Success Stories with Marshall Atkinson

Success Stories Ep 28 - "The Elephants in the Screen Printing Industry"

September 08, 2021 Marshall Atkinson Season 2 Episode 28
Success Stories with Marshall Atkinson
Success Stories Ep 28 - "The Elephants in the Screen Printing Industry"
Show Notes Transcript

There is one shop in the industry that is best known for their technical expertise, willingness to experiment, and also their ability to train other shops on best practices...and that is with Lon Winters’ shop Graphic Elephants.

Lon has been running his Elizabeth Colorado-based shop since 1993 and is world-renown for his expertise in screen printing.

On today’s Success Stories podcast, we’ll speak with Lon about using specialty printing inks and techniques, the recipes for success, what he’s learned along the way in his career, and maybe even a glimpse into the future.  

If you are a screen-printer, sell t-shirts, or maybe even are a print geek like me...this is an episode that you don’t want to miss.  



Marshall Atkinson 

Welcome to Success Stories brought to you by S&S Activewear. I'm your host, Marshall Atkinson. And this is the podcast that focuses on what's working so you can have success too.

There is one shop in the industry that is best known for its technical expertise, willingness to experiment, and also their ability to train other shops on best practices. And that is with Lon Winters’ shop Graphic Elephants. Lon has been running his Elizabeth, Colorado-based shop since 1993. And is world-renowned for his expertise in screen printing. In today’s Success Stories podcast we'll speak with Lon about using specialty printing inks and techniques, the recipes for success, and what he's learned along the way in his career, and maybe even a glimpse into the future. If you're a screen printer, sell t-shirts, or maybe even our print geek like me, this is an episode that you don't want to miss. So welcome Lon to the Success Stories podcast.

Lon Winters 

Hi, everybody. Thanks for having me, Marshall.

Marshall Atkinson 

Glad that you're here. I think it's gonna be lots of fun. And we've chatted a bunch over the years about all kinds of different things. But I think it's gonna be fun to have you on the podcast to talk about using specialty inks and running your shop better and all that kind of stuff. Man, you're such a pro at it. I think this like kind of like fallen off a chair, I think. So ready for the first question?

Lon Winters 

Let's do it.

Marshall Atkinson 

Alright, so many people out there listening may have taken a class of yours at a trade show, read an article that you've written, or have maybe wash, you work the M&R booth at some point. But one thing that they may not realize is that you do a lot of product testing for equipment and inks. So talk about that, and how selling that service has led you to become a better printer.

Lon Winters 

I've been doing this for well over 30 years now. And we have always sort of tried to be helpful to the community, but also try to be in front of or lead the industry to some degree. And we've always volunteered as a bit of a beta test site for many of our, I guess, at this stage industry partners. But somewhere along the line, we switched our business model, going from a massive contract operation to a more full package. And then we added the educational and consulting component about 15 years ago, basically kind of whittling down to sort of our best customers by full package, I mean, sell the garment with the brand with packaging, with design with development, sampling, all those kinds of things, rather than just the contract piece of it. I learned a lot in the contract world. And we got very close with all the major manufacturers because of buying the number of equipment materials that we bought. So through that, we would get asked, "Hey, would you mind beta testing this, this new piece of equipment, if you like it, you get net, whatever to buy it. It's the second piece out there, and we'll work with you on payment terms", all those kinds of things. And that worked for us for years and years and years. And somewhere are 5, 6, or 8 years ago, I'm awful loyal, maybe loyal to a fault. And I kind of looked back over a 25-year career at that stage and said, "You know, I want to have some leverage with these manufacturers". Without saying that to their faces, "hey, I want to leverage our relationship". But I just pitched a retainer model and said, "Hey, you know, we've been using your products for X number of years. What if we didn't have to be just an ordinary, not ordinary, but a print shop that you sell to that maybe has time maybe doesn't have time and gives you mediocre feedback?" Maybe good, maybe bad? Maybe not all that accurate? What if you paid us to do the research, and you've got real benchmarking, you got real alpha testing, you got real date beta testing, you got video, you got photos, you truly some data on whatever the new material or anchor or a piece of equipment might be. And most of our partners jumped at it and said that absolutely would be great. We do some stuff at their places we do stuff at our place. Sometimes they come in, sometimes they just send us products to work on. Other times it's a coop, a new, not necessarily new but a new product from a company that is maybe working with a brand. And together they want our input on how this works in a production-type environment. So it's kind of a work of art. And it's kind of like molding clay as we go, the thing is changed a lot, particularly over COVID. And doing so much stuff virtually. But the model is really what sort of held us kind of a flow, we were able to do some things, not necessarily face to face. So it's an evolving model that I think is suited us well. And to your original point, it's made us better printers, because we're working with things that aren't necessarily perfect. So our input may change that product or that piece of equipment slightly. But we're, we need to figure out how to make it work as we go. So it's sort of a, it drives us a little bit, and maybe it's just emotionally, I feel like we're sometimes just a touch ahead of the pack. Because we've got this opportunity to work with a product that maybe nobody's gonna see ever, or maybe it's you're away or six months away from actually seeing production. So it certainly gives us an advantage as well as helps us with our business.

