Industrial Printing – Customer Needs & Challenges!

In this edition of EPS Weekly, I caught up with Dan Leiter, sales engineer here at Engineered Printing Solutions. Dan has been in the printing industry for 25 years, with the last 10 years of it providing industrial printing solutions to clients via both pad printing and inkjet technology. We had an interesting conversation that touched upon a number of things related to the dynamics of the customer relationship. This ranged from the inception of the EPS/Client relationship to ongoing support and maintenance of a solution that has already been designed and delivered.

What do you think is the most critical consideration when beginning to work with a client toward the custom design of an industrial printing machine, be it a pad or inkjet printing solution?

The qualification process of defining the customer’s needs and delivering a solution or product that meets those needs is by far the most critical part of the process. It can be a difficult job, because a lot of our larger customers often have the involvement of numerous people from various departments such as engineering, operations, and marketing. The project might start out with a very simple process for a company, but as more players get involved, more requirements get brought in to the mix that have to be met.

As a result, we have worked hard over the years to establish and confirm expectations as early in the project as possible. We have achieved this through extensive specifying of needs with our customers to minimize unnecessary research and development costs, as well as keep projects on schedule.”

Do you feel that taking this ‘deeper dive’ with specifying needs early on with the customer has been successful in defining what the customer is truly looking for and needs?

“Yes. It has allowed us to define things, so that invariably when a customer approaches us later in the process regarding a specific functionality (or feature) that was requested, we can in turn reassure them that they will be getting exactly what was detailed in the design documentation.

On the other hand, if the customer is requesting additional features and/or functionalities after an entire process and procedure has been documented, that’s something different. Yes, we are always going to go above and beyond to make our customers extremely satisfied with the end product. However, add-ons and change requests in the middle of a machines design inevitably result in more project hours and thus additional costs.

The pre-build specification process places a milestone in the path, which protects both the customer and EPS by minimizing the probability of unforeseen costs and completion delays. So ultimately, it’s about getting as granular as possible when establishing expectations, and keeping everybody on task.”

As a sales engineer, what are some of the things that you find most gratifying (as well as challenging) when you’re working toward a custom, industrial printing solution for a customer?

“I’ve been in the graphic arts industry my entire adult life. We all claim to have ‘ink in our veins’. As a result, I have a natural inclination toward the entire printing process, including direct-to-shape, which I’ve been doing here at EPS over the last 10 years.

What makes it challenging is that we often have to reinvent the wheel to meet our customer’s specific needs. Every job can be an entirely different product – every job can comes with an entirely different set of requirements. You have to ‘define’ all of these requirements and then develop a solution that is going to ‘address’ all of them…each and every time.

I would say what makes it gratifying is taking a complex set of requirements (that are unique in nature) and exceeding the customer’s expectations in the end. A lot of what we do here is about helping our customers bring an innovation and/or invention to life. We are playing an active part in making entrepreneurial visions a reality. This is why we refer to our customers as partners. It’s a reference that is used all too often, but is completely fitting in our business.”

Tell me more about the customization side in all of this. What do you mean when you say “every job is different”? Can you give some examples?

“There is almost always a difference and/or variation when it comes to the automation that we customize for a client. This ranges from the type, size and shape of the product that they’re looking to decorate on, to the way in which they are looking to decorate on it. Product examples as simple as a tape measure, a glass bottle, a flashcard (to name a few), still have specific print areas that the customer wants to decorate.  This in and of itself creates the need for a custom fixture, and that makes it unique to that particular customer. Even with similar shaped products, it’s different from customer to customer. Customers manufacturing the same type of product can have different processes in which our equipment needs to fit.

They’re all trying to create new processes to improve their quality and efficiencies. It’s exciting, but at the same time challenging. That being said, we love being part of it!”

Can you think of a specific industrial printing solution (pad or inkjet) that stands out as far as size and scope?

“A project that comes to mind is a printing services company that was looking for a digital inkjet machine that would exclusively work on their direct mail campaign. The machine needed to offer heavy personalization, short run capability and high throughput. In addition, the client wanted a solution that would print onto a pen 180 degrees (around the circumference of the pen barrel), in two different colors, and onto a dozen different pen styles.

These requirements required a digital inkjet printer that was highly customized from both an automation and software standpoint. When you’re working with a number of variables that require specific robotic features and heavy software programming, you’re now looking at a fairly complex and sophisticated machine. You are also looking at a significant investment.

In the end our mechanical and software engineers worked together to deliver a heavily customized XD-70 Industrial Inkjet Printer. (Click link for more information on standard configuration). The machine met all the demands that the client requested and we’ve been providing ongoing training and field support since it was deployed to their manufacturing environment last year.”

