Can screen printing see into the future?

Put away that crystal ball. Bhargav Mistry of Grafica tracks five trends and finds that screen printing techniques, when used in combination with offset or digital, can add value to the end product

13 Jun 2013 | By PrintWeek India

The very mobile, high-end smartphones, iPods or tablets that you see in the market have imprints of screen printing. The helmets you wear or the bike you ride have designer decals on both sides; the car you drive has the speedometer and dashboard – all screen printed. If you are a cricket fan, notice that almost every bat has multiple designer stickers screen printed, the t-shirts, the helmets, the PVC cheer sticks, balloons or flags that the cricket fans hold in the stadium – are all screen printed. And do not forget, we are living in high technology electronic age. Every electronic product that you use has a screen printed PCB inside. 
Fast changing image of screen printing
A high-level team of printing company engaged in automobile and aeronautic decals printing and high-end graphics, walked into Grafica’s stall at the recently concluded Gulf Print & Pack’13 in Dubai. During the discussion, the gentlemen did not mind sharing with our team that they have as many as 30 semi-automatic and fully-automatic screen printing machines.  
This is the quick glimpse of fast changing trend in screen printing.
So, screen printing is more than what people may tend to think about printing visiting cards, letterheads, invitation by using outdated and tedious method what we call ‘manual screen printing’.  Screen printing is an artistic as well as technology oriented process. From its age-old method, ‘silk’ screen printing has transformed into an advanced technology.
Screen printing has its own distinct advantages – versatility, suppleness, wide range of applications, brightness and solidity of colours for outdoor applications, possibilities of special effects in graphic and textile; and wide range of presses available for different applications. It also provides a possibility of combination printing with other imaging and printing processes like offset, digital, etc.
The visual impact that screen printing process can create is simply incredible. The durability of the inks, the vibrancy of the colours, especially considering the harsh outdoor weather conditions for outdoor applications such as automobile decals, helmet stickers, indoor/outdoor advertising display boards, etc, (it withstands sunlight, rain, snow, wind, etc) are other factors from it’s list of merits.
In the commercial graphics segments (packaging included), industrial (almost every industrial segment needs the imprint of screen printing process), garment decoration and textile printing, it offers application abound. 
Coming of age
“Necessity is the mother of all invention.” And that applies to screen printing as well.
 So, now there are semi-automatic and automatic screen printing machines and screen making setup that includes polyester yellow meshes or fabrics, fabric stretching units with tension meter, aluminum frames, emulsion coating equipment, screen exposing machine, screen drying machines besides other accessories.
There are better screens (the image carriers), squeegees (the heart of the screen printing machine) supported by an ink coater, which has the ability to print on numerous paper and non-paper substrates (both semi-rigid and rigid). 
In France, my guru, Michel Caza, past president of FESPA and ASPT, had several lines of four- and five-colour fully automatic wide-format screen printing machines with inline UV in 1980s/1990s to produce award winning graphics for indoor / outdoor applications.
Emergence of multi-process printing solution and fast spreading value addition concept
 It is believed that screen, offset and digital printing will co-exist for different types of jobs. These days, many offset printers are ‘falling in love’ with screen printing as witnessed by us during various printing exhibitions. In the last couple of years, we received more visitors from offset, packaging and digital than screen printing.
Digital-screen combination: This is yet another good sign. There are many digital printers who have also screen-printing units to meet the market demand for ‘total print solution’.
Other configurations include offset and screen, as well as, combination of digital offset and screen printing.
Why value addition? There has been a growing trend of many offset printers and packaging printers embracing screen printing process for carrying out print finishing in-house instead of depending on outsourcing.
Sharjah-based Silver Point Printing Press has recently bought one more Swing Cylinder Press with inline UV from Grafica to meet the non-stop and growing demand for value addition which is offered with the application of various decorative UV to give touch and feel effect over duly commercial and packaging jobs.
According to Narendra Paruchuri, managing director, Pragati Offset, Hyderabad, “With regard to ‘embellishment’ part, screen printing has huge application on packaging. Believe me, I do not think Pragati could have garnered so many awards without using this versatile screen printing process to print either an ordinary UV, textured UV or emboss UV and other effects …be it name, fame or profitability – we achieved all these partly by using advance screen printing technology. Today, we cannot really think of any good job without the imprint of screen printing, which blends well with other printing processes.”
In today’s highly competitive business environment, print buyers are certainly looking for something different which really differentiates them from their rivals. Ultimately, the packaging in a shelf carries its look, its power of attraction for the consumers, and eventually, the feeling of touch; or we can rightly say, today packaging is all about sensation – look, touch, feel, smell. Same principle applies to all commercial jobs – value addition is a must.
The most promising is the use of a wide range of ‘special effects’ thanks to the think tanks in the screen printing industry driven by FESPA, an international association of various national printing associations including India.
Focus on quality, productivity and standardisation
Today, with automatic precision machines, it is possible to get a result that years ago would have been a pipe dream. For example, by manual screen printing reproducing photorealistic images on t-shirts was next to impossible, but now with automatic direct to garment textile screen printing machines, garment printers are print what the customers want with speed and accuracy.
In India, many of the large screen printing units are matching international standards, and beyond, in a competitive marketplace because of use of high-level equipment and high-priced consumable supplies.
The industry (customers) allows minimum tolerances for the rejection besides mandating for just-in-time (JIT)production and deliveries. Today, there exist different systems designed to help the screen printers to achieve better result. But it revolves around the simple concept of standardisation of the entire screen printing process.
Shift from manual to automation
There has been steep increase in the number of screen printing machines and UV curing system (also screen making set-up) sold in the last couple of years than what it was five to ten years ago. There has been a big shift from manual to semi-automatic and now automatic system. More and more printers are now adopting automation and using quality raw materials, process standardisation and documentation of parameters for each job since in screen printing every job is a different job involving unique process parameters, use of materials (inks, chemicals, mesh, etc) with different specifications.
Also, the screen printing industry is now waking up to the reality of UV-age. More and more screen printers are now adopting UV and dumping the foul smelling solvent, which many feel is a curse to the screen printing. In some areas such as decals and industrial printing UV has not made successful inroads and still they have to use only solvent inks.
Over 50 companies engaged in garment manufacturing as well as garment printers (job workers) who had huge manual long tables, and also jute bag manufacturers, have installed our automatic direct to garment screen printing machine along with complete screen making system.
Growing urge for education and training 
Screen printing is now quicker, cheaper, produces better quality images and offers a number of special applications. Having advanced machines in place is not sufficient to run a profitable screen printing business. Being able to truly master printing high quality images, using the screen printing process, also takes much longer because there are a number of variables involved.
Since we started workshops (always houseful with average 50 participants) in our DMI institute in 2006, till today over 2000 printing professionals (owners and staff) from India, USA, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc, (screen, offset, packaging, flexo, textile printing segments) have attended our three-day workshops. They were of the opinion that without proper knowledge screen printing technology cannot be applied in a profitable manner.
I would conclude by saying that while technology is the lock, education is the key to unlock the numerous opportunities in screen printing. I leave the screen printers to decide whether to take both (technology and education) or chose one. Those who grab both will stand to win in the print market.
Key to success is technology adoption and knowledge upgradation.