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Developing a Culture of Innovation

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Many years ago, I got into this industry because the shirts I saw in retail shops fascinated me and made me wonder how the heck they were made. To this day, certain shirts still catch my eye and I ask that same question again. I love the art and mastery of technique that goes into making a shirt that people want because it just looks so cool.

It was only later in my career that I learned the difference between a cool shirt and a production shirt—and, more importantly, how to turn one into the other by creating a blueprint for success in a production environment.

Many years ago, I got into this industry because the shirts I saw in retail shops fascinated me and made me wonder how the heck they were made. To this day, certain shirts still catch my eye and I ask that same question again. I love the art and mastery of technique that goes into making a shirt that people want because it just looks so cool.

It was only later in my career that I learned the difference between a cool shirt and a production shirt—and, more importantly, how to turn one into the other by creating a blueprint for success in a production environment.

That’s my job now as the research and development manager for CC Creations. Our company started 32 years ago with two manual screen-printing presses and over the years, we’ve grown to become the largest custom screen printing and embroidery companies in Texas and one of the largest in the country. We’ve expanded into new markets along the way—signs, trophies and awards, promotional products, and more—but we’ve also grown by regularly challenging ourselves to develop new products. That’s a big part of my job, but it takes commitment and buy-in from the entire organization, from design and prepress through the production managers, printing staff, and sales team.

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The challenge of product development
One day, one of our artists came to me with a design in hand and a challenging smile on her face. She asked me if we could make a product that mixed foil with multi-color printing without the guesswork of using foil resist and while maintaining a minimal hand. I smiled back, thinking, “OK, what do I know about water-based inks and foil adhesives?”

New products often start this way at our company. I am constantly walking the line between discovering ways to push the screen-printing process and determining how to help production become more efficient in its day-to-day operations. Nothing is wrong with wanting to create the most innovative product you can, but there are many factors to consider before you begin showing the cool new idea to the team.

The production staff is rarely concerned about the artistic concept of a design. They care about whether it can be done on a large scale while turning a profit. The reality is that even the most advanced technique won’t get a second thought from a floor manager if there isn’t a clear plan to do it in an efficient manner, without too many problems. Picking and choosing elements within an “artsy” design and developing them into predictable printing techniques can help win over the people in the daily grind of production work—people you need to have on your side. This involves understanding how to translate concept art into a printed product, learning about the processes that will be required, and developing a blueprint for implementing them.

Some of the best designs I’ve worked with would never meet the demands of a large production run and become ideas we decide not to pursue. However, we still consider this time well-spent. The research and development process can bring to light new techniques that may lead to new standard operating procedures for old or outdated techniques.

Starting the R&D
The best way to start the journey of developing a new product is to pick one technique and learn everything you can about it. Read anything you can find, talk to others who have mastered it, and soak up their knowledge. Don’t rush this learning process. Overlooking one step can produce a completely different (and unsuccessful) result when you begin testing the technique later.

The multicolor print/foil product that started in our art department involved several technologies we weren’t using at the time. Once I got the green light to work on the idea, my first hurdle was finding a water-based ink system that would produce the minimal hand we wanted while being production friendly in our shop. It needed to be relatively easy to color match and couldn’t dry in the screen too quickly. I tried a couple of different brands and settled on an approach that would combine a discharge white with water-based pigmented inks.

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For the foil, I wanted to use a special-effects base that would act as a foil adhesive, while producing many levels of brightness and being able to hold good detail in the image. As the inks I selected began coming in, I realized that we weren’t just developing a new product but a new technique as well, a different way to use foil on a screen-printed garment. My biggest concern was that the discharge inks wouldn’t work in the hot Texas environment, so I discussed the use of retarders that would help keep the screens open as long as possible with my supplier.

I worked with the artist to develop test designs using the new techniques. She developed art with a nice mixture of the discharge and special-effects base that would ensure a no-hand feel with good details in the foil areas of the design.

Testing new concepts
When I am developing a new product, I spend a large portion of my time in testing before showing the product around. The three areas I’m concentrating on are determining whether the process is production friendly, how much it costs, and what we’ll need to do to train employees to use it.

Once I feel comfortable that I have a workable blueprint, it’s time for the fun of hammering out the details on press. At this stage, before you begin, you should have a clear direction for how the product will work and what the techniques will accomplish. Even if you have a lot of failed tests, don’t give up or accept shortcuts. Most of all, never underestimate the value of the techniques you will develop while creating a new product.