What do you think the future landscape of industrial printing looks like, and do you see it changing how you work with your customers?

“In terms of the direction that the industry is going, digital is clearly driving the bus now. Digital is still in its relative infancy as far as a decorating technology. Where digital needs to go to achieve broad market acceptance primarily involves pretreatment and ink adhesion.

Getting the ink to stick to the product and meet customer durability standards is paramount. Most of our customers are not printing on ‘throwaway’ items and have stringent requirements when it comes to this. The image needs to be able to maintain its quality while being exposed to various degrees of wear and tear, cleaning and expected life of the product.

It is my belief that new methods of pretreatment will be entering the market and gaining acceptance. Currently we use various methods; a chemical wipe, a flame, corona, and plasma treatments.  Although they all have their strengths, ink adhesion with glass, metal and ceramics come with challenges. It is the new pretreatments that are expected to largely address these challenges, allowing greater ink adhesion and durability.

As far as how we are going to be working with our customers towards solutions, it will still be a lot of customization based on customer needs, and probably more. This is because customers (particularly large ones) will be looking for an all in one machine specific to their product line. A company that wants to print on 18 different products (all of various shapes, sizes and substrate types), and wants a single machine to accomplish is what you’re looking at here. That’s where we come in, because that’s what we do at EPS. That’s what we’ve already been doing for quite some time.”

For more information about Engineered Printing Solutions custom solutions, such as standard pad printers, industrial inkjet, consumables and auxiliary equipment, visit www.epsvt.com, email info@epsvt.com or call 1-800-272-7764.

The Future of Pad Printing

For the past three years Engineered Printing Solutions has been utilizing robotics to increase production, lower operator costs and improve the overall decorating process of various parts. The use of robotics has evolved from (a) pick and place systems to (b) SCARA robots loading tooling to (c) 6 axis robots with vision orienting and loading tooling. SCARA robots were then utilized as the actual printing arm with the capability of changing pad styles during the print process. A robot being used as a printing arm has been proven to be the most effective way to print on various three dimensional products that require multiple prints in different locations.  In prior designs an elaborate fixture would be designed to rotate the part to different print positions so the 4 axis SCARA robot could print down on the specific location.  The development of the smaller 6 axis articulating robots with increased power has led to advancement in our current robotic pad printer designs replacing the SCARA robot with a 6 axis Robot.  The part fixture now remains stationary because the 6 axis robot allows you to print at any angle. This eliminates the need for an elaborate multi axis servo driven fixture. The pad printing cycle is also shortened because the robot is no longer waiting for part rotations.

Features of the six axis robot printer:

  • End of arm tool to hold print pad
  • Automatic tape cleaner
  • 2 sets of independent clichés to allow set up of next part to run without stopping the current print process
  • Clichés can hold multiple artworks
  • Touch screen HMI controller display on strong arm
  • Camera vision system to detect orientation of part
  • Up to six color printing
  • Automatic pad changer with use of up to six different pads
  • In feed & out feed conveyers

Currently the Engineered Printing Solutions team includes many highly motivated individuals with full engineering, software development and tech support. Our #1 goal is Customer Satisfaction. Our company is constantly pushing the envelope, discovering more and more ways to seamlessly incorporate pad and ink jet printing into customers’ manufacturing environments.

For information about Engineered Printing Solutions custom solutions, standard pad printers, industrial digital ink jet, consumables and other auxiliary equipment, visit Ink Adhesion Part 3: Ink Mixing, Contamination, Blooming and Mold Release Agents, e-mail sales@www.epsvt.com or call 1-800-272-7764

Pad Printing in Multiples

Compared to the world of manual pad printing, the world of automation is virtually unlimited, within reason. Here at Engineered Printing Solutions we have taken a standard KP05 bench mounted printer and stripped it of the software and hardware. We then completely customized it to be able to produce 8,000 pieces per hour, all the while requiring minimal operator involvement.  How do you decide if automation is right for you? Well you need to ask yourself 3 questions: How many pieces per hour do you need to print? How many colors on the image? Finally what is the size of the image? With this machine, it all starts with the Bowl Feeder which aligns the parts all the same direction and feeds them down a track to the printer, printing the parts and finishing with the items going out under an infrared heater, ensuring that the images are dry enough to continue down the production line to other operations or to packaging. However with every innovation there are obstacles which we must work through.

