Find out how the company maintains agility in selecting the markets and customers it serves and how well-timed decisions to add digital-printing equipment have been beneficial to the screen-printing side of the business.
By Tom Frecska
Bigger isn't always better, at least not in the display-graphics market. Just consider the number of prominent, high-volume screen-printing companies that went under during the past few years. The shaky US economy and the slowdown in promotional spending that came with it occurred at the same time that many of them were making a big push to add digital-printing capabilities. Some were investing so heavily in inkjet technology and the means to support it that they found themselves with more overhead than income after business took a downturn. The situation was much different during this period for Indianapolis-based Serigraphics Inc., a progressive graphics-printing company that has deftly combined screen- and digital-printing capabilities to win the loyalty of a broad customer base and enjoy steady growth. While many of the company's larger competitors were cutting shifts, reducing staff, and looking for other ways to stay in the black, Serigraphics continued down the path of success it has been following since it opened its doors nearly three decades ago. Artistic beginnings Serigraphics was founded in 1976 and purchased by Roger Barry in 1981. Barry had joined the staff in 1978 as a press operator and also served in roles ranging from artist to manager before he made the company his own. Barry's background made him a perfect fit for Serigraphics. After earning a degree in fine art, he shared an apartment in Indianapolis with a well-known German serigrapher named Jurgen Peters, who introduced Barry to the screen-printing process. "I experimented in his studio with him--he printed in his basement and did incredible work," Barry says. "He had been doing a little bit of work with Serigraphics, and said, 'Why don't you work with those people?' So I applied and got a job." As the company's name implies, Serigraphics originally focused on fine-art printing, namely in the form of high-end posters and serigraphic reproductions. "Initially we started as a poster-printing company that did concert posters for a local promoter," Barry explains. "We were trying to do very artistic and high-quality posters...and we were pretty successful. Then we started doing college posters all over the country. We did that for quite a few years and produced posters for just about every college in the US. But eventually the climate changed--tuition costs went up, budgets went down--so we got into more commercial printing." While posters made up the bulk of the company's work during the early years, fine-art reproductions also were an important component of the business at that time. At its peak, fine-art work represented as much 15-20% of Serigraphics' sales. "When we branched into fine-art business, there were several artists that we did work for, including Jurgen Peter," Barry says. "Other artists included Marcus Uzilevsky and local artist Nancy Noel. We also did some work for Leroy Nieman-- he's probably the most well known artist we've printed for." With the fall-off in poster business and limited income from fine-art printing, Serigraphics decided to re-aim its skills toward producing graphic displays for the retail market. One of the first areas in which it found opportunity was in printing promotional items for shopping malls owned and operated by the Simon Property Group, a large real-estate investment trust based in Indianapolis. "They became one of our biggest customers," Barry says. "We did a lot of point-of-purchase stuff for their malls all around the country." Serigraphics' work for these malls included banners, signs for particular department stores, and a variety of promotional graphics to support seasonal and holiday themes. From there, the company continued to branch out, expanding its customer base and product line into markets including retail display, vehicle graphics, tourism, and more. The company today Serigraphics operates from a modest 12,000-sq-ft facility on the northeastern side of Indianapolis. There, the company's 20 employees stay busy producing banners, P-O-P displays, window graphics, vehicle markings, floor graphics, signage, and an assortment of other graphics to satisfy promotional, identification, and decorative needs of customers (Figure 1). These customers include Downtown Indianapolis Inc., which purchases light-post banners and other graphics to support events in the city throughout the year; chainsaw manufacturer Stihl, a big retail graphics customer; Rug Doctor, which turns to Serigraphics for P-O-P displays; the Indianapolis Life Mini Marathon, a charity racing event for which the company produces promotional and way-finding graphics; and an assortment of other regional and national buyers. To meet the demand for such an array of products, Serigraphics relies on a mix of technologies, including screen printing, inkjet imaging, vinyl cutting, and a host of finishing options. The company's three screen-printing presses include two clamshells--a 40 x 56-in. M&R Eclipse and 30 x 40-in. Daytona, as well as an M&R Patriot long