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By Steve Baker | Nov 6, 2018
High-volume technical printing equipment

In this second blog of our series on high-volume technical printing, we will be discussing the various screen printing equipment options GM Nameplate (GMN) has available for technical printing. We will examine the different attributes of each type of printing press and assess how they can influence your projects. If you missed our first blog in this series, we encourage you to take a moment to read it here to gain a preliminary understanding of GMN’s technical printing methods and their implications for high-volume programs.

As previously mentioned, there are two main screen printing processes used by GMN for technical printing – sheet-fed and roll-to-roll – and as we’ve already established, roll-to-roll printing is better suited for high-volume technical printing projects. The reasons for why this is will become clearer as we go through the characteristics of GMN’s printing equipment.

Before getting into the specifics, an important concept to understand in general about all the presses is that the run rate is set by the dryer capacity. The attributes of the dryer as well as the project influence the run rate that can be realized. For example, functional inks often require longer to cure, therefore if a technical printing program utilizing functional inks is run on a press with limited drying capacity, it will need to go through the dryer at a slower speed to properly cure. However, if the same project was run on a press with a large drying capacity, it would be able to run at faster speeds since it would be in the dryer for longer. For every new project, the drying parameters must be developed according to that project’s specifications, which ultimately determines speed.

Sheet-fed presses

As with all screen printing equipment, the distinct capabilities and constraints offered by each of GMN’s sheet-fed printing presses determine the viability of the equipment for a potential project. Sheet-fed presses yield varying print area dimensions, for example, from 22” x 30” to 48” x 98”. Another critical feature to be aware of is the run rate for these presses, which on average can range from 160 – 225 impressions per hour. Finally, the dryers that accompany the sheet-fed printing presses at GMN include thermal UV dryers.

Roll-to-roll presses

For roll-to-roll printing, GMN employs four presses with varied capabilities that enable them to fulfill an assortment of technical printing project requirements.

  1. Via printing

    The most noteworthy feature about two of the screen printing presses utilized by GMN for roll-to-roll technical printing is the presses ability to print vias (also known as through-hole printing). When printing vias, after the vias are lasered into the material, ink is then printed on both sides of the roll, forcing the ink through the vias to create a circuit. But the pushing of the ink through the holes leaves excess ink behind on the print bed. If using the sheet-fed method, the operator would have to clean the print bed after every pass, adding additional steps and time to the process. However, GMN’s presses eliminate the need for this added step because they have blotter paper positioned on top of the print bed to absorb all the leftover ink. This blotter paper advances along with the roll of material to ensure that the ink doesn’t smear as the sheet moves forward. In general, these presses print one color at a time, maintain a print area of 20” x 20”, and can accomplish tolerances around .007”. Using UV and thermal dryers approximately four meters in length, the run rate for these presses is about 500-800 impressions per hour.

  2. Tight tolerance printing

    Another roll-to-roll printing press at GMN also only prints a single color at a time, yet it has a print area of 19” x 31”. But the major advantage of this press is printing parts with extremely tight tolerances. This press can reach tolerances within .001” – .002” of the original specifications. To produce these tolerance levels, the press utilizes optical registration cameras to repeatedly establish precise registration for each part and attain the most accurate stacking of ink layers. The machine first pulls the printing image in and then adjusts the screen to achieve a careful stack-up tolerance. In addition, this press uses a 20-foot tower dryer. Tower dryers are beneficial because they make efficient use of their space by having the material serpentine up and down across the body of the equipment, allowing for the parts to stay in the dryer for longer and run at faster speeds. With these elements working together, our tight tolerance printing press offers a run rate of around 200 – 300 impressions per hour.

  3. Efficient run rates & multi-color printing

    The last press at GMN’s disposal offers a print area of 18” x 19.5” and meets tolerances within .007” – .010”. This press’ most significant benefits include its two print stations and substantial drying capacity, which allows it to produce parts at a much higher speed. With both a 40-foot and a 60-foot tower dryer, this press employs dryers that are much larger than our other presses. Again, the tower dryers allow for each part to stay in the dryer for longer, therefore permitting the part to run through the process at a faster rate. The other advantage of this press is that it’s a two-color press. The printing process begins by laying down the first color, followed by the punching of a fiducial next to the image for registration, and then the sheet runs through the first tower dryer. Next, utilizing the registration punch to align with the first ink layer, a second color can be laid down, ending with the sheet going through the second tower dryer. These two capabilities are what make our final roll-to-roll technical printing press the fastest print line at GMN with a run rate of 800 – 1,000 impressions per hour.

When comparing the characteristics of the sheet-fed presses to the roll-to-roll presses, it is apparent why roll-to-roll printing is more suited for high-volume technical printing projects. Not only can these presses achieve much higher run rates, but they can also produce parts at much tighter tolerances and accomplish efficient through-hole printing. With our selection of technical printing equipment, GMN aims to provide our customers with the printing technology that best fits their project’s specific needs. GMN is equipped to accommodate technical printing projects with a vast array of requirements and volumes ranging from low to high. To learn more about our technical printing capabilities, click here.

