Threats to Screen Printing, Inside and Out

Is screen printing being threatened by inkjet and other technologies? Or are broader forces at work, including our own inertia?

Our special "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" issue brings industry experts together to consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to screen printing. Our "Digital Dimensions" columnists opens the "Threats" section with a look at forces both inside and outside our industry that may limit our potential.

Any process or technology is inherently threatened by disruption in today’s digital economy. The threat comes not from the evolution of new technologies or printing processes, but from the underlying driver of all things digital. Simply stated, the speed at which the digital economy is evolving threatens everything. There is no such thing as a status quo any longer.

In the industrial economy of the last century, everything was measured in years – product lifecycles, research and development, and the lifespan of the final product itself. There was time to make decisions. Markets could be developed around the expanded capability of capital investments in new equipment and automation. “If we buy it, they will come” was the common approach to acquiring a major new piece of equipment such as an automatic press. Purchases were often made under the assumption that the company would grow into the new production capacities over time.

But the digital economy is disposable. It’s based on iterations measured in months, or even weeks. As systems become self-learning, product evolution will compress further until it becomes continuous. There isn’t much we can do about it. It’s happening in every area where digital technology has a foothold, which is pretty much everywhere.

One consequence of this acceleration for any business owner is that you must hit the ground running as soon as any capital equipment you’ve acquired is in place. You don’t have time to develop your market or go through a steep learning curve. It’s not just that your own processes for developing and launching products are compressed – the equipment and software you’re buying have short lifespans as well, so you have to be productive from day one. The clock is ticking down from the moment you sign the contract to buy.

The next big wave is the internet of things, where everything is becoming cloud connected. Massive data is transmitted in real-time, patterns and predictions are made, and resulting actions are instantly implemented and deployed. It happens billions of times per day. The biggest challenge is to make sense of all this data. Where will the new opportunities be? One thing is certain: They won’t be from the traditional areas we’ve worked for the last 75 years.

All products and processes go through four stages in their lifecycles: invention, invention-extension, functional substitution, and devention. Screen printing today is crossing the line from invention-extension into functional substitution. This means that new technologies are available that can be substituted to achieve the same results as screen printing.

On the surface, the immediate response is to look at the viability of the process, which is largely an economic question. If competing technologies like 3D printing get fast enough, cheap enough, and of high enough resolution, the screen-printing process will no longer be viable. This has already happened with large-format graphics printing. We’re beginning to see inroads in other areas such as textiles (roll-to-roll and direct-to-garment inkjet printing).

Industrial printing has more opportunity to remain in the invention-extension phase, but it’s only a matter of time before it also enters functional substitution. It’s inevitable. How long that will be is a matter of cost and creative innovation on the part of traditional manufacturers of the equipment and supplies, as well as by manufacturing engineers on how the process is used. The invention-extension phase can be extended through hybridization and integration of old and new technologies, but really, it’s only transitionary.

So what is the single biggest threat to screen printing? Relevance. How will screen printing remain relevant within the new economy in light of its massive disruptive influences? This is a very difficult question to answer.

It’s not just a question of re-imagining the imaging process, substrate, and delivery of finished goods. Relevance has a fourth dimension – time. Typically, we as screen printers have been reactive. Customers place a production order with us and we fulfill it. Lots of similar orders come in and we look at how to better structure our businesses to capitalize on an apparent opportunity. Being relevant today requires anticipation, predictive modeling, and the ability to truly understand our role in the bigger economic view of our markets. Our customers are increasingly uninterested in products that will be manufactured in big quantities and delivered over a long period of time. They want individualized items that meet specific needs, right now.

All of this comes at a capital cost. The ability to deliver mass customization in a one-off economy requires significant capital investments in imaging technology. Look at the cost of high-speed wide-format printers or industrial-grade DTG machines: they are hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.

Several things must happen in order for the screen-printing process to survive. Business owners must become ever-more focused on the total economics of what they deliver. Understanding the economics of successful printing goes well beyond the cost of ink transfer to substrate: It requires a multidimensional approach and a different perspective on how we assign value to what we deliver to the client.

Second, businesses must become much quicker in their ability to innovate and adapt to new applications for the screen-printing process. Digital printing is based on agile development, and in many markets, we’ve presented inkjet developers with a stationary target. If we become more adaptive, we become a moving target that’s harder to unseat. Being agile means developing new corporate cultures that embrace change rather than resist it. More often than not, our industry is mired in the old ways, avoiding the one thing that we know we can always count on – change.

Finally, much more attention needs to be placed on sales and marketing automation, and using the vast and powerful data now available. We’ve been focused on automating our production processes, but that cannot stand alone as a basis for competitive advantage. The typical peaks and valleys of production we so often see in our businesses are the direct result of deficiency in the sales pipeline and the inability to process supply-chain requirements fast enough to keep up with the production machines. Increasingly, predictive modeling derived from data patterns will fuel our decisions and our ability to be in the right place at the right time.

For more from our "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" special issue:

Editorial Insights
Screen Printing: A Technology at a Crossroads, Steve Duccilli

Strengths
Why Industrial Applications Hold Tremendous Promise for Screen Printing, Mike Young
Screen Printing: King of Textiles, Charlie Taublieb
The Future of Functional Printing, Wim Zoomer
A Partial List of Industrial Applications for Screen Printing, Wim Zoomer

Weaknesses
The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts, Tamas S. Frecska
Why Web-to-Print Software Matters for All Printing Businesses, Eileen Fristch
A Sampling of Web-to-Print Software, Eileen Fritsch

Opportunities
What if Screen Didn't Exist? Andy MacDougall
Are Screen Printers Part of the Maker Movement? Kiersten Wones

Threats
Digital Ceramic Printing: A Logical SuccessSophie Matthews-Paul
 

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