Back with another question, Michaël Vangeneugden of Kadeco Vision in Belgium asks: “When is the best time to invest in an auto reclaimer?”

It was once the dream of a lowly screen goblin to have a magic machine that would clean all the old sticky ink from the frames, apply just the right amount of stencil remover, and, with robotic precision, continue to blast the screen to death with a fully sentient Wash-a-matic power lance!

This reality has blossomed in recent years. The inline car wash method of placing a dirty screen in one end of a magic box and getting a new virgin-like ‘ready to coat’ screen out of the other side has been cropping up in even single-auto shops. Auto reclaim is fast becoming popular in the industry.

What has led to this rise in the automation in the screen room? It is multifaceted:

■ Reduced labour costs
■ Initial investment costs becoming lower
■ Staff protection from harmful chemicals
■ Deskills the process
■ Low quantity, large colour count jobs.
■ Predictability
■ Environmental concerns

At Palmprint Consultants, we have recently seen an install of a German-made Zentner multi-line in a multi-auto print shop.

This shop has an average quantity of 60 pieces per job with an average colour count of less than three. This means that the bottleneck in the whole process is not how fast the press can spin. It also has no relation to how early the beleaguered press operator (hero) starts in the morning. It isn’t even how many children’s birthday parties they miss to stay late and get that extra job onto the ‘cheerful’ DPD driver’s lorry.

The only way to create more revenue is to ensure the squeegees move more frequently, not faster.

The bottleneck in many of today’s shops is in getting the job to the press.

Cleaning while unattended

Anything you can do to make this process more efficient will turn into revenue. It’s that simple. The press can rotate FTL (faster than loader), pre-registration systems can dramatically reduce set-up time and skill, but you cannot set up if the screens are not made, you can’t make the screens if they are not clean, and you can’t clean them if the only skill in the building has gone AWOL for the last two days (always Monday followed by the Tuesday to make it look authentic).

The automation of this vital skill will not always speed up the process, which is a bold statement to make when some of these units can touch six figures!

What they do is clean while unattended. The stencil technician can now coat a screen while imaging a screen and then go take off a virgin screen from the reclaim belt.

The shop I visited had two staff in the screen department. One poor guy was constantly dressed in a cagoule and was at high risk of trench foot from always having wet feet.

A Zentnerwashout booth. [Credit: Go Custom]

A Zentner washout booth. [Credit: Go Custom]

The owners would regularly come in and work full days on Saturdays and Sundays to prepare enough screens for the upcoming week. (Not heroes! Just owners.) This also means that scalability is almost impossible.

“If we can’t cope with the number of sales we have now, why are we selling more stuff?” whisper the sales staff from the dark and quite possibly haunted corners of the sales room.

Free up time for fishing

The decision was made to fully upgrade the department by purchasing an auto reclaim, an auto coating machine and a CTS wax system.

This dramatically reduced the amount of time spent on preparation. The owners could play golf and go fishing on the weekends, the press operator could blissfully sit in the pub while the kids’ party happened around him. And the sales team could finally have faith that the jobs they were promising would make it out of the door in time.

One operator could now make 100 screens per day. And by make, I mean all five processes:
■ Clean
■ Strip
■ Coat
■ Image
■ Develop

While preforming this task, the stencil technician (promoted from screen goblin with the addition of new technology) was the most relaxed guy in the print shop. Almost as relaxed as the Mac operator who no one actually knows the name of as they’ve worked from home since Covid.

The other operator is now pulling squeegees on the print floor. The predictability of the number of screens through the department is easily traceable, the quality is uniform and the skill required is now minimal so they can easily get temporary (but expensive) staff to throw dirty screens into one side of the Wash-a-matic (not a real brand, but it should be) just to reduce a bottleneck using almost zero skill. This allows the stencil technician to keep feeding the hungry beasts on the shop floor (and not the staff).

With testimonies from more and more companies that have taken the plunge to invest in the pre-press area, it is clear to see that you get distinct advantages from the purchase.

When to invest

Deciding when to invest in an auto reclaim system can depend on various factors. However, here are some factors you can consider in order to determine the best time to invest:

1 Current screen reclaiming process If your current screen reclaiming process is taking up too much time, labour and resources, and it’s affecting your production, it may be time to invest in an auto reclaim system.

2 Production volume If your production volume is increasing and you need to reclaim screens more frequently, an auto reclaim system can significantly improve your efficiency and reduce your labour costs.

3 Budget Investing in an auto reclaim system can be expensive. Consider your budget and determine if you can afford the initial investment and on-going maintenance costs.

4 Future growth plans If you plan to grow your business in the future and increase your production volume, investing in an auto reclaim system may be a wise decision to support your expansion plans.

Auto cleaning machines

The auto cleaning machines (car washes for screen printers) usually have either three or five cleaning chambers.

Three chambers
1 Removes ink
2 Removes emulsion
3 High-pressure wash

Five chambers
1 Removes ink
2 Low-pressure rinse
3 Removes emulsion
4 Empty chamber for dwell
5 High-pressure wash

Because the two chemicals – ink remover and emulsion remover – will degrade each other, it is important that they never mix in the chambers.

5 Being green Environmental concerns with water usage and discharge.

Overall, the best time to invest in an auto reclaim system is when the press operator is always found in the screen room, the screen goblin is always found in the print room (or the bar) and the owners always smell suspiciously of solvent and have blue emulsion splashes on their glasses.

It represents a large investment, but it also does what it says on the tin, although I would always be wary of the ‘ready to coat’ quote. In my experience, careful management of the chemicals can significantly improve your automation experience:

■ You will use chemicals.
■ The chemical will degrade faster in a three-chamber system than a five-chamber [see boxout].
■ You must manage this new aspect.

Long gone are the days of a 1,000-litre cut down IBC [intermediate bulk container] filled with a chemical that would definitely change your DNA if you were exposed to it daily, the suspicious open tubs of solvent, and the long list of PPE required just to pick up the pressure washer.

Ask yourself, how many screens do I make per week? How many people work in the swamp? Does my water outlet recolour turtles and dolphins? Did my screen goblin always have a stutter and a lazy eye?

Know these facts and make an informed decision. I am always happy to help if you are lost in the maze of options, and to challenge the salesperson’s ‘ready to coat’ statement.

Tony Palmer has been in the garment decoration industry for over 30 years and is now an independent print consultant working closely with print shops across the globe to get the most from existing processes and techniques. He also co-hosts the popular screen printing podcast Chippy Tee! with Danny Donald of Flippin Sweet Print Co.

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