“May you live in interesting times” may or may not be an authentic Chinese curse, but it certainly is an apt description of the challenging business climate of today.
Some of the headwinds and tailwinds that businesses currently face are driven by expected business cycle fluctuations and predictable long-term trends, such as digital transformation, global competition, and increasing concern about environmental sustainability. But the pandemic caused a sudden storm that has buffeted individual companies and entire industries and caused business leaders to seriously consider the critical importance of resilience, efficiency, and sustainability.
At Empire Screen Printing, we have proven to be well-prepared for the current situation and well-positioned for future opportunities and challenges, and our experience may serve as a useful model for other companies.
More than a decade ago, we embarked on a journey following a forward-thinking philosophy of continual improvement that includes Lean manufacturing principles and automation, together with a commitment to environmental sustainability. This approach has resulted in several innovations — some incremental and evolutionary, and some revolutionary in our industry — which have resulted in a dramatic reduction in lead time and quality improvements for our customers while making the work environment safer and reducing the impact on nature.
Let’s consider the challenges we have faced at Empire, from the global business and environmental issues that confront all companies to the particular problems we addressed within the screen printing market.
The pandemic has caused labor shortages intermittently during spikes in infections, as well as generally with the shrinking of the labor pool. Supply chain disruptions have led to volatility in demand and pressures to reduce production cycle time, requiring suppliers to be more flexible and responsive and to be able to ramp up production quickly. The “reshoring” trend has accelerated as companies turn to domestic suppliers to mitigate long shipping delays.
The push for environmental sustainability comes from several directions. Companies are increasingly committed to sourcing eco-friendly materials and components as part of their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies. According to McKinsey & Company, 55% of US consumers are extremely or very concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy. During this tight labor market, Forbes reports that 65% of workers said they would be more likely to work for a company with robust environmental policies.
Digital Transformation of the Printing Industry
Digital transformation has disrupted the printing industry, as it has in many other areas. The 1000-year-old screen printing process produces a better product than digital printing for many applications, especially in the appliance, electronics, automotive, and medical equipment industries, providing better control of colors and much higher durability. However, screen printing has traditionally been a complex, labor-intensive process with long lead times compared to digital printing. Although Empire has expanded into digital and flexographic printing, 60% of our business continues to be in screen printing. We have therefore led the way in technology and process innovations that keep it competitive and grow its market share.
Lean Manufacturing and Sustainability
How has Empire addressed these challenges? In 2008 we began our Lean manufacturing journey focused on streamlining production by eliminating waste in the process that our customers are not willing to pay for. The early initiatives included creating standard work instructions and process controls for quick changeovers and implementing a Kanban system so that work is available “Just in Time” for the next job.
The Lean manufacturing philosophy also includes organizing workers into cells, where each employee is trained on the whole process. They understand the potential problems that can happen in the steps before and after each process, empowering them to identify and correct problems more easily. The cell concept, together with the “one-piece flow” process consolidation, gives team members the responsibility to control the quality and output of the finished product. And because everyone is trained on every process, they can assist new employees in becoming productive significantly quicker.
In 2012, we complemented our Lean manufacturing approach with a company-wide commitment to environmental sustainability. Our sustainability journey started with research into how we can protect our employees from harmful chemicals and eventually grew into an extensive Environmental Management System (EMS) and our acceptance as a Wisconsin Green Tier 1 company in 2013. The EMS is a set of documented procedures and best practices that monitor our environmental impact and increase our operating efficiency, culminating in a detailed annual EMS report published on our website.
At every step of the way, all of our initiatives and innovations have fulfilled both our Lean manufacturing goals and our sustainability goals. We have not needed to compromise one for the other.
Less Harmful UV LED Ink Curing
For example, Empire revolutionized the screen printing industry with the introduction of its ground-breaking UV LED ink curing technology which is much better for our employees and for the environment. The combination of UV and LED in the manufacturing process doesn’t produce ozone emissions or harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), eliminating the need for ventilation systems. Now, 100% of the ink we use ends up in the product, compared to the traditional solvent-based ink, where 40-60% evaporates into the air. Another benefit is that UV LED is 98% more energy efficient than traditional UV mercury curing.
