A Conversation with John Freismuth

President of Empire Screen Printing

Paul Mills, moderator of the UV LED Community recently sat down with John Freismuth, President of discuss the switch to UV LED light sources. Here are some highlights of that discussion.

A Conversation with John Freismuth, President of Empire Screen Printing, Onalaska, Wisconsin

Empire Screen Printing has been recognized as a manufacturer of the year for their leadership in using new technology to create a better workplace, and a better environment.  After years of R&D with insutry partners, Empire introduced a new approach to screen printing using UV LEDs instead of mercury-based light sources.  The company has continued to improve their business b embracing lean technology.  We talked to Empire’s President, Joh Freismuth about his company’s decision to switch to LED, and the impact that has had on their operation.

What made Empire consider switching to UV LED technology?

Well, initially the drivers were the environmental and health and safety aspects. For example, we like that no ozone is produced, and we don’t need a big exhaust system.  Our workers don’t have to be exposed to dangerous UV, or handle mercury lamps. We also thought that LED would be less costly to run, with a large energy savings. It wasn’t until after we started using the UV LED system that we saw the process improvements. The LED process also fit well into our decision to develop a leaner, cellular manufacturing approach.  Had we not moved towards a leaner way to manufacture back in 2008, we might not have survived those tough times.

What kind of process improvements did you find?

It took three years of research and development with our partners, Kammann, Nazdar, and Phoseon, to get going, and today we have four production lines using UV LED technology. We have seen a string of improvements from raw materials to how we handle the finish product.  Take for example the benefits of a large reduction in heat from the UV lamps.  Since stacking sheets retain heat for a long time, using conventional UV meant we had to allow much more time for sheets to cool before stacking them. Now, with LEDs, the product comes off the press at 70F-80F. That lower heat also causes less distortion, and that results in better print registration.

But our biggest improvement is in the area of print consistency. Mercury lamps degrade and that introduces more variability, due to insufficient cure, into the process. We see far less variability using UV LEDs, and much less downtime is required to fix or maintain the system. For instance, our mercury lamps used to have a useful lifetime of 1,000 hours, now we can run for years with the LED system.

What improvements are you continuing to see in the technology?

Inks have gotten much better since 2008. Some colors originally showed differences in color when cured with LEDs, but those problems have been addressed. There are now more ink companies supplying good products and a wider pallet of choices for our customers to choose from. For example today we also work with Sun Chemical on some really great LED curable inks.

Higher output light sources have made a big difference in how fast we can run. We began with 4-watt LED arrays, but we needed to run at 165 feet per minute, and they were not strong enough for that, now at 12W we can run at those production speeds. We have even tested at 16W, which would give us even more flexibility in adjusting distances of the lamps, and press speeds.  Where we used to run with 4W lamps at 1/16” from the surface we can now run 12W lamps at 5/16” from the surface and at higher speed.

Were there any major concerns or obstacles?

Capital cost was a concern. The LED system carried a premium.  But we saw that this initial cost was more than offset by lower long term cost savings.  This allows us to do things differently today than in the past. We are operating in a much leaner manufacturing  environment, that gives us better flexibility and turn-around times than ever. The Kammann press can also accomplish much of the post-press jobs. Instead of shipping the printed material off to five or six different stations, the Eco Press can print, laminate, split and die cut and pack jobs in one continuous process. With this equipment we can do in one day what used to be 15- to 20-day jobs.”

We saw a quick 4-5 year payback on the investment. Compare a mercury 3 color 12x14 press with an equivalent UV LED press. After five years, the LED machine saves over a quarter of a million dollars in operating costs.

What do you see as the role of UV LED technology in the future?

We started this work with Kammann in 2008 with a single color on sheets, because  there were problems with ink technology. Roll to roll processing wasn’t ready. We later worked with Sun Chemical to get the roll to roll process up and running. stepped in. Now we see using LED in our other processes, beyond screen printing. We are proud to be a leader in this area, but we are not shy about sharing the potential with others.  We have had more than 70 competitors tour our plant to see what UV LED technology can do. Some competitors have become customers who have bought product from our company.

To learn more about the services offered by Empire Screen Printing, visit http://empirescreen.com/