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The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts

(December/January 2016) posted on Thu Jan 21, 2016

Screen printing emerged as a graphic arts application for posters, signage, and other commercial applications. Does it still belong in the markets from whence it was born?

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By Tamas S. Frecska

Our special "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" issue brings industry experts together to consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to screen printing. In opening the "Weaknesses" section, Frecska examines the wane of screen printing in the graphic arts.

In order to evaluate the limitations or fitness of any technology, one must consider how that technology is used to produce desired results. Screen printing is no exception. It is, however, an unusual technology because it can be used so many ways for many different purposes.

For more than 100 years, screen printing has been used as a graphic arts process with limited output requirements geared to decorating flat surfaces. In the 20th century, graphic arts segmented into various specialties, with screen printing leading the way to decorate unusual materials and three-dimensional surfaces in relatively large quantities. Many of these new applications started in haste as printers scrambled to devise a way to fulfill an unusual order; some of those desperate workarounds then blossomed into market segments. By the second half of the century, several industrial applications took advantage of screen printing’s controlled, high-definition ink-depositing capabilities.

About the time that screen printing began to experience significant growth worldwide in the late ’80s and ’90s, transistors, silicon chips, and computers changed the paradigm of industrial production forever. Within a few decades, industries that were once driven by materials and technologies started to be driven by digital data and communication. The tools of mass communication (computers, smart devices, and the internet) allowed mass marketing to reach dizzying heights, and with its success came the realization that the individualization and customization of products was essential to mass marketing. After all, guaranteeing a unique look, feel, shape, or color to items produced in quantity tends to convince consumers that they have a real choice in acquiring “unique” products – which is the holy grail of mass marketing.

Initially, mass customization of products seemed to benefit screen printing, especially in industrial fields, where only single-color printing or material deposition was required (for example, solder, solder mask, bio-agents, gasket materials, and various preventative coatings). Screen-printing technology was relatively cheap and production quantities were profitable, from small custom runs to large quantity orders. For industrial applications, screen printing had few weaknesses, most of them relating to its lack of high-definition capabilities in the ever-increasing need for precision and miniaturization.


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