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Understanding the True Costs of Pad Printing

What does ink cost?

There probably isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t get this question.  In this post, we will answer the ultimate question, “what does it cost to pad print”?  We will also show why the TTN pad printers are the absolute best choices for maximizing output while helping you understand the importance of efficiency in pad printing.  So sit back and relax while we help you understant the true costs of pad printing by first studying ink prices.

One of the main issues many people dwell on before taking the leap into pad printing is the cost of ink. Many get hung up on the cost of ink. I can assure you this is a non-issue on a per part basis, especially when compared to other forms of placing messages on parts, like stickers.

The difficulty of trying to isolate the ink costs for a pad printed part are there are many variables affecting the price. Image size, ink cup size, multiple colors, substrate type, all influence this number. Some image sizes are very large. For example the Universal 200 can mark a 3 inch by 7 inch image size in closed ink cup format. This uses far more ink than using the manual HP120 that marks a maximum image size of around 2 inches in diameter. Simply stated, placing more expensive ink with a larger mark will cost more than using a lower priced ink for a smaller image.

Furthermore, ink colors and types affect the hardener and thinner required, which affect the price of the ink. Smaller ink cups contain smaller amounts of ink but also use smaller amounts of ink due to the maximum image size. 

Generally speaking, machines including the TTN HP Manual Series, the TTN Universal series and TTN Professional Series, all have ink cups that allow a setup to run for approximately a full 8 hour shift. This allows users to setup the ink cup once and run parts until a shift is over. This also aligns with most two component inks (ink with hardener) which have a gel time that is approximately 8 hours. Two component inks start to solidify at the 8 hour mark so cleanup is required.

With this said, one can make some assumptions and some averaging to gain an approximate understanding on what these ink costs are for each part.

One must also come to accept that most of the time companies end up throwing away more ink than anticipated, as experience has shown most people mix the ink for the job, print the job, and must throw the rest of the remaining ink away.

Many ttn machines, including the Universal series, can use different size ink cups which can help lower the setup costs and reduce the amount of ink remaining at the end of a job.

Universal Series Ink Cups

A TTN Universal 90 series ink cup can contain around 50 grams of ink.  Assuming hardener is also required at 10% and thinner at around 15%, we can then start to do some math to show what the true ink costs are.

Some further assumptions and averages need to be done, as well.  Ink costs today range from $70 to $130 per kilogram for most standard pad printing inks (1 kg = 1000 grams).  Hardeners range from $30 to $70 for approximately 200 grams and thinner is around $30-$50 per liter.  Our average ink price for this exercise will be $100, our average hardener price will be $50 per 200 grams, and our average thinner price will be $40/liter.  We will also need to assume 1 gram of thinner equals 1 milliliter.

So let’s assume we fill our ink cup with 50 grams of ink, 5 grams (10%) of hardener and 7.5 grams (15%) of thinner.

Doing the math we need 50 grams of ink ($100/1000 grams=$0.10 per gram), 5 grams of hardener ($50/200 grams=$0.25 per gram) and 7.5 grams of thinner ($40/1000 grams = $0.04 per gram).

To setup our ink cup, the math looks like this:

50 grams of ink @ $0.10 per gram = $5.00
5 grams of hardener @ $0.25 per gram = $1.25
7.5 grams of thinner @ $0.04 per gram = $0.30

To fill our ink cup with 62.5 grams of product (ink, thinner, and hardener) will cost $6.55.

This will allow the machine to run all day using the Universal 90’s ninety millimeter ink cup putting an average size 2.5 inch image on a part.  Remember, most of the time pad printers end up throwing away ink after each job, as it is simply not used.

The next assumption has to be made in our model and that is the output of the machine with the operator.  In my years of experience I have seen most pad printing company’s operators print between 500 to 700 parts per hour.  There are always variation as very complex-shaped items can severely limit this number, while other operators can operate at a very high output, even exceeding 800 prints.  Even though the average is around 600 parts per hour, let’s just assume our new operator is operating at this lower limit of 600 parts per hour.

In an 8-hour shift an operator should be able to print approximately 4,000 parts with a couple breaks.  

