Consistent results are the bedrock every successful screen printing venture is built on.
In the wake of the pandemic, though, staffing woes and supply chain chaos have made consistency harder to come by for printers both large and small.
It’s harder than ever to hire, train and retain the right personnel to run your equipment while still meeting tight customer deadlines.
For high volume print shops, and businesses trending in that direction, automating essential processes of your business can be a smart call. While automatic presses, like Workhorse’s Sabre, Cutlass and Freedom Express models, have long been an industry staple, there are plenty of additional ways to automate critical processes. Screen coating, exposure and reclaiming systems also offer big time benefits for printers looking to upgrade and automate their operations.
Here’s what you need to know.
Bevy of Benefits
Here’s the great promise of print shop automation: you can exchange employee man hours for a system that performs a repeatable task to your exact specifications. The major benefit is freeing up employees to perform other tasks or allows you to perform the same amount of work with fewer personnel.
“Some positions are like a revolving door for printers, especially finding somebody to sit and work that reclaiming room,” according to Texsource’s Ryan Bolin. “A lot of print shops have to work as hard finding somebody to work as they do actually printing. Automation can help shift some of that load.”
You may also end up with higher quality finished prints, possible production rates and increased productivity. Automation may also help you stretch expensive consumables - like emulsions or chemicals like ink degradents and haze removers - to their max.
Slash Training Time
Consider the time, attention, supervision and learning curve required to bring an employee up to speed on essential tasks like screen coating. Now consider what happens when that employee moves on to another position or quits, and you must begin the training process once more with another hire.
Employers in all industries must invest in their workforce, but teaching a new hire to operate simple touchscreen controls and monitor the system for easy-to-spot problems is an efficient use of your time and resources. It’s certainly easier than the alternative of attempting to impart years of experience and muscle memory to a brand new screen printer.
Reduce Error Rates
Automated systems can reduce the likelihood of errors that can hamper your bottom line. People make mistakes, and they’re more prone to errors as fatigue sets in the waning hours of a shift or when juggling multiple tasks at the same time.
Machines and software don’t get tired and the last task is completed in the same way as the first. Print shops don’t have to worry about the end result.
There’s an important caveat to this. Automated systems operators must take care to properly program tasks and monitor the finished result. It’s deceptively simple to make a small mistake - like reversing or inverting an image via a direct-to-screen or laser-to-screen exposure system - that becomes a massive problem when it’s duplicated across dozens of screens in quick succession. It’s important to build in check procedures to catch those issues before they become bigger problems.
Forecasting Becomes Easier
Automated coating systems, exposure units, presses and reclaiming systems allow you to accurately gauge the exact time and resources needed to complete your jobs. You’ll be able to manage your resources better, understand exactly what your fixed and variable costs per shirt are and the true time it will take to complete jobs.
That’s increasingly important right now, as printers the world over are still working hard to track down the raw materials - inks, chemicals, shirts, hoodies, bags, hats - needed to complete jobs.
With a complete understanding of your production process, you’ll be able to better communicate timelines to customers and have confidence in your production estimates.
That’ll reduce your stress levels. You’ll sleep better. Trust us.
Work Smarter - and More Efficiently
Production printing can be grueling.
Managing pre-press prep, printing, catching, curing and reclaiming requires long hours on your feet. Reducing your workload with smart automation tools can keep you up, in the game and focused which just might give you an edge on your competition over the long run.
The previously mentioned LTS exposure systems allow printers to dump the tried and true photo positives, saving you time and cash in the long run. Automated screen reclaiming systems take much of the work from screen printing’s most laborious task, and help you better manage resources like water and chemicals and increase the life of your screens.
Get the Most From Your People
By reducing and simplifying time intensive, repetitive tasks, you can decide exactly where you should focus your efforts and those of your team. Instead of spending the hours necessary to create consumables like photo positives, align them on screens and expose them you can hand that task off with confidence to your Laser-to-Screen operator.
You’ll know you’ll get back print ready screens which can free you or other personnel to focus on materials purchases, sales or marketing. Consider this the breather you need to focus on your business and not simply your day to day operating tasks.
Consider Your Constraints
It’s important to understand the business case for these systems along with the volume necessary to make them worth the substantial investment.
Automated systems often require substantial floor space within print shops. Most automatic screen coaters, LTS exposure units and screen reclaiming systems feature vertical designs, however, which mean you can generally tuck them against a wall to facilitate room to move around them. Most also weigh considerably more than their elbow grease powered counterparts, so take that into consideration before purchasing automated systems.
Realize also that adding additional capacity in one portion of your printing process will shift bottlenecks to another portion of your operation. Boosting your screen coating and exposing potential brings limited rewards if printing or curing capacity fails to keep pace.
Plan. Don’t Panic.
Robin Bumgardner, a former production screen printer turned Texsource sales representative, said the average print shop turns to automated systems after considerable study - and plenty of stress.
“Most people come around to the idea because there’s something else going on within the shop,” Bumgardner said. “Maybe their volume is increasing and they’re looking at adding another manual press and it’s already crowded. So they may go with an auto press and clear away some of the manuals.”
It’s smarter to plan for the integration of automated systems before you really need them to make the smartest choices for your business.
Automatic Screen Coating systems come in dual and single screen varieties. Screens are placed inside clamps while front and rear mounted scoops coat screens with an emulsion of your choice.
Saati’s ProCoat Dual Screen Auto Coater can handle two 25”x36” screens, or a single 42”x50” screen in approximately 30-second cycles but companies like M&R also offer auto coaters. The devices allow operators to program specific commands to achieve clean, consistent coats of emulsion.
Computer-to-Screen and Laser-to-Screen Systems include both cabinet and vertically oriented models. Both processes combine computer systems and RIP software, allowing screen printers to dump the photo positive production process.
CTS machines quickly print wax or ink negatives on screens, while on-board imaging systems expose screens. Screens are then developed in a washout booth.
In contrast, LTS systems like Saati’s 6080, 6080-VF and 8012 use a fast moving laser diode system to directly image and expose screens simultaneously. The latter two units can image and expose two screens simultaneously every 2.5 minutes.
Automatic Screen Reclaiming Systems generally come in a vertical orientation and combine different modules to strip screens of remaining ink, emulsions and stains. Systems use a combination of chemicals, high and low pressure water rinses and, in some cases, forced air to quickly return screens to a ready-to-use state.
Bluewater Labs claims its D-2536S can clean up to 200 frames per 8 hour shift, while its D-2536L can handle triple that volume at up to 600 frames over a single shift. M&R also offers an ECO-RINSE Automatic Screen Rinsing System.