Stretching What You Have
Making the most of your consumables is key to surviving tough times. Davis explains how to get the most mileage out of inks, emulsion, cleaning chemicals, and other supplies by optimizing screen tension.
The past three decades have brought changes to our industry that I never thought I’d see in my wildest dreams—or should I say, nightmares. International trade agreements have driven the major garment manufacturers from the US first to Mexico, then South America, then the Caribbean, and now to South Asia and India. I could count the number of large screen-printing shops that own more than six or seven automatic presses in the US on one hand. The powerhouse licensed-athletic suppliers that used to feed countless garment-screen-printing operations profitability have all moved their production overseas in the name of cost and profitability. This, in conjunction with the current economic situation in which we find ourselves, has left the market for domestic screen-printed apparel a mere shadow of what it once was.
Today, a large garment-printing facility typically has two or three automatic printing presses, and those that have three or more have, in many cases, downsized from much larger facilities. Garment shops of all sizes have closed their doors, and those that have survived have done so by maintaining the least amount of overhead and staff in order to process orders at the lowest possible cost. Nowadays you’ll commonly find printers that are costing out printing for the simple reason of keeping the doors open and slashing profitability to a minimum in order to just survive.
Although I do believe this is a sign of modern times, I also believe that we will recover from our current situation and the garment-decorating industry will survive. The great unknown, however, is when that upturn will take place. Until it does, the most that garment screen printers can do is maximize resources, increase quality, and minimize price and overhead.
Making the most of what you have is especially important for the smaller shops that are truly struggling. Maximizing what we can get out of our supplies and processes is key to keeping the doors open for business. This concept should be a standard operating procedure for every shop, regardless of size, but times of plenty bred complacency in our industry.
Film output is one area where, unless you are accustomed to maximizing the surface area of the film or reusing resi-dual pieces from larger cuts of film, you need to concentrate on making the most of what you have. Roughly 90% of my smallest images are 4 in. long or wide. These are typically left-chest prints; therefore, I keep all residual film pieces that are 4.5 in. or larger. You can also maximize film usage by placing multiple images on a single sheet (for sheet-fed printers) or area of film where you can use up all the available space.
The screenroom is another major area where you can cut costs and stretch the utility of the supplies you have on hand. Keep in mind that pennies add up into dollars. The subtleties in screenmaking can turn those pennies into many dollars.
One of the major sins garment screen printers commit is investing in retensionable screen frames only to rack them for reorders as opposed to reclaiming, retensioning, and reusing them on press—the ways the product was intended to be used in the first place! Screens that sit on shelves simply age and lose tension. Maintaining a proper retensioning program allows you to maximize the return on your original investment in these frames. Among the greatest selling points of retensionable frames in either good times or bad is the amount of savings they can bring to other areas of the process, including reduced consumption of emulsion, reclaiming chemicals, inks, and mesh. The retensionable frame’s impact on the quality of the print also is enormous.
The first saving consideration is emulsion consumption. Higher screen tension provides a coating surface with a much greater level of rigidity. The end result of this higher tension is a much thinner and consistent emulsion coating. From a productivity standpoint, the thinner emulsion coating also allows for faster exposure times, which in turn maximizes your screen-production efficiency while reducing power consumption. Setting the time and cost savings aside, you will also increase your ability to reproduce details such as fine lines, as well as your overall tonal range.
Ink consumption is another area where you minimize cost by maximizing tension. Keeping screen tensions at optimum levels allows you to reduce off-contact distances and squeegee pressures, which in turn allows you to deposit your ink films onto the surface of the fabric—as opposed to pressing the ink into the fabric—and prolong the life of your squeegee. The result here is lower ink consumption, higher opacity prints, and faster production rates. The thinner ink films also require a lower retention time in the dryer to reach a proper cure point, which means you’ll use less energy to dry them.
From a reclaiming standpoint, high-tension screens require less emulsion remover if sprayed on, or shorter soak times if using a dip tank. In either case you save on the chemicals used in reclaiming. High-tension screens also reclaim faster, which leads to saving in labor time. These benefits also apply to degreasing and dehazing chemicals.
Slow production times also represent an opportunity to conduct house cleaning. Consolidate those PMS colors that have been sitting for more than nine months with little hope of seeing any reorders in the near future. Dark grays and off shades of black are the easiest to combine because black is the easiest color to get away with. You can combine yellows, reds, blues, and greens, but keep in mind that mixing too many pigments into one color can create a gray. Finally, take a walk through your facility and identify which processes and procedures you can modify to increase productivity and save the dollars that everyone needs to keep in this tight market.
Maximize Resources with High Screen Tension
• Reduced consumption of emulsion, chemicals, and mesh
• Faster exposure
• Better preservation of details and tonal ranges
• Minimized off-contact and squeegee pressure
• Higher print opacity with lower ink consumption
• Prolonged squeegee life
• Faster production and shorter dwell time in dryer
• Reduction in chemical consumption
• Shorter soak times in dip tanks
• Faster overall reclamation
Rick Davis is the president of Synergy Screen Printing in Orlando, FL. A 27-year veteran of the textile-printing industry, Davis is a member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology and has a background that spans production management, artwork engineering, application testing, and industry consulting. He is a frequent contributor to trade publications and a speaker at industry trade events.