January 19, 2016
Time is money, so optimizing your printer/cutter workflow to ensure you are working efficiently means you also will be ensuring profitability.
Factors for peak workflow include the type and size of the jobs you’ll be doing, equipment and more. In setting up your shop, start with key items and their layout.
The Printer/Cutter: Machine placement is critical, and you should ensure it is in a clean, static-free, and humidity- and temperature-controlled environment.
You must be able to easily move around all sides of the machine, as well as from one work area to another. Though some people like to put the machine against a wall, remember that you will need to get behind it. Everything should be in close proximity, but not so close that one operation and the people performing it interfere with others.
The Work Table: Some sort of work table or surface is required for performing functions like weeding material. The size of your largest jobs determines the size of the tabletop. A lot of shops use 4′ x 8′ tables, but that may not be wide enough. If you have the space, 5 or 6 feet may be preferable and will eliminate the need to compensate for the printer size.
It’s important that you be able to cut into the tabletop. Put a cutting mat over the table and make sure it is big enough to accommodate the materials with which you’re working.
Having a grid on the surface also is helpful. Some decorators print a 1″ x 1″ square grid on decal material to cover the table’s surface and then put clear plastic over it. This is handier and easier than trying to use a cutting mat.
Make sure the table height works for everyone, or consider adjustable tables so people aren’t reaching over or leaning all day. If someone weeds material better when sitting down, make sure a sturdy stool is the proper height.
The Heat Press: You have some flexibility with respect to the location of the heat press, although you should pay attention to the temperature controls. The heat it generates shouldn’t affect other equipment or operations.
Having it closer to the printer can make your workflow quicker, but it depends on the application. T-shirt media may require more drying time for the ink. After you print and cut, you should wait a few hours before masking. So keeping the heat press in a different area is fine.
For example, the printer could be in one area, and the weeding table and heat press in another. In fact, you may want to allow room for a line on which to hang the prints if time or volume doesn’t allow them to just stay on the printer and you don’t have an external drying system.
Size is an important concern with a heat press because it can limit what you can do with your printer/cutter. The industry standard size (16″ x 20″) is preferable.
It also is important to take people into consideration. Sound ergonomics are proven morale boosters and need not be expensive. Having a pad on the floor in front of the heat press, standing in a comfortable spot and wearing proper footwear can help. In the same vein, consider an adjustable stand for your heat press — which also can make it threadable — further enhancing workflow.
Ancillary and Auxiliary Equipment: These items also can impact workflow and must be considered both with respect to their roles in the process and their positioning in the shop when determining their value. One such device is an external drying system that extends off the front of the printer. It typically heats up to about 120˚F, while making the distance to the takeup wheel about three times longer and providing more drying time.
Laminators may be used to complement a printer/cutter. They are useful if you are printing signs and decals; lamination can take the place of a mask and provide enhanced protection. Although decals don’t always require lamination, it can help maintain ink color in geographic areas where ultraviolet light is an issue.
Laminating/masking material comes in rolls that are the same widths as the media with which it is used and can be stored on the same rack. It’s important to designate what each roll is, since all masking materials are clear and look the same.
In addition to labeling rolls, positioning them in a dedicated location — like at the top or the bottom of the rack — helps make pulling the correct material faster and prevents costly mistakes.
The Right Tools
There also are several tools that can facilitate printer/cutter workflow. A weeder, which is a tool with a sharp point, makes weeding a lot less difficult and saves time.
Media clamps are made of metal and are placed at the edges of media. They are important when working with T-shirt media or decals, which tend to curl from heat when the print head comes across them. They also can be used when printing wall graphics and most other materials, except banners, where the media is too thick for the clamps to hold. Besides helping boost quality and production, media clamps can help prevent issues resulting from print head strikes and reduce machine maintenance.
Light-, medium- and heavy-tack masks are available in the same widths as printer/cutter media. You typically use a light- or no-tack mask with decals, which are sticky, while you use a medium-tack mask with basic T-shirt material and probably one with a heavy tack for nylon. Your supplier can help determine the best option.
Smart scheduling also plays a role in efficient production. For example, consider doing smaller jobs during the day and larger ones overnight so the ink has time to dry before processing the next morning.
This is an approach that works best if you have some experience in setting up jobs, since no one will be monitoring the process.
Joseph Burt is a field technician for Stahls’ digital division. He installs, trains, troubleshoots and repairs digital direct-to-garment printers and printer/cutters. For more information or to comment on this article, email Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craft paper and Teflon sheets are useful tools in print/cut work. In T-shirt applications, they can make it possible to change the look of a design by imparting a matte or gloss effect during heat transfer. Placing craft paper over the print can lower the gloss level, while direct contact with a silicon or Teflon sheet adds gloss.
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