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Back To The Future at SGIA 2015

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  • Back To The Future at SGIA 2015

    by Sean O'Leary

    The “Screen Printing” Show as a Mirror of 21st Century Enterprise

    Back when I was a trade journalist focusing on the graphic arts, I specialized in disruptive technologies such as wide-format inkjet and electronic displays. This niche was rewarding because it allowed me to make predictions that most people would probably forget I had made, including me. At one point I even considered becoming a futurist, but I procrastinated and the opportunity flew by. I moved on to the internet and time went by.

    It was after more than a decade away from the fray that I had the opportunity for some time travel: in a more or less impromptu visit to the Specialty Graphics and Imaging Association (SGIA) show in Atlanta. My day wandering the vast show floor provided a fascinating chance to observe the condition of an industry once known as “screen printing”, but which now resists an easy description. The 225,000 sq ft event was something like an archeological dig, with a vibrant technology-driven present tense overlaying artifacts of the past that refuse to go away.

    My first visit to the Screen Printing Show was in 1978, before there was digital. The big news at that event was the emergence of UV curable inks, which were making a painful debut as the technology of the future. Fast forward to 1995. As the publisher and editor of Big Picture magazine, I had a front row seat as the shock forces of the digital revolution proclaimed in no uncertain terms that “there would be no screen printers in the year 2000.”

    That turned out not to be true. Those overwrought prophecies, like the marketing language used to promote the already doomed electrostatic printers, were somewhat fantasy based. Instead, most of the companies making the predictions are now gone and screen printers acquired the ColorGrafX and LightJet machines for pennies on the dollar and deployed them as complementary output devices. They digitized their pre-press, moved into signage markets and added on-demand graphics to their toolbox. Today, those who re-branded as imaging companies are thriving in a challenging environment that compensates by offering limitless opportunities as visual imaging technologies merge.

    As an industry, screen printing was always amalgam of sub niches as culturally far apart as t-shirt printers and electronic circuit board printers. The 500+ vendors at the 2015 SGIA show continued to reflect that reality, now expanded to include an endless array of wide-format and flatbed inkjet printers, dye sublimation systems, laminating systems, digital cutting and converting equipment, direct-to-garment printers and 3-D printers. And yet if I had beamed down to certain booths, I would have materialized in an apparaent time warp that still includes heat transfer machines for crappy t-shirts, miracle squeegees, drying racks, magnetic sign blanks, screen frame systems and bottles of mystery liquids with 20 page MSDS’s.

    What I Saw At The Big Show

    Workflow is the name of the game: As is the case with offset lines, software is driving imaging output systems of all kinds. Beyond preflight, pre-press and color management, onetime RIP developers such as Efi/Fiery, Onyx and Wasatch have expanded utilities designed to integrate and automate multiple media output. Color management software in particular benefits printing processes such as dye sublimation that shift among color spaces. Some workflow packages even include marketing modules, which suggests these vendors are moving toward specialized enterprise offerings.

    Textiles and fabric: The single most dominant visual phenomenon at SGIA was textile printing in general and dye-sublimation in particular. While inkjet printing on banner fabrics has been a reality for many years, the maturing of dye sublimation processes has taken textile decoration to a new level in terms of quality. The ascendancy of dye sublimation extends beyond fabric to include rigid materials. Epson was exhibiting some astounding dye sublimation images transferred to an aluminum substrate.

    As a demonstration of how far afield new technologies can take one, dye sublimation is now emerging as a high end, on demand fashion business section. Various vendors had been touting this application ten years ago, but it is only now that the reality is beginning to match the hype. Custom fashion manufacturing added yet another new dimension and a new set of attendees to the show.

    Meanwhile, those rotary t-shirt printing machines (unchanged for decades) continue to present a great opportunity to start your own business in your basement. While dye sublimation is the new “it” technology, it’s tricky and demanding. There is no guarantee the “t-shirt printer in the basement” business model won’t turn out to be a better economic choice.

    The State of Inkjet Printers: When I saw my first Encad Novajet inkjet printer in 1991, I owned part of a screen printing ink manufacturing plant. Even though the Novajet wasn’t working at the time, it seemed to me that eventually it would, and that I wanted to not be manufacturing screen printing ink for a whole lot longer.

    The extraordinary selection of inkjet printers at SGIA 2015 suggests that I was partly correct as a fledgling futurist. Inkjet is taking over the world, but not as fast as the pundits foretold. The market for rollfed inkjet printers is clearly mature and improvements in speed and quality are mostly incremental. Flatbed models are more interesting because they have the theoretical capability to direct-print on any surface. But a survey of the dozens of models on the floor confirmed that flatbed inkjets continue to lag behind screen printing in terms of productivity for long runs and accuracy of spot colors.

    In reality, it will be the fixed array inkjet printers that will supplant first screen printing and eventually even offset. HP rebranded its HP Inkjet Web Press as the HP PageWide Web Press, but you can nevertheless see where they are going with that 42” machine. Memjet and Canon/Oce are also committed to this technology, with companies such as Formax marketing successful fixed inkjet array label printers. There are inherent accuracy and quality challenges associated this technology and they have not been worked out yet, but inevitably they will be.

    The Future Is Now
    Because I had a fundamental understanding of screen printers’ deceptive shrewdness, I did not buy into the predictions of their sudden demise in 1995 at the time. But I also understand that it will be only a matter of time before inkjet improves to the point that it gnaws away the last remaining serigraphic strongholds. But the rate of change is always far slower than those writing the press releases would desire, and there is a lot of money to be made for those who understand how to use timely technological innovation to their advantage, rather than the other way around.

    Just as trucking companies are now logistics companies and the trucks are but one method of transport among many, screen printers are now imaging companies and screen printing is but one method of output among many.

    I suggest that from a performance point of view, the core print engine is no longer the only criterion in play when one is looking to output graphics of any kind. The venerable Screen Printing Association showed they understood this when they rebranded as SGIA and their members are reaping the benefits.
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