Some of the technical problems that can arise are:

  • Being able to efficiently feed the parts to keep up with the printer.
  • Printing multiple images in one pad stroke can create some undesirable results. This may require custom pads.
  • Being able to efficiently process parts through the system without damaging even the most delicate part.
  • Ensuring that the printed image is dry enough to withstand downstream operations as soon as it leaves the system.

In this case we are printing 8 pieces at a time so our engineers need to make sure that the images are being placed correctly on each of the 8 parts every time.

For information about Engineered Printing Solutions custom solutions, standard pad printers, industrial digital ink jet, consumables and other auxiliary equipment, visit Ink Adhesion Part 3: Ink Mixing, Contamination, Blooming and Mold Release Agents, email sales@www.epsvt.com or call 1-800-272-7764

Reasons to Consider a Servo-Driven Pad Printer

While a programmable servo-driven pad printer will cost more than comparable electro-pneumatic models, they provide the highest degree of accuracy, control, adaptability and flexibility in a more compact area, and they include additional valuable features.

The improved servo-driven technology allows engineers to choose linear motion devices that:

  • provide the highest degree of accuracy
  • increase speeds while maintaining quality
  • reach the required torque in a given application
  • save and store programs for convenience and accuracy on future print runs
  • pick up and print an image wherever it needs to be and assure that the user produces more impressions with less waste and fewer errors in less time. That’s a win-win.

In the most sophisticated printers, the horizontal print head movement can be controlled and programmed at each of the two functions — ink pick-up from the cliché and print position on systems featuring independent pad actuators. You can also repeat or change the control values for each plate stage/print station, a major improvement that provides individual adjustment in a multicolor system with hair-splitting accuracy and repeatability.

Couple this with the ability to provide independent pad vertical movement using linear actuators that work independently. This eliminates pad interference when printing oversize parts, offering the convenience of using different pad shapes and heights at every position in a system. Are you starting to see what this can do for the future of your business yet?

Are you sure it will help me?

At PPMOVT, we carefully evaluate each application to engineer the best and most cost effective solution with the end user in mind. We execute them flawlessly on our own manufacturing floor. After all, when all is said and done, it is the printing system’s performance, reliability and user friendliness that really counts.

The same servo-driven actuators described above are also used on Pick-and-Place automation devices that provide part loading/unloading to/from holding fixtures, part conveyance and other movement accessories, with total precision even when variable speeds are required throughout the motion. Automatic pad changing can be included to allow the use of multiple pads in a selected routine. That’s technology. That’s what Pad Print Machinery of Vermont can do for you.

What do I do next?

Call us in for an analysis. That’s fun for us. We won’t sell you something that doesn’t make you better and stronger. Program in Pad Print at 1-800-272-7764, or use Live Chat on our Home page  https://www.epsvt.com
Please make sure the coffee’s hot!

Ink Viscosity and Seasonal Adjustments

Pad printing is a thin film process. It starts with an etch depth in the cliché of approx. 25-75 microns and only a fraction of that ink film is picked up by the pad. Of the wet ink, 50% is a solvent that evaporates leaving only a 5 micron dry ink deposit. You can easily see why such a thin ink film is so susceptible to changing temperatures, humidity levels, static charges and even variations in airflow. Listed below are the ways you can control the ink viscosity and seasonal adjustments.

Control the rate that solvents evaporate from the ink
• Solvents evaporate too slowly
– The surface of the ink may not be tacky enough to pick up or release images from the pad
• Solvents evaporate too quickly
– Ink might not pick up from the cliché because it has dried in the etched portion of the plate, or dried on the pad in transit to it’s destination.

Same for the pad
• Solvents evaporate too slowly
– Only some of the ink will release from the pad to the substrate
• Solvents evaporate too quickly
– Ink dries and stays on pad.

Tips
• Warm environments: Add solvents every 20 – 30 minutes. Always add a measured amount, use a viscospatula and don’t guess!
• Control temperatures: Keep printer out of the sun, away from drafty entrances, exits, dryers.
Keep the temperature of the substrate to room temperature.
Don’t let printed part drop below 59°F until fully cured – 4 days or longer.
• Good housekeeping: Dust and vacuum floors instead of sweeping. Avoid cardboard boxes in production area. Wipe down all surfaces using a damp cloth.
Static electricity feathers the print. Slow the down stroke and pickup.
• Too hot: Solvents in the ink will evaporate very quickly. Solvents are attracted to water vapor molecules in the air.
– Speed up the forward travel of the pad stroke.
– Thinner / retarder mix (75% Thinner to 25% Retarder)
• Too cold: Solvents won’t evaporate quickly enough. Ink won’t be tacky enough between pickup and and lay down to transfer completely to the substrate.
– Slow down the forward travel of the pad stroke
– Select a faster drying thinner
– Use a hair dryer pointed at the pad as it travels forward after ink pickup to speed up the evaporation of the solvent
– Raise ambient temperature.

