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The CTS Experience

(December 2004) posted on Wed Dec 15, 2004

Is digital screenmaking right for your operation? Read on to find out what may be in store should you decide to go direct to screen.


By Ben P. Rosenfield

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Spontaneity and surprises may keep the fire burning in a marriage, but anything short of control and predictability in your screenmaking procedures can quickly create irreconcilable differences between you and your clients. That's why many screen printers are turning to digital prepress solutions in hopes of keeping the honeymoon going with valued customers, attracting new business, reducing costs and labor, and remaining competitive in an industry full of eligible suitors.

Inkjet-based computer-to-screen (CTS) systems--devices that eliminate the need to generate film positives by directly imaging emulsion-coated screens from digital design files--are emerging as the go-to technology for achieving accuracy, consistency, and efficiency in stencil production. This CTS technology isn't new (the earliest inkjet systems date back to the late 1980s with the Gerber ScreenJet), but for more of their history, high price tags and grand-format configurations made them appealing only to large, high-volume graphics shops that could justify the investment. Now, however, inkjet CTS systems are available in a wider variety of sizes and price points, making the technology accessible to business of all sizes involved with applications ranging from CDs and glass/ceramic products to graphics and even garments.

When it comes to achieving predictable and repeatable results in stencil imaging, inkjet CTS devices seem the ideal solution. But the technology presents challenges, too, as screen shops adjust from an analog, film-based workflow to a filmless digital workflow. In the following sections, you'll learn about the experiences of several screen-printing operations when they brought CTS systems in house and pick up pointers to simplify your own implementation of the technology.

Coyle Reproductions

Display-graphics producer Coyle Reproductions, La Mirada, CA, bought a Lüscher JetScreen CTS system in late 2002, and according to general manager O.E. Beyerley, the device was production-ready after about two weeks of hands-on training. He says employees were pretty quick to learn how to use the machine: "It's relatively friendly. They're just putting coordinates in there, and we set up ways for them to do that easily."

Purchasing a CTS system also made it easier to support the company's new large-format Argon HT inline multicolor belt press, which is capable of printing images up to 74 x 148 in. Scott Jehlik, the shop's prepress manager, determined that producing films large enough to take advantage of the inline's maximum imaging size simply wasn't feasible. "I actually went straight to Fuji and Kodak--to their coating mills--to see if it'd even be a physical possibility to get film that big, and it's not," he says. "You pretty much have to go direct to screen."

In addition to facilitating a smoother transition to the high-volume graphics press, CTS technology has en-abled Coyle Reproductions to reduce moiré, maintain consistent dot-gain levels, and start jobs quickly. "We run 24 hours a day, and a lot of what we sell is service and turnaround time," Beyerley says. "That's how we capture and keep a lot of business....We get management approval, we hit a button, we make screens, and we go to press."

One drawback of the system, in Jehlik's opinion, is that it isn't able to reach high enough resolutions to support some of Coyle's more critical graphics applications. "It isn't a high-res machine--the heads themselves are only 600 dpi," he explains. "We do a lot of stuff that is very high-res and high line count, and for that you absolutely need film. No two ways about it."

Coyle Reproductions starts nearly 70% of its jobs on the Lüscher JetScreen, and Beyerley believes the business saw a return on its investment in about 18 months. He says that some of the benefits a CTS system provides really can't be measured in terms of dollars, but the savings add up when the shop avoids struggling with moiré, reshooting screens, and touching up pinholes on press.

M-C Industries

M-C Industries, a garment-printing oper-ation based in Topeka, KS, was an earlier adopter of CTS technology--the company purchased three Gerber ScreenJet systems nearly 15 years ago to help smooth out logistical issues caused by the 227-mile distance between its production plant and its art, sales, and corporate site. The company updated its direct-to-screen equipment 13 months ago with the DirectJet from Richmond Graphics Products. Now, all the incoming art is preRIPed in one location and transmitted electronically to the other. "The art departments have a RIP station, so we just hit print," says Mike Buck, the company's production manager. "It really saves us a lot of time in screenmaking,"

CTS technology also has allowed M-C's staff to correct art in a matter of minutes. The task used to take days. Buck says that's crucial because the shop handles a lot of rush orders. Because M-C Industries works primarily with garments, grand-format CTS equipment isn't necessary. And while Buck believes the new equipment paid for itself in about a year, he says the purchase was a "must-do" and not an exercise in cost justification. The shop starts all of its process-color prints on the DirectJet, and the benefits it has realized since implementing the system include a reduction in dot gain, improvement in edge definition and dot resolution, and elimination of virtually all pinholes.

