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Ensure quality with equipment maintenance

January 1st, 2011 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Maintaining equipment isn’t glamorous, but it’s essential to keeping your business running and it shows in the quality of your work.

As part of the fabric graphics industry, you know how critical cleanliness is to the health of your business. The maintenance of your equipment can have a dramatic effect on your bottom line. Customers may not see how well your equipment is maintained, but they experience it in the quality of your products.

Clean benefits

For Terry Sheban, owner of Super Stitches in Youngstown, Ohio, a perfect world consists of all sewing rooms having a record of maintenance and cleaning for each machine. “I’ve rarely seen this in my travels to different companies,” Sheban says. “Typically, machines get attention when they’re not working, and cleaning is determined by the necessity of the job and the standards of the operator and the company.”

At Super Stitches, everyone operates three or four different types of machines and may use any one of 10 machines in the course of a week. “This makes any type of regular maintenance much more complicated,” Sheban says.

The benefits of smooth running equipment, the cost and efficiency of idle equipment, and the effects on production are all connected.

“Everyone in business today is affected by last-minute orders, just-in-time buying and production, and the need to produce under pressure,” Sheban says. “Equipment that is not working properly adds pressure to already hectic production schedules. In my shop, we used to go crazy when everyone was working to meet a deadline and a machine broke down. Because we didn’t have a mechanic, I would leave my machine and try to fix the down one. Now two machines were not sewing, and the pressure to make them work immediately would encourage a hasty and frustrating attempt at a diagnosis and repair.”

Sheban began purchasing one extra type of machine for every task his business performed. “It may sound like an expensive luxury, but I see it as a necessity,” he says. “It has relieved so much of the pressure of tight production schedules. Our machines are mounted on wheels. When one goes down, it gets wheeled out of the way and the backup machine rolls in. The entire process takes minutes and production goes on with barely a hitch.”

Printing equipment

Michelle Pugh, marketing coordinator at Mutoh America Inc., stresses that a well-maintained printer will always produce quality images with fewer print artifacts than one that is left in disarray.

“It is important to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance, especially when it comes to cleaning—whether it be a daily cleaning of the print platen area, or a weekly cleaning of the head maintenance stations,” Pugh says.

If a machine is down due to maintenance issues, productivity and efficiency come to a halt. “By nature, machines break,” Pugh says. “But regular maintenance and cleaning will help minimize these down times.”

In the area of fabric graphics, proper machine maintenance provides better output quality. “This includes fewer instances of nozzle dropouts, random ink drops and head strikes,” Pugh says. “These all minimize the need for reprints, and thus increase productivity.”

Shane Huiet, fabric graphics systems specialist at Mimaki, stresses that proper maintenance of equipment can dramatically impact the end product. “It’s important to maintain equipment from a productivity standpoint,” Huiet says. “But you also want consistency in your end product.”

Typically under heavy usage and in operation for many hours, sublimation equipment requires ongoing maintenance. “Most sublimation shops specialize in applications that may keep a machine running for the majority of the day or longer shifts,” says Fernando Catania, product manager, Roland DGA Corp. “Due to the heavy usage, maintenance is essential.”

Key components of sublimation equipment to keep clean include print heads, wipers and the core components that supply ink and handle its disposal. “Keeping printing components clean will ensure that print quality does not diminish throughout long unattended printing,” Catania says. “Sublimation ink, in contrast to other ink solutions, is composed of fine particles that can accumulate over time, causing blockages within the ink delivery lines and filters. Regular maintenance, as suggested by the manufacturer, is critical to ensure long-term performance and reduce downtime. Shops that maintain their equipment well can deliver to their customers beautifully printed graphics that are color matched and repeatable.”

Inks certainly affect printing equipment, but the intensity of maintenance depends on the inks being used. “For the most part, water-based inks are very maintenance friendly, whereas solvent-based inks tend to need frequent and intense cleaning measures,” Pugh says.

Huiet adds that it is important to wipe dye-sub printers with lint-free swabs—specifically around the printer head with specific cleaning solutions. “Pay attention to the different mechanisms of your printers, all of which require different types of ink and different maintenance methods and schedules,” he says. “As a technician, I told customers to clean their machines every day, but many do it only 25 percent of the time.”