Viscospatula to the Rescue!

Custom decorators and product marking professionals have some common challenges, and one of them is print run consistency. Getting their ink to perform in the same way with the same quality from job to job, regardless of who is mixing the ink, has a better chance of success with some controls in place.

Ink series’ colors and batches can vary. Heat, cold and humidity can make inks thicker or thinner (their viscosity) from one run to the next. Viscosity affects the quality of the print job through ink absorption, color strength and evaporation/drying.

  • Thick, high-viscosity inks are tacky and impede image transfer.
  • Thin, low-viscosity inks run loosely to their own determined borders, changing halftone dot dimensions and blurring the image.

Although it is difficult to control variables such as atmospheric conditions, plastics decorators typically change machine settings or use additives to overcome these challenges when they occur. For experienced ink technicians, trial-and-error troubleshooting is second nature for correcting ink adhesion. For others, following ink manufacturer’s instructions and written notes — in conjunction with the PPMOVT Viscospatula — take the guesswork out of mixing ink and achieving consistently satisfactory results.

The Viscospatula is a simple, efficient tool used to achieve consistent and accurate ink viscosity when mixing pad printing inks. This tool has precision-milled holes and slots cut into a special ink-shedding fiberglass compound. When dipped into a prepared mixture, the ink flows down the spatula from the first hole to the fifth at a measurable rate, allowing adjustments to the ink’s thickness. The rule of thumb is: the thinner the ink, the faster it moves from the first hole to the last hole.

Using this tool to measure viscosity on a properly performing ink and noting the results with the job’s ink mix provides a roadmap toward future mixing success. Click Uneven ink thickness to see the Viscospatula and read more about it. We hope you never again have to explain why a reprint looks different from the original.

Join the conversation!  Do you have a process to ensure reprint consistency?  What tools do you use? Our technical ink experts are available to answer your questions and assist you in achieving ink nirvana. We answer any pad printing question!

Pad Printing Pads: Is Pad Size Important?

Size minimizes distortion
An important variable to consider in quality pad printing is the pad size, especially as it relates to the image size. In pad printing, the larger the pad size used, the less the image is likely to distort in the printing process.

  • Pad size is measured in length, width and height without the base.
  • As a general rule, your pad should measure 10% to 20% larger than the image’s length and width.
  • Remember the “throat” – or the distance between the cliché and the body of the machine – often determines the maximum pad size you can use.

Special pad printing pads for large images
In some situations, a large image area must be printed and the machine does not have the power to compress such a heavy pad in a smooth motion.

Two solutions to this problem are available:

  • The first is to use a pad with a hollow interior that provides the same surface hardness. The hollow interior also reduces the cost of silicone rubber used in a large pad.
  • The second option is a dual-hardness pad, where the core of the pad is made of a softer material and the outer layer is the harder rubber. Either method helps, but using dual-hardness allows for a more stable pad.
  • Of course a third option would be to use a different imaging process like screen printing.
  • There’s another unusual pad configuration that is like an inflated pig bladder. Specialized machines use hollow pads inflated with air just prior to ink pick-up. The pad stays inflated until it comes into contact with the substrate. Then the air is released. The deflated pad can conform to a wider area of the substrate, printing up to 180 degrees compared to 100 degrees with a stanadrd pad on a cylinder or sphere.

Join the Conversation! Have you had problems with print distortion or image size? Click Cylindrical Printing Pads or call us at 800-272-7764 for our suggestions on pad size usage. We love your challenges!

All Fired Up: Pad Printing Glassware

Most glassware has some kind of discernible shape. Logically, pad printing emerges as a natural choice in glass decorating and printing. The more complex the shape, the more suitable pad printing becomes as a decorating process.

With the right tooling, multicolor prints, special-effects inks, and even 360 degree wrap-of-image-around-circumference are possible. Automated parts-handling options can further speed production rates.

There are two primary inks used in pad printing glassware: frit inks and acrylic inks.

Acrylic inks
Acrylic inks are mixed with a catalyst hardener as well as with a solvent thinner, which allows the ‘tack-up’ and transfer from cliché to pad to part. A post-print bake is usually recommended (3-5 minutes at about 200 degrees F) to improve the durability of the print. The bi-component ink mixture typically has a ‘pot life’ of 6-8 hours, after which time the ink hardens on its own, rendering it unusable for any further printing.