Buck recalls that the only problems with the system stemmed from operator error. "We had a warped frame once and we crashed the two heads on the DirectJet," he says. "I had to learn how to calibrate the machine pretty fast. That's not much of a problem." Minimal maintenance keeps the equipment running as expected, according to Buck, and when the unit's dye-based ink runs out, he just plugs in a new cartridge. But if a serious problem should arise, M-C Industries has an Epson 3000 to generate film positives and keep the workflow moving. Buck notes that the company has yet to use the Epson because of an issue with its CTS system.

"I'm not sure why every large shop in the world isn't using [CTS] technology," he says. "I don't know why anybody would want to store film and mess with positives. It eludes me."

Bel Aire Displays

For Bel Aire Displays, a graphics producer based in Emeryville, CA, rising film costs generated by an increasing number of large-format jobs were enough to justify bringing in a CTS device. The shop had the equipment to produce most of its own films, but contracted out screenmaking to a company with projection-exposure equipment when screens were too large to handle internally. According to Bel Aire's president, Chris Shadix, "[CTS] was a way to recapture some of the costs that were associated with films. Also it seemed like it would give us more control over the actual image quality because we'd be able to make the screens according to what kind of stock we were running on. That's a lot more difficult to do with film."

An in-house prepress department and a high-end imagesetter enabled Bel Aire to produce what Shadix describes as very sharp dots, up to 3000 dpi, on intermediate-sized films. He says switching to a system that images at 600 dpi at full size was a big change--one that clients weren't happy about at first. Bel Aire's customers are strict about image quality, and Shadix says they expect color and tonal ranges to be exact. He recalls that meeting their requirements meant rebuilding the way the machine was profiled from the ground up. "The stock setups the machine came with weren't adequate enough. We still, even now, refine our processes--little tweaks here and there," he says.

Client satisfaction grew as the shop's experience with the technology increased and its time to press decreased. The size of the shop's CTS system allows the screenroom staff to load two screens onto the unit at once, and they image the screens in portrait mode to further enhance productivity. Shadix also says the machine helps the shop save 10-15 minutes in processing time per screen that otherwise would be wasted touching up pinholes and remedying other imperfections.

Bel Aire prints graphics from 30 x 40 to 60 x 84 in. using 40- to 70-line/in. halftone screens. A majority of the shop's work is in large-format graphics, so it typically relies on 47- to 55-line/in. screens. Shadix prefers not to push the system beyond 70-line/in. screens. "I don't think we'd have very good results beyond that," he says. "With film, we could print an 85-line screen."

He also has concerns about printhead clogging and replacement. "We've never bought a head, because they have a six-month warranty and none of them has ever lasted six months." The shop always keeps two spare heads on hand, and Shadix says Lüscher has been very good about honoring the warranty.

Southern Screen & Graphics

Jim DeLutis, co-owner of Southern Screen & Graphics of Virginia Beach, VA, used to think computer-to-screen devices were expensive. The prices he saw shocked him when he shopped for his first direct-to-screen unit--a Gerber--nearly six years ago. "You could buy another press for the price," he says, "but the issue that comes to mind for me--as the numbers side of the business--more than anything else is paying for the film cost every month."

Specializing in garment decorating, Southern Screen & Graphics prints a lot of custom work, and according to DeLutis, each of those jobs would result in $50-60 of film in the trash. The shop bought a Richmond DirectJet about a year ago, which has enabled it to replace those film costs with about 20-25 cents worth of CTS ink per screen. "The cost is negligible," he says. "That was a huge factor financially."

There are plenty of subtle and hidden expenses associated with screen printing. It's hard to put a dollar amount on what you spend to have an employee hunt down films archived who knows where or prepare another set of films from scratch when he gives up the search. "Now you go into your hard drive, find the art or the separations, and boom--you're done," DeLutis says. "And one of the big things is a lack of pinholes. A lot of times you don't have to block out your screens, which saves you time in screen prep and reclamation."

