Fort Mill Times

Fort Mill High seniors flex their printing muscles

The Fort Mill High School team likes its chances in the upcoming international Phoenix Challenge.

The printing industry-sponsored competition pits high school teams of flexographic press operators from all over North America against one another in a test of skill and competence on industrial printing presses. Seniors Josh Strickland and Jacob Rabun are representing Fort Mill in the challenge.

"I figure we're the best team in the class," Strickland said. "We've know each other for a while."

"We know who's stronger in certain things," Rabun added.

The Phoenix Challenge began in 1998 after the Applied Technology Center in Rock Hill became the first high school involved with the Flexo in High School program with flexographic presses from both industry leaders Mark Andy and Comco. ATC and other FIHS schools wanted a competition for their students and the printing industry, led by Charlotte's Harper Corporation, responded with the Phoenix Challenge.

Schools from several states and Canada have competed in the challenge over the last 10 years. The winning team will receive $1,000 scholarships to further fund press operation education. Members of the second place team will get $500 scholarships. A third place team will also be recognized and everyone participating will get more than $100 worth of gifts from flexo industry partners.

The Phoenix Challenge runs April 2 - 4 at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. The teams will have to show their proficiency on the press by taking a design through the sticker-making process. Printing industry professionals will be judging the teams.

"We make a plate, mount it on the press, ink it up and make a quality run in a set time," Rabun said. "They grade on everything. They're real nit-picky."

And not just on quality.

"Especially for safety," Strickland explained. "We do a lot of practice runs. You have to get in there and work with the press. It's just repetitions."

Teams also take an online written test of their flexo press knowledge. Rabun and Strickland prepared with practice tests several pages thick.

Both Rabun and Strickland are fourth-year graphic communication students. Rabun chose the career cluster after his older brother went through it. He liked it and decided to stay. For Strickland, the draw to graphics came from a desire to make T-shirts and stickers. Now he's more focused on the press operation side of the industry because it offers more job opportunities.

"It's a complex industry, it's more about labels than anything," Strickland said. "Everything you see from Campbell's Soup to Hunt's Ketchup is all done on flexo presses."