Sewing equipment

Frank Henderson, president of Henderson Sewing Machine Co. in Andalusia, Ala., says that the basic elements of sewing machine maintenance are straightforward. The machine should be kept clean and well-oiled. At Henderson Sewing Machine Co., it is expected that each piece of equipment is cleaned and covered each day.

Sheban explains that even self-oiling machines need regular maintenance. On these machines, a large reservoir of oil is contained in the pan of the machine and is drawn upward by a pump into the internal parts of the machine. For the most part, they require very little lubrication, however a few drops of oil are required from the top to hit spots the oil cannot be drawn into.

Likewise, most sergers have an enclosed oil reservoir and require minimal lubrication. And most walking-foot and needle-feed machines that are not oilers have a substantial oil reservoir under the bed that needs to be filled periodically. They also have numerous oil spots that need to be lubricated from the top of the machine.

The type of material being used can affect all types of equipment components in various ways. “Different types of machines and sewing assignments create different cleaning and maintenance requirements,” Sheban says. “Machines like sergers naturally create a great deal of debris as they sew and trim through fabrics that are typically woven and shed fibers. Sewing vinyls and non-woven materials creates less debris, but eventually all machines accumulate crud in their moving parts.”

Sheban stresses that there are two schools of thought about cleaning the moving parts of the machine that lie below the machine bed.

Some people advocate blowing out debris with compressed air, which is easy for the operator, but the force of the air can blow debris into places it might not otherwise reach. One alternative is to brush debris into the pan with a small, soft-bristled brush. This is more time consuming, but in Sheban’s opinion, it’s a better way to remove debris.

And for those sewing different types of fabric, Henderson recommends keeping needle maintenance top of mind—namely by changing needles as often as possible. “If the needle is not sharp, it won’t penetrate the piece,” he says. “If it doesn’t pierce accurately, the stitch is not the highest quality and the thread can be distorted.”

Cutting equipment

According to Jen Kester, marketing and sales developer at Foster Keencut, vertical cutters and cutter bars made out of anodized aluminum should be serviced with silicone-based lubricant to maintain the bearings in the cutting head.

Cutters and trimmers used in high-production areas should be maintained at least once a week for optimal performance. Debris around the blade or cutting wheel could affect cutting results.

“Maintenance and cleaning is recommended when the cutting head starts to feel tight and is not running smoothly,” Kester says. Foster Keencut’s cutters use standard utility blades that should be changed frequently. “If the clamping bar is leaving marks on an image, use a clean rag and water to clean the bar,” Kester says. Rotary trimmer cutting wheels should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol and a rag to protect your hand.

“When working with adhesive vinyl material, wheels should be cleaned more frequently due to the sticky residue that the material leaves on the blades,” Kester says. “Thin scraps of the material tend to bunch up around the wheel, preventing it from cutting smoothly.”

If your cutter or trimmer is not maintained properly, you will not achieve the recommended production results. Each cutter that Foster Keencut distributes is designed with a specific level of accuracy. “Something affecting the extrusion could cause an inaccurate cut and require more time on each print,” Kester says.

Finishing the project correctly by using a clean and accurate cutter will save the customer time and money. “Using an inaccurate cutter or dull blades could potentially ruin a project, costing time in reprinting and money for the materials wasted,” Kester says.

Keep in mind that when cutting rigid substrates, cutters will use blades more often as the nature of the material will dull a blade faster than when cutting semi-rigid materials. For rotary trimmers, adhesive vinyl material will cause more maintenance on the cutting wheels to ensure the material is not affecting the blade.

Full service

The maintenance of your equipment should begin the moment you begin using it. Even if the machine is new, don’t wait weeks or months to properly maintain the machine. Do it on a daily and weekly basis.

Try to use the machine as often as possible to avoid expensive maintenance costs. “When you leave a machine sitting, it can deteriorate and not run effectively,” Henderson says. “Think about your car. If you leave it sitting for weeks or months, you may not be able to start it, and other problems will surface. The same can be said for your company’s equipment. Because of non-use, it becomes non-functional.”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer and author in Plymouth, Minn.

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