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Screen printing: to what degree is it being replaced by digital, especially wide-format inkjet? Print E-mail

Screen printing is still a popular printing method around the world, and silkscreen printing will continue, as it has in the past century. So it is not that digital inkjet will replace screen printer machinery as much as screen printing shops are adding wide-format inkjet printers as a useful adjunct printing technology.

The reason FLAAR is adding this new page about screen printing is because every single printshop that I have visited in the US and Germany in late 2008 and early 2009 were all screen printing companies. And every one had acquired a UV-cured flatbed printer in the previous four months!

So, if you understand this statistic, it means that even in a recession, a significant percentage of screen printing companies in 2009 and 2010 will also be initiating learning about which new wide-format inkjet printer to buy. Most of these screen printing owners, managers, and printer operators will visit a FLAAR web site and download FLAAR Reports to assist them in learning about flatbed as well as roll-to-roll inkjet technologies.

UV-cured flatbed printers

From 2000 through 2004 probably 90% of the UV printers sold had capability to print on thick and rigid material. So UV-cured flatbed printers were the kind of machines that most screen printing companies really want to buy.

Some flatbed printers can also print roll-to-roll. These are called a combo style printer if they have a moving transport belt, like a conveyor belt.

Some roll-to-roll printers can also print some flat material (these are called hybrids).

There are many other inks that can function in some niche-market flatbed printers: solvent inks and bio-solvent inks. But so far, I have not seen or visited any screen printing company or any sign franchise printshop that has any flatbed other than using UV-cured inks.

When I visit screenprinting companies, some have bought dedicated flatbed printers (Grapo Manta or Gerber Solara ion X), some have bought combo flatbed UV printers (Grapo Octopus II), and some have bought hybrid flatbed UV printers (GCC StellarJET 183UVK).

Thieme screen printing evaluations
Thieme screen press in the room next to a Grapo Manta UV-curing flatbed and a Grapo Octopus II combo with transport belt.

UV-curable roll-to-roll printers are another alternative for screen printing

NUR made the breakthrough out of solvent into UV RtR at DRUPA 2004. NUR's Expedio 5000 and Revolution then became the #1 best-selling roll-to-roll UV printer manufacturer, which resulted in their acquisition by HP. Gandinnovations has also worked to produce a roll-to-roll UV. Durst has succeeded in engineering two very high quality roll-to-roll UV printers which I have tested during three visits to Durst world headquarters in Brixen: the Durst Rho 351R and Rho 320R. So today, if you wish sheer beauty for point-of-sale perfume ads on backlit, or soft signage for airports or malls, the Durst printers specialize in this range of quality for close viewing.

If you want only billboards or building wrap, of course the same printers can do that by simply changing the print modes. But if you buy a “billboard printer” it may have banding defects and thus can't always easily be used for Point of Sale or POP in a store that values visual quality. Banding on inkjet printers (feeding issue banding, and bi-directional cure banding) are visible defects that will be new to screen printing printshop owners, managers, and printer operators.

In other words, a high quality UV printer can do top quality, and billboard quality. But a printer made only for billboards is usually not as good as the other brands that are made more for point of sale quality.

Digital printing of T-shirts: another replacement for traditional screen printing

Inkjet printers are already available to replace 1-off printing of individualized T-shirts. You see these inkjet printers at every trade show, especially SGIA in the US and FESPA in Europe. But there will be more. I am under NDA with one new brand (the brand itself already exists; just that T-shirt printers are new for them).

But although desktop inkjet printers do print on T-shirts, the main area where inkjet will move into screen printing shops is UV-cured inks for signage and décor (such as wallpaper).

Solvent printers for screen printing companies: eco-solvent, lite-solvent, mild-solvent, bio-solvent

From the 1990's onward billboard printers used full-strength solvent ink. Thousands of these printers still exist today but since 2003 they have gradually been replaced by eco-solvent, lite-solvent, and mild-solvent printers. There was a bit of interest in bio-solvent ink circa 2007, but that ink then was not visible for many months afterwards and by the time bio-solvent reappeared, most printshops were using UV-cured inks. And today there is latex ink to compete with bio-solvent.

What about latex printers from HP?

HP decided to skip bio-solvent and put all its efforts into what it calls latex ink. Downside is a $100,000 price tag, and the fact that this latex ink is not usable on thick materials, so not usable on a flatbed printer for flat rigid signage materials.

Textile printers: dye-sublimation and direct to fabric

There are so many different kinds of textile ink and textile printers that we are adding entire sections to our web sites, especially when we have a chance to study and test the printers in detail, such as with Yuhan-Kimberly and DigiFab.

There are also new hybrid UV curable inks specifically for printing on textiles. FLAAR will evaluate these inks as soon as we can return from undertaking the necessary tests and studies in Europe. Last year we traveled over 400,000 km to study the entire range of solvent, UV, textile, and water-based inks around the world.

What about water-based printers?

The heyday of water-based inkjet printers were the years of Encad, so late 1990's through 2000-whatever when Encad finally ran out of steam as part of Kodak. HP and Epson rode this crest of water-based printers, as did ColorSpan. Actually there were trade shows such as DRUPA 2000, where Mimaki, Mutoh, and Roland all featured water-based printers. Now, since 2004, Epson has taken over most of giclee and fine art photography market. Canon uses its considerable financial clout to hold on to what was left of Encad's market share, and HP holds the rest. But today printshops ask me “what can I do with my old HP 5000 or HP 5500.

