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Why Industrial Applications Hold Tremendous Promise for Screen Printing

As traditional commercial markets for screen printing have been squeezed on one end by inkjet and on the other by offset, industrial applications where screen printing’s unique combination of characteristics remains unmatched have flourished.

Our special "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" issue brings industry experts together to consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to screen printing. Young headlines the "Strengths" section, championing the use of screen printing in the functional and industrial printing sectors.

One of the remarkable and inspiring strengths of screen printing today – and perhaps its most beautiful attribute – goes totally unnoticed by most people. Though largely unaware of its presence, the public-at-large constantly looks at, feels, smells, senses, and further admires screen-printed items. These products inform, create curiosity, captivate, and provoke actions among viewers who remain unaware of screen printing’s uncelebrated and relentless ingenuity. What other process can claim such a pervasive presence in our lives? While the benefits of screen printing go unnoticed by the masses, we as humans are nonetheless inexorably surrounded by how much it touches our very presence in society – at home, work, and play.

Modern screen printing has evolved from the days when the Marlboro Man dotted highway billboards and in-store displays cluttered Old Navy locations everywhere, to more industrial applications in electronics, medicine, and a multitude of others. The shift away from the traditional commercial-graphics base had little to do with digital printing soaking up business that screen could not efficiently or economically handle; rather, it has come from the tremendous uptick in demand for goods that require screen printing as part of the manufacturing process.

Less than half a century ago, the functions of most equipment and consumer products were controlled by analog means (wires, switches/levers, knobs, lamps, and even valves). This meant they were typically bulky, heavy, often clumsy, relatively expensive, and labor intensive to produce, with reliability that was frequently questionable. Screen printing, due to its inherent aptitude for innovation and solving manufacturing challenges, has been employed extensively for fabrication purposes for years. In fact, it helped to revolutionize miniaturization and enhance device dependability, things we simply take for granted today.

Are you old enough to remember the days when the keys or carriages of mechanical typewriters adamantly jammed? The typewriter would be out of service until a repairman (think of the stereotypical one in the old Maytag commercials) was called in to fix it. Today, when a computer freezes, it’s usually back in operation minutes later – at least after some choice words have been said. That same benefit of reliability has occurred in umpteen other markets in which products have received far-reaching makeovers, all due to screen printing’s ingenious ability to produce much more than just an image. These superlative improvements led to graphic overlays, membrane switches, condensed circuitry, digital displays with touchscreen control panels, trouble-shooting diagnostics, and many others that have reshaped our world.

Screen printing’s advantages for manufacturing processes don’t end there. Due to its unique ability to selectively deposit precise volumes (from a few to many hundreds of microns) of a vast range of coatings on virtually any material or surface, screen printing has fundamentally changed the dynamics of making many products. While some prints are for aesthetic purposes, others provide the quality that gives a product its functionality. Some refer to this as “high-performance” printing because it takes a basic, two-dimensional artistic process and turns it into a mechanically controlled, three-dimensional one (which is not to be confused with 3D inkjet printing). This third dimension allows coatings to be applied in specific thicknesses required for the task, imparting the conductivity of a membrane switch layer, or the opacity that will block any pinholes on automotive instrumentation panels, or a visually pleasing, blemish-free glow of electroluminescence.

This ability to go way beyond the normal realm of imaging is what separates screen from other printing processes. Creatively applied, screen printing gives manufacturers virtually unlimited benefits (including an infinite array of designs and options, built-in reliability, and the capacity to produce cost-effective volumes that meet shipping requirements) that cannot be realized by other techniques, including digital. This is not a shot across the bow for other processes – it’s simply a practical assessment. Screen printing can provide saturation, conformity, resiliency, resistivity, longevity, and other unique characteristics.

Recently, I penned an article for the UK-based magazine PrintWeek that stated, “Digital should be seen for what it is, a terrific cooperative partner that wonderfully complements any company’s capabilities in the imaging business.” I went on to discuss some of the reasons that large-format applications, such as banners, are gravitating toward digital. None of those reasons pertain to functionality or other requirements that can only be effectively achieved through screen. It’s reasonable to suggest that digital is primarily an imaging process while screen, without discounting its continuing portfolio in commercial graphics, is also a functional one.

These functional applications are experiencing growth that is nothing less than staggering, and trends indicate that it will continue for the foreseeable future. Renewable energy is a hot topic everywhere, with products such as solar panels, fuel cells, heater grids, and thin batteries relying extensively on screen printing’s ability to meet and even exceed performance expectations. Without touchscreens, we’d still be experiencing very clumsy bank ATMs, long lines at airports without self-service check-in kiosks, and a world without portable electronic devices. Just imagine: iPads, tablets, mobile music players, and the like would never have seen the light of day. Nor would we be walking around with cell phones, point-and-shoot digital cameras, e-books, or most other handheld devices, for that matter.

In the medical industry, which is increasingly becoming a fan of screen printing, the process enables medications such as insulin to be dispensed non-invasively via transdermal patches. Other medications delivered this way include nicotine, motion sickness, birth control, and more than 50 others, with many more coming onto the market following FDA approval. Disposable thermometers and other throwaway healthcare diagnostic aids, which hygienically eliminate the risk of spreading infections, are also experiencing enormous growth.

Contrary to belief, traditional commercial graphics applications for screen have not disappeared, either, as it still holds center stage in many areas. When it comes to producing large volumes, handling an abundance of awkward substrates or surfaces, or meeting explicit durability requirements that no other printing process can provide, screen printing continues to rule.

In a variety of markets, the demand for special effects is soaring, and screen creatively delivers a stunning array of out-of-this-world printable finishes for any print – regardless of whether the main graphic was produced by offset, flexo, screen, or digital. Once again, the ability to apply varying ink thicknesses results in profitable, value-added finishing capabilities that print buyers are willing to pay for rather than haggling over discounts for the usual. (For more information about this specialty, see “The Wonderful World of UV Special Effects.”)

Screen printing’s ability to produce finished products that meet a multitude of needs cannot be easily duplicated. Perhaps it’s not as glamorous or exotic as other printing processes, particularly digital, screen printing has nonetheless come a long way in the past couple of decades. Today, it is possible to obtain striking results that were not possible just a few years ago with improved chemistry, extensive prepress automation, and advanced precision printing capabilities. It’s probably best summarized in the words of a leading industry entrepreneur and educator, Bhargav Mistry, who said, “Let the world know that the screen-printing process today is faster, better, and cleaner!”

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

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

Strengths
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
The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts, Tamas S. Frecska
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 Out, Mark Coudray
Digital Ceramic Printing: A Logical Success, Sophie Matthews-Paul

View more from this Screen Printing issue