When it was time to test the print/foil product concept, I went to one of our press operators who does quite a bit of sample work with me and is used to seeing me coming his way with an armful of unfamiliar inks and a favor to ask. I explained the print/foil concept to him and it took awhile to convince him that we’d be able to get a water-based ink to work in our open-air environment. Doing some test prints with the ink and proving that it wasn’t going to turn into concrete in the mesh helped to ease the tension a bit. I mentioned that only one white screen would be needed (for the discharge ink) and that multiple colors could be run wet on wet. Another upside: Because we only needed one screen to make the colors look opaque, we’d use less ink than in traditional light-on-dark plastisol printing. As we discussed these advantages, I knew the press operator was hooked and we were on our way to producing a new product.

The first attempt yielded decent results, but the white discharge ink was drying the screen too quickly. As we thought about what might be causing this, I realized that one of the large fans we use was blowing directly onto the white screen. Once we moved the fan, the white screen behaved correctly and the shirts came out of the dryer looking great and ready for the foil to be applied.

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My vision was for the foil was to hold details while adding “bling” to designs with a vintage look. After some experiments, I lessened the pressure and time in the heat press, and cold peeled the foil after it had thoroughly cooled. The final product was a great merger of no-hand screen printing and detailed foil. It created a new look for us that the client loved and taught us a new technique we could use on future designs.

Tests like these give us a good indication of whether a new concept will require extra production efforts to go beyond the ordinary. What I look for are techniques that don’t take significantly longer than similar colors or sequenced prints, don’t require much special training, and look good after a wash test. Clearing those three hurdles greatly increases your odds of getting support from floor managers and production staff. I also look at the pricing in the research phase, including the basic costs of inks and an estimate of the production time. I don’t get too caught up in the numbers, just enough to provide a starting point for those in the organization who will look at the new product down to the penny.

From concept to rollout
Production managers will always be the hardest to sell your ideas to, mainly because they are usually on crazy-tight schedules with many people pulling at them to finish jobs on time with minimal rejects. Pick the right time to get input from the floor managers, and go through everything that has been done to test the new product. Ask them about every detail, be patient, and don’t take criticism personally. When I’m working on a new product, I want everyone to question everything about the ideas and the designs. The information that comes up in these discussions can send me back to rework and improve the idea.

When you have the manager’s seal of approval, it’s time to rally the production troops. A great design isn’t worth much without passion from the people responsible for making a great-looking print, and this is the time to get them as excited as you can about the new product. Challenge your staff to think outside their comfort zones by showing them that these new techniques will increase their knowledge base in screen printing. This may be the most technical printing they’ve ever done, so be patient and answer every question.

The best way to address most issues that will come up during these meetings with production is to go in with solid research. It also helps your cause to show employees that you’re willing to get dirty and sweat it out on the production floor right beside them. You don’t have to be a master at the press. Sometimes, it’s best to ask the employees the best way to get the desired effect on the machine to level the playing field and show them that you’re not a know-it-all. Earn their trust and they’ll be a lot more willing to buy into a crazy idea.

At the beginning of the multicolor foil project, concerns were raised about the viability of a water-based ink system in our plant. We failed more than a few times in developing a technique that would be repeatable. In a situation such as this, the best approach is to be completely open to criticism and diligent in addressing the concerns that are raised.

If production is your hardest audience, then sales is by far the easiest. The input from salespeople in pricing the product is critical, so they need to know how the product was made from concept to final production. Go through the techniques used and the sequence of the colors on press and see if they have any questions that would affect the pricing. Each step has an associated cost and they need to understand everything in order to determine pricing that will generate maximum profit.

Bring good samples with you and be ready to produce more so the salespeople can show potential customers what the final product will look like. Chances of a sale go way up when the customer can see and feel a representative print.

The screen-printing industry is constantly evolving and time spent on regularly researching new techniques will pay big dividends over time as new products generate new revenue streams and keep you a step ahead of your competitors. Starting any new project can be daunting, but if you’re thorough in your research and in getting each staff on board, then you’ll be able to get the great big buy-in from your company.

(See also by Castro: New special-effects techniques: Why bother?)
 

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