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Investments in Innovation

A Profile of Screenprint/Dow

Most companies would cringe at the thought of spending six or seven figures on new equipment and product development during a recession. Not Screenprint/Dow. In fact, the business owes much of its success over the last four decades to a strategy of identifying product niches, making the right purchases at the right times, and embracing new technologies. This practice has also given Screenprint/Dow the enviable position of being first  to market with lucrative products on more than one occasion.

Areas of specialty
Founded in 1969, Screenprint/Dow is owned by Walter Dow and Bob Boileau. The company started in a 4000-sq-ft space with four or five employees and has since grown to 85 on-site employees and a 36,000-sq-ft facility in Wilmington, MA.

Screenprint/Dow spent much of its 40 years solely as a producer of product-identification solutions, graphic overlays, and membrane switches (Figure 1). The company expanded into wide-format digital printing four years ago and, in the past two years, has turned that segment into a noteworthy source of revenue. We’ll discuss the digital side of the company in a moment. First, let’s take a look at the company’s core set of industrial specialties.

Graphic overlays Screenprint/Dow uses screen printing, offset, and digital printing (UV inkjet and HP Indigo) to produce graphic overlays on materials such as PVC, polyester, and polycarbonate. Complementary production and finishing options include Pantone color matching, four-color-process printing, embossing, doming, selective textures, dead fronts, UL/CSA constructions, and lots more.

“We’re able to combine all of these technologies,” says co-owner Walter Dow. “With our electronic prepress infrastructure, we’re able to match color exactly right on, no matter the print process. We can use the HP Indigo for short runs or samples, show the customers what they’re going to get, and when the runs get larger we can put the jobs on offset and duplicate what we get on the Indigo.”

Membrane switches Screenprint/Dow designs and manufactures membrane switches and switch assemblies in house. The company employs electrical engineers to assist customers in product development and to join salespeople when they make calls to ensure that customer needs are clear and that Screenprint/Dow can guarantee production to their specifications. The company provides options such as embedded components (i.e., resistors and LEDs), backlighting via electroluminescent panels and fiber optics, embossing, metal backers, and more.

The medical-instrumentation industry is a primary market for the company. That means the quality of work Screenprint/Dow provides can quite literally mean life or death.

“Every overlay that has a membrane switch attached to it is 100% inspected. When someone receives an assembly from us, they know it has been tested and documented,” Dow explains. “The analogy I use is this: If you’re on a treadmill and a button on the membrane switch doesn’t work, it’s aggravating, but you can live until the manufacturer sends a replacement overlay assembly. But in medical, when you’re on the oper-ating table and the nurse or doctor is trying to press the buttons on a certain device and they don’t work, you have a major problem.”

Silicone-rubber keypads One unique option Screenprint/Dow offers is the ability to insert membrane switches into rubber keypads for those who re-quire what Dow describes as a “rubber touch.” Other design possibilities include backlit keys, rubber actuators, multicolor decoration, hardcoated surfaces, and more.

PCB switch assemblies Screenprint/Dow is able to create double-sided, multilayer printed circuit boards (PCBs), as well as flexible units and assemblies with surface-mount or through-hole technology. The company can also integrate LEDs and metal domes into the switch assemblies it produces.

“We look like a little Texas Instruments. We put the LEDs in, the metal domes in—we’re very self-sufficient in everything we do. We have developed a combination of creating the circuitry and making the overlays and giving customers the ability to have everything done in one house and be completely worked on by our specialists. We have that leg up on everybody else,” Dow says.

Labels Digital printing, flexography, and screen printing are all used in the production of pressure-sensitive labels at Screenprint/Dow. Materials include paper, vinyl, polyester, and polycarbonate. Printing and finishing options include four-color-process and multicolor decoration, numbering and bar codes, UV coating, overlaminating, and urethane doming.

A separate business unit, DowIndustries, is dedicated primarily to producing labels for the health and beauty industries (Figure 2). The company was founded in 1978. Screen printing, hot stamping, and flexography are among the processes it uses. Screenprint/Dow has leveraged additional business by introducing DowIndustries’ established clients to its newest area of expertise: digital imaging.

“Some health and beauty customers like the idea of large-format graphics for displays or floor graphics, so we’re in the process of introducing those customers to Screenprint/Dow to show them what we can do on these presses as far as large-format is concerned and demonstrate that we can produce a label and P-O-P campaign for them,” Dow says.

Expansion into wide-format digital
“We’ve invested in five inkjet printers and a digital diecutter, because we found that market was increasing about 40%, while the membrane-switch and overlay business was up maybe a couple of percentage points,” Dow explains.

The company’s stable of wide-format inkjet printers includes the two Mimaki UJV-110s, two EFI VUTEk QS2000s, and an Inca Spyder 320 Q—all of which print UV-curable inks. The shop uses a Kongsberg digital diecutting system to finish the rigid graphics produced on inkjet printers. The production floor is configured in such a way that graphics can move from the inkjet printers directly onto the Kongsberg’s 60 x 120-in. table.

Jim Pond is Screenprint/Dow’s product manager for digital graphics. The company first stepped into the market with Mimaki printers for wide-format graphics, he says.

“We started by printing some large overlays. Most of our business was in the realm of 36 x 36 in. and smaller. We had never really printed anything that was 50 in. wide x 100 in. long, and these presses allowed us to start testing that marketplace.”