Marshall Atkinson 

Have you ever played around with something? And it totally was this just sitting gonna work? Then you made some recommendations, and they redesigned something. And now it's something that everybody uses?

Lon Winters 

No question. I think it happens a lot you can make and you have relationships with a lot of these manufacturers as well as you can make anything work, not anything but making something works in a lab environment and making a pass all the tests. is one thing, then having an actually stand up in a production environment where if something can go wrong, it certainly will, you know, we recommend 160 mash? Well, I don't have 160, I put it on to 30. Well locked up the screen. Well, it's not made for 230. But what if we add a thinning agent of some sort, and maybe it doesn't stand up as tall, but it's a great overprint clear and not necessarily a domain type of agent. So we've created kind of a different maybe process or different use. And I think that's where it's sort of takes beers and turns and twists on. on a pretty regular basis. I think the intent we work towards meeting that goal, but we always end up kind of off to one way or the other because the manufacturer wants the squares, and we tend to Okay, we'll do the squares. But here's a cool elephant with a crazy texture in it. And we sink it inside of a. And they love that because the creative people jump in. And now the developing people are Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, wait a minute, we're not getting creative yet, we've got to make sure that these squares launder properly and the adhesion is right and all those technical pieces of it that they have to pass through the testing. But ultimately, we sort of a sort of our stick, we sort of blend the science and math or real science, math and art, I don't ever want to take the art out of it. I love the art and creative piece of it. But if you can put together the science and math and blend it seamlessly with the RFP so that I think that's sort of the space we live in, and kind of why I dig it so much, I guess and why it works for me.

 Marshall Atkinson 

So for somebody listening right now, if they were to really kind of want to push the envelope a little better, how would you recommend then going about it, as one of the things that I've always handled in shops was we would do samples, and we're experimenting with some ink or whatever, I would make a sample job, like it's a real order and schedule it on Thursday at two o'clock or whatever, just like it was a real order. Because if I didn't do that it would never ever get accomplished, you do something similar to that.

Lon Winters 

If you're not printing for a if you're not sizable enough to have what a lot of folks would call a sample department, or development or an R&D. Some of these guys have a locked-down facility with an automatic manual, all the toys, all the bells, and whistles to do with what they will, we don't get to do that based on limited resources, most of us have to create a way to do r&d in a way that fits within production, or you won't do it. And if you don't do it, you get demonetized pretty fast, because my one color is gonna look just like your one color on a white field and in 2000 I can't get paid any more for my one color on a white Gildan. And then you can really and my customer doesn't really see the difference in the print quality. So now I got to offer other things to elevate my good, better best sort of packaging to create higher value because that one color white 2000 is no different for the most part. So ultimately you create that sort of the why and why you offer maybe special things do things differently than the competitors so that you get a little bit of a value edge for the client and that was sort of why we got into especially printing in the first 100 years ago, we working with some of the major brands is what they demanded. So you either did it or they took it somewhere else. And the idea that we would lose a that significant portion of our business at the time wasn't going to work. So we figured out how to do an awful lot of it.

