the hand methods alive. In that group, the switch to water- based from solvent-based inks is the main movement,” MacDougall says.
AAA Flag & Banner
Not everyone we contacted was optimistic about the future of screen printing. Craig Furst, president of AAA Flag & Banner in Los Angeles, is especially bearish on its prospects.
“AAA believes the screen printing industry is in jeopardy and will continue to erode with the advent of faster digital equipment, larger offset presses, and the demand of individualized and more targeted advertising,” he says.
Furst points to the digital takeover of short-run printing and believes that longer-run printing is headed in the same direction. His advice for those
in his line of work is to embrace digital options or face extinction.
Future Generations of Printers
Lincoln Land Community College recently added a certificate program for students seeking a career in screen printing. The 24-credit program includes courses in both graphic design, and screen printing production and pre-production. The school has assembled a fully-equipped print shop on campus and in additional to the products produced for classroom assignments, they will provide T-shirts and posters for school-related clubs and events.
“It’s basically a work/study program. You can learn a skill that can take you anywhere in the country,” says Thom Whalen, professor of art at the school.
Whalen teaches the graphic design courses and helped originate the program along with Primo Designs, a local screen printing shop that provides instruction on the production side. He says that although the program is still in its infancy, they have already placed several students in jobs.
The program is also connecting with students in another way. While screen printing is facing stiff competition from digital on the commercial side, it still has great appeal in the artistic community. Whalen, who has a master’s degree in fine arts, became involved with it after leaving the world
of academia and set out to earn a living.
“I use to screen porcelain enamel on steel and we made murals that are still in the Seattle bus tunnel,” he says, noting that he held a series of jobs in design and printing throughout the country.
His career has come full circle. Whalen is back in school, teaching the next generation how to make a living in screen printing. Some of his art students are also discovering the printing process for the first time and are fascinated with the hands-on, mechanical nature or reproducing their work.
“Before the class I didn’t know anything about the process or how prevalent it is. What I’ve learned has really affected how I think about art and the end process of how it can be produced through screen printing. I really do like the medium a lot,” says Nino LoGrasso, one of Whalen’s students.
The future of screen printing will need young people like LoGrasso, as well as his classmates who go on to work in or start up screen printing shops of their own. They are the next generation. But it will also need the people who shared their insights for this story.
The veterans who have seen the industry change over the years, but more importantly, the visionaries who can see where it is headed and the innovators who can find themselves a productive place at the table. In that sense, the biggest challenge facing screen printing isn’t digital technologies or market forces, it is complacency. As long as there are people who recognize screen printing’s unique strengths and believe in its ability to satisfy customer’s needs, there will be a future.
“Despite the opposing view in certain quarters, screen printing will meet and exceed virtually anything thrown at it,” Young predicts.
Dan Naumovich is a freelance journalist and copywriter. He contributes stories to newspapers and trade publications, and also provides marketing copy to businesses and organizations. Before embarking on a career as a writer, Naumovich had spent ten years working in a family-owned screen-printing shop. He can be reached at email@example.com.