Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

HARRISBURG, PA — It seems fitting that Hi Voltage Productions, Mike Ritchey's aptly named printing business, occupies a former 5,000 sq ft (465 sq m) electric power station. Everything about the print shop exudes energy, from colorful Rock and Roll artwork and memorabilia adorning the walls to a restored pinball machine from the '60s. But the main attraction in this eclectic warehouse is Ritchey's collection of screen printing equipment — the heart and soul of his business and a testament to how far he has come since his days as a bicycle courier in San Francisco.

"I started out as a motorcycle messenger, and that exposed me to the colorful, fun side of life," says Ritchey. "There was a lot of tattoo, bicycle, and hotrod culture, and everyone wanted T-shirts. The only printing shops around were big shops that didn't want to deal with a dozen of this or two dozen of that."

Ritchey began dabbling in T-shirt printing, reading books on the topic and honing his craft with hand-me-down equipment from friends in the business. Initially, printing was "just for fun" — an outlet for his creative talents alongside his love for tinkering (he built his first press out of wooden boards attached to a work table) and building custom choppers and low riders.

But as Ritchey's customer base began to grow, he knew it was time to take his business to the next level. Disheartened by ever-increasing rental rates, he and his wife Tracy left their small shop in San Francisco and moved to their current warehouse in Harrisburg, PA — the birthplace of Hi Voltage Productions.

Modular press answers call for higher output

While Ritchey retained many of his West Coast clients, his business began to expand nationally. "Our customers are everybody," he says. "Rock and roll bands, theater groups, car clubs, bars. Everyone wants T-shirts."

In addition to running an automatic press he purchased from a friend, Ritchey used an old 6 color/4 station manual press from his days in San Francisco. Business was booming, but Ritchey's outdated printing equipment couldn't keep up with demand and began to falter. "I used to do four-dozen pieces, and suddenly we had requests for 1,200 of this and 1,500 of that," he says. "I was running older presses that weren't very well calibrated, or expandable in any way. We'd be here until three in the morning, and there'd be a lot of swearing because one print would come out perfect and all of a sudden the registration would wander off, and the next print would be off an eighth of an inch."

On the advice of a friend, Ritchey visited Vastex's showroom in Allentown, PA, where he purchased a 6 color/6 station V-2000HD manual press. "It was incredible," he recalls. "We brought it back in a cargo van and set it up in 40 minutes." With his new Vastex press up and running alongside his automatic press and his older manual press, Ritchey was able to meet last-minute job requests without pulling all-nighters.

"Anything under 150 pieces we'll run on the V-2000HD because it's so fast," he says. "I can be set up and printing in 10 minutes, and almost finished with the job by the time the automatic's set up."

Within a year, Ritchey upgraded the V-2000HD to an eight color/eight station press. "I love the fact that the equipment grows with you and is truly upgradeable," he says. "I switched the press out to an eight-by-eight in two hours, and it was easy."

Adding two more arms and pallets upped Ritchey's output and allowed him to run multiple jobs simultaneously — both on the V-2000HD itself, which runs two or three jobs simultaneously, as well as in conjunction with his other two screen printing presses. "With three presses, we are bouncing around from one to another," he says. "It really helps production because I don't have to wait for a press to be available to put the next job on."

Spot-on registration renders reproducible results

While Ritchey is impressed with the V-2000HD's structural soundness (he says the pallets are strong enough to sit on or use as a ladder), the high point for him is the press's registration. "It's unbelievably quick to register, and the registration is impeccable," he says. "I can register a simulated process in eight minutes, which would take me an hour on the other presses, and the registration would wander."

The 6-way leveling and off-contact knobs allow Ritchey to adjust the print heads incrementally for repeatable accuracy. "We do a lot of art prints for bands, and they want crazy graphics. If we didn't have perfect registration they would look terrible."

With the V-2000HD manual press, Ritchey produces quality prints from the get-go. "I lock in the screens, set the registration, and the print looks awesome on the very first test run," he says. "In the old days, we'd burn through test material, doing print after print, trying to adjust the registration and wondering why it was an eighth of an inch off."

Versatile dryers regulate temperature, boost profits

Having upgraded his press, Ritchey soon realized that he needed a better dryer. "We had this awesome press, and we were really cranking out the work, but our 40-year-old dryer couldn't keep up," he says.

Ritchey returned to Vastex and purchased an EconoRed II 30 infrared conveyor dryer with a 30 in. (76 cm) wide belt. The unit's compact size makes it easy to wheel around the crowded warehouse floor. Ritchey is also impressed with the Digital PID temperature controller, which is accurate to +/-1°F. "My last dryer didn't have digital technology, so the temperature would be 20 degrees one way or 30 degrees the other way," he notes. "We were either under-curing shirts or burning them."

The EconoRed dryer has adjustable belt-to-heater height to accommodate bulky items like hoodies, and is equipped with an exhaust system that cools the outer cabinet while evacuating moisture and fumes. Typically, Ritchey cures 150 to 200 T-shirts an hour on the EconoRed II 30 — although he has cured as many as 350 T-shirts an hour.

With the upswing in production, Ritchey still needed to turn up the heat, so he bought a second Vastex dryer: The DB-30, a compact conveyor dryer with a 30 in. (76 cm) belt that cures up to 130 pieces an hour. "The DB-30 is the perfect secondary dryer for small shops," says Ritchey. "With just one dryer, we could only run two presses at one time, and there were plenty of times I'd have to go to my office and wait for the dryer to become available."

The second dryer paid for itself in a week and a half and has increased Ritchey's productivity by 30 percent. "With two dryers I can run all three presses at the same time," he says. "That's where the profits lie."

Ritchey doesn't plan to stop there. He hopes to replace his old 6 color/4 station manual press with a 6 color/6 station V-2000HD in the near future, bumping up production another 15 to 20%. "Any printer will tell you when your presses are spinning you're making money," says Ritchey. "Vastex's machines took me to the next level without breaking the bank."

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Tracy Ritchey removes a printed one-color tee.

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Mike Ritchey fits a shirt onto a sleeve pallet of his V-2000HD 8-color, 8-station press (left) and locks the print head into a registration gate, ready for printing (right).

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Mike prints a one-color image onto a sleeve tacked onto a V2-Series sleeve pallet.

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Because the print head always locks into the "gate" at the same position, Mike Ritchey's adjustment of off-contact has no effect on the angle or position of the screen relative to the pallet.

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

After upgrading their V-2000HD press to eight colors and eight stations, Mike and Tracy can run multiple jobs simultaneously, and with different size pallets.

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Tracy Ritchey loads garments onto the 30 in. (76 cm) wide belt of the EconoRed II 30 infrared dryer, keeping pace with the eight-by-eight manual press.

Manual Printing Press Transforms Hobby into High-Wattage Business

Tees printed by Hi Voltage Productions.