Assuming the ink cost of $6.55 we can now divide by the 4,000 parts to find what the ink costs are over that timeframe.  $6.55/4,000 parts = $0.001637 per part.  This means the ink cost is nearly 1/10th of a penny for each image.  

Now if we go back to the first paragraph where we compare this to stickers, we can clearly see stickers have higher direct cost versus pad printing ink.

However, we also need to take into account the machinery cost, labor, and other items.  We will tackle that in further posts.  It is important to realize, though, that one of the biggest differentiators in this is the overall output.  A person placing stickers accurately on a part versus a fixtured pad printing mark will be dramatically different.  When accuracy is taken into consideration a beautiful pad printed mark can be centered and look far more professional taking a fraction of the time stickers can be placed.

Therefore, pad printing is a great solution versus manual sticker placement and even tagless printing of t-shirts, in not only total output but overall cost.

As one can see, there are many items to consider in the decision to pad print but if we take some averages and try to isolate variables with these averages we see final part images can really be just several pennies to put your image on a product.

Consumables (Other Than Ink) Cost

Pad, plates, rings and fixtures are all items that do wear, can wear, or are item specific uses. These all need to be accounted for in the cost per part to print images. For this illustration I am going to assume a 50,000 part production. Many times productions will be only several dozen, so items like cliches (printing plates) and fixtures will need to be more temporary and lower cost. For higher volume applications, a consideration would be to have a longer lasting thick steel cliche, which can last over a million prints, and using high quality metal fixtures.

Starting with pads, we need to make some assumptions. We know that printing on t-shirts will allow the pad to last hundreds of thousands of prints. The opposite is true for printing on items with sharp edges or complex shapes. This is very debatable as the averages differs greatly depending on the part printed. Many of our customers seem to go through a pad every 50,000 parts. The average pad today costs around $75, which means the per part price is $75/50,000 prints = $0.0015 per print.

As with other items in this illustration, plate costs need to be averaged. For this exercise we will use a water wash plate and purchase it directly from Automark. The size of the average one color plate is approximately 100×225 mm. The Universal 90 uses one slightly larger, because it can also easily print larger formats.  The TTN HP90 and Professional one color machine uses one slightly smaller. At the time of this writing plates cost about $75 to make a plate with film (or a laser plate).

Assuming operators only place one image on the plate and that the plate is used to it’s entirety (which is about 50,000 prints), we can then derive the following per print cost from the plate. $75/50,000 prints = $0.0015.

However, did you know all TTN machines allow two at least two images to be placed on each plate, reducing the per image price by 50%?  TTN YL50 aluminum laser plates can contain up to four images per plate. This allows the above number to be halved or even quartered depending on those variables. But for simplicity we are only going to place one image per plate.

To lower the plate price further, many companies take plate production in-house where they place multiple images on a plate, driving the per image price from our illustration of $75 down to just a few dollars, as they batch process them in equipment they would have to purchase and learn to operate. For more information on this, please contact an Automark representative.

Fixture costs can vary widely. A two kilogram container of our knead silicone putty can make many great fixtures per container that last 10 to 20 thousand prints. On the other end of the spectrum is a complicated milled metal fixture which can run thousands of dollars. Today we supply many fixtures in the market at around $500 which use a combination of metal, integrated magnets, and POM (a plastic which ink has difficulty to adhere to). Assuming we have a $500 fixture cost for our 50,000 print job, we see the fixture cost is $500/50,000 = $0.01 per part.

Rings are also wear items. Most rings can go hundreds of thousands of prints without any issue. For argument’s sake I am going to say that a ring is broken twice a year. At an average price of $350 for a ring that is $700 for ring costs per year. $700/12 months = $58.33/50,000 prints (Remember we are printing 50,000 parts in one month) = $0.001167 per part.

Total consumables cost for our 50,000 print job is calculated as follows:
Plate – $0.0015
Pad – $0.0015
Fixture – $0.01
Ring – $0.001167

Total consumable (not including ink) cost for 50,000 parts in one month is $0.014167 per part.

