Mike Young's mantra for the new age screen printer

In an exclusive online interview, Mike Young, a SGIA Fellow and member of the Academy of Screen & Digital Technology, USA, shares his views with Shripad Bhatt about advanced screen printing process and related issues.

19 Aug 2015 | By Shripad Bhat

What are the new and growing profitable markets for screen printing - globally and in Indian context?
I think every one of us would love to have the crystal ball for a perfect and predicable hindsight. The industrial side of screen printing continues to soar to new heights on a worldwide basis, with the Indian screen printing community acquiring its fair share.  This is due to the processes' dexterity and prowess, by providing a print or coating in any shape, form, thickness and selectively as a 'dream-come true' solution for countless commercial, manufacturing and fabricating industries worldwide.  
Has screen printing made miniaturisation become a reality?
Digital cameras of today, Wii games/play stations, multifunctioning mobile phones, iPods/iPads, tablets, other hand-held devices, microwave ovens, membranes, doming, IMD, green energy-PV/solar, computerisation on-the go and all the other battery/electrical gizmos where the public at large thought they simply dropped from trees! Asia is the prime manufacturing provider of these existing and emerging technologies for economic reasons, with India having a striking advantage due to language association, political standing and many generations of closeness to the western hemisphere in trading. 
By the way, take us down memory lane on your ‘India connection’
I was first invited to the DMI, I believe in 2005, and it was just being established and have been back their about three times since.  What amazed me most about this 'private' training project was I simply could not image anyone (the director, Bhargav Mistry in this case) devoting some much time, energy, space and valuable resources to put this whole enterprise together and made it work.  In truth, I had my doubts but it did work as judged by the international awards the Institute has collectively won by its top-performing students.  Now they just about to throw their doors open, yet again, to a brand new purpose-built training centre and one I will certainly look forward to visiting. 

During my educational tour of India (the “Knowledge Tour”), I collected many business cards then and noticed something very strange about them—a large amount of screen printing companies were ISO Certified—an obvious contrast to their European/North American counterparts.  At the same time, however, I could tell they did not have the necessary experience, knowledge, skills or techniques, for whatever reason, that would help to take their companies up to the next level in performance—hence my close relationship with the education factor—something I referred to as advance process training.  The 'Knowledge Tour' was held in six major Indian cities was just but one great start and believe this could be a future event during non-Screen Print India show years.

Back in December 2010, I had the opportunity to revisit DMI.  A number of changes were obvious; least of all the classroom was larger and somehow, represented a professional ambiance rather than a scholarly one.  Students had full used of the well-equipped printing area, from darkroom to screen making, printing to various drying systems and screen cleaning/reclaiming to numerous processing/testing instrumentation.  If that was not enough, there was a fully stocked library of tech books on various aspects of the process as well as several commercial trade magazines stretching back to the '60s.  In some respects, this was made more remarkable especially when one consider it is a private institution, first and foremost, yet it will accept students who cannot pay and then takes the trouble to find them jobs upon graduation!
So, what’s the importance of professional education in screen printing?  
In the western hemisphere, it is estimated that less than 3% of professional screen printers (support staff included) have received any formal recognised job training.  When you hire someone, there is an expectation you should get close to a 100% from that person but the reality is probably less than 10%!  Why not double that or even triple it?  It can only be accomplished with some form of proper training.  It was once said the most expensive form of training is no training at all.  Interestingly enough, training never stops, it is a continuous work in progress—because it never ends and should not either!  I constantly read technical articles and listen closely to people of all stripes in my ever-ending quest to learn something new every day—something Michel Caza does for sure too.