stroke that supports screens up to 4 x 12 ft in size (Figure 2). Dedicated to higher-volume work, the screen presses are typically used for banner production with UV inks and other jobs requiring high durability outdoors, as well as jobs with spot-color requirements. Russ Jackson, Serigraphics' production manager for the past eight years, says that 75% of the work they screen print is process color, and a significant portion of these jobs incorporate both process and spot colors. Although the company's art department prepares images for separation, it sends all screen-printing files to an outside service bureau for output to film positives. All screens are hand coated and exposed in house. While screens for the smaller Eclipse and Daytona are exposed on a vacuum exposure unit, large-format screens for the Patriot have to undergo a different procedure. "We position the film on the coated screen, then lift it slightly and spray mineral spirits under it--this keeps good contact between the emulsion of the film and the emulsion on the screen," Jackson explains. "Then we perform open exposure with a single exposure lamp. It's kind of an old technology, but it's always worked well for us. And spending $20,000-30,000 on a large exposure unit that we don't have room for in the first place seems kind of crazy." Screen printing has always been a mainstay at Serigraphics, but Barry was quick to realize the practicality of inkjet printing and the complementary role it could play with screen printing. The company invested in a Raster Graphics Arizona solvent inkjet printer (Figure 3)--now sold as the Océ Arizona 90--in the late 1990s and still uses the 54-in. machine today. Later, the facility's digital department was expanded to include a ColorSpan DisplayMaker 12 for higher-resolution indoor graphics up to 62 in. wide, as well as a vinyl-cutting plotter for vehicle graphics and lettering. Earlier this year, however, the company took its biggest dive into the digital-imaging pool by purchasing a VUTEk PressVu UV 180/600 (Figure 4), a flatbed inkjet that prints UV inks and supports both rigid stock and flexible roll media up to 72 in. wide. "Looking at market trends, we saw that people are going for smaller and smaller quantities and more customization," Barry says. "Considering the business we're in--display graphics, P-O-P, etc.--the flatbed seemed to be the ideal machine, at least for smaller quantities. We serve a smaller market than the bigger local guys who deal with huge quantities--we're in niche well underneath those quantities." Adding the flatbed inkjet brought its share of obstacles. "The money and the size both were challenges," Barry says. "We actually had to take a wall out on the building to get the machine into our digital department, and then rebuild the wall behind the machine." He observes, jokingly, that an unfortunate casualty of the digital department's expansion was the company's Ping-Pong room, which had to be sacrificed in order to accommodate the new printer. Although the new machine has increased Serigraphics' production capacity, it hasn't diminished the roles of the other digital printers. "We still see the same amount of use for them," Barry says. But he adds that the lower resolution of the Arizona and the lower durability of the DisplayMaker prints have prompted him to purchase a new Roland Sol-Jet to replace them. Today, Serigraphics' sales are split evenly between jobs produced digitally and those that are screen printed. "We have the perfect balance--about half and half and both of them growing equally," Barry says. "Of course, if digital gets faster, then it's going to take a little away from the screen printing. But it has to cross a threshold that looks out of reach at the moment." Jackson points out that the addition of digital technology has actually been a benefit for the screen-printing side of the company. "[Digital] opened up capacity for us to do longer-run work on the screen print side," he says. The company plays an active role in helping customers decide whether their jobs should be produced by screen printing or digitally. According to Jackson, cost is the number one consideration. "We take a look at all the estimates that come through for a customer and, depending on the size and quantity of the run, we'll look at it both ways. We try to give our customers the most cost-effective options. We'll often quote a job both ways and let the customer decide whether they want the quicker turnaround of digital or the lower cost of screen print." In addition to its printing tools, Serigraphics also employs a range of finishing equipment and procedures (Figure 5). The company has a 60-in. laminator for graphics that must be mounted to other materials or require extra protection. And for trimming graphics after printing, it uses a 50-in. guillotine cutter. "We also do some hand trimming--a lot of the digital stuff is hand trimmed," Jackson adds. "We use outside sources for diecutting and sewing, although we have purchased a sewing machine that hasn't arrived yet. And we have grommeting equipment." Jackson says that much of the finishing work performed in house is done as part of its fulfillment services for customers whose orders require packaging