The decision to pursue digitally printed graphics as a source of business involved the purchase of VUTEk printers, which Pond describes as higher-level production machines, and the Inca Spyder 320 Q—a printer Pond calls “an almost photographic-level system” for producing graphics that, as he puts it, can compete with output from Lambda and Lightjet continuous-tone systems.

It would appear that Screenprint/Dow spent a small fortune—or an enormous one, depending on your oulook—on some big-time equipment in a very short period of time. But according to Pond, the benefits to the company’s bottom line have already made up for the price of admission.

“A lot of our initial growth came from current customers—from offering them new solutions on the digital side. But we’re really starting to see an entrance into some of the larger retail chains, because we have that national-level presence and work with so many large retailers on our label end with DowIndustries. We work with so many of those companies that it’s only a matter of time until we start breaking in with digitally printed graphics,” Pond says, noting that digital imaging likely represents 10-12% of Screenprint/Dow’s annual business.

But what would one serious investment at Screenprint/Dow be without another one following closely behind? Enter the company’s foray into green media. As Pond puts it, the company sourced materials that would help customers meet their sustainability goals and do so at a price point that’s comparable to the conventional—that is, non-renewable or non-recyclable—materials they currently use.

“Our focus on green is different from everyone else’s. We’re only bringing in materials that are not more expensive than other products. We found that customers will not pay more to be green. For them, from a business standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense,” Pond says. “We’ve narrowed our selections to two products: BioFoam and BioBanner, which are priced to meet the market’s needs while offering something that is biodegradable and recyclable.”

Screenprint/Dow selected these rigid and flexible materials, both of which are corn-based, only after conducting a considerable amount of R&D. Good thing, too, because Pond recalls some of the candidates performing quite unexpectedly. One was a corn-based styrene that printed well and looked great, but ultimately failed in a memorable way when it was exposed to somewhat elevated temperatures.

“It was really nice and had wonderful ink adhesion, but when we put it in a place where the temperature rose above 100°F, it folded up and crinkled onto itself,” Pond says. “A printed graphic was left in the back of a car, where temperatures climb quickly. The temperature went up to about 110°, and I got a call out of nowhere from one of our guys, telling me that it had failed really dramatically. I said, ‘Thanks for the R&D.’ That’s sort
of a humorous example, but it shows why it’s so important to take the time to test and do the research to prove a product works. We don’t simply say it’s a great product and push it on our customers just because our suppliers tell us it’s great and then push it on us.”

Whether printed on green or conventional media, Screenprint/Dow is making a name for itself in an extremely crowded graphics market by working with new and current customers to develop products, combining printing and finishing processes to maximize the impact of the displays it produces, and offering low-cost alternatives when clients need to change or replace their display graphics.

The examples shown in Figures 3A-3E represent a very small sample of the company’s capabilities. The displays in Figures 3A and 3B were manufactured using a multiple-process formula: Screenprint/Dow used its digital, screen, laser, and assembly departments to create the two concept proofs for a client specializing in high-end beauty products. Rotating elements, stand-offs, and other special features give these promotional devices a unique look.

The pole banners in Figure 3C were made for Merrimack College. The school needed a dynamic solution for its achievement banners. Screenprint/Dow used a pole bracket with a spring system to produce banners on lightweight scrim without wind slits. Figures 3D and 3E show the interior of a Massachusetts-based Finagle a Bagel shop. Pond says they printed a majority of the in-store graphics for the company after presenting Finagle a Bagel with a less expensive option for some of its mounted displays.

“They had a graphics system that was incredibly expensive to reproduce,” Pond explains. “Everything was done on 19-mm Sintra, which is a relatively expensive product, and they were using brushed steel with applied graphics for toppers. It cost them hundreds and hundreds of dollars for each swap-out, but now they’re down to $25-30 per swap-out. Their cost has gone down and, as a result, they’re doing more printing with us. Now they swap graphics out every two or three months.”

The alternative Screenprint/Dow presented involved replacing all of the brushed steel with brushed Mylar, on which the company directly printed menu graphics. The Mylar was then mounted to styrene, and then mounted to the menu-display system. Pond says Screenprint/Dow’s cost-effective solution saved Finagle 400-500% over the long run and secured a variety of graphics business.

“We got the business because we came up with a better solution than their previous provider was giving them,” he says. “Then you have the wall graphics, which we printed on our QS2000. The install went very smoothly, and it allowed us to come to them with opportunities for floor and window graphics, P-O-P displays, and lots more.”

Guiding philosophy
Screenprint/Dow isn’t afraid to make substantial purchases based solely on the notion that doing so would help the business to produce something that would fit current market demands. Dow advises that spending a little money is sometimes a necessary part of being unique.

“Screenprint/Dow acts quickly when we determine that a particular piece of equipment will help us in a certain area, and we don’t hesitate to spend, for example, $500,000 on it,” he explains. “Most people in our position would not spend that kind of money on an idea. But we act boldly when we feel the marketplace is in need of a particular product or service. By doing that, we’ve given ourselves a great advantage over most of our competition. It also has helped our customers tremendously with new ideas in marketing or product functionality. We’re full service. We make those decisions and get involved in a big, big way.”

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