By Steve Baker | Oct 16, 2018
 High-volume-technical-printing

GMN has extensive experience in technical and functional printing for applications across numerous industries. As we have acquired and developed these expertise over the years, we have also amassed a range of processes, technologies, and know-how through which we can produce these products. As a result, GMN is capable of handling virtually any screen-printed technical printing project with volumes and complexities ranging from low to high.

If you are unfamiliar, technical printing is an overarching term that is used to describe functional printing projects that ask for requirements above and beyond the industry standard. Often seen in highly regulated industries, technically printed parts call for exceptionally tight tolerances and acute product specifications. To gain a deeper understanding of technical printing, learn more here.

When it comes to high-volume technical printing jobs in particular, there are a few aspects that you should be aware of before beginning development. The first major decision to be made is which printing process to utilize. Technically printed parts can be achieved using a variety of printing technologies on the market, including gravure, lithographic, cylinder screen, screen printing, and more. However, at GMN, we have specifically chosen to work with standard screen printing processes such as sheet-fed and roll-to-roll (web) printing as our primary processes.

Therefore, we decided to release a blog series that reviews some of the key facts and considerations for gearing up for high-volume technical printing at GMN. In this first blog, we will be examining the distinct screen printing processes available at GMN for technical printing projects, and how they fit into high-volume production.

Comparison of GMN’s screen printing processes for technical printing

With any new technical printing program, the decision of which printing process to utilize is based on the quantity, size, complexity, and functional requirements of the part. At GMN, there are two screen printing methods that can be applied: sheet-fed or roll-to-roll. These methods differ in their ability to handle the core elements listed above, but overall, the central difference is in how the materials are handled. For high-volume technical printing in general, roll-to-roll is the undisputed best screen printing method for production for several reasons, including run speed, material usage, registration, inline inspection, and printing multiple colors per pass. Although, sheet-fed printing plays an important role in this process at GMN as well.

Sheet-fed

Sheet-fed printing is usually employed on low- to medium-volume technical printing jobs. The sheet-fed process requires an operator to load individual sheets into a press and then remove them after each pass, which adds additional time to the overall job. This, combined with its size and run rate limitations (which we will discuss further in the next blog), is why sheet-fed printing has proven to be an inefficient and more costly method for high-volume technical printing.

However, regardless of which printing method is used for production, the sheet-fed process is always used during the development phase for technical printing projects. This is because the development phase calls for speed and agility when creating several revisions of parts at extremely low volumes and in short intervals.

Roll-to-roll

Roll-to-roll printing is the printing method used for high-volume jobs that often contain a high level of complexity as well, which is archetypical for technical printing projects. During roll-to-roll printing, the material is administered in rolls (or webs) and is secured and continually fed through the press by a system of rollers.

High-volume roll-to-roll technical printing has a large presence in the medical industry with applications such as disposables and electrodes as well as in the appliance industry for capacitive touch applications.

While the sheet-fed process can print essentially the same parts, roll-to-roll printing is better equipped for high-volume technical printing because it can print at much higher speeds, tighter tolerances, and heightened quality levels, which can lead to less material waste and cost savings at these larger volumes. This process is significantly faster than the sheet-fed process because parts are being printed continuously since the material never requires handling. Roll-to-roll can also achieve much tighter tolerances and stack-ups, especially since optical registration can be used. 

Other factors that add to roll-to-roll’s superior efficiency include the ability to perform roll-to-roll fabrication and in-process testing in addition to printing. Roll-to-roll is also preferable for through-hole (or via) printing and offers the possibility of printing multiple colors at once. Again, these are elements that we will dive deeper into during our next blog.

GMN’s advantage with high-volume technical printing

On top of the variety of equipment we possess for each printing process, GMN provides a particular advantage during the development and full-scale production stages of high-volume technical printing projects.

Typically, most high-volume technical printing projects are brought to GMN at the front-end of the customer’s development process. The customer may have their first round of artwork, be generally satisfied with the design, or have started looking into inks, but they need support to prepare and finalize the part design and manufacturing process for high-volume production. That’s where GMN comes in.

GMN’s quick-turn prototyping services help to develop high-volume technical printing projects with unparalleled efficiency and performance. Since we offer both sheet-fed and roll-to-roll printing, our experienced and knowledgeable R&D team can approach customer’s projects with a quicker learning curve. We work with our customers to create multiple iterations of their design with quick turnarounds, allowing the customer to fine-tune their artwork to their specifications while we make sure it’s primed for manufacturing and will produce high yields. What makes GMN distinct is that during this development phase, we build these parts at low volumes with the mindset that they will eventually be used for high-volume printing. This notion drives us to ensure that we not only simulate the exact inks, squeegee types, print directions, and screen meshes, but also replicate the specific drying and curing parameters. Therefore, by the end of development, the artwork is already optimized, which allows for a more streamlined transition to high-volume production.

In general, both printing processes can be used to make technically printed parts, but the project requirements, such as volume, tolerance, and circuit complexity, can determine which method is better for your specific application. However, the performance or availability of many of the characteristics (e.g. run rate, tolerance level, etc.) and capabilities mentioned throughout this blog for each printing process is also dependent on the type of equipment used. This is the topic we will explore in our next blog in this series, so stay tuned.