One-piece Flow of 12-color Screen Printing
The faster and more compact UV LED curing process enabled an equally revolutionary advance in automating the entire screen printing production line. The industry standard for screen printing uses single-color sheet-fed equipment where each color is printed as a separate process — a serial process that extends over several weeks with lots of work-in-progress (WIP) waste. With the smaller LED lights, Empire’s industrial engineers fabricated an existing 6-color sheet-fed carousel press to a 12-color press without changing the footprint, creating 50% more productivity. Now jobs with more than six colors can be finished completely from raw material to finished goods.
To maximize efficiencies and address the labor shortages, Empire is currently researching and developing the use of robotics to eliminate the repetitive motions and material handling that still exists within a sheet-fed production cell. Removing the conveyance on the job puts employees in positions to look at the entire process adding critical thinking and quality improvements to the process.
Roll-to-Roll Screen Printing
LED also pioneered the development of Empire’s roll-to-roll screen printing value stream. Roll-to-Roll output, typically associated with Flexo or Offset printing, aligns this Lean process with the durability of screen printing. This process is less labor intensive, and multiple colors can be completed in one-piece flow. A print job that would take a month or two on single-color sheet-fed equipment can now be completed in two to three hours.
Empire’s roll-to-roll screen press employs several innovative features that eliminate variability and increase efficiency, including an automated chase, vacuum functions, and a completely standardized set-up system. The press utilizes a camera registration system to ensure precise color-to-color and graphic-to-cutting registration. These advancements in registration allow the material to automatically re-register itself when needed.
The direct benefits of this process are clear and quantifiable:
- 1/30 production time
- 1/6 labor
- 1/20 product defects
- 1/10 energy cost
- 100% reduction in harmful VOC emissions
Automating Screen Making
One of the most labor-intensive processes in screen printing is the process of making the meshed screen with the stenciled image used to print each color. Traditionally, screen makers handle screens up to 30 times, requiring an employee to retrieve them from the press, wipe off the ink, clean it, wash it, and prepare it for new emulsion. Then it would go through imaging, developing, washing out, drying, taping, blocking out, and inspection to have the screen ready to return to the press. This involved lifting and moving frames multiple times, with some as large as 60” x 79”, and requiring that employees come in direct contact with chemicals.
Empire has implemented a system to wash the ink and emulsion off the screens automatically. Now, we simply remove the tape from the screen, stage it in a 10-screen feed magazine, and the system automatically washes the ink out, removes the emulsion, and then gives a final rinse before releasing it into a clean screen magazine. The frames can then be inspected, hazed, and degreased for coating. This is a much safer and cleaner process for our employees.
We have also implemented an automated system for physically loading and unloading the screens through the various steps involved in creating a new laser-generated stenciled image. The original process required each screen to be handled eight times. Now an automated one-piece flow process, with a magazine containing ten screens, has replaced a process that would have required 80 manual handling steps.
Our company philosophy is that Lean manufacturing and sustainability are a journey, an ongoing, company-wide commitment to continual improvement. We have a culture of learning — learning by doing — recognizing that big changes happen through incremental change. And sometimes, if you keep pushing forward, you can achieve major advancements, as we did with our UV LED ink curing process. This process has opened the door to cellular manufacturing using sheet-fed equipment and revolutionized the development of one-piece flow roll-to-roll screen printing capabilities.
We believe that our forward-thinking approach has prepared us well for the challenges of today and the challenges that the future will bring. Our investment in new technologies, robotics, and automation as part of our Lean manufacturing approach has given us the excess capacity to rapidly and flexibly respond to sudden changes in market demand and labor availability in order to grow our business in response to new opportunities.
These efficiencies allow our customers to take advantage of the benefits of screen printing at costs and lead times that are comparable to digital printing and favorable at high volume production runs. By making the process less labor intensive, Empire keeps domestic screen printing competitive with overseas competitors, allowing customers to avoid the uncertainties and delays associated with overseas shipping.
Last but not least, these innovations make the Empire facility a better place to work and contribute to making the environment a better place to live.