The Advent of CTS Technology
Getting from computer screen to printing screen proved to be harder than it first looked.
In our special Innovation Issue, we present a collection of expert essays on an important technology in the industry today. Here, we take a deep dive into CTS technology.
Innovators, engineers, and tinkerers have been searching for a way to accelerate the screen making process for decades. For every printer, from the artist who burned her screens in the sun to the multimillion-dollar retail graphics provider with 18-foot screens, traditional prepress was an arduous and expensive parade.
Of course, before the advent of digital artwork and computerized film production, this parade stretched on even longer. “Everything took an amazing amount of time,” says Richard Greaves, an industry veteran and consultant. “A full-color set of separations cost $800 to $1000 and took a week to produce. And sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t.”
As innovations like PostScript, PageMaker, and eventually Illustrator and Photoshop enabled and simplified digital art creation, companies began exploring ways to leverage this in the screen making workflow. The first hurdle was getting output with a sufficiently dense black. Laser printer manufacturers like Qume, and then Xante, developed a way to lay down a thicker deposit of toner onto rough, vellum-finished paper; soon, early inkjet manufacturers took notice of the “film issue” and found a way to lay down more ink, too. Integrated digital imagesetting systems like the Autotype Aspect gained strong footholds.
Low-cost vellem allowed printers to produce their own film positives in house. Courtesy of Richard Greaves.
All of these innovations, of course, still required that thing in between: the film. It was 1987 when Geoff McCue looked at his office inkjet printer and said, “Wait a minute. I wonder if this thing will print on a screen.” That gap between the printhead and the paper suddenly seemed like a space full of potential.
McCue was so convinced it would work that he went home and bought his own inkjet printer, cut a screen down to 8.5 x 11 inches, and printed an image of the “Mona Lisa” right on it.
“I exposed it and washed it out, and it worked,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. You don’t need a film positive anymore.’”
It was quite an idea. When Screen Printing’s own Steve Duccilli detailed the possibilities of digital screen making five years later, he posed a mock futuristic scenario – complete with a robotic screen transport system – in which the screen maker spent most of his workday sleeping because his job had become just that easy (March 1992, pg. 60). McCue envisioned changes that were just as radical – although presumably the screen maker might find something to do besides nap. (Social media wasn’t around yet.)
McCue knew he needed access to greater resources beyond a chopped-up screen and a desktop printer to take his idea further. He was working in sales for Screen Printing Supplies at the time, a dealer for Gerber Scientific Products, the company that revolutionized computerized vinyl cutting. Gerber was “toying around with inkjet printing,” says McCue; he wondered what they’d make of the idea.
The painstaking process of knife-cut stencil film. Courtesy of Richard Greaves.
He made an appointment with the administration, but “they weren’t receptive to the idea at all,” he says. “They thought it was going to be a tough sell.” Turns out they were right. Screen printers weren’t known for being a computer-savvy crowd then. The rendering technology of the day was excruciatingly slow. Traditionalists were inexplicably attached to their film – and those who were willing to part with it seemed perfectly content with vellum that rang in at 30 cents a sheet.
But McCue believed in the simplicity of the idea that ink on paper was not that different from ink on emulsion, and knew that his concept had the potential to fundamentally rattle the screen printing workflow.
It was about a year before McCue heard back from Gerber. They purchased his right to file a patent and hired him on as a consultant to help with the development of what would come to be called the ScreenJet.
It was an exciting time; Greaves recalls being flown in to consult on the early stages of the machine’s development: “It was clearly cobbled together, but holy smoke, the thing actually put down ink on top of the screen. We all oohed and aahed – and then, of course, we saw about 20 different problems.”
The uphill battle McCue had faced in convincing the company to adopt his idea persisted; the next few years of development were dotted with disagreements about how the technology should be implemented.
There was the issue of ink. “It splattered a lot,” remembers Greaves; the stencil wasn’t smooth enough; the ink wasn’t opaque enough. Instead of trying different inks, McCue says they developed an “elaborate powder dusting system,” which led to new problems.
Another roadblock was the software, an Adobe PostScript emulator that resulted in a loss of accuracy. At the time, there was no way to preview what the design would look like, so therefore no way of catching mistakes until the screen was printed. This later proved to be an enormous challenge in selling the technology.
McCue had envisioned the machine as a desktop printer with a direct connection to a computer, just like the day he’d printed the “Mona Lisa” onto a screen. But that kind of engineering would’ve been expensive, and Gerber used a floppy disk drive instead. The problem was that many files were larger than what a floppy disk could hold. Gerber also planned to market it as a tabletop unit, without supplying a base. “But it was a monster,” says McCue. “Most people don’t have tables like that just hanging around.”
