LANCASTER, PA — Chris Newcomer conceived the name BigPlanetApparel on a trip to Costa Rica. "I love to travel, and our planet is such a fun place to explore," he says. "So BigPlanetApparel really fit in with what I wanted my life and my business to be about."
He became interested in the business while taking high school screen printing classes, and for years he toyed with the idea of starting his own screen printing shop. But it wasn't until his Costa Rica trip that the concept — and the name — took hold.
Newcomer began by piecing equipment together from Craigslist and Ebay, and set up shop in a friend's basement. "Initially the equipment was a hodgepodge from different manufacturers," he admits. In addition to an infrared conveyor dryer, a six color/four station press, and a flash cure unit, he purchased a used Vastex ultraviolet screen exposing unit.
In the early days, local churches and non-profits comprised most of BigPlanetApparel's customers. Volume grew as church members asked for T-shirts and sweats for their businesses. "Most of my business is word of mouth," says Newcomer, who also caters to local colleges and community groups.
New prepress equipment improves emulsion quality, cuts screen drying and exposing times over 90%
As business expanded, Newcomer's original equipment was not up to the task. "My conveyor dryer wouldn't maintain a consistent temperature, so I knew that it was on its way out," he says. Newcomer also needed a better way to dry screens after applying emulsion. "I was drying screens by fanning them," he says. "You get a fair amount of dirt and residue on the screens, and it doesn't make for good printing."
He also wanted to reduce his exposure times. With these goals in mind, he turned to Vastex International, Allentown, PA. "I had attended Vastex's A-to-Z screen printing class to sharpen my skills and got to see a lot of their equipment up close," he says.
For his first upgrade, Newcomer leased a 10-screen Dri-Vault VDC-2536 screen drying cabinet, which lowered his prep time from overnight to one hour. "I used to spend hours preparing screens and it was a huge waste of time," he says. "The Dri-Vault cabinet has adjustable heat, so I don't have to blast everything at the highest heat setting. And it has an internal fan so the heat is even and dries both sides of the screen rather than only one side."
To coat his screens with emulsion, Newcomer now uses a C-100 screen coater rack. Previously, he would lean his screens against the wall and hold them in place with his foot. "I would have to bend over pretty far, and it was causing wear and tear on my body." With the C-100 rack, Newcomer can fit screens of all popular sizes into the clamp and adjust the screen to a comfortable height, improving the ease and uniformity of the coating process.
Newcomer was still exposing screens with his original Expos-It E2227 unit but knew he needed to reduce his exposure times. "The Expos-It uses ultraviolet light, and if the bulbs were new it was a 12-minute exposure time," he says. "Toward the end of the bulb's life, it would take 15 to 20 minutes. And the bulbs had to be replaced almost every year, at $20 per bulb."
Instead of buying a new exposure unit, Newcomer retrofitted his existing one with an LED light pack, reducing exposure times to roughly one minute, while improving the resolution of halftones and line work. "It has radically changed how quickly I get things done," he says. The LED light pack reduces electric consumption and can last over 50,000 hours, significantly reducing operating and maintenance costs.
Adjustable conveyor dryer delivers repeatable results
Newcomer also leased a DB-30 infrared conveyor dryer, which can cure 130 shirts per hour. "I like that I can adjust the heat panel up for sweatshirts or down for T-shirts," he says. "The heat is also adjustable and super-consistent, so every shirt comes out at the same temperature as the one before."
The ability to add heating chambers and extend the belt was also important to Newcomer. "I haven't expanded it yet, but as my business grows that's what I will be doing."
With his new equipment, Newcomer has more time to devote to marketing his business. "Before, I felt like I was on a leash," he says. "Now I no longer have to worry about a 24- or 48-hour prep time for my screens, because I can get it done in an hour. The new equipment has given me the freedom to get out and bring in more business and service our customers, which is crucial."
Soon after receiving his new equipment, Newcomer was able to accept a job with a tight deadline that he would not have been able to meet previously. "On a Friday, the customer said he needed 60 sweatshirts and 100 T-shirts by Monday. I knew I could say yes to this job because of my new equipment. With my old setup I would have said no. And beyond forfeiting the sale, I may have lost the customer to a competitor who said yes."