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Over the last several decades, the U.S. decorating industry has been battered by competition from the Far East. First we experienced the importation of inexpensive ware, which was decorated and fired in the U.S. Then the hand-painted, lower-end products made their way into the country. Next, products decorated with decals begin to arrive. Now, a large portion of high-end products is being manufactured in China and shipped to the U.S. for distribution and sale. This is true even for many of the upscale tableware producers in America.
What’s left in the market for the U.S. decorating industry? It is definitely not decorating with slow, laborious processes. For the industry to remain viable, we must move forward with the implementation of automated decorating technology.
A Cooperative EffortFor decal printers, this means a strong commitment to the development of heat release decals. We must find new ways to produce better, more economical and technically sound heat release decals that fit a wide range of decorating needs. This will be accomplished by pushing our vendors and ourselves to find innovative solutions to the roadblocks we encounter. We should question the paper companies about the best carrier sheet to use for these decals. Should it be coated with wax, silicone or some other release agent? Do we use the best colors and mediums to give us the performance needed for quick transfers under high temperatures? Can we perfect the use of precious metals on heat release decals?
For decorators, implementing automated technologies will require constant reevaluation of current practices and a willingness to explore new ideas. By creating a demand for new solutions, decorators can help ensure that our industry will continue to move forward.
Integrating techniques, equipment, materials and processes that are used in other industries will also help our industry forge ahead with automated decorating. Many non-traditional vendors might have products that can work for us. For many years, ink manufacturers have formulated heat transfer inks for non-fire applications that require the permanent marking of plastic, wood, metal and glass. Why can’t we incorporate some of these different raw materials into our processes?
Heat release does not address all the problems we face in our industry, but its implementation puts us on course to competitiveness. Many improvements can be associated with heat release transfers. For example, a reduction in labor costs and repeatable, precise positioning of images makes for better and less expensive finished goods. Additionally, the elimination of water from the decorating process adds speed by allowing immediate firing of ware and eliminating the need to maintain a staging area where decaled ware must sit to dry. A cooperative effort on the part of the designer, decal printer and decorator is imperative for success in developing products that can take full advantage of the automated application of decals.
Embracing New TechnologiesWhether applying decals, pad printing, banding or any other form of decorating, automation should not be considered lightly. It is a necessity for the survival of decorating in America. Even though many shops have some automation in place presently, we cannot be satisfied with the systems that have been in place for many years. Refining and adding to automated systems must occur continually.
Technology and innovation are the only tools we have to keep decorating viable in this country. Most of the manufacturing that has vanished will not return. Yet there is a still a need for the manufacture of a product that can be brought to market with tremendous speed, efficiency, economy and added value. As the life cycle of most goods continues to be shortened, our response time to market changes takes on a greater role and gives us new opportunities in today’s market. We must identify those specific areas where we can generate the most impact and engage them quickly.
This is the time of year when our industry will gather at the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorators annual show, DECO 2003. I hope we all take advantage of the opportunity presented at this year’s show to enhance our knowledge of the new developments and products available for decorating.