Going back to ISO certification for a moment, I wrote some twenty years ago an article about meeting the “ISO Man.”  It was a little tongue-in-cheek essay because ISO auditing companies were trying to twist things around, at least in my view, that being certified will improve product quality and business prospects.  So far, so good, but screen printing is very much “art,” the beauty, as it were, is in the eye of the beholder.  My position was you can implement great management systems but it says nothing about actual print quality.  A printer may specialize in the low-end cheap decal marketplace but still be ISO certified.  What I contended in the article, to get my point across, is that if your company was always late in deliveries, fine, but make sure it is always late for consistency and have it well documented as to why!  I was trying to express certification was for the welfare of how business are managed and functions, while print results was something entirely different.  As it is, I highly recommend all industrial printers to become ISO certified, as well as any commercial printer who deals with major domestic/international corporations, and other customers who are equally ISO certified—but only if the business warrants it.
What is your view on Indian screen printing? 
Without a doubt, India has missed out more than a generation of sophisticated screen printing experience from a global perspective, perhaps even two generations.  However, it has more than made up for its absence by focusing on high-end commercial graphics, in-store media/displays, POP/POS, industrial, electronic and bio-tech applications—buy many print buyer do not know this fact.  Due to this, it is very difficult to estimate its growth but I will stick my neck out and suggest the rate is at least tenfold the present European and North American markets!  I believe one of the most important aspects, and perhaps the most encouraging in my view, is the typical Indian screen printing company who wants to do better must learn more, put more weight in training and take judgmental risks by preparing to invest more into process in terms of plant and materials.

These are all good healthy signs that clearly demonstrates commitment to improve upon the status quo in the eyes of the customer.
Please throw light on your principle of "buying right screen printing equipment - without confusion.”  Why printers should not compromise on quality over price?
Purchasing capital equipment for entry level companies is one thing but buying for existing printing operations that seeks growth in both quality and market positioning means price is no longer first, nor second and perhaps not even third in the decision-making process.  This is not to say price is not important but other fundamental criteria play a bigger part of the purchasing equation.  Experience has shown that very rarely does equipment brought simply on lowest or low price return a healthy profit.  “Price” is what one pays today for suitable equipment that meets current and future needs while “cost” is the true price one continuously pays for failing to look beyond tomorrow!  Challenges are always lurking around the corner and things will change for sure, so consider the buying process like shopping for new shoes for your children.  It is more prudent to prepare by growing into a piece of equipment rather than one that fits today’s needs but outgrown tomorrow. 
I urge any company wanting to buy new capital printing equipment to obtain a copy of the seminar session conducted at the Screen Print India Expo-2010, “Buying Screen Printing Equipment—Without Confusion.”  It covers many pitfalls companies make in the decision-making process and helps to make the purchase a 'win-win' situation for both customer and supplier.  Improve the overall quality of printing and productivity, as this will automatically drive profitable growth. Very rarely with less than desirable plant, materials and consumables provide any company with “international” quality results, least of all profitably.  If it could been done you can bet it would have been done long before now. Under any circumstances, do not make price the number one issue if you are seeking positive improvements to any aspects of the printing operation. If you do, it will come back and bite when you when you least expect it.  
Please give your views on digital and screen printing process.  How do you justify adopting large format screen printing in the face of digital presses?
There is no question that digital is great for short runs, small changes on-the-fly and printing from customers' uploaded files from remote locations, which seems to take up much of today's business model.  However, for longer print runs, striking visual impact, aesthetic appeal, colour brilliancy, lustre and many other visual and functional characteristics, digital cannot always compete particularly when the volume is more than small.  Due to the intense natural UV exposure around India (I even gave a two-hour seminar session on the very subject), screen offers print longevity that cannot be compared to other imaging processes, which otherwise can begin to fade within a few months of direct exposure.  This is partly due to screen ink uses pigments and typically prints 10 to 20 time the deposit thickness than digital, thus having a much greater impact in colour saturation, impact and opacity, to name but a few characteristics.   
Furthermore, unlimited uncoated/coated substrates, surface undulations/texture, shaped or formed will never be an issue for screening.  However, the biggest problem with the so-called “digital vs. screen” is people having their heads deeply buried in the sand believing digital will cause the demise of screen printing when, in reality, nothing can be further from the truth. While digital has rightly taken much of the poster/signage business, the growth for screening, especially on the industrial side, is nothing less than absolutely staggering.  Digital should be seen for what it is, a terrific cooperative partner that wonderfully complements any company's capabilities in the imaging business.  
Digital’s real powerbase comes from short volume jobs turned around quickly inexpensively for limited outdoor exposure with minimal training.  Anything else is generally considered better captured by screen.  Oftentimes, large formats and banners tend to gravitate towards digital for larger volume business as many screen printers do not have the screening capability of such size and doing so is quite an investment.  
As to the question of how do you justify adopting large format screen printing in the face of digital, “price” is usually the dominant factor—whether it should be or not.  Digital cost to produce is the same regardless of volume, until it comes to the break-even point when screen becomes more cost-effective with larger volumes.  On a business model standpoint, while screen remains relatively competitive, nowhere is it equal to digital where everyone seeming is reducing price just to grab the job.  This is not healthy for the industry as a whole regardless of the process used.  
Please enlighten us on 'high performance applications' of screen printing, its practice in nutshell and scope/potential?
These would include virtually any product were a three-dimensional print gives it some functionality.  Essentially, such print or coating becomes the heartbeat of the product where the end print result must be replicated within a certain tolerance throughout production for conformity and reliability— such as instrumentation/auto dashboards, circuitry (printed circuits, membranes, PV/solar), biotech/medical, electroluminescence, touchscreens, RFIDs, fuel cells, nanoparticles, etc.  The demands to control better the 3-D aspect of a print are spiralling as new product technology break-through rely extensively on the screen process to provide one or more crucial coatings and printed layers.
One classic example of high-performance applications is a laptop computer’s ‘touchpad.’ As the finger moves across the touchpad, its sensitive printed electronics know exactly where to move the cursor on the screen.  If the print was not accurate and precise enough in thickness without deviation, the cursor will have a mind of its own, jumping and skipping all over the place!

