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Graphics Screen Printing: Legacy Technology & Reliable Productivity

To learn more about the current state of the graphics screen printing industry, we talked with two respected industry veterans, Larry Hettinger, of FUJIFILM, and Mike Ruff, of Nazdar.

By Larry Hettinger, FUJIFILM &
Mike Ruff, Nazdar

Graphics screen printing is the legacy process upon which the whole of our graphics industry was built, and is still the go-to process for long production runs, heavy ink coverage and high-performance durability.

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  • SGIA: Screen printing is still widely used in specialty graphics, with more than 50 percent of companies reporting themselves as multi-technology. How is graphic screen printing surviving today, and do you see its influence in the industry growing, maintaining or declining over the next three to five years?

    Ruff: People that try to ignore that our industry is changing are just deceiving themselves. We are not the same as we used to be and we are never going back. But logically, why would we want to? SGIA President and CEO Mike Robertson's visionary response to future change was changing the name of SGIA from Screen Graphics and Imaging Association to Specialty Graphic Imaging Association. He took some heat from some members, but looking back, it was an amazing display of insight or just a very lucky guess. (I believe it was insight.)

    Over the next three to five years, you won't see screen printing go away but you will see certain segments consolidate and lines blurred until our industry becomes a true "specialty imaging community." I believe the top quality and efficient screen printers will see more jobs and more profitable margins as the short run screen providers throw in the towel and go all digital. The all-digital people that try to compete with the screen and digital providers are going to struggle with profit margins due to the flood of new digital competition that will need to make payments on over priced digital printing equipment.

    Hettinger: For a printing business to survive in our technology-driven, cross-media world, today's printer must understand their customers' marketing communications plan and provide innovative solutions to help them execute the plan. If print buyers look to design primarily in a four-color process, requiring short runs, versioning and personalization, then screen printing will decline and inkjet will fill this void. However, for long runs with high coverage solid areas, marketing campaigns requiring print on a wide range of media, or other applications such as long-life outdoor signage, then screen printing will maintain and possibly grow due to these specialized applications.

    SGIA: Many screen companies have worked hard to increase their competitiveness with other imaging technologies by getting their process in order and raising their proficiency and efficiency. In order to do this, where in their process are these companies looking, and where are they finding the biggest opportunities for improvement?

    Hettinger: They develop an effective workflow with proficiency in color management. Efficiency is achieved by developing a controlled process for handling a job from receipt-of-art files through pre-flight, printing and finishing. Getting from proof to press is one area where screen printers can improve efficiency.

    Many printers are looking to inkjet proofers as a more cost effective way to produce their films than conventional image setters, and a more reliable and/or backup alternative than many computer-to-screen devices.

    Standardization of print process utilizing the G7 print method is another opportunity to improve proficiency. This encompasses utilizing inks with G7 compliant densities and optimum rheology to run the press at high speeds and consistently control image quality.

    Other process improvements include the utilization of ink optimization within one's workflow to create a more stable printing environment while reducing ink consumption by 15-20 percent without a compromise in quality.

    Ruff: In all graphic production, we think we are limited by print or press speed. That is really not the case unless you are printing very long runs. The lowest hanging fruit is eliminating the time the press is not running. The only way to do that is improving predictability of the output. Predictability, in its purest form, is determining an accurate color target and then printing to match it without changing elements of the process to accomplish the match. At this point production becomes a manufacturing process rather than a craft or art form. It's a beautiful thing when it becomes a well-oiled machine. Many do not believe this is possible but with our advancements in color management and methodologies it is possible.

    SGIA: One specific area where graphic screen printers are seeking to improve is in color, and an increasing number of printers are looking to G7 as a way to make color more reliable. What is the benefit of implementing G7 methodology?

    Ruff: G7 is a four-color process specification of neutral gray print density. So, if a screen printer is printing industrial decals and rarely prints process color, there is no benefit. But to the process color producer, there are four huge benefits: G7 is the most accurate result we can achieve on the press with the substrate and ink set we print on a specific job. It allows a pressman to know color accuracy with only two clicks on a common densitometer. This avoids wrong color moves and a printer knows when the result is correct without the subjectivity of visual assessment. This is a huge profitability advantage. G7 Neutral Gray results allow different print technologies to have a common visual appearance. It gives the graphic provider indisputable evidence that a print is accurate to the file because, if the press is printing neutral, the image is being accurately produced.

