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An automatic press is one of the biggest investments a garment printing business can make. And which one you choose can either make or break your return by expanding your capabilities or creating a host of headaches. With an array of manufacturers and emerging technologies, you have a lot to think about. But whether you’re a first-time buyer or adding to a fleet of automatics, factoring some basic considerations into your selection can go a long way toward making it a good one.
 

An automatic press is one of the biggest investments a garment printing business can make. And which one you choose can either make or break your return by expanding your capabilities or creating a host of headaches. With an array of manufacturers and emerging technologies, you have a lot to think about. But whether you’re a first-time buyer or adding to a fleet of automatics, factoring some basic considerations into your selection can go a long way toward making it a good one.
 

Know your options
As with making any capital investment, the starting point in shopping for an automatic press is identifying your needs and goals and determining your budget. “You have to consider your market and the type of work it calls for—the number of colors, job complexity, print size, run lengths, etc.,” says Marshall Atkinson, COO, Visual Impressions. “Then you have to consider the physical limitations of your shop. You may need 10 colors, but you have to consider the footprint of the machine as well as its capabilities.

“You also should give some thought to why you are buying the press. Is it just to fill a current need and address an existing issue, or are you thinking ahead toward expanding into new markets? It gets back to your goals and business plan.”

Budget is the other key initial consideration, say veteran buyers. “You have to determine which presses fall within your price range before it makes any sense to compare them in terms of features and specifications,” says Lon Winters, president of GraphicElephants.

It’s also important to keep in mind that budgeting for an automatic means looking beyond the cost of the press itself, note those who’ve been there. “When you automate, it requires raising the level of all of the support elements of your business as well,” notes Mark Coudray, owner, Coudray Graphic Technologies. “Your screenmaking, art department, and film production all have to increase as well because you’ve got a monster to feed. And if you can’t turn out screens quickly, then the press is going to sit there a significant amount of time.” If you already have an automatic, adding a second machine will cause a similar increase in the need for support services.
 

In terms of auxiliary costs, adding an automatic can mean buying more screens that may be a different size and/or type than you already have, Winters points out. That, in turn, may call for a larger exposure unit or one that can expose screens faster. You may also need to increase your drying capacity and possibly add personnel.
 

The fundamentals apply
This chart details the basic specifications, features, and options for 50 models currently available in the US market to help you quickly identify contenders. If you’ve shopped for an automatic before, you may notice new standard features and options that weren’t available to you previously. But certain fundamental considerations remain paramount.
 

Space Like the dollars you have to spend, certain other constraints help define your options from the get-go. The footprint of the automatic relative to your shop size, layout, and existing equipment are key, from getting the machine through the door to optimizing workflow. “You can’t consider the press dimensions in a vacuum,” Atkinson says. “You have to look at them in terms of your operation.”  “Enough room has to be available to get screens in and out easily,” notes Charlie Taublieb, Taublieb Consulting. “Ideally, I like a four- to five-foot area around the entire machine.”
 

Press requirements “The sophisticated electronics on many presses today make voltages really important,” notes Coudray. “It’s not enough to know you have three-phase or single-phase, or 220V, 230V, or 240V. You really need to know the exact voltage as measured in your shop to make sure it’s compatible and determine how the issue can be addressed if it’s not. You also need to know if the press requires a compressor and whether your shop has the electrical capacity to support that and a dryer.”
 

Colors/stations Your current and anticipated markets largely determine how many colors you’ll want on a press. “You want to have the number of colors you need to get the type of work you want—that is, contract or custom printing, or producing your own line,” says Taublieb. Most models shown in the chart are available with a range of print stations and color capabilities, meaning that you have a vast range of additional configurations available to you.
 

Some feel that it’s smart to buy at least one step up from your current needs—and even more, if you can afford it and have space. “Most people don’t understand that flashes and cooling stations take up heads and reduce the number of colors you can print,” Winters explains. “Specialty applications or simulated process jobs also eat up heads.”
 

Frames/print area Similarly, it’s wise to consider the maximum size you want to be able to print. “You’ll want to check out the type of frames the machine requires and how it grips them to see if your existing screens will work and how your setup techniques may have to change,” says Atkinson. If you’re considering doing larger prints, look beyond the frame’s outer dimension, he advises. “The size of the platen, the frame holders, and frame locking systems also factor into the screen size the press will accommodate, as does the positioning of the press arms. You need to look at whether you can quickly fit in a bigger screen and a bigger platen so you’ll have minimal downtime for changeovers.”
 

Speed Printers typically buy automatics because they want to print faster. “It’s important to look not only at how fast the press will go, but also at features that can help minimize downtime for setup and changeovers—especially given today’s trend toward shorter runs,” says Taublieb. “Enhanced registration systems; quick-release systems for platens, floodbars, and screens; job storage systems; and more are available.”
 

Service/support A press only makes money when it’s running. That makes service, parts, warranties, dealer network, and reputation as important as the machine itself, notes Winters. “Get manufacturer references. Talk with shops similar in volume to your own that have purchased from the company. Note whether sales personnel are as interested in your needs as in selling their product. All automatics break at some point, and it’s critical to know what type of service is available and when, what’s warranted and for how long, and how quickly you can get parts, including electronics,” he stresses.
 

Return on investment
Buying a press is a lot like buying a car. It’s a major investment with a wide range of choices. One model does not fit all. You’ll also have to make the payments, whether the machine is working for you or not.
 

“Your ROI on an automatic is about how much you can produce,” states Coudray. “But it’s about more than output; it’s also as much about smart planning. When I bought my first automatic, we had enough work in the shop to keep our two manuals running 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 12 weeks. Three weeks after installing the automatic, we were out of work. We had also converted all our cash flow into accounts receivable. It almost put us out of business. So working with an accountant to develop a really good cash plan that factors in an automatic or additional automatic is essential to maximizing your return.”
 

“Achieving a solid return on your investment in an automatic is about managing almost everything but the press,” asserts Atkinson. “The press is going to do what it does, and if it’s spinning, you’re going to get your money back tenfold. But regardless of what you purchase, if you don’t manage everything up to it, then it can eat you alive.”
 

On a final note, as with a car, part of smart buying is determining beforehand what the resale value of the press is likely to be and whether there will be a market for it. “Take a look at what similar used presses are going for, how well they’ve held their value, and how many are out there,” advises Coudray. “That way, you’ll have an idea what position you’ll be in when you’re ready to shop for your next press.”
 

“The bottom line is that you have to define what is important to you and choose your press accordingly,” says Winters.
 

Barbara Montgomery is a freelance writer who has covered the textile screen printing industry for more than 25 years. She has visited printers throughout the US and abroad, spoken at numerous trade gatherings, and been a judge for industry competitions.

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