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Laminators Evolve with the Industry

By Melissa Donovan

Recent developments surrounding the push to UV-curable printing and the evolution of eco-solvent and solvent printers directly affect the lamination segment of the graphic arts. The ability to print directly on rigid board with a flatbed reduces one popular function of a laminator; mounting prints or adhesives to rigid substrates. However, protection is still a necessity.

“Print service providers (PSPs) purchase UV-curable flatbed printers to print directly onto boards. The boards often require film lamination to prevent scratching and provide the client with a lamination surface they are used to rather than the glossy surface ink provides,” explains Frank Corey, senior sales and marketing manager, Quality Media and Laminating Solutions (QMLS).

Laminator manufacturers are reconfiguring their positioning to fill this new need. “GBC is developing machines to fit the direct to print market with laminators that simply apply an overlaminate because the media already has an adhesive backing,” says Bob Elliott, global future products manager, professional lamination equipment, General Binding Corporation (GBC).

Film laminators, commonly used to mount media, are divided into two types, hot and cold. Cold laminators work well with a wide variety of media. Hot laminators continue to benefit PSPs looking for an inexpensive way to laminate. The difference between the two concerns heat, or lack of. Cold laminators do not require any heat to adhere film to the media. Hot laminators use heat to activate the film, which then adheres to the media during the cooling process.

Additionally, liquid coaters are ideal for coating fabrics. They change the finish and add protection without altering the original texture of the fabric. Film laminates are not able to do this. All of these solutions are relevant. Protecting and maintaining the longevity of a print is essential to PSPs and their customers.

To Each His Own
Film and liquid laminating techniques are each suited to a certain niche. According to manufacturers, comparing one to the other is impossible—especially financially. “You cannot make the decision between film and liquid based on cost. Both have their own place in the market,” argues Ike Harris, president, Daige, Inc.

“PSPs need to consider factors such as the footprint of the equipment, training to operate machines, warranty implications, printer type, ink chemistry, and the anticipated volume of laminated prints,” agrees David Conrad, senior product manager, Neschen Americas. PSPs searching for a lamination device need to look at the whole picture before building a cost analysis.

Cold film laminators are ideal for a number of reasons. Since they don’t require any heat, less electricity is generated. Most media is compatible with these devices. Cold films bond to virtually any type of output by adhering directly through the surface inks and onto the paper itself, adds Conrad. Hot film devices are more finicky due to the heat activating the film as the output moves through the machine. Sometimes the heat transforms an application, leading to paper separation or causing ink to boil—this prevents the use of heat-sensitive materials.

Traditional cold film laminators require no warm-up time. Xyron, Inc.’s XM series of film laminators use pressure-sensitive technology. “Cold lamination can do everything heat lamination can, but without the heat, electricity, warm-up time, and odor,” shares Corey Hoff, product manager, Xyron.

Laminators can run as hot, cold, or both depending on the manufacturer. For example, almost of all of GBC’s laminators run both thermal and pressure-sensitive film on hot and cold rollers. GBC’s Arctic Titan series is the only device in the GBC line-up that is strictly a cold laminator.

QMLS’ 64TLX film laminator series is equipped with a top heated roller and a cold roller. A client can run thermal laminates on the top or use a low heat setting to make cold laminate more pliable and reduce silvering.

Liquid lamination is a protective coating mechanism that is applied as the print goes through the laminator; it cannot be used to mount substrates. Liquid coating is available in aqueous or UV and is applied by a feed system or spray technique.

Media printed on a solvent device primarily for outdoor display is a candidate for liquid coating because of its durability. Factors that support this claim include the chemistry make-up of both UV and aqueous coatings. These block UV rays and protect against moisture.

Eastsign International Ltd.’s liquid laminators use aqueous coating on substrates printed with solvent or eco-solvent ink; for example flexible faces, banner material, and vinyl.

Elliott argues that liquid coating is ideal for short-term applications. “Liquid coating does not possess the durability factors of film. It tends to crack when the finished product is scored and folded,” he admits.

Drying Downtime
In today’s fast-paced world, waiting for a print to dry is frustrating, but necessary.

Concerning film laminates, if not enough drying time properly passes “the laminate will stick but the wet ink won’t bond to the media and eventually pulls away. This can incorrectly be seen as a laminate failure when it should be more aptly described as ink bonding failure,” shares Emily Conklin, marketing communications specialist, Drytac Corporation.

Drytac’s Jetmounter film laminators range from 18 to 63 inches wide. All are pressure-sensitive, except for the JM63, which features a top heated roller that reaches temperatures of up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There are many factors that relate to drying time, such as humidity, type of print media, ink technology, and ink load. The normal rule of thumb is between 24 and 36 hours, which is difficult in today’s on demand market,” admits Carl Hoffman, director of sales and marketing, graphics group, Royal Sovereign International.

The drying time for liquid laminators depends on the coater used. “Water-based flood coaters require longer drying times and use an infrared (IR) dryer or forced air heater. UV roll coaters dry much quicker with the use of a UV lamp. Images cure as they pass underneath the light source,” explains Conrad.

Clearstar LP’s StarLam 1600R roll-to-roll liquid laminator uses an onboard IR dryer to cure and harden aqueous coatings. The dryer heats the coating to achieve the quickest final output possible.

