Build Your Business:

Subbing It Out

An option for a growing business is hiring a contract screen printer. All images courtesy of Anderson Studios, Nashville, Tenn.

September 10, 2015

One of the good “problems” associated with a screen-printing shop’s growth is reaching the point where it can no longer handle the current production load.

At this crossroads, you have one of two options. First, you can explore expanding your facility with another press and more staff. Or you can look for additional printing capacity outside of your own. This decision should not be taken lightly, as you will be entrusting production runs to another screen printer.

In many cases, industry contacts can help you find a reliable contractor to handle your excess production. When this is not the case, research the companies that specialize in contract printing, and know their facilities and capabilities well before committing to that process.

When identifying a quality contract screen-printing facility, there are many aspects to consider. Since most established contract screen printers are far from novices, the primary things you still need to look for include:

• Condition of the facility
• Cost
• Total capacity vs. available capacity
• History of on-time delivery
• Off-quality history.

Start the qualification process with the inspection of the facility. Most large companies that contract out their screen printing will not engage a facility without inspecting it first. Some also have a predetermined set of criteria for the potential contractor to meet before scheduling the inspection. Since you already have experience, you should have a good idea of what you want to see in a facility.

The following is a good list to start with during a visit.

You should be able to determine the plant’s practices within your first 10 steps into the facility. Screen printing is an inherently messy process, which only can be controlled through proper handling of the inks, inventory and products being printed. It typically is easy to determine when these practices are not enforced in any facility. Signs include:

Condition of the ink containers: There is no reason for ink to be dripping off the sides of buckets. Training in ink handling, as well as proper housekeeping practices, will be evident throughout the entire facility, specifically the ink department.
Lint/adhesive on the press: Although you seldom will come across an immaculate press, a regular cleaning and maintenance program will be readily reflected in the condition of the screen-printing equipment and tools used, such as the squeegees and flood bars.

Random scattered boxes: Inventory should be found either in the actual inventory area, at or on the press, or in the packing/shipping department. You easily can identify unattended boxes of goods, as they won’t be moved for a while. This is another sign of poor organization.

Safeguards emphasized: Safety procedures include OSHA Right to Know Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) compliance; proper safety procedures; properly maintained first-aid and eye-wash stations; proper safety equipment/clothing for solvent tanks; screen reclaim/degreasing; goggles and proper ventilation for the spot-cleaning station; properly marked fire exits; and fire extinguishers throughout the facility. Also, it is important to have proper hazardous waste-disposal procedures. Large, licensed apparel companies often will request documentation to confirm that contractors are in compliance with EPA and proper procedures regarding this. Confirming such procedures when reviewing an out-of-country facility can be more challenging, but you still can ask.

Working Environment: Although a small percentage of printing facilities are air conditioned, it is important that the environment be at least bearable for the printing staff. This includes evaluating air-circulation systems (i.e. A/C ducts or ceiling exhaust fans) and any in-plant air conditioning, and determining whether proper exhaust systems are used on all dryers.

Screen quality: As finished product quality is directionally proportionate to screen quality, evaluate the frames used. Retensionable frames are a direct reflection of the company’s commitment to achieving superior quality by using higher-tension screens.

During your walkthrough, confirm the company has a standard operating procedure in place for monitoring and retensioning screens that are used in the daily production process. Although automated screen coaters are seen as an unneeded expense by some, it shows the facility’s commitment to quality and consistency in its screen stencils. Automated systems deliver a consistent and uniform stencil coating from screen to screen.

Many higher-end and larger textile screen-printing facilities have made the commitment to computer-to-screen (CTS) imaging systems. This shows their desire to produce a quality image and, in most cases, it is integrated with the prepress registration system to minimize setup time and lost productivity.

Secondary considerations to note during the screen-room inspection include environmental controls (temperature and humidity), proper lighting conditions for screen making and proper controls to minimize lint contamination.

Inks/ink department: The facility’s ink department’s condition quite possibly is one of the easiest signs of the commitment to care and quality. Most good contract-printing facilities will have a finished ink or pigment/toner mixing system, which also should be clean, organized and updated. Ink inventory should be properly maintained, labeled and organized by PMS color. Facilities using a current color-mixing system will have a computer terminal allowing the ink mixer to easily pull up a needed PMS color formula when the time arises. Finally, the inks at the presses should only be those that are running during your inspection. The printing area should not be littered with residual colors from previous production runs.

Since you will be looking for the best quality printing at the best price possible, consider the contract price list. Most large textile screen-printing facilities (three or more automatic presses) will have a contract-printing price list separate from its custom-printing price list. This pricing typically is based on you supplying the garments, leaving only costs for screens, printing, packaging and any required artwork.

Also, do your homework and get pricing from several sources. Beware of pricing that is simply too good to be true. Some printers will lower prices to secure the order. Here, the interest is in keeping the presses spinning as opposed to making a profit.

On the other hand, more expensive contract printers most likely have a good reason — possibly service and quality — for the higher cost.

Determining capacity and committing to a particular volume can be a double-edged sword. When working with a particular contractor, you can easily determine the facility’s general volume capacity based on its equipment and how long the staff typically prints daily. Some large companies will contract more than 50% of a company’s total capacity.

Don’t place too much of your overall business with a contract printer. Should your volume warrant it, you may need multiple contractors. My general belief is that you should not commit to more than 35% of a contractor’s total capacity. Thus, when the contract ends your departure will not be a devastating blow to the company. In addition, should the contractor not be capable of completing production, you can use additional resources.

In regard to turn times, ask up front when your potential contractor can complete production. Ensure the turn time is not unreasonable and doesn’t cause headaches. The company should be able to build it into its normal production schedule.

As you are most likely committing a large quantity of garments to be printed in the contractor’s facility, it is not unreasonable to request a production proof to approve. This can be used as a quality-control standard for the contractor. You also may supply a garment sample if you have printed the same image in the past.

Your best source for finding a quality contract printer is to simply ask industry colleagues. If not, request referrals from the potential contractor you are researching. Ask for quality/misprint percentage, volumes printed, turn times and overall service.
Identifying the ideal contractor is much easier if you do research and plant inspections, and ask the right questions. This will ensure you find a facility that will meet your production needs.

Rick Davis is a veteran of the textile screen-printing and manufacturing industry. He is a regular contributor to trade publications and speaker at Imprinted Sportswear shows. Rick also is a member of the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technology. For more information or to comment on this article, email Rick at