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How I Ate My Homework

(February 2013) posted on Tue Mar 12, 2013

A retired dentist had this concept—gift cards for dogs.

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By Andy MacDougall

In the past, offset, flexo, and gravure offered the ability to print a narrow range of inks on some substrates other than paper. The main restriction, if the ink could be formulated to adhere, was that the material had to be thin and come in rolls. When screen printing stuck its pointed, little head through the first bolt of silk, it started a print revolution that continues to this day.

Glass, metal, wood, and cloth were the original specialty substrates, and screen printing was uniquely capable of decorating them. They required specific inks able to durably bond to the material and, of course, to be printable. The flexibility of screen printing allowed for this. You had a screen, mesh, and stencil combination that you could adjust easily to accept any ink, along with a press setup that could adapt to any size, shape, or thickness. Along comes plastic in all its types, and a whole new set of problems—and ink solutions. The advent of printed electronics demanded not only durability, adhesion, and printability, but it also threw in a fourth curve: functionality. No longer just a pretty picture, the printed images and their substrates were now circuits that would conduct electricity and perform a job.

Screen printing has been a leader through all of this, although inkjet inks have evolved since the mid 1990s to print an ever-broadening range of material. The problem of imaging rigid, dimensional material was solved with flatbed digital printers, and there is no question that when it comes to short-run, full-color graphics printing, digital is here to stay—even when the material is a sheet of plastic or metal.

What’s ahead?
Functional printing is driving our sector into, or should I say onto, even more exotic materials. The combination of specially formulated inks and substrates has given us an amazing array of new products and new ways to manufacture old ones. As a screen printer, I’m proud of the old squeegee and what it continues to produce: a dermal patch, a solar panel, a fuel cell, a flat battery.

Where do we go next? That's hard to say. There were no iPhones ten years ago. Far fewer people used the Internet 15 years ago, when ecommerce was only an idea. Wide-format digital was just a rumor 20 years ago. But as long as there are creative people with ideas who are willing to test out a concept, then expect to see more printing on an expanding range of materials. If it is done by screen printing, or digital, or one of the other print processes, I’m sure the method will be decided by what works best.

Over the years, I’ve printed on a lot of challenging materials: 3D parts, metal, plastics, carbon fiber, even drums made of deer hide. But the weirdest one by far was edible dog chews. A retired dentist had this concept—gift cards for dogs. But instead of cardstock, he wanted it to be something a good dog could truly enjoy. He tracked down some edible ink and some sheets of rawhide—Not the greatest material, but with some experiments with mesh and squeegee hardness, we got it to work. I never did taste them. The Nutella on bread? I may have to give that a try.


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