The Nature of the Beast

With modern print comes modern dilemmas.

I took a call recently from a guy with a large electronics/avionics manufacturer who found himself responsible for a plant that makes ceramic capacitors. “I know that’s what we make, but the reality is, we’re screen printers. We have seven presses. We run three shifts. We don’t really know what we’re doing.”

If I know one thing, it’s when I’m in over my head. I understood their problem, but didn’t have the specialized experience to help. However, I had a friend who did; he did an assessment and initiated training. It all seemed A-OK – until their plant engineer, who had been overseeing the changes, had to leave.

I got another call: “We’re looking for an engineer who knows screen printing and can run our electronics-printing operation.” An inquiry to some of my Academy friends working in the high-tech sector brought forth the suggestion that I was looking for a unicorn…

It’s hard telling a modern-day, corporate CEO that what he is looking for may be mythical. I don’t know of too many screen printers with horns sticking out of their foreheads. Or engineering degrees in their back pockets.

But they must exist. Who runs the solar-cell plants? Who makes the membrane switches for electronics? Who prints the capacitors, the flexible circuits, the RFID tags, the credit cards?

There are a few operations in North America creating these things. Looking at the sheer mass of consumer and industry products that use functional print (and screen printing!) and are imported to North America tells me there may be unicorns in countries outside the US and Canada.

As we approach our first Printing United show in Dallas (and SGIA shifts focus once again away from screen printing and into an even broader embrace of digital and other print processes), it seems to me that, along with a lack of unicorns, we have some other fictional-animal-related problems. How fitting that Dallas, always associated with cattle, may provide a venue to explore these issues. Print, in all its faded glory and future promises, has us sitting uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma.

Unlike unicorns, dilemmas are found everywhere. Most people have a number in their lives, and like rabbits or rats, they seem to multiply and appear when you least expect them.

Let’s look at some of the catch-22s we face in printing.

1. If print is dead, why is our company experiencing growth?
This predicament has tortured screen printers and commercial printers since the late ‘90s. The government has determined, using outdated metrics and definitions, that printing has become statistically irrelevant. I guess if your only definition of print is a newspaper printed on an offset or letterpress machine, you might have a point. On the other hand, if we look at SGIA’s benchmark surveys or the reports on printing ink sales, our sector is consistently exceeding many other areas of the economy in growth year over year.

This begs the question: Do we cash in and escape this supposedly dead trade? Or do we go with the evidence in front of us? Print is not dead – the classic definitions are. Certain products we used to rely on may be dead, but they’ve been replaced by others that didn’t exist 15 years ago. The dilemma is not how to escape, but what direction(s) to grow.   

2. Analog or digital?
Digital processing and printing have revolutionized the entire print industry – but they haven’t killed analog. Screen printers were early adopters. Like it or not, our specialty graphics industry and the SGIA show grew (while others faltered) in part because the wide-format digital print industry glommed onto our show and organization.

The dilemma here has way more than two horns. Most of them have to do with asking “When do I jump in?” to processes like CTS. DTG has been knocking, but we don’t see the displacement in textile that has eroded the offset industry, or the display market in graphics screen printing. 3D printing? Sure, but again, it’s in addition to, not a replacement for – at least for the time being.   

3. Buy it cheap from China, or make it here?
This is becoming the defining dilemma of our times and it reaches far beyond print. North Americans may be many things, but our overriding characteristic is that we are consumers. China and other Asian countries need us buying and then throwing things away to sustain their economies. Yet that thrill of finding a great bargain at the local Walmart is tempered by the flow of money out of the community. Long-term economic stability is achieved by creating products and services at a local level, and then selling them outside a particular community; this is what brings in money. Importing goods and selling them locally only drains money out of the local economy. So, let’s learn how to do modern manufacturing and start producing quality, durable goods. Then again, do we really care, as long as it’s cheap and we can have it now? Always a dilemma.

As printers, the thing we don’t want to become is a one-trick pony. We’re lucky dogs, in that we sit in the middle of production. So if we’re looking for areas to expand into, there’s prepress, design, and marketing. And after print, there’s finishing, packaging, and fulfillment. If we’re bored, we can always automate.

As of press time, I haven’t heard if my CEO friend has found his unicorn yet. Let’s hope.

Have a great summer, print pals. See you in Dallas.


Andy MacDougall is a screen printing trainer and consultant based on Vancouver Island in Canada and a member of the Academy of Screen & Digital Printing Technology. If you have production problems you’d like to see him address in “Shop Talk,” email your comments and questions to andy@squeegeeville.com.

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