Marshall Atkinson 

All right, that's a perfect segue into my next question, which is, everyone always wants to know, hey, Ilan, what's the recipe for success, especially when we're printing with specialty inks. And I think they might be pretty good at what I'm gonna call air quotes here, normal printing. But when they tried discharge, or high-density path metallic, or some other sort of special application like foil, they can't just seem to get it dialed in. For someone out there that may be struggling with this, can you give them a basic place to start, that's gonna lead them to better success.

Lon Winters 

I think so absolutely. In a sort of our approach to teaching, I'm going to get all cliche and philosophical here, you got to walk before you run, you got to crawl before you walk. And one of the things that we tell folks when people are looking at samples that are 16, colors in process with three special effects, and ultra-soft hand, and yada, yada, yada, they tell him that all advanced techniques are based on doing the basics really well. It's foundational, literally to the point and I'll go back to want to Allen's white on black seminars over and over and over, you ever hear one more how to get great whites on black, but it's really as simple as that. And it is the foundation, you get a great white printer, great underbase for your son process, the rest of it takes care of itself. So if you get the idea down that you got to do the basics, right, you got to do get that white dialed in, understand stencil thickness, understand tension, understand squeegee pressure, and understand angle speed, understand all those things, dial that in and then change the stencil thickness. And now we've just learned how to lay down a thicker ink deposit. Okay, the thicker ink deposit creates the foundation to start working off and five density approaches. So it really is and I know the dealers, you know, they get a new bucket of special effects XYZ and, and they want you to buy a quarter of it, buy a gallon of it. And here's the PIB or the technical datasheet on how you're supposed to use it. And it's not really how it works. Okay, start there, because that's where they're having success in the lab, let's say or maybe they're having success with beta testing using these parameters. But ultimately, if you can't make a good screen for your underbase, you're not going to make a good high-density screen, or you're not going to make a good pearl screen or whatever, whatever effect you're trying to create. Because you can't make good screens. And that's another one of the things I share with people all the time, the best printers in the world have one thing in common. And that's that they make great screens. Now they may make them differently, they may use different materials. And we know that it's garbage in garbage out. People do their art differently. They do their stuff differently. But the best printers in the world make great screens. And that means they control their stencils. They control their mess geometry, they control their off content, all the math that's involved in creating the screen. And another little Lon-ism that I'll use is if you control the screen, then and only then do you have a bit of control over the process. And once you have control over the process, then you can start to manipulate. Then you can start to manipulate not before. If you're not controlling your process, you start jacking around with things and all you're going to do is fail and get frustrated and say this special effects X, Y, Z doesn't work. I tried it it doesn't work. It's sort of a big hit on viruses. I tried it it doesn't work. You don't have the basics figured out so you can't do advanced if the basics aren't dialed in. None of it is rocket science is just getting that foundation dialed getting. Get that again going back to philosophical walk before you run and crawl before you walk, get that dial. Take one step at a time and it'll come. Yeah, it's called screen printing for a reason. It absolutely is.

Marshall Atkinson 

And I think some people, they get actually newer printers or printers, you know, a lot of owners a, you know, these folks were there, the owner really isn't out in the warehouse, he's got somebody, he doesn't really understand that he's the business guy in the company, somebody else is doing the printing. And I think they read a lot on these Facebook groups. And they believe everything that's written in there. And they don't really experiment with exactly what they need to do. They don't Island things, they don't measure anything. You know, they're not measuring their tension. They don't own a donor probe, they don't look at the spec sheet to understand what the flash was a secure point on the ink, right? So it's, they'll have their dryer set at like 420 degrees, or whatever. And they're flashing on their presses set to hot. And that causes all types of problems. And are they triple stroke, the underbase? And they all just do band-aids all day long for not dialing in their process in your students in your class or on your at a trade show printing. You probably are bombarded with questions about this, aren't you?

