Across the globe, shipping delays, supply chain issues, and product shortages continue to plague nearly every industry. These problems are no less prevalent in the apparel decorating industry. Within that segment lies a crucial piece of the puzzle experiencing issues: ink.

It’s the shortage of inventory. It’s the lack of availability of raw materials. It’s the containers used to store it. It’s the cargo ships carrying it. It’s the backlogged docks. The ripple effects of this are felt everywhere, with one major specific pain point being price. As announcements of price increases continue to roll out on both raw materials and ink itself, the surge in dollar signs has immediate effects on printing shops everywhere trying to fill an onset of orders.

Pricing Pain Points

Thankfully, many apparel decorators were able to keep their doors open under the essential business label when COVID hit the industry head-on. As life began to open up and orders for other items beyond personal protective equipment (PPE) flowed once again, everyone was ready for things to trend upward. But now, the effects are hitting hard in other areas, particularly when it comes to ink and raw materials.

Many companies have announced price increases across the board. In a press release that was sent out earlier this year, Sun Chemical announced an increase on inks, coatings, and adhesives in North America. While the company declined to directly comment, Chris Parrilli, President of North American Inks, said in the release, “Sun Chemical’s top priority throughout 2021 has been to maintain the supply of our products to our customers. We have absorbed the higher costs of expedited freight, raw materials, and other key inputs in order to achieve that objective. The recent pace and magnitude of these costs have exceeded our ability to mitigate their impact and, despite various actions to help offset, it is crucial that we implement further price increases across our entire portfolio of products to continue to meet the needs of our valued customers.”

It’s a trend that no one wants to be a part of, and it’s tough to say when it will taper off. “Earlier in 2021, we thought shortages would be resolved based on our historical expectations,” says Laura Maybaum, director of product marketing at Nazdar. “We are now looking into 2022 for supply and lead times to become more predictable, but it may not be better. We are in uncharted territory.”

When it comes to screen printing ink itself, this point is painfully obvious. “Of course, the transportation and logistics are affecting all supply chains,” says Lon Winters, found and managing director of Graphic Elephants, a decorating shop located in Elizabeth, Colorado. He has noticed that specialty materials in particular seem to be on the suspension list. “[This can] make it tough to fill any SFX orders or even poly garments.”

When talking raw materials to produce ink, Maybaum lists problems in the supply chain stemming from plant shutdowns due to weather, operations disruptions, allocations based on last year’s COVID impact, and even reductions in quantities and labor shortages. “Not only is finished ink impacted, but also the packaging, including buckets, bottles, lids, pouches, bags, boxes, chips, nozzles, adapters, etc.,” she continues.

Michael Maxwell, senior manager of corporate strategic development for Mimaki, states that while the company is in relatively good shape with ink itself, they’ve also seen issues on the raw materials side. “Overall, the shipping issues are causing the most stress — getting the pigments, the fluids, or anything we might need to make the ink,” he says. When issues start at the source, he notes that it can be a downward cycle from there.

“If we can’t get our raw materials, we can’t deliver to our dealers, they can’t deliver to their customers (print shops), and then it compounds into a traffic jam,” Maxwell explains. From there, orders for end products like custom T-shirts, athletic and spiritwear, and more get delayed. It’s here that the decorator starts to feel the effects in both inventory and cost.

Ways to Soften the Blow

With lower inventory levels and higher prices, decorators need to keep on top of updates when it comes to inks. While no one wants to experience these challenges, much less pass them along to the end-user, there are a few things shops can do to soften the blow.

It starts with inventory management. “Pivoting and having back-up solutions remains key,” Maybaum emphasizes. She suggests staying in contact with your typical supplier as well as others around the industry to know what’s in stock, when, or what won’t be in stock for a while.

“What I suggest to shops is to think ahead. It’s the old adage: expect the best, prepare for the worst,” Maxwell says. In that light, he advises to keep at least a month’s worth of ink on hand if possible. “Know how much you use, and try to even keep an extra set, because you never know when you won’t be able to get something.”

This can feel easier said than done, especially when shops are trying to pass along unpleasant news to their customers. At this point, even if it’s not great news, communication is essential in both expectations of order delivery and price. “Pricing has been a bit of a challenge for most shops,” acknowledges Maxwell. “The best thing I can suggest is to look at pricing in general and try to find a way to level it out … If your customer comes in on Tuesday to order but your price goes up on Thursday, you need to adjust for that.”

Winters encourages camaraderie as another avenue of assistance. “Lean on each other and the community. Trade with colleagues,” he suggests. You can also get creative working with your customers. “[Say your] client wants purple shirts with green ink … [ask them to consider] orange T-shirts with black ink,” he says. Let them know what you can get as a reasonable substitute.

When a shop still isn’t able to fulfill an order due to issues getting ink, there are some outside options. Maxwell states that Mimaki has seen an upward trend in new equipment purchases. But he cautions this isn’t always the best option to bypass not being able to get ink; it’s all about evaluation. “Even though cash is flowing, be careful on how much you put yourself in debt,” he states. “At the end of the day, don’t just look at the cost of the ink, look at every cost surrounding a machine and business operation, like parts and maintenance, amount of energy required to run it, etc. Look at the amount of ink the machine consumes per print (efficiency) and use the machine that’s most efficient and will yield more.”

As far as how long this will last, that’s anyone’s guess. “[We] hope to see improvement in coming months,” says Winters. Until then, it’s all about being flexible.