Briefing: Screen Printing to Survive in Niche Applications

Although under attack from new and innovative digital printing technologies, screen printing still maintains a competitive advantage in a few niche industries. Its survival will depend on its success in sustaining a dominant position within these industries.

The transition from screen to digital

With the continued development of increasingly reliable digital printers and their increasing productivity, digital print will grow strongly at the expense of screen-printed output. As time goes on, screen printing is expected to become a marginal technology, retained only to do jobs that digital technology cannot perform.

However, screen printing technologies do still stand a chance of survival if they focus on the niche industries in which digital print technologies do not yet have sufficient capability.

The survival of screen printing

Screen process printing is based on the stencil principle, which predates nearly all other modern printing processes. The modern process, however, dates only from the early years of the 20th century when it was found to be commercially practicable to mount the stencil in a fabric mesh or screen, which would allow the stencil to remain intact while ink could pass freely through the mesh. This technique avoided the need to provide 'ties' to hold the various parts of the stencil together, thus improving the quality of printing dramatically.

Although screen printing cannot compete with the other printing processes in terms of speed and volume, it does still hold a significant market share; in many ways it is the most versatile of all printing processes. The strength of screen printing is its ability to print almost any fluid onto any surface, being widely used in industrial decoration as well as graphics and packaging.  It can print on practically any material, from conventional papers and boards to metals, glass, fabrics and plastics, as well as printing directly onto irregular-shaped objects such as bottles, cans and ceramics. Screen printing has also remained a core technology for garment printing and continues to be the most popular technique for printing on T-shirts.

Other niche applications in which screen printing still maintains a competitive advantage include the application of very thick ink films, high-opacity whites, metallic colors and two-component ink systems for high performance applications.

High-opacity whites

One niche application of screen printing is high-opacity whites, with the relatively high viscosity inks used in screen print technologies better suited for handling the relatively heavy inorganic pigments used in white inks. Digital print technologies face the ongoing challenge of keeping these heavy pigments in suspension in their low viscosity ink formulations and therefore struggle to compete with screen print technologies in this application. As a result, screen print technologies can achieve much higher pigment concentration and therefore greater opacity. To create sufficient opacity with a digital white often requires multiple layers to be applied, which is both costly and unproductive.

Metallic Colours

Similarly to white inks, metallic inks use heavy inorganic pigments. Therefore, screen print technologies also have a niche application in metallic colours, with digital print technologies facing similar challenges in manufacturing metallic inks as they do in high-opacity white inks.

This research is based on our report The Future of Screen and Digital Wide Format Printing to 2017. This report is available now for anyone wanting to find out more about the future of the screen printing market and digital wide format printing.