Screen-Printing Consideration

It’s time to reveal the whole creative process.

I’m not certain whether you get the Discovery Channel on TV, but it is extremely popular at chez MacDougall. And I have to hand it to the programmers—I love the irony of “Destroyed in Seconds” following “How It’s Made,” which has got to be my second favorite show on TV—next to hockey, of course. It never fails to amaze me, as the camera follows products getting bent, punched, flattened, formed, or baked, how they always seem to gloss over the printing part, especially when the objects are screen printed. Why is that?

Granted, we occasionally catch a glimpse of a hockey stick or a container getting a quick swipe with the ol’ squeegee, but in reality, this hidden aspect of modern, precision screen printing is one of the main reasons why it continues to be so far off of the radar amongst the public, educators, and even many industrial and graphic designers who should know better. If you ask, most of them would likely profess only a layman’s knowledge of screen printing.

“Yeah, I did that in high school. You mean silk screening? Andy Warhol and T-shirts, right?”

High-speed automatic screen presses are foreign to most of these people, including the designers and many plant engineers, even though they have existed and evolved since the 1920s, just like other things in our society: airplanes, automobiles, telephones, etc. The public, and I would guess 98% of all teachers, think screen printing still begins and ends with a Speedball kit—or for those who watch the shopping channel at 2:00 a.m., the Yudu screen-printing machine.

Advancing screen printing’s image
We can’t really blame the producers of “How It’s Made” for not showing and publicizing the automated printing, because most of the manufacturers—who rightly look upon their hard-won print skills, applications, and customized machines as proprietary—don’t want to tip off their competition. And that’s too bad for us, because if we are ever going to advance screen printing beyond a craft in the eyes of the public, the education system, and the graphics industry, or up the standards for training in art classes across North America to create job-ready workers, or make it easy for local entrepreneurs to avail themselves of this production tool, then we need screen printing front and center.

Industrial screen printing, which can be differentiated from the other two more mainstream types—flat graphics and T-shirts—is one area of squeegee dragging that has continued to grow in both use and applications (and rates a new magazine! Check out ST Media Group’s new publication, Industrial + Specialty Printing).

In many situations, screen printing remains well ahead of inkjet or other print technologies as the best way to get the job done when making a range of products. But does the average person on the street who knows that solar cells provide one of the major opportunities for modern society to break away from an oil-dependent energy future know that approximately 95% of solar cells are screen-printed?

Giving credit to screen printing
Could screen printing save the world? It just might, but if we, or our trade organizations and spokespeople fail to tell them, the public will probably never know. Next to the atom bomb, the proximity fuse (one of the first screen-printed circuits) was credited with helping the allies win WWII. And speaking of printed circuits, what about the membrane switch? Can you imagine your computer or any of thousands of compact consumer products with clunky, mechanical, electrical switches on their control panels?

Screen printing did that.

Millions of people will use a touchscreen on a cell phone in the next half hour. Maybe 100 will know it was made using screen printing, and they all work in the cleanroom at Apple. How many will walk down the freezer aisle in their grocery store today and look through the glass at their favorite ice cream or frozen pizza? Screen printing didn’t make the food, but it provides the technology that keeps the glass clear so you can see what you are buying.

The screen printing vs. digital battle
Some in the industry predict that inkjet printing technology will replace screen printing, and point to the rising sales of digital printers and the falling sales for screen-printing equipment, especially in North America, and especially in the short-run display-graphics field. But it’s important to realize that if  we take a global view, screen printing is still there—it just moved sideways.

We can look at the T-shirt industry to see that inkjet is not the one-size-prints-all solution that it is made out to be. But inkjet is what the public now understands as printing, and many business owners dream of an uncomplicated universal print technology. You push the button and out comes the finished product without concern for technical skills.

We all know that it does not happen this way. Someone has to make things in our society to produce wealth. The sooner we start doing that again, the sooner we will get our economy back on track.

I say, more power to shows like “How It’s Made,” and next time, let’s hope that they show a little more squeegee blade. It’s not time for modesty. It’s time to reveal the whole creative process.

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

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