Lon Winters 

For sure. And we usually provide when we do a demo, we provide a pretty darn detailed spec sheet. But it is pretty amazing how most folks are looking for a magic bucket. What's what white ink do you use? We get that question all the time. And again, going back down seminars, it’s processing, it's not the bucket of ink, you bet the bucket of ink is a good product. But it's all the parts of the process that create an underbase. And if you look closely at our spec sheets, we've got central thickness and TPI and also thread diameter tension, we have squeegee barometers and pressures and angles and that can get a lot of detail for that one color on a Gildan shirt. So we don't necessarily have these 65 items for every single thing we do. But when you're looking at something that you're doing that maybe is considered more advanced, all that stuff has to be dialed in. And we're when you said that's all band-aids, we as an industry, and I put myself in this because we learned by doing this, we're masters with duct tape and baling wire, we can make anything work on the press once. The problem is the reorder is very difficult to I remember trying to sell people on Yeah, but this reorders looks better than the first door. That might be true. It looks different, that's for sure.

Marshall Atkinson 

Great, right. I think everyone always thinks that shops are at the top of their game like graphic elephants. And you guys don't make mistakes. I know I've made play along the way I'm still making on. Right? Can you share some mistakes you've made and maybe what you've learned from them?

Marshall Atkinson 

You know, everybody makes mistakes. And it's again, cliche and philosophical. You're my wife's big-time into volleyball, she still coach played division, two volleyball, I played football, and my daughter is a coach, and we're really into sports and the team sports is and even all the way to professional sports, you can liken it to how our business is wrong. We have, we have coaches, management we have we have quarterbacks and running backs, who are star players, maybe our production manager, our warehouse manager, our art director, and we have linemen that are on the front clearing the path for us. And they're our day-to-day everybody else just getting their jobs done. And every single part of that is critically important. But the culture starts at the top, the culture has to spread through the mid middle and then spread down through everybody. And I know that sounds like a big thing, but it's how you respond to a bad loss or how you respond to that mistake. how you respond to customer rejected 500 shirts. How do you respond as a company? As your culture as Yeah, you're fuming upset as a business owner. But it doesn't do any good to throw a chair across the court anymore. Bobby Knight, it's the kids aren't going to respond to that. So how does your staff respond to we just 500 shirts? How are we going to respond to that? And that's sometimes a question for the staff. We're going to replace those that are our policy we screwed up. And sometimes it's not even our fault but the customer perceives it's our fault. We have to figure out how to make it right. How are we going to do that? What do you guys think we should do? And you usually get you to know your key people saying hey, you know, why don't me and our Director and the warehouse manager will come in on Saturday, and we'll reprint those. And the press operator goes, Hey, it was my fault. I'll come in. And there's always the way you respond, which I think are kind of big-picture mistakes. And then I always laugh about the happy mistakes as Mark or Dre would call them, where you are working with something new. And we've created a number of special applications and special effects that were total accidents, don't we? Maybe we didn't have enough off-contact way too much squeaky pressure, passport, rip the shirt and a half. You know, they're just weird things that happen. And you pull it out of the bucket at the end of the dryer and hold it up, go Oh, my gosh, that is so cool. How can we figure out how to repeat that happy accident, those accidents are its all part and the mistakes are all part of how you learn and how you evolve. And I write for graphics pro every month, and we've had a 20 some year running column called software substrate. And six out of 10, eight out of 10 that I write are basically how we screwed something up. And then what we had to do to fix it. Now maybe it was an art thing that was a customer service thing. Maybe it was a screen thing. But those are the things that we get better at. I'm kind of an emotional person and my Jason's been there 25 years and a lot of my other staff over 20 years. And they've seen me probably grow from being a bit of a hothead to figuring out how to go from bobby knight to maybe a today's coach that learns how to everybody's sensitive everybody. And that's not on them that's on me, I have to evolve with what I want our culture to look like. And I think we all have to learn how to massage the culture, it's all I learned more and more all the time that there's, it's so much psychology, it's less about putting ink on shirts and more about psychology every day. And being in from the customer's point of view from the business owners point of view from your key team, your executive staff, all those it's all psychology and but if you can get that part dialed in, that's a lot of the other things sort of taking care of themselves. It sounds 30,000 feet and the big picture. And it certainly is. But I've I think I've evolved and learned that not necessarily knowing how to manipulate it and massage it. But knowing that it's there, I think helps me respond better and helps our staff respond better. Because they get it they’re realizing that what you say next and what your behavior is like next is going to affect the next two weeks, six months, whatever. So knowing that I think is pretty important for people, I think more people, at least it feels that way internally are, are at least akin to it. They're there, they're sort of tuned into it.