and drop shipping. The company even inventories completed products for clients, but lack of space forces it to limit this service to select accounts. The workforce Serigraphics' employees include two artists who split their time between creative design for screen-printing jobs and processing files that will be output on the company's inkjets. The artists are the primary operators of the digital-printing equipment, but Jackson does make efforts to expose workers on the screen-printing side to the nuances of digital production. "I try to cross train as much as possible," Jackson says. "I try to get more people involved in the digital side, simply because the business seems to be going in that direction." Barry explains that the addition of digital-printing equipment, particularly the flatbed inkjet, had an opposite effect on his labor needs than he had expected. "I thought the machine would decrease our demand for workers, but no such luck," he says. He cites the growing file-preparation workload, the need for at least a pair of printer operators, and the range of finishing activities that are typically required for digital prints as some of the reasons that his workforce has been growing. In terms of how training for new employees is conducted, Jackson says, "A lot depends on what their background is. If they have some printing background, and I don't have to teach them all the terminology that's involved in printing, then I can generally accelerate training a bit. I try to get people working side by side for several weeks with someone who's actually hands on." Jackson sees staffing as one of the continuing challenges the company faces. "Staffing is a big issue, especially trying to find qualified people to handle the new equipment," he says. Fortunately, Serigraphics sees little turnover on its staff and credits much of its success to their experience and dedication. Looking ahead After nearly three successful decades, Barry feels the momentum is still on Serigraphics' side. He not only anticipates that his need for digital-imaging equipment will continue to grow, but also expects that the demand for screen printing will continue to increase and that the company will need to add equipment to support that demand. "But I think the first thing I'm going to have to do is move, because this building is pretty much filled up," he says. "So my next project is to look around for bigger digs." He anticipates a move could occur within the next year. After such a move, Barry says he would definitely begin considering more equipment additions, including a multicolor carousel screen-printing press to take productivity to the next level. And with inkjet-printer prices falling, he's already beginning to think about bringing in another flatbed. Yet he says those additions are further down the road and that the prime driver for relocating in a larger facility is the need to expand Serigraphics' warehouse space and fulfillment capabilities, which more and more customers are requesting. The secrets of success Barry isn't certain why Serigraphics was able to avoid the troubles that affected some larger competitors during the past few years. "We've done well for some unknown reason, other than the fact that we keep a very tight reign on overhead, mainly our labor," he says. "We have very flexible hours. We use people when we have to and don't when we don't have to." He also suggests that other graphics producers may not have anticipated the kind of effort required to keep their digital printers fed with orders. "This flatbed is one of those items you can't keep flexible, and I think it's why a lot of big guys probably went down, because they were over invested in equipment. You just can't send these machines home when you're slow," Barry says. He remains vigilant in his watch against downtime, which he sees as the greatest challenge facing his company. "Now that we've invested in all this equipment, we've got to keep those downtimes profitable, or at least break even." Jackson admits that even Serigraphics felt some effects from the industry-wide slowdown, but credits Barry's leadership skills for seeing the company through. He says, "I think Roger has done an excellent job of managing the company, such as making decisions to buy new equipment at the right time and not at other times." He also believes the contributions of the company's two-person sales staff helped insulate the business from the hard time. "I think a lot of it is due to the fact that when things get slow, when the economy gets a little tighter, we have an excellent sales staff that's out there just punching away at the market," Jackson says. "They'll either find different markets that haven't been affected as much, or they'll find particular customers who, regardless of what the economy's doing, feel that they need to advertise." Neither Barry nor Jackson are much concerned about pressure from competitors. "We have a lot of very satisfied customers, very loyal customers, who continue to come to us because we're the good guys," Jackson says. "We kind of view that as our goal: In everything we do, we want to be the good guys for our customers and make them look good."
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