The screen room is the keystone to any great printing business. Marshall Atkinson explains how to raise your pre-press game

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With over 25 years in the decorated apparel industry, I’ve spoken with all sorts of folk and a good many have a lot of things worked out: they are usually at the top of the food chain in their market niches. Others are just ridiculously bad business people or ineffective at managing their processes in their shops. Why? It’s as simple as connecting the dots. A connects B. If you don’t do A right, then B isn’t going to work well.

This works across all areas of any business, and is particularly apparent in screen rooms. It’s time to stop being blinded by orders that have to ship and instead take a moment to think about how solving A would make B less of a headache.

Okay, so what the hell am I talking about? Let’s take a look.

The importance of a well run screen room

What’s the number one problem in screen-printing? Art? Ink? Shirts? Equipment? Nope, none of these.

The keystone to the whole operation is your screen room. You know, that dirty dungeon that you ignore and send your worst employees to toil away in whilst relatively unsupervised.

Just about all problems on press can be tracked down to screen issues. Dirty screens, pinholes, tension, emulsion coating, moiré, under- or over-exposure… The list goes on.

I don’t know why, but when I go to shops or speak to their owners or managers and discuss their particular production challenges it turns out they all ignore this crucial part of their operation. Everyone is always focused on the print. Presses, ink, the art, shirt fabric type – that’s the discussion everyone dwells on. Screen reclaim or coating? Tension? Even choosing the right mesh count for the job? Not so much. It’s the dirty, dark secret.

Each step in the screen making process has to be dialled in perfectly in order to have success with printing on any press. If you don’t do a good job with one of these steps, then good luck trying to print. That registration problem you are having? It’s not in the art. It’s the fact that your screen is only at 12 newtons.

Stretching, reclaiming, dehazing, coating, imaging, exposing, washing and quality control prep for printing: everything needs to be ready for your production team so that when they reach for the screen for that job, it’s sitting there waiting for them. Perfect every time.

How do you get to that level of execution? Easy. Your screen room needs controls. Cleanliness. Organisation. Timing. Basically it’s about setting yourself up for success by installing some manufacturing principles. If you think of your screen room as an assembly line, what do you need to install to make each part of the line perfect every time? Think Toyota – you won’t find them slacking.

When you staff your screen room with malcontents and misfits, do you think you are going to see the final product you want? It’s a thankless job and similar to doing the dishes forever. What your company should strive for is dedicated, skilled, craftsmanship-oriented people working in the area. They need to know that their effort is a major part of the success of the company. Think about your shop. Is that how you view it?

Do you stress the importance of craftsmanship in your screen room? Do your staff think about how important they are to the operation or are they seen as basically one step below the janitor in the pecking order? Where is the respect?

Strategic investment

Want better success in your shop? Train and man the screen room with better employees and give them the support they need to run the department well. Before you start adding more autos to your shop, think about updating and automating the equipment in the screen room to keep up.

Auto-coaters are essential for precise coating. Get the model that can handle two at once. While they’re working, your employee can be doing something else. Multi-tasking equals efficiency.

If you are burning more than 50 screens a day, look to getting a computer-to-screen imaging system. Yep, they are expensive. However, you are already spending money on film, labour and film storage work. Replace all that and go digital. Track your labour and expenses for a month and do the maths. Maybe it will make sense for your shop, maybe it won’t, but the benefit will be better screens, no pinholes, no filing films ever again, and pre-registered screens for your press – which makes things easier on the production floor. Can’t afford top of the line new? Look for used ones.

Find an emulsion that works well for your purpose and use a step wedge exposure calculator test to dial in the exposure time. It’s crucial that you do this step. Yes, it’s like homework. You have to do the maths to achieve the results you desire though. Guessing just doesn’t work so well, it turns out.

Make sure you properly rinse your screens too. Sometimes you can’t just power wash them either. Train your staff that a few patient moments with a hose can save you from having to redo the screen when you blow out the details in a halftone or fine line with your pressure washer that’s set to the fire hose setting. There is craftsmanship needed in every job.

Finally, while nobody likes to be the guy that cleans the screens after they are layered in ink, this is an incredibly important step. Make sure your printers do their part and card as much of the excess ink off the screen as possible before sending it in for reclaim. This includes getting the ink all around the frames. If they don’t, give them a day or two cleaning screens and they will quickly understand that you can’t leave a mess for someone else.

Whether you just use a dip tank, hand-wash system, or auto-cleaning machine, make sure the screens are perfectly clean, free from grease or haze, dry and ready to coat. Quality has to come first here, as a clean screen is the foundation for everything to follow.

For screen print production, that represents ‘solving A’. Get that right and watch as B, your printing success, improves as a result.

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.