Acrylic inks are fairly durable, providing at least 50 wash cycles in your average home dishwasher.

Frit inks
For greater durability, a frit ink is the way to go.

Frit inks contains:

  1. Finely ground glass particles in the ink mixture (very small, only a few microns in size)
  2. A pigment (the colorant)
  3. A binder, which is a carrier used to keep the ingredients in suspension
  4. A thinner, the solvent which facilitates the silicone pad transfer process.

Different frit suppliers recommend different combinations of the above four components. There are no pot life issues to consider when using frit inks.

After printing with the frit ink, the printed ware is fired in a kiln, typically at about 1100 degrees F on average for up to 30 minutes. The ground-glass particles come very close to their melt point; the organic ingredients in the print burn off, and a physical bond is created between the print and the product. Frit inks are generally considered the most durable of all glassware prints, capable of lasting a lifetime and providing tremendous abrasion resistance.

Have you had glassware decorating challenges? Feel free to contact us for advice on the best options for all types of pad printing on glassware.

Print Pad Durometer or Hardness – Same Thing

Albert F. Shore developed the measurement device called a durometer in the 1920s to measure material hardness. As a result of the Shore ratings, the terms hardness and durometer became interchangeable. Many pad print pad manufacturers color code the standard durometers by adding pigment to the silicone itself or by coloring the pad base. The following chart shows the durometer range for each silcone material (color) we typically recommend:

Color                             Hardness
Blue                                  10 – 60
White                               20 – 65
Red                                   30 – 75

The harder the pad, the higher the Shore durometer rating. Three basic pad durometers are standard in the industry and cover most applications. Custom pad durometers are also available through most pad suppliers. We suggest you invest in a durometer gauge, valuable for all pad printers for determining pad hardness and quality control of pads in rotation. This simple tool is available through silicone-rubber suppliers and many general-service dealers in the screen printing and pad printing industries.

Choosing the proper pad hardness for a job is often a combination of experimentation and experience. As a general rule, the harder the pad, the better the performance, the longer the pad life. But hard pads may be impractical in some applications. Here are some guidelines for durometer selection and maintenance:

  • Use softer pads when printing on heavily contoured surfaces or on fragile items.
  • Use a softer pad if the power of your machine can’t compress the pad sufficiently to achieve a satisfactory rolling action.
  • Use hard pads for textured surfaces, or printing an image in a recessed area where the pad must roll over a “step”.
  • Use hard pads in a pad “nest” where a number of pads are spaced with small gaps (for example, printing computer keyboards).
  • Consider a special pad for printing on abrasive substrates and textured finishes. Example applications include automobile control arms like turn-signals and windshield-wipers, when the pad must resist the abrasive nature of the substrate.
  • Avoid using pads of different durometers on the same application. The thickness of the ink deposit will vary on the substrate.

Custom Pads – Custom Service
Confused about durometer? Need help selecting pad durometer for a custom job? We have a full pad department to help and we don’t charge for phone calls! Click Cylindrical Printing Padsor call 800-272-7764 for our undivided attention. We are here to help you!

A Long and Happy Print Pad Life

Our pad department asked me to investigate why a long-time customer had stopped buying our pads. The idea crossed my mind that our pad department was questioning the quality of our pads compared to an unknown competitor’s. So, since I had been planning a trip that included this particular customer, I confirmed a meeting with them.

After our initial welcome, we sat down to talk. I asked them bluntly why they had started using another supplier for their pads without discussing their issues with us first. The customer became defensive, insisting they had not stopped ordering from us. They then brought me on a tour of the production area, where I saw the rows of machines we had supplied some years earlier, all working beautifully – with our pads.

The real shocker was their final disclosure: they were getting about 250,000 cycles plus per pad because they had adopted our recommended method of pad rotation. Based upon the number of machines in operation, we calculated they had saved about $12,000 per year over the past 2 years because of the way in which they cared for their pads.

I thought that I was going into this meeting to battle for this customer’s pad business. I had prepared a strategy of careful analysis and special pricing. I walked away feeling a bit silly when I realized they could have paid a lot more for our pads than we were charging and still remained a loyal customer. But I was happy that we were saving our customer money by selling a superior product and giving away solid, money-saving advice for free. We were heroes.

This true fairy tale ends with “and they all lived happily ever after,” because this particular customer was smart enough to listen to and implement our suggestions. Please understand that these same pads can also wear out after 50,000 imprints, and pad life is very dependent on ink type, substrate and maintenance. 

For additional information, see our previous blog Pad 101. If you’re not getting individualized attention from your supplier, call us. We even customize our service!