High-volume technical printing: printing processes

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By Steve Baker | Jun 22, 2021
Screen printed electrodes and biosensor

Technical printing is an overarching term for functional printing projects that require product specifications above and beyond the industry standard. Often seen in highly regulated industries, technically printed parts call for exceptionally tight tolerances. To gain a deeper understanding, you can read our technical printing blog series here.

When it comes to high-volume technical printing programs, one of the critical decisions you will need to make is the type of printing process to utilize for design development and full-scale production. Technically printed parts can be achieved using different printing technologies, such as gravure, lithographic, cylinder screen, or screen printing. However, at GMN, we have specifically chosen to work with standard screen printing as our primary process.

In this two-part blog series, we will be reviewing the two screen-printing processes and equipment utilized at GMN and how they fit into high-volume technical printing projects.

Comparison of GMN’s screen printing processes for technical printing

Selecting the most optimal printing method for any technical printing program depends on the quantity, size, complexity, and functional requirements of the part. At GMN, we utilize two screen-printing methods: sheet-fed and roll-to-roll. Although both these methods differ in their ability to handle the core factors listed above, the main difference lies in material handling. While sheet-fed printing plays a critical role during design development, roll-to-roll printing remains the undisputed winner for most high-volume projects for its run speed, material usage, inline inspection, and the ability to print multiple colors per pass.

Sheet-fed screen printing

Sheet-fed screen printing is usually preferred for low to medium-volume technical printing projects. The sheet-fed printing process requires an operator to load individual sheets into a press and then remove them after each pass, adding 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, the development phase usually involves creating several variations of a design in remarkably low volumes and short intervals. Speed and agility become critical. As a result, regardless of the printing method utilized for production, the sheet-fed printing process is always used during the development phase for technical printing projects.

Roll-to-roll screen printing

Roll-to-roll printing is the go-to printing method used for high-volume jobs that contain a high level of complexity, which is archetypical for technical printing projects. The substrate is administered in rolls (or webs) and continually fed through the press by a system of rollers. High-volume roll-to-roll technical printing has a significant presence in the medical and appliance industry for capacitive touch applications, disposable medical devices, and electrodes.

Roll-to-roll printing is better equipped for high-volume projects because of its higher speed, tighter tolerances, and better-quality levels, resulting in less material wastage and cost savings. This process is significantly faster as the materials do not require much handling, and parts can be printed continuously. Other factors that add to roll-to-roll printing’s superior efficiency include the ability to perform roll-to-roll fabrication and in-process testing. This method is also preferable for through-hole (or via) printing and offers the possibility of printing multiple colors at once.

GMN’s advantage with high-volume technical printing

In addition to the variety of equipment available in-house, GMN provides a unique vantage point during the development and full-scale production stages. Typically, most high-volume technical printing projects come to GMN at the front end of the customer’s development process. The customer may have completed their first round of artwork, be generally satisfied with the design, or have started looking into inks but need support in preparing and finalizing 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 fast turnarounds, allowing the customer to fine-tune their artwork to specification, while we make sure it’s primed for manufacturing and will produce high yields. 

What makes GMN distinct is that during this development phase, GMN builds parts at low volumes with the mindset that they will eventually scale up to a high-volume printing job. This mindset ensures that we not only simulate the exact inks, squeegee types, print directions, and screen meshes but also replicate the specific drying and curing parameters. As a result, by the end of the development process, the artwork is already optimized, allowing for a more streamlined transition to high-volume production. 

In general, both the printing processes - sheet-fed and roll-to-roll, can be used for technical printing, but project requirements such as volume, tolerance, and circuit complexity, can determine which method is better for your specific application. However, the performance or capabilities mentioned throughout this blog for each printing process is also dependent on the type of equipment used. To learn more about our printing equipment, stay tuned until our next blog.