McCue worked on the development for about a year and then, he says, “I went on my merry way.” The ScreenJet came to market in early 1993, with Gerber citing that it could produce an exposure-ready screen for a typical T-shirt job in 4 to 8 minutes. (Others reported that, because high-speed image processing did not yet exist, it could take as long as 40 minutes.) Resolution was 300 dpi, and it imaged screens up to 20 x 27 inches. The company targeted garment printers; Randy Shamber, marketing manager of the day, told Screen Printing in 1992 that the machine could be economical for shops producing as few as 15 screens per day.
“Screen printers used to drive me nuts,” laughs McCue. Shortly after the ScreenJet went to market, Screen Printing Supplies started selling it and McCue found himself championing the technology yet again, this time to his customers. “They were like, ‘You can take the film out of my cold, dead hands.’”
The arguments against adopting the technology ran the gamut, and McCue thought he had foolproof responses to every one of them:
We can’t give up our film. How will we register on our presses?
Er. Why don’t you just print one color off the screen and line everything up to that print?
Oh, no. That takes too much time. Plus, the line structure is so pixelated.
OK, here’s the deal: Print the same image on the ScreenJet, and print it on your film; make the screens; print shirts with them; and try to tell the difference between the two.
Well, for that price, I could buy an automatic press. A press makes me money.
Well, wait a minute. You have to make screens to put on that press.
Yes, but that only takes a few minutes.
McCue laughs again and cites these conversations as the reason he has no hair today. “No one ever realized how long it took them to make screens,” he says. “Follow a film positive through your shop: The film came out on a roll, and you’d run over and cut it up. And then you never trusted the image header, so you had to find a light table and check that they all registered. Then you’d have to get a really big, custom envelope; write the job number on there; and take them to the screenroom. Then the screen operator takes them out – and he doesn’t trust the films, either, so he gets his light table…” You get the picture. McCue would spell it out, time and time again, on sales calls and in seminars; he even built an ROI calculator that would show, more often than not, that printers could recoup their costs in a year or less. A few in the audience would nod their heads. The rest “looked at me like I was crazy.”
A ScreenJet demonstration at a tradeshow in the early ‘90s. Courtesy of Richard Greaves.
There were early adopters: Stahls’ Transfer Express, Adidas, others. “There were pockets of people,” says McCue, “that went that way and never looked back. But it didn’t sell as quickly as I thought it would.”
Eventually, Gerber sold the patent to Lüscher Technologies, a Swiss company that was making large-format computer-to-screen systems, and stopped making the ScreenJet altogether.
The Next Generation
Cheer up; there’s more to the story. The ScreenJet itself may have fizzled, but if you look at CTS systems today, they’re not fundamentally very different than they were in 1993. Inkjet models still jet droplets of ink (or wax, an innovation that came later) onto an emulsion-coated screen. Laser-based systems, which developed in parallel with inkjet models, still expose screens directly, eliminating the intermediate positive image altogether. The idea itself was always a bright one; it just needed, perhaps more than anything, some time. It’s no secret that the technology has exploded in the past five years or so.
Dan Kimmerly, operations manager at retail graphics provider KDM P.O.P., says the timing wasn’t right to adopt CTS until recently. The company plans to implement the technology by summer 2018. Drivers included end-of-life liability with their camera and imagesetting equipment, plus the availability of faster, more affordable machines.
Greg Kitson, president of Mind’s Eye Graphics, waited until 2006 to adopt CTS technology. He compares its history to that of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution: Steam engine technology flourished as early as the 1780s, but, because of a lack of support technology – namely, iron and steel – railroads and trains weren’t practical until some 75 years later.
“The ScreenJet was a great idea,” he explains, “but the computer technology didn’t exist to really take advantage of it.”
In the decade following the launch of the ScreenJet, computers evolved rapidly – and the public began understanding them better. New providers began to take an interest in CTS, including Kiwo, which hired McCue to manage the development of the technology. (He worked at Kiwo until his retirement in 2016.) He’d bump into Kitson throughout the early 2000s and say, “Are you ready yet? Are you ready yet? Are you ready yet?”
Kitson jokes that he was stubborn; he was stuck on the numbers in his ROI spreadsheet. “I had tunnel vision,” he says, “in that I was trying to make the justification simply based on the film that I wouldn’t be using.” But what he found when he bought a Kiwo I-Jet, at long last, was a complete transformation of his workflow. “I was thinking I’d be saving $2 per screen in film; the reality is, I was saving 15 minutes per screen.” At 90 to 120 screens a day, that’s a lot of time – and as we all know, time is money. Would he have bought the ScreenJet if he had known? No, he says, but he adds he would’ve jumped into CTS three years sooner.
Could’ve, should’ve – what would McCue have done if he could go back and do it all again? “I probably would’ve sat on the patent for a while and waited till the market was more ready.” But the question is worth asking: Doesn’t someone have to simply be the first? Would the innovations of today have been made if not for those early failures? McCue went on to file a number of other patents, including the first direct-exposure CTS system and, most recently, a simultaneous screen registration system. This is a business where invention never quits.
Read more from Screen Printing's December 2017/January 2018 Innovation Issue.