By Jack Kenny | September 2, 2009

From labels to printed electronics to product assembly, this Massachusetts converter is a true one-stop shop for its high-tech customers.

Motorists who drive through Lawrence, MA, USA on Interstate 495 will learn easily what takes place inside the white building beside the highway. The name is Techprint, and in large white letters are the company's specialties: labels, graphic overlays, custom membrane switches, and contract assembly. What is not mentioned on the outside of the plant is a technology that is well known to a growing group of companies who are customers of Techprint: printed electronics.

Techprint has been involved in the printed electronics business for more than half of its 36 years, quietly blazing trails in an industry that today is beginning to attract global attention. The company's capabilities include a broad range of printing and converting processes: rollfed and sheetfed screen printing, flexographic printing, hot stamp printing, digital printing, pad printing, laser diecutting, rotary diecutting, CNC routing, embossing, laminating, plastic molding, and contract product assembly. Unlike companies that focus on making parts of the assemblies, Techprint specializes in manufacturing the entire product.

Paul Durant Sr. and Jr. of Techprint
Armed with a background in printing, Paul J. Durant Sr. launched the company in 1973. "We started printing on plastic films, making durable product identifications such as graphic overlays. My customers would say, 'I don't want to put this graphic overlay or applique onto the metal backer or onto the PC board, so can you assemble it for me?' That's what drove me to more value added applications. Then they might ask for a display built into the product, a connector, a cable array. Finally they asked if we could assemble the whole product. So the market drove us to build the entire product."

The company grew because of Durant's close involvement with ink makers, primarily for screen inks. "We had to get very involved with the ink manufacturing companies; we worked with them on how to use their products and what we wanted the inks to do. The big silver conductive ink manufacturers would say that we had to bake everything, but we would say 'No, we want to print it in volume, run it under a UV light or an oven and be able to cure it inline, continuously.' So they had to develop the solvents in their inks to be able to drive those silver conductive inks faster."

Paul J. Durant Jr. virtually grew up in the business, and today is national sales manager for the company, which has about $14 million in annual sales.

The rollfed screen press at Techprint has both high capacity hot air drying and UV curing.
"Screen printing is definitely our dominant process, and it's what people come to us for," says Paul Jr. "We have 10 different printing processes within our facility to satisfy a wide variety of product offerings. We are probably around 60 percent keyboard, membrane switches, printed electronic products; and about 40 percent straight labels, graphic overlays and products of that nature. We have become a one-stop shop for many of our customers. They'll buy the keyboard, but a lot of their equipment needs warning labels, and maybe a UL symbol label, a bar code, a serial number label, or different types of ID labels for ports and plugs. That's all done with graphic overlays now. Instead of them having to print directly on metal, we print directly onto a piece of plastic. It's more cost effective to print an overlay and affix it. You can change the colors, it's more durable. You won't ruin an expensive piece of metal by misprinting it.

"A lot of supplier companies come to us," Paul Jr. adds, "whether they are an ink manufacturer or a film manufacturer, because we have some of the most robust screen printing equipment around, with some of the highest curing parameters in our ovens, along with our UV curing capabilities. We are also very willing to work with them on 'never been done before' new product development projects."

About 30 percent of Techprint's business is in the medical field, and a great deal of that is for contract manufacturers. One example of the company's printed electronics work is biosensors – layered, flexible products used for tests on various aspects of the body. While the company is bound in most cases not to divulge most details of the products it produces, a general description can be obtained.

A typical biosensor, says Paul Jr., starts with a polyester film. "We print on both sides, with a silver conductive ink technology, a silver silver chloride ink technology, dielectric inks, and then we apply some medical grade foams and medical grade adhesives for skin applications, and finally provide the connector solution on the end to form a working biosensor. A lot of the biosensor products we make here represent the trend to eliminate invasive diagnostics and make them non-invasive and more comfortable for the patient."

Complete inspection and traceability

The technicians at Techprint test all products 100 percent, say the Durants. "We test for continuity, resistance specifications, and we print out a pass/fail, serialized per part," says Paul Jr. "With medical products, we need to have complete traceability and lot control, what ink we use, what material we use, when we printed it, how we printed it, what screen mesh we used, what squeegee pressure, what oven temperature, what temperature in the room, what humidity in the room – all that has to be recorded for every job we do. So that if something fails in the field, that company will come down the chain and come to us to help determine what failed. We can identify the supplier of a product, and the customer can go to the supplier to identify the problem or the contamination in the product."

Quality control from the customer perspective has changed dramatically over the years, notes Paul Sr. "Today they want to make sure we have an operation with proper procedures so that we can produce their product over and over again without variation.

"We have had five medical manufacturing facility audits in the past six months, each taking three or four days. They come in with a team and go over all of our ISO:9000 procedures, documentation, record keeping, how we can prove that we are a world class manufacturer/producer, producing consistent product on time, economically, and 100 percent run-to-run and batch-to-batch. You have to show that you can do that, so that they will approve you as a manufacturing facility.

"Techprint's certification to the ISO:9000 standard demonstrates our company-wide commitment to quality at all levels of the organization," says Paul Sr.

R&D focus

The Durants and their team – which includes six engineers with strong backgrounds in electronics and plastics – devote quite a bit of time to product development.

"It's either the fast track or the slow track," says Paul Sr. "The fast track can be two weeks from R&D to the finished piece. Then you have others that are pushing two years. They try different materials, want an electrode moved around, the connection changed, the cables reorganized, a more flexible foam used, and so forth."

"When we receive an order we have a preliminary design meeting with the customer," says Paul Jr. "A lot of times they give us a strong user input spec, or they give us limited information, and we have to pull it out of them. Then we will generate all of our approval documents, all of our drawings, make sure we get everything correct – sizes, laydowns, etc. – have them sign off on that. Then we do a first article run, a small production run. We give them the prototype samples, then they sign off on those, it's released to production, and we to go manufacturing. We have complete document control systems to handle any changes."

A routing diecutter at work on a display panel
"We grew during the last four recessions, and last year we had our best year," says the elder Durant. "This year the first quarter was a little slow, but second quarter was up. We have a ton of new products in process, but no one's ordering the volumes right now. We have 38 brand new products that we worked on in the first and second quarters of this year, and all of our customers are not introducing these new medical devices because there is less funding. No one wants to introduce a medical device if no one's buying anything, because the first 90 days is when they measure the profitability of a new product. Companies are working on just making prototypes and product improvements. We keep getting orders for the first half of this year for 10 pieces, 20 pieces, 50 pieces." He adds that the company has been handling between 425 and 450 separate orders per week. "And more than 80 percent of those are repeat orders."

Paul Sr. jokes about the extremely short run orders, but says they have their benefit. "Do you realize how many new products we worked on in the last year and a half? And if every one of those customers ordered just a thousand, our sales would double next year."

Techprint has quite a bit of competition in the New England region, but many of the companies focus on narrow aspects of production, the Durants say.

"Our biggest sales help is a facility tour," says Paul Sr. "We have an open door policy, and our customers come in and they see it all throughout the production area."

"We grow out of these recessions, I think, because of the way we perform to our customers," says his son. "We help them develop their product, we help them make it marketable, we help them make it manufacturable, so that when everything starts to turn around, we should see exponential growth."