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You Can Print On That?

(February/March 2019) posted on Mon Apr 15, 2019

Two shops explore the possibilities of direct-to-object printing – from beer to ceiling.

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By Kiersten Feuchter

The beginning of the story is one we’ve heard before: Empire Screen Printing was born in a garage in 1960. James Brush’s operation was a one-man show; he’d spent time in the industry, seen how other printers operated, and decided he could do better.

But the evolution of the story is truly unique. As the Onalaska, Wisconsin-based company approaches its 60th anniversary, its 150,000-square-foot facility is bustling with screen, digital, and flexographic printing operations – 75 percent of which use UV LED curing technology. Empire builds all of its own screen-printing equipment and has paved the way for other companies striving for LED-based operations – so much so that they open their doors every other year for a national sales meeting where industry folks (even competitors) can come explore best practices.

Sustainability was the main driver behind Empire’s emphasis on LED. “We feel it’s the right thing to do,” says Doug Billings, VP of sales and marketing. “LED is the way to go from a sustainability standpoint.” But the company’s transition to UV LED technology has opened up doors on the creative side, too: “We can print on objects up to about 2 inches thick,” Billings says, “so we literally could take a door off its hinges and print right on it. It really comes down to how the ink works with whatever the material is.”

Empire’s digital operation contains a number of Mimaki UV LED roll-to-roll and flatbed printers, including the JFX500-2131 model. “We’ve printed on neoprene, ceiling tiles… We’ll try anything just to see if it works,” Billings says.

The “sky’s the limit” mentality could be risky, of course, so Empire’s research and development team is the first to test and approve the use of any new material. Once the R&D squad takes a look and ensures there won’t be ink adhesion issues or – the worst nightmare – damage to the printer, the material goes on an approval list that the sales team can promote.

Billings has found that their point-of-purchase customers are the ones who often keep the sales team on their toes; for other markets, sometimes the “show-and-tell” method works best to steer clients toward more creative ideas.


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