To give some credence to how well this function must perform, one printing operation have their screen printing press mounted on an earthquake-proof base, so that any minor shocks or tremors will not cause problems during production.
What are other areas where screen can still stand out?
I think it is also fair to say that printers will try almost anything to satisfy customers' needs—even if the imaging system or other restrictions was not designed for such.  
Nowhere else in the world as the market for “special effects” soared in the past few years, giving a magnificent valued added finish to any previously printed matter, irrespective of how it was originally printed. Selective varnish and many other “finish” treatments are screened because it provides a uniqueness that other processes cannot deliver with the same striking impact inexpensively. In India alone, I understand perhaps more than 50 Indian offset printers during the past few years have added screening capability just to meet these new finishing value-added treatments.
How to achieve excellence for demanding ink deposition and uniformity control for high performance applications?  Please elaborate on "ink deposition and uniformity control"
Essentially, screen printing, and indeed all other forms of printing, is a two-dimensional imaging process.  For example, the letter 'A' has height and width, which is all that matters for most commercial applications, except for registration and colour.  On the other hand, if a special ink coating is required for a consumer product, such as an electrical circuitry (printed conductive line such as a mobile phone’s touch screens for example), deposit uniformity (and tight registration too) will be crucial for resistivity properties to make the product functional.  This means the printing process must provide a three-dimensional entity, so our letter ‘A’ no longer just have height and width, but also ‘depth’ or thickness to contend with.  
The same applies to electroluminescence; the deposit layer must be absolutely even and uniform without any undulations or blemishes to be visually acceptable, something that is extremely difficult for digital to overcome.  Poor commercial prints can be rejected before shipping but industrial printed products, particularly those typically requiring a three dimensional aspect for functionality, often is not known to be badly printed (a failure) until months after it is out in the marketplace.
The ability of yielding a uniform ink lay is inherent in the screen process, because both fabric and emulsion thickness are the same uniform thickness throughout so to speak.  Digital has essentially two things: nozzle output that can vary a great deal when operating and linear speed.

This is why 50 large prints can be screened and all look the same, both colour and uniform, but the same cannot be guaranteed with digital.  When reviewing digital entries at SGIA or FESPA print competition, every entry is slightly different from one another, some excessively, yet all participants used the exact same downloaded file.  Therefore, while screen is not perfect by any means, at least printers do have full control over deposition and colour/deposit uniformity, due to the nature of the process.  With digital, however, software management is difficult to finesse while controlling and varying ink nozzles’ output is all but out of the question.
In one of the seminars in India you had explained about the top secrets to successfully screen print large formats. Please reveal those points:

