The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts

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?

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.

Screen printing in the graphic arts arena (meaning the commercial graphics applications where the process began) was not so lucky. Like most graphic arts printing, it is a multistep process where the number of production steps are based on the number of colors to be reproduced. The number of colors therefore represents a fixed production cost (screens, setups, tear-downs, etc.) regardless of how many pieces will be printed. This makes the unit cost of finished products inversely proportional to the number of pieces produced. The fewer pieces produced, the more expensive they are.

In the meantime, digital technology made the number of colors printed irrelevant in graphic arts printing. Doing one-color or four-color process images makes no difference to a digital printer; the costs are essentially the same. Which makes digital printing the choice for mass customization of products in limited quantities. Until recently, limited-quantity production was screen printing's forte, as was the unique ability to print giant images close to 100 square feet on practically any substrate. This claim is no longer unique, since digital printing equipment can easily surpass this claim both in size and substrates.

Although printing speeds are an order of magnitude faster in screen printing, the ease and convenience of the image-to-product cycle in digital printing makes up for the difference. And, around the time of the last recession, the most productive digital machines offered a combination of speed and image quality that, for the first time, presented a realistic alternative to screen printing for larger volumes.

There is no doubt that screen printing will remain an important technology for a limited number of applications (for example, serigraphy, industrial printing, garment printing, and experimental imaging). As a graphic arts process, however, it has too many limitations that competing technologies do not. Digital printing, including inkjet and 3D printing, are better suited for small-quantity production.

While screen printing is a relatively fast production process, it is not nearly fast enough to compete with offset, flexographic, or gravure printing in publishing or packaging, and despite the advances made in screen-making technology, it is still the slowest in the prepress area. Finally, screen printing is probably still the best general all-around imaging technology, but for graphic arts applications, there are too many competing, specialized processes that are more economical and better suited for the purpose.

For more from our "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" special issue:

Editorial Insights
Screen Printing: A Technology at a Crossroads, Steve Duccilli

Strengths
Why Industrial Applications Hold Tremendous Promise for Screen Printing, Mike Young
Screen Printing: King of Textiles, Charlie Taublieb
The Future of Functional Printing, Wim Zoomer
A Partial List of Industrial Applications for Screen Printing, Wim Zoomer

Weaknesses
Why Web-to-Print Software Matters for All Printing Businesses, Eileen Fritsch
A Sampling of Web-to-Print Software, Eileen Fritsch

Opportunities
What if Screen Didn't Exist? Andy MacDougall
Are Screen Printers Part of the Maker Movement? Kiersten Wones

Threats
Threats to Screen Printing, Inside and OutMark Coudray
Digital Ceramic Printing: A Logical SuccessSophie Matthews-Paul
 

View more from this Screen Printing issue