The ability to remove vacuum-exposure systems from the stencilmaking process is another aspect of CTS technology DeLutis favors. "That saves a lot of time.... When you expose, you don't vacuum; you go directly to light. Also, you don't have to worry about the image moving or the screen moving," he explains.

DeLutis sees the sizable, yet necessary, up-front investment as the primary factor discouraging more screen printers from snapping up CTS units. But he suggests printers make clear-headed assessments of the possible long-term returns the technology can generate. "You have a higher unit cost, but by the same token, if you're willing to look at what it can save you in labor, it's going to work. It's $500-1000 in inks and heads, versus $1200-1500 a month in film--I can look at that and say it's not a problem," he says.

GFX International

The in-house prepress department at GFX International, Grayslake, IL had the tools to create separations, generate intermediate films, and proof its P-O-P products. But when it came to producing film enlargements for its grand-format display-graphics applications, the shop had to pay a service bureau to get the job done. As the business saw the volume of large-format jobs increase and turnaround times grow shorter, Mark Taylor, GFX's vice president of imaging, decided the film expenses it was incurring were reason enough to purchase a CTS system.

Taylor says bringing in a consultant to help GFX fine tune its Lüscher JetScreen made the implementation smoother. "He came in and helped us get some curves established and identify how good the dot shape would get." He also explains that setting realistic goals for the unit eased the transition. Basing his expectations on the device's 600-dpi output enabled Taylor to discover the system's potential. "In my opinion, it's good for about a 65-line screen. Beyond that, your compensation curves are really going to have to be tweaked to the next level." The JetScreen meets the majority of GFX's needs because the shop uses it primarily for large-format work meant to be viewed at a distance. When a job calls for higher line counts, GFX goes straight to film.

CTS technology brought greater efficiency to GFX's prepress department, but it also forced some changes in the shop's workflow. Before installing the direct-to-screen unit, performing quality control at GFX meant laying films out on a table to check traps and other areas of the image. Now, according to Taylor, "we'll output--since we still have an imagesetter--an intermediate set of films that allows us to do [quality control], or pull a proof from those films and assume that nothing would change from me RIPing it over to the imagesetter versus me RIPing it over to my JetScreen." He says that GFX typically proofs images that will be printed at 4 x 8-ft on film that measures only 12 x 14 in. "A lot of times we have to do that anyway just to show the client a proof."

GFX has realized benefits beyond savings in cost and time. Taylor says that using direct-to-screen technology offers a higher-quality representation of highlight and shadow tones, greatly reduces undercutting, nearly eliminates pinholes, and increases dot predictability. "Actually holding a 2% or 3% dot--we don't do near the compensation," he explains. "Before, we'd make that 3% dot a 7% dot on our film. By the time we exposed our screens, we'd be back to the 3-5% range. We now can image a 5% dot and know that it's only going to move 1%."

GFX saw a return on its investment within 18 months. Taylor attributes the quick recovery to cutting out-of-pocket expenses on film enlargements (which cost upward of $4/sq ft) and eliminating the time the shop had to wait for films to come back and be checked. Even though the company spent six weeks to get the JetScreen ready for production, Taylor has yet to encounter any major problems with the machine in its more than two years of operation.

GFX is looking to expand its floor capacity, and Taylor is considering the purchase of another CTS system. "Maybe we don't need another large machine...but we would look at definitely staying in the direct-to-screen market," he says. "I believe it's the future."

Joliet Pattern

Joliet Pattern takes on a variety of demanding graphics jobs--distortion printing and thermoforming among them. Preparing an image for distortion printing is a hit-or-miss process that can eat up lots of the screenmaking department's time and the shop's money. "I can remember one project that took seven weeks to distort," says Andy Wood, the company's co-owner. "It took us eight sets of film, and I had $7000 tied up in film before I even printed the first production part. Now we can typically work through a distortion for a fairly complex piece in a week or less, without film, at about one-third the total cost of film."