FLAAR had three of these printers; they are workhorses that last and last. Our evaluations of the capabilities of this printer was one of several factors that resulted in this HP Designjet 5000 and 5500 being the most sold inkjet printer in the world over 24 inches. It is estimated that over a quarter of a million of this model were sold at its peak. This is probably more than all printer models of other brands put together.

But today most printshops have long ago moved to eco-solvent, mild-solvent or UV cured. Even Epson came out with a solvent printer (in 2008) and HP also tried for three years by rebranding the popular Seiko ColorPainter 64s. Today, in 2009, the sales of water-based printers continue, but nothing like in earlier years.

Yet it is ironic that by the time of DRUPA 2012 (DRUPA is held every four years), the most popular new printers of that future event may well be water-based printers, but these future water-based inks are totally different in all respects from what Epson, HP, and Canon use today.

But what about the new ink-chemistries that will replace UV and solvent?

FLAAR is currently keeping watch on four new ink chemistries, as well as on the innovative flatbed printers that are associated with two of these inks. The other inks are so new that they do not yet have their own printing technologies. There will be some new documentation by the time of ISA 2009, but most of the new information will not be publicized until FESPA Digital in May, in Amsterdam.

None of the new inks we are looking at are bio-solvent, and the only one that is latex is a secondary ink, not from HP. We already were trained on the HP latex ink last year in Israel and in Barcelona, but there was no follow-up with a beta test opportunity so we have switched to the other inks that are more accessible.

From 2004 I have also kept track on how, when, where, and why the innovative inks of those years failed. Lumocolor from Staedtler is the best example in recent history of an impressive ink that failed in the market place. So that is our benchmark case study. I have kept track of precisely which factors derailed this ink; which factors were related to the chemistry of the ink (adheasion and abrasion) and which factors were related to the chemistry of the policy of the company that invented the ink (pun intended since no ink or printer fails just because of technology or chemistry).

I have also watched the struggle of other magic inks (inks that print on everything): you see them in small booths at every sign trade show in the world.

All this documentation is so we are prepared to assist ink companies in 2009 and 2010 to avoid the specific pitfalls that caused the inks from 2004 through 2008 to fail. Do you remember Encad's VinylJet with its unusual ink?

The other reason that I follow the rise and fall of each new ink chemistry is to assist screen printing company owners and managers who ask for consulting assistance to plan ahead for what they should be looking at in the future. Today in 2009 it is clear which printers they should be testing and purchasing: UV-cured and textile printers. But what will be their next addition in 2011 and in the future? Sophisticated printshop owners plan ahead.

Screen printing is a great industry and will continue, but things will change

Probably the biggest benefit of switching from screenprinting to wide-format inkjet printing is lessoning the reality of ink-related health issues. The number of screenprinting personnel who have ink-related health problems is staggering.

Solvent inkjet ink is infamous for VOCs and carginogens too. But not many printing companies in the US or Europe allow that kind of ink any more. Eco-solvent and mild-solvent are a bit less hazardous to your health and UV inks are simply a different form of chemical, but at least the inks being fostered today (2009) are so much less obviously hazardous than full solvent inks or screenprinting ink that there is almost no comparison.

In the old days, when screen printing companies exhibited at SGIA, the number of people who got headaches in the initial hours of entering the exhibit halls was legendary. Today with only a fraction of the screenprinting companies still exhibiting, and most full-solvent printers on their way out, the trade show halls are a lot less of a headache. Regulations that require ventilation at trade shows (and in printshops) also help considerably.

Conclusion: for screen printing owners, managers, and investment partners

Screen printing is still a viable technique today, as it has been for centuries. But it helps to add some digital printing technologies nowadays. What should you be adding to your short list?

FLAAR offers over 200 reports on wide-format inkjet printers on our www.wide-format-printers.NET. Consulting is available to printshops of all sizes and all backgrounds. If you wish to learn all this privately, in advance, you can bring FLAAR to your printshop anywhere in the world, to analyze your needs, to suggest new applications that new digital printers make possible.

There are tens thousands of screen printing companies, and naturally the UV-curable flatbed printer manufacturers are recognizing this substantial market. Indeed Agfa and Thieme have already worked together to produce the UV-cured Agfa M Press.

I appreciate the hospitality of the owners and managers of the many screen printing companies that I have visited while inspecting and evaluating UV-cured inkjet printers in their screen printing shops. I have learned from these experienced printing professionals how important it is to select the appropriate UV-cured printer.

But it's tough for a screen printing shop to decide which UV printer to buy: there are hybrid UV, combo UV, dedicated UV, and roll-to-roll UV.

There are now even hybrid UV inks (in combo textile printers!). The jargon is bewildering.

So FLAAR offers a helpful glossary so you can understand the industry jargon. We offer introductory descriptions of the differences among hybrid, combo, and dedicated (as well as lists, by brand and model) of which UV printer is correctly in which category.

Whether by accident of Google, or by knowledge in advance, you have landed on the de-facto large format inkjet printer resource read by over a quarter of a million people last year (over 340,000 actually), in over a hundred countries. Please visit our library of full-color PDFs and download or request the FLAAR Reports that will be helpful to a screen printing company.

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First posted January 26, 2009.

 
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