1. Image-to-frame ratio: The net result from a wide-angle camera lens distorts the outer peripheral view (in fact the whole picture) because it is trying to pack in more into it than what the human eye naturally sees.  This is similar to printers upping their image size on a screen frame and becomes dissatisfied because expected quality does not materialise was it does with a smaller image or a larger frame.  As a useful guideline, I gave three different ratio examples of what they should ideally be kept to, according to the degree of difficulties typically encountered.
Printing operations must establish their safe maximum image to a given frame size according to the degree of job difficulty as some companies’ can get away with more if they adopt high processing techniques.  Also, just because a printing press model handles 76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 inches) print area for example, it is sized mechanically to physically print that area but it does not necessarily mean the image’s outer peripheral will be perfect when printing critical demanding jobs.  In other words, each company must find out what amount of distortion is or is not acceptable.    
2. Fabric grade selection: One of the best weapons a printing operation has in the stakes of seeking higher hassle-free quality and productivity is to review carefully fabric grades used. Those with larger percentage open areas; usually a finer thread diameter if keeping with the same mesh count, places a great deal less stress on printing.  In addition, many print shops are still using nylon or un-dyed (white) polyester instead of photographic-safe yellow or orange for fine detail and process work. 
3. Screen tension: In my seminar sessions, as an analogy, I have always stress screen tension is like the air in a vehicle’s tyre; expect a lot of problems if under deflated.  If screens are not up to the fabric supplier’s recommended tension level, according to the degree of work at hand, then it cannot possibly perform as advertised.  This is no different from lorries/goods carriers in India, mostly with underpowered engines and very much overloaded.  In spite of that, they all share one commonality, however; they eventually complete their job because the tyres are properly inflated to begin with!  As such, one could correctly infer much of the screen printing community (and not just India) is running around with under inflated (tensioned) screens!
4. Squeegee length: Even with a healthy image-to-frame ratio, print integrity can still be a problem if the squeegee is too long in length.  Using an oversized squeegee will deflect the mesh closer to the screen frame; thereby increasing the deflated angle that will distort the print—similarly to an undersized frame as alluded to earlier. 
5. Floodbar length and profile: Most printers regard the floodbar’s role is to scrape the ink back to restart the next print cycle.  While true, it has a much more important job to do; it gauges or meters precisely how much ink remains on top or in the screen for the squeegee to transfer. This is without question a wonder feature to fully understand its influence in use, including edge profile, since it can significantly enhance any print and, in particular, 4-colour process work by reducing dot gain/loss.
6. Exposure distance and time: Human nature, being what it is, will always ask what would the next “top-secret” if there was another one.  Nonetheless, the sixth would be exposure issues.

Screen makers routinely use the same exposure distance and/or time for small screens to midsize, or midsize to large.  You cannot do this and expect superb image resolution every time with fine detail and well-defined dot shapes.  Emulsions and stencil films have radically advanced over the years and very sensitive to every process needs—despite many having a good latitude to work with.  But that latitude has nothing to do with self-correcting wrong exposure distances even if it gives some leeway with exposure timings.

Additionally, many screen makers do not use an exposure calculator and even if they have one in-house, they do not know how to use it.  In my estimation, this is more of a problem with suppliers, because instructions are normally written in a European language that may not be locally understood. Furthermore, suppliers ought to physically explain and demonstrate how these calculators work as part of customer service.
All of the above have proven to be serious problems with many large format specialist printers, which typically prevent them from advancing in business growth in a profitable manner.
Finally, your quality advices to Indian screen printers:
India has proven its international clout with its inborn aspirations to seek high quality—but that is simply not enough!  Instead of challenging a few printers domestically or from the western hemisphere, greater numbers should be out there competing by showing the industry what they can do.  Not enough Indian printers participate in international print competitions, and have written much about this topic and will continue to do so. How can others believe in India’s mettle if they do not enter in great numbers at these events? This is just but one way the Indian screen printing community can show the world that they have ‘arrived’ as a major player and be globally recognized as such.  India does have what it takes but needs to do so in greater numbers rather than just with a few on a few occasions!  Already said so many time but will repeat it yet again, “You cannot win the lottery if you don’t participate!”  

About Mike Young
Mike is a SGIA Fellow, a member and immediate past chair of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology and recipient of the prestigious Swormstedt Award for technical writing.  Mike Young has been a specialist in high-definition graphic and high-performance industrial screen printing for over 40 years. 

If you want to contact, Mike Young please send an eMail to krishna.naidu@haymarket.co.in