Wages, Machinery, and Other Pad Printing Costs

For our calculations 50,000 parts will require 100 working hours to complete. Again, this is a conservative figure and can vary. If operating output is increased by 20% to 720 parts per hour, then a 20% reduction in hours to complete the part are also accomplished. Calculating local hourly wages will follow the simple formula: wage x hours = total hourly wage. For this example, we can assume an $18 hourly rate (plus benefits may place this closer to $25/hr) x 100 hours = $2,500 for 50,000 parts or about $2,500/50,000 = $0.05 per part.

So far this is the largest factor in pad printing costs and we can see output is the key to lowering overall pad printing costs.

Machines in the USA can be depreciated once they are placed into production. We suggest asking a tax expert on the benefits of capital equipment cost deductions and Section 179 machine expenditure. Further information can be found on the IRS website here.

Other ancillary equipment that will be required for pad printing is an air compressor (if pneumatic), corona treatment machinery, and even potentially drying racks or an oven depending on the substrate. These should be considered when deciding which machinery to purchase and how much to charge per print.

Electricity costs to run the machinery and the air compressor need to be taken into account, as well. A 240v 22 amp 80 gallon large air compressor will run a few minutes every hour. This equates to (240v x 22 amps = 5,280 watts). We will assume this compressor starts every 100 cycles for 3 minutes which means it runs 6 times in an hour at 3 minutes each time. This equates to 18 minutes of run time per hour. For an 8 hour shift that equates to 144 minutes of run time or about 2.5 hours. 2.5 hours x 5,280 watts = 13,200 watt hours/1,000 = 13.2 kw/hr. In Austin we are charged about $0.14 cents per kw/h, so that means it costs about $1.85 to print our 4,000 parts for the day, or $23.13 for our entire 50,000 part job. This equals $0.000463 per part. ($23.13/50,000= $0.000463)


A pad printer will use even less energy at about 1.5 kw/hr.  We can see these are negligible in the factor of our illustration on a per part basis.

Packaging, Pre-Treatment, and Other Costs

Packing a box

In addition to this, one must consider labor for packaging, scrap items printed, and shipping products to the customer. This must all be calculated in the final part cost to pad print. These last few items can drive the price per marked part up as output is affected. For example if you print 50,000 parts in a 10 day period of time but it takes a day or two to pack, the prices start to be affected by paying workers to package items.

We have seen companies that also need to take into consideration printing on special surfaces like glassware, which means preparing the glass surface with a torch or Pyrosil treating the surface. This can add time, which can also affect printing output.

 Today pad printers can be built to avoid packaging and pre-treating by building it into the printing operation so it is done in-line with pick and place robots or having the treatment at the site of printing directly on the machine. These have larger upfront costs but lower overall per printed costs as the payback is shortened for high volume applications.

As one can see, there are many items to consider in the decision to pad print but if we take some averages and try to isolate variables with these averages we see final part images can really be just several pennies to put your image on a product. 

With the largest cost being labor, it is important to understand the implications ahead of time and not focus on saving a few dollars on ink, pads, or rings, as these are inconsequential.

Best Ways to Increase Output and Decrease Costs

Instead it is wise to focus on driving up efficiency and output by purchasing high quality, dependable machinery. Quick changeout times, setup times and getting the printer to start printing is paramount. Many pad printers today will operate using rotary tables which drive per unit prices down as labor is reduced and output increased.

The TTN line of machinery has the industry’s fastest setup times with registration done on the plate and not on the machine, saving up to 45 minutes of setup time per job, allowing an entire 6-color job to be setup in under 5 minutes, including the ink mixing.

The TTN Servo Innovator line is a custom line of machines that allow up to 6 colors be printed at speeds up to 1,600 parts per hour, which is the fastest output in the industry. This, coupled with the fact that TTN has the ability to switch from printing a 6 color job to a 2 color job, switching pads, plates, ink cups, and fixtures all in under 5 minutes means job switches happen fast, keeping dollars in your pocket.

Output is the greatest direct effect on per unit price and should be focused on when deciding which machine to use and if add-ons like rotary tables, sorting/packaging equipment, pick and place robots, or other machinery should be used. For more information feel free to contact your Automark Sales Representative to discuss how we can lower your overall operating costs.

What do you think?  What would be the timeframe to accurately place stickers on 50,000 parts?  Let us know in the comments below and thanks for reading!

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