Big screen stars can still outperform digital rivals

By Simon Creasey, Monday 29 October 2018

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When wide-format inkjet print technology started to become widely commercially available in the 1990s, many in the industry believed it signalled the death knell for screen printing.

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Inkjet promised to be quicker, cleaner and offer as good – if not better – quality results. 

Like all nascent technologies it took a while for adoption rates to pick up, but nearly 30 years down the line, although sales of inkjet kit vastly exceeds that of screen printing equipment, the latter is still going strong. Indeed in some market segments it appears to even be gaining ground. So where has screen printing technology remained a must-have, who are the printing companies keeping it alive and why hasn’t it died a death as people predicted?

Versatile performer

One of the main reasons for screen printing’s longevity is its sheer versatility. That’s one of the key attractions to Leeds-based Colour Display, which uses screen presses alongside its large-format digital print kit.

“We embrace modern digital technology, but also recognise the relevance of the traditional screen print process,” explains Robert McLucas, director at Colour Display. “Having this mix of screen and digital allows us to be very versatile and offer the best print solution for any project.”

McLucas says screen printing is still a big part of the business and is now regarded as a specialised print process that’s being requested more often, especially for “premium type” work as customers realise the limitations of digital print and appreciate the qualities and versatility of screen.

“There are many instances where screen print will outscore digital print, the obvious ones being metallic and fluorescent colours, high gloss UV varnishes and special finishes,” says McLucas. “Printing light colours onto dark substrates is easy with the opaque screen inks available. Good strong, bright solid colours are also easily achievable with screen.”

Screen process presses can also cope with a huge range of materials that digital presses would find challenging, and thanks to improvements in ink systems, the technology excels when it comes to the production of outdoor signage as it offers a very stable, durable finish that will resist fading and be far more permanent than digital print, according to McLucas.

“For signage especially, screen print is being specified more and more,” he adds. “Illuminated signs are much brighter and hold the colour better and longer. External and powder coated signage is far more permanent and durable. Screen inks ‘key into’ acrylic and plastic signage panels which overcomes the problem of digital ink chipping along cut edges they can also be thermo-formed for any 3D work.”

As well as offering all of these key benefits in some instances screen printing also offers significant financial savings over other print techniques. 

“Cost wise, for spot colours in medium to large quantities screen print works out substantially cheaper than digital,” explains McLucas. “The cost is in ‘setting up’ so the higher the quantity the cheaper each print becomes. Huge savings can be made on large quantities and turnaround times greatly reduced.” 

Another print business that loves the cost savings offered by screen print on certain jobs is card manufacturer Nitecrest, which has a Sakurai press. 

John Hart, technical director at Nitecrest, says the company uses the press to print true metallic inks – gold, silver, bronze and glitter-based – onto plastic substrates along with spot UV varnish and high build spot colours. It also produces writable varnishes for signature panels and prints high-opacity inks onto clear plastic on the Sakurai. 

“We have looked at inkjet, but considering return on investment, running costs and the fact you can’t print true metallic ink with that technology, choosing screen printing for our particular industry is more of a necessity,” says Hart. “The Sakurai press is simply the best available.”

He adds that the solid high-opacity white inks required for the manufacture of coloured substrate plastic cards “can only be applied using screen printing as far as I’m aware”.

Like Nitecrest, Huddersfield-based large-format graphic display specialist Leach is also firmly wedded to screen printing technology because there are some jobs that the company undertakes that simply could not be achieved using another print technique, according to Russell Wilson, head of operations at the business. 

“A key use [of our screen printing equipment] is the ability to print to customers’ walls, artefacts and setworks,” says Wilson. “Having the skills and ability to print on walls gives the client the ability to be creative with their spaces and enhance the area to its best potential. 

“Screen prints direct to walls and other similar substrates provide a super high wear print that will remain vivid for many years regardless of how much abuse it is exposed to from people brushing against it, and it can eliminate people picking the image off, like vinyl cut-outs. Standard screen printing gives a highly resilient print to various medias. 

“Trust us, we have used screen print in some very quirky applications where all other options were not up to the job.”

Leach is capable of exposing screens of up to 3x2m and most of the work it undertakes is for what Wilson describes as the company’s “heritage customers”. The bulk of the jobs are on-site screen printing to walls, tiles and other flat substrates as well as the production of high-quality metallics. Although Wilson acknowledges the benefits offered by some more modern printing techniuqes, he says the company isn’t ready to turn its back on screen printing technology just yet.

“We have roll-to-roll UV printers, flatbed UV printers, dye-sublimation capabilities, latex printing capabilities along with vinyl cut lettering capabilities, but even with all these options, screen print remains a part of many projects,” he adds. “We have a highly skilled team of screen printers who ensure all the benefits and quality of screen printing remain a true part of the Leach product book.”

That’s also true at Leeds-based Awesome Merchandise, which has an impressive armoury of screen printing kit. In addition to five automatic screen print carousels for textile printing the company also has two hand-pull presses for textiles, which are primarily used to print t-shirts, hoodies, bags and other garments. 

Although Luke Hodson, director at Awesome Merchandise, recognises the benefits of digital textile printing and is particularly interested in some of the new hybrid equipment hitting the market, he says that the screen process gives colours and finishes that digital presses “can’t currently hit” and is “generally more cost-effective for simpler one- to three-colour work over 50 pieces”. 

“We do have direct-to-garment (DTG) printers to digitally print onto textile, however, for larger runs screen print is faster, more cost-effective and we can hit Pantones and solid whites much better than even top of the range DTG machines,” he says.

Niche work

This quality factor is also why screen printing occasionally finds a home for niche jobs such as packaging. Saxon Packaging – part of the Smurfit Kappa group – has been producing screen printed picnic boxes that are sold at Royal Ascot for a company called Picnic Box UK for the last couple of years.

The company initially produced a digitally printed sample so that Picnic Box’s customer, British Fine Foods, could see where the print would sit on the box. Having had the sample signed off it produced 700 large die-cut picnic boxes with a one colour print using the screen process. Steve Fairman, director of Picnic Box UK, says he was “extremely happy and impressed” with the picnic boxes and the success of the project had led onto further enquiries for future events including Cheltenham races.

Like Saxon, Simpson Group also has a lot of happy customers who regularly re-commission screen printed jobs. The company operates a Svecia Sam X5 1.6x2.6m automatic screen printing press supported by CST digital processing kit to undertake a wide range of jobs, according to David Dowson, production director, who served his apprenticeship on the Sam X5. 

“The screen process allows us the scope to run specials such as glitter, metallics, fluorescent, gloss seals, etc,” explains Dowson. “None of these effects have been matched by digital or litho technology and as such the Sam X5 is a busy piece of kit in the months leading up to Christmas where the customer is looking for something a little different in store.” 

He adds that the company also uses the Sam X5 in conjunction with digital to provide “good quality, full-colour images” with special effects such as a gold overprint or a gloss seal.

“Some of our customer base demand it [screen printing],” says Dowson. “The vibrancy and depth of corporate colours or specific Pantones is a must when printing window backdrops according to some. 

“Whilst the advancements in digital technology have meant the speed and size of screen print can be matched, the specific Pantone reference is still a problem for many digital machines. Also on the side of screen print is ink cost. We regularly run 1,000 sheets plus, which just would not be cost-effective on most digital presses.”

Improvements will continue to be made to inkjet technology over the coming years, which will no doubt see it further eat into screen printing’s market share, but thanks to the versatility, high quality and cost effectiveness offered by screen it would appear that for all of the companies that contributed to this article, it still has a bright future ahead. 

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