Educators who want their kids to leave school with marketable skills have a new option for their printing and design classes: industrial printing machines, supplied through a partnership with a national trade organization and local companies.

Oshkosh, Wis., North High School students T.J. Gohde and Aaron Tomason know the subtle details and nuances of the school’s new flexography machine so well they could be professional printers. Their teachers hope these two represent the next generation of print shop class.

According to the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), flexography (flexo for short) is a simple and economical print method of direct rotary printing that uses resilient relief image plates of rubber or polymer material.

Plates are mounted on a rotary cylinder on a press equipped with from one to 12 color stations. The ink is fast-drying and is applied to a printing plate by way of a finely engraved rotary cylinder called an anilox roll.

Flexo can print just about any size job, from small labels to large boxes. Flexo presses can print on almost any type of substrate, from corrugated board to flexible plastic film, to textiles and cloth fabrics.

It took Oshkosh North High School two years to raise the more than $33,000 needed to bring the machine to its graphic arts and design classes. But school officials say it’s worth the time and effort: The flexography equipment is training the next generation of print shop workers and helping an industry that’s been yearning for skilled workers for 10 years.

“That’s what’s great about it,” Gohde said. “It gives us the ability to say, ‘We know what we’re doing.'”

The school got the machine at the beginning of the school year, and two semesters’ worth of students have used it to experiment on everything from goofy stickers to commercial packaging.

That’s what makes the machine so important in training students, said graphics arts teacher Michael Koslowski. It can print on material that makes up about 85 percent of all commercial printing.

Oshkosh North High School was the fourth school in the country to become involved with the FTA’s “Flexo in the High School” (FIHS) project, which now has 20 schools participating nationwide.

“It’s definitely cutting-edge, but you have to analyze if this is useful for your area of the country,” said Koslowski.

The $54,305 machine’s manufacturer, Comco International of Ohio, donated $21,070 toward the purchase. Through the sale of the high school’s old press machine and budget allocations, the school system came up with nearly $16,000. Local and regional corporate donors and the FTA provided a comparable amount.

“Being involved with [the FTA] really brought everything together for us,” said Koslowski.

According to the association, the FIHS program is a win-win proposition for schools and professional flexographers.

“The FIHS program is an opportunity for young people to start preparing for a career while still in high school. It is a program combining academics, occupational [and] technical instruction, and work-based learning with an employer,” the group says. “Students learn marketable skills and complete the program with a good chance of employment immediately after graduating, while industry benefits through the establishment of a pool of trained individuals with a basic understanding of the flexo technology.”

That’s great for kids interested in printing, many of whom otherwise would aim for careers in graphic design, said Koslowski.

“In our area there are a lot of companies involved in flexopgraphic printing, and they really need flexograph operators,” he said. “Many of our students would go into design, but that market seems to be saturated, and companies say they want people to work the presses.”

Understanding how to use complex industrial machinery such as a flexograph means almost immediate employment, said Koslowski. Students who want to receive further instruction also can go on to a local technical college for additional training.

To participate in the FIHS program, a high school must have an existing graphic arts program or the intention of implementing one.

The school then must find an “industry champion,” or a local company involved in flexography. Once that has taken place, a meeting can be arranged between school officials, industry supporters, and the FTA to discuss each party’s role in the process.

Once a school secures commitments, it can submit an application to the FTA. If the group approves the application, the school can place orders for the equipment needed, including a narrow-web press, a platemaker, a platemounter, anilox rolls, and tooling for the press.

Links:

Oshkosh Area School District
http://www.oshkosh.k12.wi.us

Flexographic Technical Association’s High School Program
http://www.flexography.org/online/education