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What you should know about machines

Graphics | January 1, 2013 | By:

Let’s talk machines. This column is designed to illuminate the nitty-gritty of how to set up an effective and efficient shop that answers customers’ needs and boosts your bottom line. We asked some leading questions of John Mark Lutzke, IT manager at Banner Creations Inc. (Minneapolis, Minn.), and he shared his expertise.

Q: What types of new equipment are available? What performance and benefits do these offer?

Lutzke: Direct-to-fabric inkjet printing is the latest development in our field. The biggest benefit is that manufacturers can eliminate dye-sub paper roll purchases and, in most cases, heat treating. The heating process is replaced by a UV curing system built into the inkjet printer. It saves some steps in the production process, but it turns out the color-gamut is not as great as dye-sub, as I discovered from a seminar from an online direct-to-fabric print business that hosted a talk on the technology.

Q: What guidelines should EPMs use to determine the correct equipment for their operation and market segment; what cautions need be observed?

Lutzke: Small-gauge fabrics are more difficult to use with direct-to-fabric printers. That’s one of the major limitations of this kind of printing. Dye sublimation does not have that problem as the inkjet paper is a consistent thickness and heat transfer machines can process nearly any thickness of fabric.

Beyond fabric, machines that can handle a wide variety of substrates make you more marketable and allow you to expand your signage offerings. But offering hard signage forces you to increase spacing between machines and work tables and takes up more warehouse space. With fabric we do not have that problem. We can warehouse more printing surface area with rolls of fabric than with hard signage—that’s part of the reason we like printing on fabric.

Q: What tough questions need to be asked to help EPMs make informed decisions on equipment choices?

Lutzke: Do you want to stay eco-friendly? Water-based inks are the way to go. Do you have the right space for material handling? If you print on fabric substrates wider than 60 inches then be sure your work environment can handle the fabric roll. This includes getting the raw rolls from the dock to your warehouse, clearing obstacles in the factory (including doorways), mounting onto the heat transfer machine, and removal. Another overlooked question is, do we have the local resources for maintenance and repair of the equipment? Flying someone in for this will be expensive. So if you have local or in-house talent to create and follow a maintenance plan, and repair the equipment when it fails, then you’re ahead of the curve.

Q: What resources do EPMs have to verify manufacturer claims? How will this affect their own claims to clients and messages in marketing their services?

Lutzke: Third-party printing and equipment support forums are a great resource to get advice and input from those who have already made the investment.

Q: What can users expect in the near future with regard to improvements and/or new trends within digital printing equipment and sustainability issues?

Lutzke: I believe that the direct-to-fabric printing industry will continue to make improvements by increasing substrate offerings (i.e., resolving the thinner fabric webbing problem). Also, we are entering the age of nanotechnology. I believe that ink formulations will improve, perhaps with clog-reducing nanoparticles, and that substrates will benefit from similar nano-enabled technologies, such as coatings to improve UV protection.

Dara Syrkin is a freelance writer and editor who admires the folks making science and art collide in the fabric graphics industry.

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