Marshall Atkinson 

Okay, and are you keeping a journal? Or how do you document What's going on? So six months from now you go Yeah, we had that problem? How do we fix it? Are you able to do that?

Lon Winters 

I do. And I encourage our folks to we're, we're going through a bit of a digital makeover ourselves where I probably am, and old school analog. And we are trying to, we've brought on some much younger people that are experts in their field, Steven campus, Hank is helping us and we've got, we brought on Printavo to help us. And I think there are ways to attach all those things, which we're sort of learning how to do as we go from the job file to the customer to the so you have sort of all those things in one place. Rather than I have a journal. Jane has a journal, Jason has a journal, and then and we all are meticulous that way, but do my notes match up with your notes match up with and if we can somehow assimilate those things. And with a cloud-based sort of business management, I think we're headed in that direction, as well as a bunch of the apps, and these guys start speaking to me, and it's like Chinese, and I have a hard time keeping up. But I think it's an unnecessary thing for us to kind of move into that place. And we even know what that looks like. But we're evolving into it. We've been kind of on it for about six months now and taking very slow steps. But we're worth taking the cumulative steps forward. So I'm fairly excited about that.

Marshall Atkinson 

What's good, and what a perfect way to ask my last question. So it's all about the crystal ball. All right. So I want you to think about fabrics and specialty inks and the stuff that you've been working on. Of course, you probably can't share all the craziness that you have access to but just in general kind of want to think about the industry and maybe predict that what might be happening or what we might be working on five or 10 years from now. Will it be a cooler glitter or fabrics that don't have ink that handles dye migration better with just one hit that kind of stuff, right? What are the chemists working on? What do you think's going to happen?

Lon Winters 

You know, we, you, and I have been doing this long enough to actually have seen what happened in flat stock as it evolved from analog to nearly all digital. Same with offset others still certain amounts of both of those can. The folks that are survived, embraced it early and kind of made conversions and evolved with the decorating processes changing. I think we're in the middle of we've been hearing digital, digital for quite a while for 15 years, probably maybe longer on the DTG side of things. And that's where I think I've been working with my friend, Michelle Moxley m&r, and she would agree with me, in fact, maybe she pointed it out because she's doing so much work on their digital equipment. There's so much room for a higher-level product in the digital space. It’s so commoditized. But maybe, mostly because it's a digital acquisition. And if I'm selling custom t-shirts, and you're selling custom t-shirts, and Amazon selling custom t-shirts, our deliverable looks an awful lot the same. And it's just okay. Now and to be honest with you being an old screenprint guy, I think it's dropped the bar of decorating apparel down because digital that goes to the birthday party and they get it from an online, I don't want to trash Amazon, although just do you have that on tape know that what the end-user gets is fine. It works for the birthday party, and then you change oil and it's not a great piece. What they're doing over there is working on workflow on the front end, for lack of better terms, it's oversimplified to say a way to optimize the file for digital output, with massaging the underbase as massaging and how the transitions go on and off the underbase. The funny thing is, and we've talked about it before, our target now all of a sudden has been making digital look like a screenprint. Because screenprint is a far superior-looking product at the end of the day. But how do you take advantage of the of course one-off full-color application of DTG? And the variable data quickly changing, but make it look more like a more durable, more colorful, more impactful t-shirt design. 

