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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: That’s Weird. How Do They Do That?

Have you ever picked up a mug or a golf ball with a particularly interesting graphic and wondered how the manufacturer could possibly have printed it? After all, if most presses print flat images on flat substrates, just how can a graphic be printed on an irregular surface?

Or think about functional or industrial printing, in which the graphics are intended for informational rather than design or promotional purposes. How can a commercial printing supplier put a logo and text on the face plate of an appliance or a piece of electrical equipment when the surface is uneven?

Printing on Industrial Control Panels

I read an article today on Screen Web. “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska (3/18/03) raises some intriguing issues in describing how to print on control boxes and other industrial components.

When you think about it, there are three options:

    1. pad printing (a direct printing option)


    1. decal printing (an indirect method, which is not as attractive or durable as the other options)


  1. and screen printing (a direct printing option)

Pad Printing

The first option, which I have described in prior blog articles, involves transferring an image from a gravure custom printing plate onto a silicone pad (like a bulb), and from the pad onto an irregular substrate (concave, convex, spherical, cylindrical, or uneven). For example, you would use such a process to print an image on a spherical golf ball. Since the silicone pad is flexible, it will compress as it is pressed down onto the golf ball, and the silicone surface will conform to the irregular surface as it deposits the ink.

Frecska’s article notes that such a technique might be appropriate for printing on an industrial control panel or box; however, the silicone pads are somewhat fragile. Therefore, the printing process would quickly damage them. The bolt heads and other protrusions on the industrial control panel would tear up the pad and require its frequent replacement.

In addition, silicone pads cannot be stored for long (and they quickly degrade, unlike custom screen printing equipment, for instance).

Finally, according to Frecska’s article, pad printing inks don’t adhere well to powder coated metal surfaces.

Printing and Affixing Decals

Frecska’s article goes on to note that decals would be another option for decorating a control panel with an irregular surface. For instance, you might print one decal for a logo, and then another decal for pertinent numbers or other information about the control panel. Then you would apply these to the powder coated metal individually. This way you could avoid all the metal pieces that stick up off the surface of the control panel.

The problem with this approach, according to Frecska’s article, is that in some cases regulatory agencies require that such functional printing be permanently attached to the surface of the control panel (or other industrial item). Adhesives of any kind are apparently not considered adequate. Therefore, you might even need to add rivets to the adhesive labels, which would not be efficient.

Furthermore, if you decide not to produce a series of individual small labels but rather to diecut holes for the protruding bolts and tags in one large label so it will lay flat, this process can become very expensive.

Screen Printing

In such a case as printing on an irregular surface of a control panel or box, custom screen printing would be ideal except for the fact that the bolts and other protruding elements of the control panel face plate would tear the screen. Or they would keep the screen from laying flat against the control panel or box. (For custom screen printing to work, the screen must maintain adequate contact with the substrate.)

So “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska proposes an innovative solution. Cut holes in the screen to accommodate all the protruding parts of the control panel, or other industrial equipment, on which you’re printing.

Frecska notes that such a process would need to be manual (some custom screen printing is automated). However, he does not see this as being a problem since the print runs for such components are usually very small (100 to 1,000 copies).

Why This Is Relevant

You may wonder how this pertains to your work, particularly if you never produce design jobs for industrial or functional printing.

More than anything, an article like Frecska’s “Printing on Porcupines” can challenge you to ask the question, “How did they do that?” when you see a printed product that intrigues you.

In addition, this expanded mindset might lead you to consider not just one option, but rather multiple options, for custom printing your job. The more printing techniques you understand, the more options you have, and the more likely you are to find the most economical and most effective printing process for your particular project.

Finally, an article like “Printing on Porcupines” can open your mind to just how broad the field of custom printing really is. It extends well beyond promotional and educational materials into a huge realm of industrial or functional printing opportunities.

Nothing can benefit your career, or your craft, like keeping an open mind and expanding your awareness.

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