BRIDGMAN, MI — Doyle Rogers is not only good at making signs; he's good at reading them. So when he took over his father's sign shop in 2003, he soon realized the company was missing out on a lucrative business opportunity.
"Art-Fx Signs & Graphics focused on vehicle graphics and signage," says Rogers. "But after owning the business for a couple of years it became apparent that our sign shop clientele were the same customers who were purchasing apparel."
In the late '90s, Rogers' father had dabbled in screen printing, so Rogers dusted off the shop's old equipment — a three-color, one-station tabletop press and a flash dryer — and began taking orders for custom-printed merchandise.
According to Rogers, work was slow at first, and the equipment was limiting. But as word spread and orders ensued, he bought a secondhand six-color, four-station manual press and a small conveyor dryer.
"Our business has thrived on word of mouth," says Rogers. "Our customers are small businesses, local breweries, and schools. We print a lot of T-shirts, jerseys, and uniforms for little league baseball and softball teams."
Adaptable press also handles athletic numbering
While the six-color, four-station press served its purpose, the machine was old, and Rogers found that it could not hold registration. "A lot of parts were worn and out of whack," he says. "It needed fine-tuning, and looked like it would cost a lot to fix, so we decided to buy a Vastex V-2000HD six-color, four-station press. "It was a huge improvement over what we had before," he admits. "We didn't have to worry about the registration moving."
Rogers can also adjust the registration on the fly with a couple of levers. "With our old press, we had to use a wrench to adjust the off-contact of a screen," he says. "Sometimes we had to make adjustments with every job, so this was a huge upgrade for us."
The new press also has a rear-clamp system, which differed from Rogers' previous side-clamp press: "With a side-clamp system the lateral movement of your screen is limited," he explains. "The rear-clamp system gives you more freedom to move your screen left and right and accommodate larger screens if needed."
The rear-clamp press also allowed Rodgers to invest in a DiGiT™ athletic numbering system for sports jerseys and T-shirts. The system uses two screens, each with 5 numbers that slide left and right and lock into position for each number. It also compensates for the thinner #1 by reducing the extra space between an adjacent number, while centering the entire two-digit number.
"The numbering system is versatile," says Rogers. "You can print the number 11 on one shirt and 45 on the next shirt without removing the screen from the press."
Prior to using the numbering system, Rogers numbered garments by applying vinyl heat transfers to the jerseys with a heat press. "It was time consuming, and there were inconsistencies," he says. "Also, when we started doing more performance fabrics, like moisture-wicking shirts, the heat transfers didn't adhere well.
Equipment upgrades relieve bottlenecks
Each spring, Art-Fx Signs & Graphics faces an influx of business as tourists flock to the area and businesses ramp up advertising. The shop is also inundated with orders for baseball uniforms and other sports apparel, according to Rogers.
"During certain times of the year the work piles up, and we would have a two-week backlog on our screen printing orders," notes Rogers. "One person and one press could no longer support the workload, so we purchased a second V-2000 HD, identical to the first press except with four colors instead of six."
Rogers added an EconoRed™ II conveyor dryer with a 54 in. (137 cm) belt, thereby doubling the capacity of his previous dryer and allowing both presses to feed into the new dryer. "We previously couldn't have a second person screen printing because the conveyor dryer was unable to keep up," Rogers remarks. "We also gain control over the drying process because we can adjust the temperature, speed, and height of the heater."
In addition to the conveyor dryer, Rogers purchased a Vastex 18 x 18 in. (46 x 46 cm) RedFlash™ flash cure unit with an AutoFlash™ upgrade. The AutoFlash device rotates the head of the flash cure unit into place above the pallet with the touch of a foot pedal and automatically rotates the head away from the pallet after a user-adjustable dwell time has elapsed.
"The flash cure allows us to cure a larger area compared to our previous unit," says Rogers. "We also have better control over the amount of time each print is flashed. Before, if we paused the printing process for a few seconds, we had to move the flash dryer out of the way before it scorched the shirts or over-flashed the prints."
Rogers also invested in a Vastex E-2000 LED screen exposing unit. "The LED bulbs are more efficient and faster at exposing a screen, so what used to take five minutes now takes 10 to 20 seconds," he says. "There's no bottleneck to burning screens anymore."
The screen exposing unit's vacuum hold-down produces a tight screen-to-film contact, which yields greater detail and crisp images. Prior to the upgrade, Rogers had to stack weight on top of his exposure unit to press the image against the glass in an attempt to simulate a vacuum hold.
According to Rogers, the new equipment has boosted efficiency: "For an entire year, we had a two-week backlog, and we couldn't take on any more work. Now we're in a position where we can."
"I think we're going to outgrow our space in the next few years," he says. "When we do, we will make similar equipment upgrades and potentially hire more people."