So from there, I think I'm an ink shirts guy. So I've mentioned business and running in the digital footprint but going from screen print to the DTG. And then there's a lot of excitement around the hybrid printing with the green print on your bases with DTG. Basically, on top, that's all in line m&r calls, there's a digital squeegee, but there it's an inline process either an oval or carousel. So again, talking with Michelle, you kind of start to see, we are at the end of probably screenprints lifecycle, but that may be 10 years, 20 years, 15 years. But I think the end is closer than the past. But by when I say that we may be Ultra Hybrid. And by that I mean maybe you're on a giant oval or carousel that we could still put the screen in it if we wanted to. But everything is sort of modular and we're plugging in and we plug a digital head in, maybe it's a digital white head. Take that out. If we don't want to plug in and plug a CMO head in. We plug a flash here we plug in a moving screen and we plug a glitter in we plug and then you go Yeah, but what about high density? You can't do high density on digital. Well, if you could plug in a 3d printer is good. So maybe the 3d printer becomes a piece of it. And then you flip over and Okay, let's start talking about medical applications. So we can print 3d conductive inks that they're using in the medical fields right now. I was just having this conversation with a friend that isn't in the business. He's an engineer and we were talking about the application of conductive inks in the medical industry. I said yeah, it kind of started with the bud frogs, or they put a battery pack in front of conductive ink to make those frogs speak to you in the Budweiser commercial, and that's been 20 years ago or so. And now they're I mean these conductive banks they're they're able to measure your if you've got issues, medical issues, you wear the shirt, you get a medical EKG and a medical. All your numbers are being monitored constantly by wearing a technical shirt that has this imprinted in it and it's not a big crunching chunky ink. It's there are some pretty cool things happening. That I think keep screaming burning alive. But it's probably a version, a different type of version on apparel. Just Of course my two cents would be from a crystal ball and knowing sort of what I know, without sharing too much, but seeing where a lot of people are throwing a lot of money, it feels like digital, digital is where everybody wants to spend their money. But that digital has to sit on something in a way that creates enough speed and enough consistency. And so far, we're not there with digital by itself. And then the add ons have to be in some type of carriage or some type of because I can't see all that in one digital output had, you know, because we were looking at a lot of time you put white inks, and maybe you got four or eight white ink pads to do 1415 wide at a reasonable rate. And then you've got maybe total cartridges on your collar. I mean, there's single pass technology in the graphics industry that might come over. And some of it comes down to money. I mean, if somebody is willing to spend enough money I'm sure we can use it. And that's where our industry sort of comes from we use other technologies and apply them. So maybe single pass technology on some type of oval would speed the process?

Marshall Atkinson 

Yeah, well, I like that idea. And I like the whole, I'm a huge fan right now of the hybrid printing, and I can't get enough of it, especially with the variable data component. I love that. And so I found what you said to be kind of interesting. And the whole time you're talking, I keep thinking about the letterpress paper printing industry, right? where that is such a refined craft. And if you want that special invitation made, that's what you're going and each one is four bucks a pop or whatever it is, instead of just getting the digital thing printed for nothing. Right. And so maybe we're going to have something like that.

Lon Winters 

Like, yeah, I see that holding on to hope I'm retired at that point.

Marshall Atkinson 

Yeah, yeah, we'll see. Who knows. All right. Well, so thanks so much lawn, appreciate your sharing your story of success with us today. So if someone wants to learn more about what you do, or how maybe you can help them, what's the best way to contact you?

Lon Winters 

You can reach me at [email protected] for sure. Check out our site and fairly active on social media under my name, and under Graphic Elephants/

Marshall Atkinson 

Or see you at a trade show.

Lon Winters 

Or see it's not a trade show. Hopefully, by the time this airs. It'll be closer to that.

Marshall Atkinson 

All right, well, hey, thanks a lot, Lon. Appreciate you.

Lon Winters 

Absolutely, Marshall. Thanks for having me.

Lon Winters 

Well, that's our show today. Thanks for listening. And don't forget to subscribe so you can stay up to date on the latest Success Stories episodes. Have any suggestions for future guests or topics, send them my way and [email protected] and we'll see you next time.