When And How To Buy Custom-Built Screen Printing Machines

This article first appeared in Screen Printing magazine

By Joseph Gilberti
Chief Engineer and CEO
Systematic Automation

"When in doubt, do without."
Any entrepreneur or manager who is responsible for making a profit knows this frugal slogan well. "Conserve your cash and stay out of debt" is another familiar phrase. But there is one more axiom that managers are also painfully aware of: "Labor costs money." Labor, and the cost of managing these employees, is by far your company's biggest expense.

There is a misconception that custom-built printing machinery is reserved for the largest in-plant printers. It's irrelevant whether your company is large or small, a commercial operation or a captive shop. The decision to mechanize your decorating process with custom machinery is simply a matter of justifying the cost of the machine for the printing job that needs to be done.

Another misconception is that the press alone will solve the problem. Investing in ways to become more efficient is not just about buying equipment. It takes a commitment to improve your process, in everything you are currently doing. The equipment doesn't operate in a vacuum. The people and procedures that are implemented along with the new equipment are what make the difference. Prepress, workflow, quality control, set-up, and changeover procedures are all part of the process as well, and must be addressed to improve efficiency.

Establish the need
Why go custom rather than buying a standard press? Custom machines are typically built for screen printing high-volume three-dimensional products. Off-the-shelf equipment isn’t available due to the unique shape of the parts. Customization is often required to integrate the decorating equipment into a fully automated production line.

Decide on a level of automation
Automation can be as simple as adding a takeoff or rotary table to an existing press. It can be as complex as creating a totally new in-line multicolor unit with pick-and-place mechanisms. As the level of machine sophistication increases, so does the cost. Many of the costs associated with higher levels of automation are incurred with the electronics. Servo motors, data acquisition, operator-interface panels, fault indicators, vision systems, and special PLC (programmable logic control) software for line integration are commonly added as the level of automation increases. In some high volume or high-tolerance applications, these features may be mandatory. But in many cases, basic automation of the parts-handling process is all that you need to increase productivity.

Before you begin talking to prospective machine builders, take the time to define your needs as closely as possible. Get feedback from all of the departments that will be affected by whatever step you decide to take, including your clients if appropriate. Establish the following information:

What volume of printed pieces will be expected from this investment?
Is growth anticipated? How many different types of printed parts or designs are currently required, and might this change? Do the parts have standard color requirements or does the number of colors change from run to run? What types of ink systems will be run on this new line? Will any future change in parts involve changing to a base substrate that might require a different type of ink? What type of accuracy in terms of print tolerance is required? Will the substrates require any type of treatment (flame or corona treating, anti-static, etc.) prior to printing?

Will the press line need to interface with other production processes to create an in-line operation?

These are just a few examples. A good custom-press builder should be able to help you sort through these issues and identify other areas that must be addressed.

Justify the cost
Do some basic math. If you determine that a custom line can either reduce your labor or increase your volume by 20-30%, attach a dollar value to that savings. If you finance the equipment, what will your monthly cost be? Will your savings from the labor reduction or increase in productivity exceed your monthly payment? In many cases, productivity and throughput can increase two or three times through the addition of an automated decorating machine.

In addition to looking at hard numbers, be sure you've accounted for all other possible factors before deciding what direction to go. Here are some examples of intangibles that you must not overlook:

The life expectancy of your products (you don't want to be left with a white elephant if your product line changes or goes away), installation of electrical or pneumatic service, if required operator training is available.

Factors such as these must be weighed against some of the other intangible advantages of owning a custom-built piece of equipment. For example, (employee) turnover rate will be significantly lower when you mechanize tedious, labor-intensive tasks. The value of your company will go up with the addition of the new equipment.

Take the first step
The secret to success of any custom-built machine is a strong relationship between the customer and the machine builder. This relationship will help point you in the right direction from the start. Take the time to visit your machine builder’s facility. The insight and knowledge you will gain from such a face-to-face engineering review is well worth your time and travel expense. Get a feel for the builder's company -- how they think and work.

Flexibility is also important
Manufacturers with in-house decorating want machines that can easily accommodate part variations. Diverse product lines, smaller lot sizes, and just-in-time manufacturing have all increased the requirements for machines capable of printing a wide range of products with minimal changeover time. Since product life tends to be shorter these days, the ability to convert an automatic machine for another application may be important. With more manufacturers pursuing ISO 9000 certifications, issues such as quality assurance and collection of production data may apply to your task.

Quality is another ingredient for success. Be observant as you view machines that the company has built. It should be apparent to you whether or not the fit, finish, and attention to detail on the equipment is up to the standards expected in today's manufacturing environment.

Finally, consider the value of the machine you are purchasing. The more standard, modular components that a machine incorporates, the less custom design and building that will be necessary. It is always more cost-effective to use standard presses, pick-and-place assemblies, conveyors, and stackers whenever possible. Imagine what you would pay for a washing machine if it were custom made for you. Look at how inexpensive washing machines are thanks to mass production.

Ask questions
With any prospective equipment builder, ask certain questions throughout the process to help ensure that the final product meets your requirements.

Degree of automation
The builder should recommend a certain level of automation that is practical for your company in view of your manufacturing situation and budget.

Production rate
Ask for the estimated production rate of the new equipment, including setup and changeover. Find out what assurances you'll have from the builder that the equipment will meet those estimates. Also, consider if the operator will be able to keep up with the machines full speed potential.

Machine style
You should have a clear understanding of what the machine will look like and how it will work. Ask for a complete description of the machine and an explanation of its sequence of operation. You may be able to view similar machines in operation that the company has built.

Ideally, the builder should provide an informal, hands-on training session with the purchase of the machine. This training should include safety, including the operation of all safety devices, startup and shutdown, fault diagnosis, recovery station operation, material handling, and overall machine operation

Approved parts
This refers to the machine builder's requirements regarding the custom parts-handling or fixturing equipment that your application involves. Approved parts should be defined as parts that the machine builder certifies to be clean and ready to print, and must be maintained within the tolerances noted in the part print or drawings at the beginning of the tooling design.

Ask if a service engineer will be available to install and assist in the initial startup of the machine.

Find out, before delivery, what documentation will be provided with the machine. Remember, it's a custom project, so an existing manual won't be available. But ask to see examples of other manuals for custom machines the builder has designed. Documentation packages should include: Two copies of an operation and maintenance manual; a complete set of CAD-generated mechanical drawings of perishable tooling; the PLC's program printout, completely annotated with circuit descriptions; and one copy of each OEM document.

Ergonomics and safety
The machine builder may follow guidelines such as the ANSI Ergonomic Standard for the Design, Installation, and Use of Machine Tools, or the applicable ANSI B11 Machine Tool Safety Standards. Ask if the press will meet all pertinent OSHA standards in effect at the time of machine acceptance.

Equipment finish
Ask whether corrosion protection will be provided on all tooling, fixtures, and devices.

Reliability and maintenance
The builder may follow certain guidelines to ensure low MTBF (mean time between failures). Also ask what design consideration is given to reduce MTTR (mean time to repair).

Pricing and terms
Request a breakdown of pricing on the mechanical engineering, controls engineering, and fabrication. Look closely at the terms and conditions of the sale, including what assurances you are given that the machine will be delivered on time.

Warranty and service
What is covered in the warranty, and what obligations will you have to meet it? Ask about field service rates and the availability of a service contract.

Reap the benefits
There should be no ambiguity when your custom machine is installed and operating -- it will improve your efficiency and reduce your labor costs. If you understand your needs up-front and ask the right questions throughout the design and fabrication process, you won’t have a white elephant filled with surprises, but an efficient machine that does exactly what you set out for it to do.