Shop Talk: From T-Shirts to Touch Screens

Many people, even inside the industry, struggle to get their heads around the extent to which screen printing touches all of our lives.

Screen printing as a manufacturing process has definitely arrived. In fact, it walked through the shop door, kicked over your daddy’s hand-print setup, and began seriously flexing its muscles a few decades ago. It used to be (and still is) known mostly as a versatile medium for printing flat graphics as well as the dominant decoration method for fabric. But over the past 20 years, industrial screen printing has helped alter the very foundations of the modern world. Screen printers now make critical components of cell phones and solar cells, among literally thousands of other consumer products, medical devices, architectural elements, and industrial components we use every day, things most people can’t even imagine. All with a stencil and squeegee.

I think that’s amazing. Why don’t more people know about it?

We’ve lived through the predicted demise and death of screen printing in the better known applications. Amazingly, it’s still here. Nobody is arguing that digital wide-format graphic and textile printing hasn’t transformed our visual world – and not just by putting a sign shop on every corner. Digital printing has redefined and increased the use of outdoor graphics, creating entirely new products and markets that didn’t exist before. And it continues to drive growth in the advertising print trade, even as traditional magazine, newspaper, and TV ads shrink. We live in a land o’ logos, with more printed things than ever before. Are they all digitally produced? Not quite. The reality is that you can’t swing a squeegee without hitting something that was screen printed.

But I’m talking about the world of screen-printed items hidden in plain sight. Almost every electronic gadget is made with at least a few strokes of a squeegee – a printed circuit, a graphic, or a layer of functional material. Ditto for every car, microwave, and a whole lot more. Screen printers have managed to stay viable by moving past two-dimensional printing on paper (actually, past felt banners if you go all the way back to the beginning) and modifying inks to imprint different materials and shapes. First it was cardboard, wood, metal, fabric, glass, and plastics. Now it’s electrical devices, energy systems, radio frequency transmitters and receivers, even medical devices. Invariably, screen printing seems to be practiced by individuals who are constantly inventing on the fly to allow them to print a challenging job. Over and over again, those one-off workarounds become new market segments.

The history of printing is littered with the corpses of processes that became redundant except in the art world. But unlike letterpress, etching, woodblock, and litho, screen printing works on so many different materials and has fewer restrictions and costs. Pastes and other non-traditional inks can be made of almost anything and printed onto everything – in a controlled manner, quickly. In short, the screen process thrives in both experimental and production situations. In many cases, former textile printers work side by side with engineers prototyping new products and applications on a daily basis, trying to create things that don’t exist. They’re modern-day alchemists turning ideas (and inks) into gold.

I think it’s fair to predict that wherever there is manufacturing, there will be a need for screen printing. Digital may follow where screen first led, but where industrial and functional applications are concerned, screen printing has speed and flexibility on its side. Those are both key qualities in manufacturing, and they are being used in new applications that take advantages of the process’s unique attributes.

In addition to this phenomenal, continuous growth of industrial applications in the last decade (now accounting for 45 to 55 percent of the screen-printing market worldwide, by some estimates), it’s interesting to note the ol’ hand version of the process continues to attract all sorts of newcomers, too. An entirely new wave of younger makers, artists, and “I’m going to start a clothing line” textile printers have picked up squeegees and – surprise – built little businesses. Some of these are turning into viable larger firms. Nothing gigantic, at least when compared to the 1000-worker shops in China where the bulk of our consumer goods are manufactured. But as these small printing operations grow, they automate. As they automate, they increase their production ability and (hopefully) knowledge. That interface, where print-production knowledge meets an engineer’s big idea, is where good things happen.

Who knows what’s next? Medical tricorders and communicators were sci-fi inventions on Star Trek only a few years ago. Now they are everywhere. People use screen-printed strips to monitor blood sugar and read it in a pocket device. Ten-year-old kids have iPhones with layers of screened components, devices that would blow Captain Kirk’s mind (even though Spock would find some of the games illogical). The lithium crystals from Star Trek haven’t emerged as a power source yet, but solar and hydrogen fuel cells just might wean us off oil and coal. Screen printing made – and makes – these things possible. If only more people inside and outside the industry knew about it.

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