Wide-format Printing

Introducing Screenprinting to Production

The history of the specialty imaging industry can, like the timeline of western civilization, be split into two sections referred to as B.C. and A.D.—‘before computers’ and ‘after digital.’ And the shift between these two periods still feels like it took place virtually overnight.

By providing full-colour wide-format graphics in minutes, digitally driven inkjet printers and vinyl cutters have claimed a large portion of the type of work that would traditionally have been screenprinted or offset-printed. In response, most commercial screenprinting companies operating during this transition period have quickly evolved by introducing wide-format digital printers to their own facilities to serve existing clients. And after adopting a digital workflow, they have found new markets for an expanding range of printed products.

Screenprinting companies that have not embraced digital technology in one form or another are becoming a rare breed. That has not, however, meant the end of screenprinting.

Dual printing

Past surveys by the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) have shown there are many ‘dual print’ companies—i.e. digital printing facilities that also provide screenprinting. Such businesses understand the strengths and weaknesses of these two types of print production capabilities, then determine how best to reap the benefits of both.

Most new sign graphic printing companies entering the market, however, only know digital technology. At some point, they encounter competitors who are also using screenprinters, which invariably raises some questions:

  • How efficient or relevant is screenprinting today?
  • Is it important for them to know more about screenprinting?
  • Does screenprinting have any place in their production facility?
  • Versatility

    Screenprinting can be deceptively versatile. What may seem at first like a complicated and messy process, only good for making T-shirts, has a surprisingly wide range of product applications.

    It may not be for every print shop, but adding screenprinting processes can help some digital printing companies develop new, proprietary offerings to differentiate themselves from their competition and/or diversify into other types of graphic production or manufacturing.


    The process itself is straightforward. A flexible blade moving over a stencil on a fine mesh deposits a precise layer of ink (or other substance) in a predetermined pattern or image on various substrates. This application can be done by hand or using some degree of automation—and does not require an expensive service technician to change the squeegee and inks or fix clogged printheads.

    The printing industry is already into fourth- and fifth-generation digital presses in the space of less than 20 years, with many expensive printers now outmoded, unusable and unable to be repaired. By contrast, a single screen press typically lasts 20 or more years.

    That said, screenprinting is also complicated, with separate processing steps requiring prepress and screen making functions, a technically skilled press operator, a screen press and a drying system.

    Tipping points

    All printing processes, in the end, place ink on a material, but the following are some of the factors that can make screenprinting the more efficient method compared to digital inkjet printing:

  • Long runs—When a customer gets a quote for 1,000 signs, chances are a screenprinting company can produce them for a better price and within a shorter period than a digital print shop, although the ‘tipping point’ between the processes is constantly changing as digital printers improve.
  • Spot colour graphics—A bright, bold pass of a single colour is always going to look better than a colour composed of small dots cyan, magenta, yellow and key/black (CMYK). For this reason, screenprinting can be preferable for banners or signs with just a few colours, election signs, simple logos without halftones or pictures (like those of Ford and Coca-Cola) and any signs where it is critically important to match flat colours.
  • Durability—Screenprinting is a long-lasting process because its inks can endure harsh environments, due to their composition and thickness. This is why stop signs, for example, are still screenprinted. With digital prints, overlamination to prevent faded outdoor signage requires extra time and money.
  • Challenging materials—The ease of changing out an ink on a screen press to match a given substrate has not yet been imitated with digital technology. No single inkjet printer can print on flexible vinyl, paper, cloth, metal, coroplast, wood, polystyrene, glass and cardboard alike, but a screen press can.
  • To screen or not to screen

    The primary issue is what kind of printing jobs a digital-only company might lose to its competitors because it cannot handle them efficiently with inkjet and vinyl-cutting technology. No matter how new and fast a digital printer is, certain types of signs and graphics will still prove more economical when produced with a screen-based process. So, to keep customers coming back, it can be worthwhile to consider these strengths and see if they warrant adding screenprinting to the production mix.

    Selling the Dream
    Promoting Prosperity

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    Andy MacDougall is a screenprinting advocate, trainer and consultant based in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. He's a member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology as well as the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association and the America Poster Institute. The best way to get in touch with Andy is by sending him an email to andy@squeegeeville.com.