Another benefit Wood discovered was the ability to exercise greater control over projects and clients. If a repeat job order comes in that the shop just can't immediately accommodate, the client may instruct Joliet Pattern to send the films to another printer. But, as Wood puts it, "You get to remind them that there is no film. If that [other shop] doesn't have direct-to-screen capability, the time it would take them to recreate film is longer than you getting the opportunity to actually print the job. It makes it that much harder for a client to move a project."

Joliet Pattern also uses its Lüscher JetScreen to efficiently control color matching. Clients often submit art files along with proofs for the shop to match. Even though Joliet Pattern can match a client's proof, Wood notes that each project manager has a different set of eyes. "They might say, 'Yeah, you hit it, but I really wish I could push a little more magenta into a particular area.' So within 30 minutes we have the art department adjust that area, reRIP the magenta file, reshoot the magenta screen, get it back onto press, and please the customer--even though it's somewhat going above and beyond," he explains.

Changes to Joliet Pattern's workflow have been minimal since the shop installed its JetScreen about three years ago, save for more responsibility in the creative department during preflighting to ensure that the art files are RIPed correctly to the CTS system. The shop's prepress is entirely direct to screen and has been for the last two years. "By the end of the first year that I was actually using this all of the time, I had paid for the equipment," Wood says. "There aren't too many pieces of equipment I can say that about."

CTS essentials

As these user comments make clear, inkjet CTS technology isn't a cure-all for the challenges of prepress in screen printing. You may not be able to completely eliminate films from your prepress processes, and the odds are stacked against using the technology to produce screens with very high halftone line counts. However, plenty of benefits await medium- to high-volume screen shops that print garments, graphics, and various other products, provided they're willing to pay the price of admission.

Inkjet CTS System Suppliers

KIWO, Inc.
1929 Marvin Circle
Seabrook, TX 77586
281-474-9777, 800-549-6872,
fax: 281-474-7325, 800-549-6329
Web: www.kiwo.com

Lüscher AG Maschinenbau
Dorfstrasse 18
CH-5725 Leutwil
Switzerland
+41-62-767-76-77,
fax: +41-62-767-76-76
Web: www.luescher.com

Richmond Graphic Products, Inc.
20 Industrial Dr.
Smithfield, RI 02917
401-233-2700, fax: 401-233-0179
Web: www.richmond-graphic.com

Thieme Corp.
3605 Swenson Ave.
St. Charles, IL 60174
630-513-1666, fax: 630-513-1999
Web: www.thieme-products.com

Advice for First Timers

Chris Shadix warns that inkjet CTS technology is not for the novice screen printer. He suggests printers develop experience in calibrating digital devices and linearizing their printing processes. "You need to be working from a strong prepress perspective," he warns. "If you're not, you're going to run into all kinds of problems and you're not even going to know where they're coming from."

Jim DeLutis says that if printers are willing to pay more attention to possible savings in labor and film costs, they'll realize that the efficiency the technology brings to production far outweighs the up-front cost of inkjet CTS equipment. "You only buy the unit once--you buy film every month."

System upkeep is essential. Andy Wood stresses the importance of performing routine maintenance on the devices. "The level of commitment you make to your equipment has a whole lot to do with how well it works for you," he says. "I just can't imagine that people don't do even the basics--keeping equipment clean and running."

In O.E. Beyerley's estimation, heeding advice from the manufacturer regarding equipment operation and application compatibility can help make the transition to the new system much easier. "Even though we weren't sure about [the manufacturer's advice], and it didn't necessarily make sense to us based on what we knew, we let them call the shots. Just listening to what they had to say right up front was a real smart move for us," he recalls. "Give it a shot and go with it for a while."

Mike Buck sees updating and fortifying the shop's hardware and software, as well as having qualified support personnel on site, as keys to successful implementation of inkjet CTS technology. "Have a very reliable computer system and a pretty high-tech information-services department," he advises.

Maintaining a realistic outlook, according to Mark Taylor, is essential for getting the most out of an inkjet CTS system. "Don't expect it to come in and within a week be up and running flawlessly," he says. "Make sure you understand the basics of what you're asking it to do. Make sure you understand dot gain, dot curves, and that you have a prepress area set up already. Don't try to do it all at one time."


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