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Filling the Education Vacuum in Specialty Printing

(October 2014) posted on Mon Oct 20, 2014

Renewed efforts to help students gain practical knowledge about our industry.

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By Andy MacDougall

There’s an ongoing debate amongst the Wall Street elites regarding the future of manufacturing. Will it be full-on robotics with nary a human in sight, or buck-a-day overseas labor? Those of us who still walk factory floors at places like Ye Olde Grafix Shoppe & T-Shirt Emporium know the truth is somewhere in between those two extremes.

The present and future of specialty printing in North America is filled with increasingly complex machines printing even more complex designs and products, from textiles to touch screens. Such work doesn’t call for robots or unskilled labor—it requires skilled operators that enable businesses to remain productive, competitive, and profitable.

One problem: Where do specialty-graphics and industrial printers find trained, job-ready workers?

Traditionally, it’s been up to the companies to invent some type of training program, which mostly consists of “Go clean those screens.” The North American industry has no common standards like those for electricians or a host of other occupations, and little connection between recognized trade apprenticeships in specialty printing at the state, provincial, or nationwide level. As some wag once observed, “Screen printing is very easy to do, but extremely difficult to do well.” Learning to print through a wooden frame using a paper stencil is about 100 years behind the technical skills required by someone running a four-color, automated UV line. Unfortunately, except for a few standout programs (Clemson University and Paramount High in California are two that come to mind), screen- and specialty-printing education is mostly stuck in the wooden-frame era.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen a rapid switch to digital processing and automation of almost every component step, but most schools don’t teach the skills required to operate these machines. Today’s production artists must be able to handle files from a variety of sources while understanding how to prep jobs that involve 12 colors on an automatic textile press, or conductive traces and dielectric layers for a complex electronic wafer powering a consumer device. Printers are expected to be able to set up, calibrate, and run jobs that may change two to three times a day using different machines, materials, inks, and curing systems.


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