    Hettinger: G7 is a methodology to establish four-color process control for predictable and repeatable printing and benchmarking the variables of screen printing. Screen printers who partner with offset printers to meet print buyers' needs will often need to become a qualified G7 Master Printer. If the majority of their work is four-color process and they use ISO2846 inks, G7 will be a benefit in these key production areas: Quick and easy matching of proofs; reduced on-press color adjustments; faster press set-up times; reduced material wastage; more cost effective printing process; and better communication between printer and customer

    One of the biggest benefits of utilizing G7 is that it enables the printer to move from a subjective evaluation of color to a quantitative measurement of color.

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    SGIA: While graphics screen printing is surely a mature technology, improvements continue to be made in inks, materials and equipment. What are the three most significant recent improvements and what is the long-term effect for the screen printing process?

    Hettinger: In this mature technology, screen printers need to improve efficiency to remain competitive with other print technologies. Recent improvements include multi-substrate four-color process ink, which offers the ability to match screen printing output to the ISO 12647-2 standard (commonly used as the target for proofing and offset printing). It is designed with improved ink flow for faster print speeds while holding the dot structure over long press runs.

    Another improvement is that many printers are looking to inkjet proofers as a more cost effective way to produce their films than conventional image setters and a more reliable and/or backup alternative than many computer-to-screen devices. The long-term effect for screen printers is improved efficiency allows them to maintain the price point and profitability needed to achieve revenue targets.

    Ruff: The three biggest developments have been:

    • G7. This has been a blessing beyond my expectations. No matter what press, ink set, substrate or print technology we use to print process images there is no excuse now for not printing accurately to the file. There is also no excuse for us to not know when we have achieved an accurate print result.
    • Image Optimization. Color separations and conventional conversions of color are obsolete. GCR is not an intelligent color conversion. But with new technology of optimizing a CMYK conversion to remove gray component colormetrically, I have seen it double screen print output, reduce ink consumption by 20 percent or more and stabilize color control.
    • Special effect inks. Screen printing technologies of inks is not mature. There is a lot of corn on the other side of the cob. Special effect inks are being developed every year that provide the innovative printer the opportunity to open doors to new clients.
    SGIA: What is one bad habit that most graphics screen printers have? What industry trait would you be happy to say goodbye to?

    Ruff: Tunnel vision. I believe a large segment of our screen printers live in a world that is mostly four walls and what Billy Bob in prepress tells them is possible. I thought I knew a lot until I started doing consulting work. Then I realized what I didn't know because of tunnel vision. I would like to see an industry that would open its eyes and go to trade shows, read more, go to more seminars, participate in more webinars and take advantage of SGIA's educational services. I believe this would drive our industry forward in membership and profitability. At the same time, members would build relationships with other members and other print technologies.

    Hettinger: Because of the numerous variables in the screen printing process, most screen printers make on-press adjustments. When putting best practice process controls in place, this habit is typically difficult to change. The message is to save time and reduce waste.

    Screen printing is truly a craft, which can require custom processes for every print job. However, if today's screen printer considers moving closer to a typical manufacturer's process to control workflow (including documentation for each job printed), they can reduce make ready time required and materials wasted during make ready.

    SGIA: What do you see as the strongest market or product areas of opportunity for graphics screen printing today, and why do these areas lend themselves strongly to the advantages of the screen process?

    Hettinger: Long-term graphic signage, especially in areas where prints are subjected to harsh conditions such as extreme weather conditions or chemical exposure, still favor screen printing over inkjet printing. This is due to a number of factors including adhesion to substrates, ink lay down, hitting specific Pantone colors and high solid areas of color.

    Many screen printers have established themselves as the print expert for their key customers. As a result, screen printers have the opportunity to pick a product niche, based on a specialty application, or develop partnerships with other print and service providers while retaining the primary customer relationship.

    Ruff: There is no doubt that the strongest growth potential is in the development of industrial printing. Most screen printers never started out in the industry thinking printing a few white marks on a piece of formed plastic was something they dreamed of doing all their life. We all dreamed of printing photographs of Hollywood stars and national burger chains, right? But with new and better ink formulations and specialty inks that are now available, this is a growth area. Screen is so unique that we can meet many industrial needs other imaging technologies will never touch. Go invent your own market! Go find a product that needs to be printed and figure out how to print it!

    SGIA: Even with all the developments in digital printing, there are still specific jobs and applications where screen printing is still the go-to process. What are the unique capabilities of graphic screen printing that allows it to hold its ground in certain areas?

    Ruff: Speed, versatility of ink deposit due to the ease of just selecting different mesh, fast setup, inexpensive equipment, durability of prints and the ability to quickly print a prototype sample at a low cost.

    Hettinger: Excellent coverage on a wide range of media, speed in printing high coverage solid colors against other technologies, accurate Pantone and corporate color reproduction, the ability to print onto multiple substrates without the need for primers or additives, and the lowest ink cost per print.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November/December 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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