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Computer to Screen (CTS) Today

Are you waiting for film to disappear before you change? Inkjet CTS systems have a very low-cost consumable, and it isn’t going away for a long time.

By Geoff McCue, Digital Product Manager, KIWO Inc.

It has been 20 years since I started working on computer-to-screen (CTS) technologies. Imagine that…20 years! I thought it would revolutionize the industry. Just as direct emulsion for stencil making replaced hand-cut film, I thought everyone would embrace a time saving, cost saving, and productivity improving technology.

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  • Boy was I wrong! Unlike our bigger cousin, offset printing, which embraced computer-to-plate down to the last quick-print shop, screen printers cling tightly to their film setters, laser printers and inkjet printers for film positives. The patent on CTS is about to expire, yet I am still working to convince the industry that now is the time to make the switch.

    While the technology hasn’t changed much, we’ve seen improvements on quality and speed. Yet, I keep hearing the same old excuses:

    • “I’m waiting for the price to come down.”
    • “It’s not high enough resolution for our shop.”
    • “What will I use to register?”
    Now I hear a new excuse: “I’m waiting for direct-to-garment inkjet to get better/cheaper/faster!”

    Do I sound cynical? Maybe I am, but I know CTS makes the screen printing process quicker, more productive and more profitable. I see successful printers, who have brought CTS into their shops, enjoying more screens per day, lower costs per screen, better quality images and higher profits! How so? Let’s look at a few important points.

    More Screens per Day
    It sounds simple, but if you follow film through your shop — seeing who makes, checks, handles, files, retrieves and actually uses it — you will find you spend a lot of time with film. Imagine if it goes away.

    You go to your computer and find the files you want to print. Even if you misfile them, you simply perform a search and in a few seconds, it tells you in what folder to look. Try that with your film envelopes!

    You have to tape films onto your screen; load them on the exposure unit — draw vacuum, expose, remove, and file the film — and then, you get to develop your screen. With CTS, you load the screen, pick the file, print, expose and washout! It’s a simplified process.

    If you can’t increase the number of screens you make each day with just this process alone, quit reading now and find someone to pat you on the back for successfully getting through the 1980s! The difference is equal to the number of pieces a screen printer can print by hand versus an automated press.

    Lower Cost
    I thought lower screen costs would be a no-brainer, but I was wrong. Typically, a piece of film or vellum costs about $1 per square foot. Ask your film supplier how many new customers they add each month versus how many existing film customers they lose. Film manufacturers are finding other products to make. Film isn’t getting cheaper. Instead, it’s becoming scarcer.

    Are you waiting for film to disappear before you change? Inkjet CTS systems have a very low-cost consumable, and it isn’t going away for a long time. Some CTS systems for graphic printing don’t even have any consumables. Granted, these machines are expensive. But if you make hundreds of screens or large screens each day, then you’re probably a candidate for one of these systems.

    All my life, I have been an efficiency nut. If I could do something faster, better and with less effort, I would. I will digress for a moment and share with you a part of my life prior to screen printing.

    I wanted to be an artist. When my Dad heard me say that, he encouraged me to learn a trade to support myself in case my art career didn’t work out. He worked for a coin operated laundry service company, so he secured me a job fixing washing machines and clothes dryers.

    The company sent me to school to learn how to install, overhaul and fix them in the field. At service school, I learned about new, specialized tools that were used to remove and replace parts. I also learned new techniques for changing parts in the field without moving the heavy washing machines.

    People whom I considered the “old timers” in class were not open to learning these new techniques. They were uncomfortable with some of the required physical positions to get to the parts, without moving the machine. I would say most of the people in the class just moved the machines out from the wall and proceeded to take them apart to fix them.

    I managed to struggle through the learning curve to master the new techniques. What did that mean? I could fix a machine better and faster than my peers. Why am I sharing this? In my mind, it demonstrates two valuable qualities: perseverance and productivity.

    It is tough to change because we are creatures of habit, and change takes perseverance. Once accomplished, we can see immediately the benefits. Change also brings about productivity. I knew how to use a wrench and ratchet. However, learning to use these tools in a way that was not familiar or comfortable made me more productive and more valuable to my employer.

    Ever since then, I looked for ways to do things quicker, better and with less effort. That has been the motivation behind my involvement with CTS technology. I believe it will bring positive results to screen printing companies. Improved productivity means more sellable products in the same amount of time, with the same or lower cost! That goes right to your bottom line.

