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Bridging the Gap Between Screen and Digital Printing for Textiles

As the analog-to-digital transformation in textile printing starts taking off, hybrid solutions are emerging that fill the gap between screen and digital printing. In this article, Senior Editor Cary Sherburne discusses this gap issue, includes insight from a California-based screen printer, and highlights an interesting hybrid solution in the form of M&R’s Digital Squeegee. Read more.

By Cary Sherburne
Published: March 5, 2018

We’ve been through the analog-to-digital transformation in a number of industries, and the textile industry is now undergoing this transformation. But as we have seen from past experience, legacy technologies usually stick around for a while. In textiles, especially in direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, screen printing has long been a staple, and it has many advantages. For example, operators are able to choose the ink type most appropriate for the fabric being used, and fabrics don’t typically need pre-treatment as is often required with digital printing.

“This is an advantage of screen printing inks,” said Peter Walsh, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for The M&R Companies, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of screen printing equipment for the graphic and textile industries. “Especially when you are dealing with performance fabrics, you can get better elasticity and bleed resistance with screen printing inks. Another advantage, of course, is cost. Screen printing inks are pretty much a commodity and sell for somewhere in the range of $15 per kilo, while digital inks are much more expensive; in fact, white ink for digital textile printers can cost as much as $100 per kilo.”

Screen printing does have its disadvantages, though, and those are the same disadvantages any analog technology has: In a market where run lengths are declining along with turnaround time requirements, analog technologies such as screen printing become cost prohibitive, largely due to the long set-up and job change-over times inherent in the process. Walsh adds, “The downside for screen printing, especially as there is growing demand for photo-realistic images, is that it could take 10 or more screens to produce the image using screen printing alone. That adds up to a lot of cost in time and materials, and if the runs are short, it just doesn’t work financially.”

The advantage of digital printing, of course, is that there is virtually no set-up, and quantities as small as one can be produced efficiently. Digital printing technologies can produce beautiful photo-realistic images in a single pass as well. The disadvantage is the cost of inks, the limitations in fabric types, and the need for pretreatment for many fabric types, consuming time and adding cost.

Analog/Digital Cross-Over Points

As the analog-to-digital transformation in textiles gains steam, there still remains a gap between screen printing and digital printing that needs to be addressed. Walsh explains, “Both screen and digital printing have their place. But you come down to a quantity in screen printing where the set-up costs make it no longer optimum as a decorating solution. And with digital, when you get above a certain quantity, it becomes too expensive. If shirts cost $3 to $4 each to produce, even if you can produce them faster, it’s not marketable on a large scale. But there is a gap in between that needs to be addressed, and many would say that gap is where the sweet spot for industry growth occurs.”

M&R has an interesting solution to the offering that not only appears to close this gap, but offers screen printers an interesting bridge to the digital world. I first learned about this solution, Digital Squeegee, from Ryan Foster at Nemecorp Screen Printing (more on Digital Squeegee later). He started his own clothing line in 2001. He says, “I was going to Sacramento State College and began getting interested in fashion clothing brands. In my junior year, I dropped out and took every fashion class our local junior college offered, including sewing and fashion merchandizing. My first brand was Nemesis, and it grew to sales in more than seven different countries. As a result of a number of factors, I bought my own equipment and started printing my own designs, manually at first, and then moved up over time to a 16-color automated screen printing system and 10-color Sportsman E in 5,000 square feet of manufacturing space. With our Gauntlet 3 and Sportsman E, we can produce thousands of shirts, and because of our background, we know how to distribute them.” Foster reports that set-up times can range from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on whether the job is a reorder and/or how many colors are involved. “If I have a 13-color job, set-up can be 30 to 45 minutes,” he says. That being said, he can produce as many as 750 shirts per hour, per machine, on his two screen printing presses.

Foster’s company also offers contract services to companies like Fed By Threads, offering not only direct-to-textile printing, but also all types of finishing, folding, bagging, bar coding and distribution services—just about everything except cut-and-sew.

Foster believes that digital printing will become standard in the next five to 10 years, but he is not sold on a fast hockey-stick growth pattern soon. He also believes that screen printing will be around for a long time to come. “A perfect example,” he says, “is a recent job where we printed 1,200 shirts front and back for a large movie coming out this year. It was a same-day rush job, a super tight deadline. The colors were just bright yellow ink, front and back. That’s it. So screen printing was ideal, and digital would likely not have been fast or affordable enough. If we had a full-color print to set up with a same-day rush, digital is more likely to be the answer. But I think a hybrid system will be the bridge solution that will cover us for quite some time. I look at a solution like M&R’s Digital Squeegee as a nice solution, and it makes a lot of new capabilities available right now, blending analog and digital into a seamless manufacturing operation.”

What’s a Digital Squeegee?

M&R’s Digital Squeegee is a hybrid system that replaces three stations on a screen printing carousel such as the Gauntlet 3 Foster is using. Walsh explains the process for a typical job: “Using screen printing inks, two layers of white ink are laid down as an underbase, printed and flash cured making it dry to the touch inline. This prints an optically bright surface on top of which inks can be applied for a consistent image. Then we print a clear binder layer and leave that wet. On top of that layer, the Digital Squeegee adds CMYK inks to produce a photo-realistic image. After drying the garment, the binder coat holds the CMYK on the surface and gives it wash-fastness and abrasion resistance.”

This process, for the DS-4000 model, puts digital printing inline at speeds equal to automated screen printing, generating up to 400 pieces per hour. It also enables enhancement of the full color images. For example, metallic inks can be laid down before or after the digital printing phase; special effects such as glitter can be added; and if there is a Pantone color that can’t be achieved with process color, an extra separation can put that color out and apply it with screen printing.

The Digital Squeegee uses 16 Ricoh Gen 5 inkjet heads and a proprietary ink from M&R. The heads are set up in an array to create one-pass printing, with a full-color, heavy coverage 16 x 20-inch image printed in less than five seconds.

M&R Product Manager Geoff Baxter adds, “This is an ideal solution for anyone who runs lots of colors or is producing short runs. With the advent of just-in-time inventories, we are seeing average runs of 144 to 288 shirts. If you have only one or two colors, you might as well use screen printing. But if you are printing multiple colors and short runs with lots of set-ups, digital can be the answer. With Digital Squeegee, you get the best of both worlds—access to the photo-realistic quality of digital and the flexibility of fabric types without pretreatment, special effects, and throughput speed screen printing offers.”

The Digital Squeegee has a list price of about $200,000. Baxter indicates that uptake has been rapid in Asia, with close to 100 units installed there. Units installed so far in North America are in the single digits. “We’ve been tinkering with this solution for a long time,” he concludes. “Now that we have the quality and speed necessary to effectively integrate with screen printing, I believe this technology is right on the cusp of taking off.” 

Cary Sherburne is a well-known author, journalist and marketing consultant whose practice is focused on marketing communications strategies for the printing and publishing industries.

Cary Sherburne is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us.

Please offer your feedback to Cary. She can be reached at cary@whattheythink.com.


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