I meant to start this a couple weeks ago, but I’m glad I procrastinated, because I’m still learning stuff about this device. Here’s the deal — Technology is moving forward, and it has crept into the printing world in many ways over the last 30 years. First, automatic presses got good enough to do quality printing by the mid-80’s, then the whole digital desktop publishing revolution happened in the early to mid-90’s, and in a way, Direct-to-screen making is the next natural extension of that. First, the robots came for our press-on lettering, Rapidographs & Amberlith, then they came for our copy cameras, & now they have come for our film output devices.
DTS 101 in a sentence — Rather than printing a film positive & sandwiching it between your photo stencil & your light source to image a screen, Direct-To-Screen images directly onto the screen’s photo stencil with a photo-opaque ink, via inkjet technology, eliminating the film step & the vacuum frame.
Direct-to-sceen machines have been around for a while, but have always had shortcomings whenever I looked at them during the last 4 years or so of contemplating implementation. It’s not a “mature” technology, but I’m ready to say that M&R has almost nailed it.
I’m going to talk about this in 2 separate sections, because they really deserve to be addressed independently of one another — hardware & software.
1. Hardware. This thing is a beast. We went with the single print head to begin with, since adding a print head to speed up the printing process at a later date if needed is no big deal. I based this on an average of 40-50 screens per shift, with occasional peaks of 70-80 screens per shift, & it has absolutely kept up. Not that any of our images are all that big, but it tends to ink a screen in less than 30 seconds. Quality so far has been great. I haven’t pushed boundaries with it yet, because it’s spring (OMG SXSW STARTS IN 2 WEEKS & WE FORGOT TO ORDER SHIRTS!!) and we are just getting work done. I can say that it is an improvement over the film we were using, across the board. Lines on vector are cleaner & the halftones have improved by a % or two. We’re holding highlight dots that we are losing with our Oyo Aspect, which to be honest, is a very good film output device.
It’s very sturdy — the build quality of the base & the print head are impressive. Nothing seems under-specced here to me, at all – I don’t see a single thing that jumps out & says “that looks like a design flaw.” It is physically very robust.
The STE is the model that comes with the integerated LED exposure unit, and I will say that sight unseen, I was skeptical, though cautiously optimistic after talking online to some people who had already purchased one. I did my homework, & made a leap of faith when I recommended to the owner that we go with the LED array. This is the thing that kicks this unit over the top, & where it currently smokes the competition. The screen images on the forward pass into the unit, then exposes as it emerges, immediately after imaging. The ink doesn’t have any time to wick or spread, it doesn’t matter if you smear it when you lift the screen off, because you are done, and it is fast. We’re using Ulano QTX, & it’s exposing a 110- mesh (threads per inch) in about 20 seconds — maybe less — I haven’t stopwatched it, but it is fast. Did I say that already? It is fast! The exposure is very even & exact, you can program presets for different meshes and emulsions, they are easy to recall, & our entire 12’ X 12’ exposure room has been replaced by a piece of plastic & bulbs that measures 4 inches by 26 inches, by about 1/2” thick. Mind boggling. Stock tip: invest in LED manufacturers — they are the future of lighting.
So if you work hard and stay organized, you really can churn out a screen a minute on this thing.
We’ve had very little trouble with the print head – it generally requires a quick auto-clean (a minute or so) & running a test print to check the head first thing in the morning, & then it’s off to the races for the day. Sometimes when it sits idle for an hour or two, we’ll need to do another auto-clean mid-afternoon. No big. We’ve lost exactly one screen to a clogged print head, & the lifetime counter was at about 2700 the last time I looked.
We have had exactly one issue where an auto-clean didn’t do the trick — this was just mid-week last week, and I botched the manual print head purge, so I had to call support. It was after 5 pm, so it was an initially frustrating phone call, as M&R uses a call center that doesn’t do the support themselves, but once I finally made it clear to the person at the call center that, “YES, THIS WAS AN EMERGENCY I have a full night shift that cannot image screens,” they finally took my name & number & had the technician on-call call me back. Marco from M&R’s digital dept. stayed on the phone with me until I had a clean print head & was making screens again — all in all, we were down 30 minutes, or so. While it was stressful at the time, really, that’s not bad. Thanks, Marco!
So, Hardware gets 5 stars, A++ WOULD BUY AGAIN!
2. Software. The i-Image relies on a chain of 3 software programs that interact in sequence. The ColorPRINT RIP program takes your files & generates the separations. These are sent, via hot folder, to the Print Production program, where you can actually view the separations & determine which separation to send to the printer, & the actual Printer Management software, which accepts the files & prints them. All 3 of these programs have to remain open at all times for the workflow to function, but fortunately, so far they have all played together very well.