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    Improved Quality
    When CTS systems first hit the market as the Gerber ScreenJet, it was a 300 dpi printer. All the so-called “experts” of the time were saying this resolution was too low! They were using film, which was only measured in dpi if an image setter was used. Most companies were still shooting film on a stat camera. If a company did have an image setter, they were outputting at 1200 dpi, the “offset standard.” To that I said, “Whoop-dee-doo!”

    The Gerber ScreenJet targeted T-shirts and fabrics that have less than a 100-dpi thread count. The differences of resulting images at 1200 or 300 dpi were indistinguishable to the human eye, which is why the pundits of the time carried loupes with them. I don’t know about you, but if someone approached my chest with a loupe to see the image quality of the garment I was wearing, I would have issues with the person.

    Within two years, the quality increased to 360 dpi. Within another two years, it nearly doubled to 600 dpi. Recently, quality doubled again to roughly 1200 dpi. I remember selling a system to a company that made 1200-dpi film. I promised my 600-dpi system would exceed the quality the company currently produced. I offered a money-back guarantee and stood by my claims.

    The company’s staff handed me their file: A four-color process job with international flesh tones, areas of a 20-percent tint, small type and some spot colors for good measure. They produced their films and made their screens. I did the same with the CTS system. They washed their screens out carefully with a kitchen-spray nozzle. I blasted mine with their pressure washer to develop my image.

    Once the printing was completed, everyone, from the printer to the owner, agreed the CTS shirt looked better! When they looked through the loupe at the CTS dot, it wasn’t quite as smooth, but the image was markedly better in every other way. The print showed more detail, more color, better flesh renditions and a fabulous tint area that was tonally even. The film didn’t even come close!

    Why? Because the CTS is in direct contact with the emulsion. This means less undercutting, better exposure (better durability of highlight and shadow dots) and finer detail resolution. It was a dramatic difference then, and is still a dramatic difference today.

    Even so, it takes some testing to make the settings of a CTS system work in each environment. Emulsion, mesh and dot combinations must be tested and printed to achieve the optimal results. Once achieved, however, they don’t change (remember, this is a digital file). You do not need to underexpose and carefully wash out each image. You can properly expose the screen and blast out each screen, allowing for consistency, no matter who is making the screen. There is another benefit: You can set a standard procedure that anyone can use to achieve the same result.

    Because of this, I don’t need “Bob the Screen Maker” for every screen. If he is on vacation, others can make the same quality screen. Last year, I finally sold a system to a professional (who will remain nameless, but he knows who he is) who had looked at a CTS system for the last five years.

    He would tell me at every show that he was not quite “there.” He told me each year what he spent on film, and I would tell him he already was a candidate. Finally, he relented and purchased the system after convincing himself that he would have less than a three-year return on the investment.

    Before the first year ended, he e-mailed to tell me that the machine would pay for itself before the year was done. This was not only due to film savings, but also to the increased business he could get out of the same time and people! He even told me that his artists were producing greater in number and better art pieces (which his customers really appreciated) because they no longer “baby-sat” film output!

    Summing It Up
    I like to think of myself as an inventor and techno guy, but I know I may sound like a car salesman. I just like the screen printing industry, plain and simple.

    I started screen printing in junior high school and have done fine-art prints, posters, decals, banners, signs, T-shirts, printed circuit boards and even old-time rub-off lettering! I love the process and industry and I want to see it thrive and grow. Yet every month, I read an article about how direct digital is taking over screen printing. I believe this takeover will happen only if screen printers don’t adapt and change with the technology.

    Is 20 years long enough to wait? Google direct-to-screen, computer-to-screen or CTS; get the test screens made; call current users for feedback; prove me wrong. I can take it!

    I have not found one CTS customer who regrets the purchase decision. In fact, the only regret is that he or she didn’t do it sooner. So my fellow screen printers, the time is now, and you have multiple technologies to choose from: Inkjet water, inkjet wax, thermal transfer, DLP and DMD, and laser systems.

    Geoff McCue, currently Digital Product Manager for KIWO Inc., is a well-known industry member who, throughout his career, has contributed to the industry’s advancement. His achievements include several product inventions — including a patented registration system, a die-cut stencil system and several test films and procedures.

    McCue’s most notable invention is the first computer-to-screen system, which was marketed by Gerber Scientific Products as the ScreenJet. With this invention, McCue became the “father” of computer-to-screen systems. Further patented inventions include the first direct-exposure CTS system. He is a member of SGIA’s Academy of Screen Printing Technology.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 4th Quarter 2008 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2008 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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