The garment-printing industry has seen some rather radical changes over the years. This industry was once the land of plenty, and the US was riddled with massive textile facilities. But now it’s a shadow of its former self. Ninety percent of the licensed apparel once produced in the US in the thousands of dozens is outsourced to countries in South America and Asia.
Although many companies have attempted to either downsize or begin anew in a foreign country, a great number have died off due to the inability to compete with the foreign printing facilities. Nowadays, it’s unusual to find garment-printing facilities that have more than three automatic presses on the production floor. What remains is what was previously considered the mid-sized facility, with one to three automatic or manual presses.
The large garment-printing facilities that remain in operation in the United States keep the pressure on small and midsize shops to produce the best quality in a timely fashion and at a low cost in order to remain competitive. Among the most effective ways for these companies to keep seeing success is to standardize processes and streamline production in order to enhance consistency and efficiency.
Standardizing garment-printing processes
System standardization is a fairly straightforward process. In relation to garment screen printing, standardization is required to the greatest degree in prepress operations, where variables must be strictly controlled. Processes in the screen room that demand standardization are screen tensioning, degreasing and rinsing, coating, exposure, and washout. Each step requires training, documentation, instructional signage, and enforcement. These steps smooth out the production flow and maximize quality and productivity.
In the screen-tensioning process, optimum tension must be established for each screen mesh being utilized. This, of course, is based on the frame type and mesh count. Once you establish these parameters, you should document your tensioning procedures and keep the records in a master file and mounted in the work area in a step-by-step format. They should be simply and clearly worded so that anyone introduced into that department would be able to follow the instructions and produce a screen that meets the set standards. This procedure not only ensures a consistent screen, but it also minimizes the need for excessive supervision over new hires. The employees should be able to walk themselves through the process with minimal demonstration and intervention from managers.
The ultimate goal here is to ensure that the screens are uniform in tension and quality from run to run. The best way to achieve this goal is with retensionable frames.
The same procedures apply to the rest of the screen-production workflow. The areas that require the greatest enforcement are those where the bad habits of shortcuts may come into play under heavy production periods, when time is at a minimum. The most prominent area where screen quality suffers is in insufficient rinsing once the screen has been degreased. Although the process of rinsing the screen with a high-power pressure washer becomes a tedious one, it is crucial to the longevity of the screen on the press. Proper rinsing procedures ensure maximum production efficiency on the press and contribute to the overall success of the workflow in your facility.
I have found that it’s very easy to become complacent in screen reclaiming and degreasing, to the point to where you fail to closely inspect the screen for remaining obstructions in the mesh. The result is a wasted screen coating the next time you prepare that mesh for stencilmaking, when you’ll find the previously missed defect during the washout of the screen on its next exposure. Even worse is not detecting a stencil defect until the screen goes to press. The problem then extends beyond prepress into production, resulting in a loss of valuable time.
The next most important area that requires standardization is the press set-up process itself. Most facilities leave it up to the individual press operator, assistant operator, and dryer catcher to get the press torn down, set up in register, and running in a minimal amount of time. But a lack of standardization costs time, because each person may have a unique way of doing things. The need to minimize production downtime is greater than ever and required to remain competitive within the market. Keep in mind that if your minimum run size must decrease in order to remain competitive, you will need the standardized processes to ensure that press downtime is as brief as possible.
Many shops shoot to limit press downtime for automatics to 45 minutes, from the moment the last garment is printed on an order to the first sellable print unloaded for the next order. This time limitation can vary based on the number of colors and type of press (manual or automatic). Also keep in mind that accurate garment counting is another process that must be standardized to minimize downtime. As soon as the count is confirmed, the job responsibilities would be as follows. The press operator should check the work order and confirm the design, garment style and color, and screens and inks for accuracy. The operator can then start setting the screens in the press and registering the screens.
The assistant press operator removes the old screens from the press and places any residual ink into containers (while the press operator checks the production order) and returns the inks to the ink department and the used screens to the screen-cleaning area. The assistant then returns the dirty squeegees and floodbars to the to cleaning area and returns to the press to assist with the setup of the next job.
The dryer catcher finishes up the unloading of the goods to be sent to either the packing or shipping area. The catcher also completes the paperwork and forwards it to the next appropriate department. Finally, the catcher returns to the press to assist in any remaining setup task that may be required.
The registration devices available today allow garment screen printers to easily set up their automatic or manual presses in 45 minutes or less. Also keep in mind that no standardized process can be successful unless the supporting functions are also standardized and running smoothly. Those support areas include inventory management, ink room, dryer catching, supply processes, and equipment maintenance.
A fat marketplace has made it too easy for many garment screen printers to get by without standard operating procedures. Now that the garment-printing market has changed and become much more competitive, the standardization of processes within each area of the shop can really make the difference between surviving or perishing.
Rick Davis is the president of Synergy Screen Printing in Orlando, FL. A 27-year veteran of the textile-printing industry, Davis is a member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology and has a background that spans production management, artwork engineering, application testing, and industry consulting. He is a frequent contributor to trade publications and a speaker at industry trade events.
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