What’s not playing together too well in the Dell PC attached to the printer & all the Macs in the art room. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge Windows fan, so maybe I’m a bit (a bit??) biased here, but the fact that M&R has bundled the i-Image with Windows-only RIP & printer controller software, in an industry dominated by Macs, is a tad disappointing. The workflow we are using is all a hot folder structure — the art dept. drops files in a hot folder that the ColorPRINT software detects, then rips automatically & sends the resultant *.prt files to another hot folder that the Print Production program picks up files from, then from that window all the operator has to do is find the job in the queue he wants to produce, select the separation, & send it to the printer. Supposedly. This worked great for the first 2 weeks we owned the machine, then it worked intermittently, & after an hour or two, ColorPRINT would stop “seeing” files dropped in its hot folders, then it stopped seeing them altogether. M&R had no solution to this. We had a couple remote login sessions where they poked around & looked at our file structure & where the software was pointing to hot folders, but got no results. Their first troubleshooting option was to have the screen makers manually pick up the files & rip them, as well as print them, but this is clearly not in their job description & not going to happen. Their next option was fro the art dept. to run on Windows as well, since it was “just a Mac vs. Windows thing.” quote/unquote. Hah. Not. Going. To. Happen.
I noted, while on the phone with one of their digital support guys that whenever I moved a file from a directory that was already on the PC to a hot folder on the PC, it ripped successfully every time, and asked “what if the artists dropped the files into a different folder on the PC, then when it was done copying, they could move it to the hot folder of their choice?” Their response: “Yeah, that’s the workaround.” It’s kludgy, but they could have offered this up on the first phone call, instead of waiting for me to identify it as a solution on the third or fourth phone call? So, anyway, that’s what we’re doing, now, & it’s working. I still wish this thing would have come with a Mac Mini running a Harlequin RIP package that generated a widely-used file format like .pdf instead of a Dell making proprietary files, but such is life.
ColorPRINT only accepts .eps files, & the only format that Photoshop format that will work is DCS 2.0 files with spot channels – a file-type I had hoped would have been long-abandoned forever, so to see DCS 2.0 rear it’s less-than-lovely head in this day & age is a tad disappointing.
Yes, we are having to make adjustments, though honestly, some were to be expected. The biggest adjustment is that the art staff has to basically prepare a file as best they can, send it on its merry way & hope nothing goes wrong — we’re saving the cost of film, but we’re also now short one safety check, so a few mistakes have slipped through. They can’t look at the ripped files because ColorPRINT spits out a proprietary file format with the .prt extension & the only program that will view those files is dongle-protected on the PC attached to the i-Image. We’re trying to find a solution to that so that they can double-check the seps after they are ripped but before the screen-making staff gets them in their queue. It looks like we need to buy another dongle for $500.00 & install a Bootcamp partition & Parallels on one of the art Macs so that they can view the output before it goes from ColorPRINT to Print Production. The art department is physically removed from the screen room in another building & down a flight of stairs, so it’s inconvenient to say the least, to expect the art staff to make the trudge to the i-Image whenever they send a file for output, so we’re hoping that solution works. In the meantime, they have been laying out the .eps files on an InDesign page & using the separations preview as a stop-gap.
We have had a few isolated cases of unexplained weirdnesses — one job where one separation was printing 1/4” lower than there other separations, and 3 different files that stop printing altogether at exactly the same place, on the same separation every time. We haven’t been able to isolate the corruption with these 3 files, & neither has M&R, who has had the files in their hands for a while. All in all, I use the word “isolated” because there haven’t been all that many troublesome jobs that weren’t directly related to user error — maybe 6 total out of several hundred? We’re still hoping to get to the bottom of the corruption, though.
So Software, because it basically works, but is kludgy and proprietary, gets a B minus, 3 stars, “nice doing business with you” grade.
In the short-run, life has been a little more painful for the art staff than I had hoped, & the screen guys have had a bit of a learning curve, but are adapting well. We’re getting a lot of good screens out of it, with a few hiccups along the way, but we’re all adapting and things are smoothing out a little more each day.
In the long run, I don’t see how any shop will be able to do anything to adapt & survive in a competitive market without moving into Direct-To-Screen, and I’m glad we made the move. I feel like hardware-wise, we bought the best machine on the market at this time & have no regrets choosing the M&R over the competition, with the deciding factor being the LED exposure array. It’s a thing of near-ultraviolet beauty.
Update: “Dottonedan” at The Shirt Board wrote a nice lengthy addendum to my article in a comment there, going into a few things I didn’t yet understand about the i-Image. Learning on the job, & on the web! Thanks, Dan.