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  • 100% combed organic ring-spun cotton
Screen Printing Isn’t Dead 

Screen Printing Isn’t Dead 

Business Tips

By Dave Gardner

I got my start in textile screen printing in 1982 as an assistant art director with 3-D Emblem, a screen printing operation in Fort Worth. I’ve been directly involved in the industry for the past 37 years. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of changes during that time. Here, I’d like to share my perspective on why I don’t believe screen printing will be replaced, at least in the next decade, by digital printing.

One reason why you may be concerned about the future of screen printing or heard talk of its losing ground to digital is there has not been a lot of innovation since the first computer-to-screen imaging system was released in 2005, which was 15 years ago.

That was a game changer, and an early movement toward digital creeping into screen printing, but since then I am not aware of any comparable level of innovation.

One benefit of DTG has been to force screen printing machine manufacturers to step up their game and start taking advantage of micro-processing technology. One example of this has been the addition of smart control tablets to presses. This has made the equipment more efficient in terms of the ability to collect data and do diagnostics.

I do think as manufacturers update what screen printing presses can do, it will start bending the curve down the other way in terms of making screen printing more viable for shorter runs.

One recent development that is addressing this is hybrid printing, where a screen printing press is used to lay down the underbase, and a DTG printer sprays down the colors. This has made it more economical and faster to do multicolor designs. With a hybrid setup, a job that may have taken up to 14 screens can now be run with two or three.

But regardless of how much more research and development has been put into DTG, the laws of physics remain, and in several ways screen printing has advantages that it’s not going to lose in the near future.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I approach General Motors and say “Here’s $2 billion dollars. I want a gasoline-powered car that will go 250 miles an hour and get 80 miles to the gallon.” They might come back after a period of time and say, “Can I have another $2 billion.” But at some point, they would have to capitulate, because to accomplish the one goal, they have to compromise the other. 

DTG is the same way. Line by line, a print head goes back and forth spraying micro droplets of ink through nozzles vs. a squeegee that prints the entire shirt in a single pass. The solution to print speed has been to add more heads, but there's a certain point that you can't get past. I don't know that anyone will ever be able to build a DTG machine that will make a pass as quickly as an automatic print head.

Also DTG shirts have to be pretreated, and the ink has to have time to settle into the shirt. Otherwise it’s just a puddle. Until someone develops a way to spray down larger ink particles that will adhere to the fabric, there are going to be speed limitations.

And while there will continue to be incremental increases in the speed of the DTG, the cost of digital inks is going to be a prohibitive factor. It is reasonable to assume that as demand increases, this should drive down costs, but of course, there is no way to really know.

The reality today is that five gallons of screen printing ink can be purchased for $200 or less. In contrast, each color cartridge for a DTG machine costs around $200. So for a typical CMYK DTG printer with two white inks, it can cost up to $1,200 for one machine.

In my opinion, DTG is never going to surpass screen printing. DTG will continue to take market share from screen printing and best, it might equal it. A squeegee on an automatic prints pretty fast. In fact, flashing is probably what takes the longest to do on a press, plus how quickly can you load a shirt. So, operators are not being slowed down by the printing technology.

Interesting Note: On Friday, June 28, 2013, Luis Omar Viera of the New Buffalo Shirt Factory, Buffalo, N.Y., set a world record of 2,139 T-shirts screen printed in one hour by a single operator. 

So where do I think it's going to end up? I don’t think the technology is here yet. Who knows? An altogether new technology may emerge that is not screen printing, DTG, heat transfer or dye sublimation. Only the future knows what innovations are yet to come.

I feel the future looks good for screen printing. I’d like to see research and development increase to continue to improve the process, but in the meantime, screen printing still has too many distinct advantages to be in any danger of being totally replaced by DTG.