The Finishing Touch
There are numerous finishing choices available in regard to lamination, whether it is thickness or style. Finishing styles—matte, gloss, and luster—are the biggest advantages to film lamination because of the variation, admits GBC’s Elliott.

Matte and gloss are common laminate finishes. “A matte finish is used when a highly reflective surface is not desired, such as photographs and wall murals. Gloss finishes tend to provide the highest level of protection from UV, chemicals, and mar resistance,” says Patrick Forney, product manager, Clearstar.

Coating thickness for liquid laminators varies based on the application and type of coater used. “A thicker layer of coating provides a higher, longer lasting level of protection from scratches and abrasion,” explains Conrad. UV liquid coatings are thicker based on how fast the top roller turns, the higher the speed the more coating on the substrate.

“It is critical that the thickness of the liquid clear be consistent across the graphic. We recommend a six to 12 micron coating weight for protection. Clear coats have trouble sticking to UV inks depending on the cure. If solvent inks aren’t dried properly the clear blisters,” shares Nancy Sperling, marketing communications manager, 3M Graphics Market Center.

Coating thickness is gauged by a mayer bar. A mayer bar or rod is a stainless steel mechanism that is wound with stainless steel wire—the thicker the diameter of the wire wrapped around the rod, the thicker the coating. A standard mayer bar comes with many laminators and additional sizes are also available.

Playing Matchmaker
Certain laminates work with specific materials. In which case, applications may be limited if a PSP decides to invest in only one type of laminator. To assist end users in deciding which applications fit with certain laminators, manufacturers suggest matching the media to the laminate.

“At Advanced Greig Laminators, Inc. (AGL) we tailor the suit to fit the cloth. We look at the application and determine the best film for the process. Laminators are not all built equally and sometimes the film is suited to the application but the laminator is not up to the job,” instructs Brian Buisker, president, AGL.

“When possible, the best bet is to use like materials together. For instance, a polyester film and a polyester laminate that are both five-mil thick is the most durable combination,” advises Jeff Leto, director of production line management, LexJet. Realizing the correct combination of laminate and media products will lead to reduced errors, minimal downtime, and a larger profit.

Film or liquid laminate is recommended for both indoor and outdoor displays. As previously mentioned, applications created with film laminators are endless.

“The most common material laminated with film is paper, however unique substrates such as vinyl, wood, plastic, aluminum, PVC, and high-density foam are all possible,” shares Jim Mooney, regional sales manager, Graphic Laminating LLC & Ledco, Inc.

On the flip side, “liquid laminators are well suited for all types of applications including banners, wall coverings, vehicle graphics, fine art prints, and truck side curtains. Larger volume runs make the cleanup process more efficient,” explains Clearstar’s Forney.

Liquid laminators can get a bit messy, as Forney admits. Many manufacturers are trying to find a solution. Daige manufactures the EZ Glide applicator, a manual application that is easy to clean.

“The fastest growing segment for liquid laminates is fine art reproduction, but most coatings for these applications are applied with brushes, rollers, or spray guns. Large volume shops are using liquid laminators for applications like vehicle wraps and banners,” claims Leto.

Building Blocks
Investing in a laminator that supports many applications is ideal. However, PSPs shouldn’t overwhelm themselves by initially purchasing a top-of-the-line, can-do-everything laminator. Companies like Artgrafix focus on easing customers into a laminator.

“Whether it be a sign, framing, or commercial need, our goal is to enable more people to mount, laminate, and display their prints with minimal set-up and training,” boasts Jeff Stover, president, Artgrafix. The Phoenix laminator series is an effective 44-inch film solution that uses both cold and hot rollers.

Many vendors offer a building block approach to their devices. Not only do some create easy-to-use hardware to introduce an end user to lamination, but others allow customers to literally build a machine.

“Our building block approach allows the customer to customize the laminator for any particular application that may be desired. Properly equipped, the customer can laminate both pressure-sensitive and thermal film in one machine without sacrificing performance,” explains Buisker. AGL’s solutions include the Encore line of film laminators that are designed with ease-of-use in mind.

Neschen’s Conrad advises starting with a film laminator that supports both thermal and pressure-sensitive films. “For a new print shop with small to medium print volume requirements, it may be wise to begin this way. As the shop grows and adds more production capacity, or incorporates different printing technologies, it may make sense to add liquid lamination to keep up with production demand.”

The SEAL Ultra Plus laminator series is available in 44- and 62-inch models. The 44-inch Ultra Plus’ dual heat offers 115 V, 16 amp service—eliminating the need for special wiring, which is a big cost savings and convenience for any PSP looking to add finishing.

Another consideration is footprint. For a shop that owns multiple wide format devices, space may be at a premium. Royal Sovereign’s laminators, for example, ranging from 27 to 65 inches are designed with a small footprint in mind.

PSPs should also research warranty options as a precaution. A laminate—whether it is film or liquid—is an added layer to an already complicated process. Once output is laminated, if something faulty occurs, PSPs need to evaluate if the problem is a media, ink, printer, or laminator error. Better safe than sorry, manufacturers like Ledco, Inc. offer a two year parts and labor warranty on both of their thermal and pressure-sensitive laminators.

Lessons in Lamination
Despite the evolution of UV flatbed printers, laminators are standing their ground. Mounting boards with a laminator may be a thing of the past, but uses that were once second string are becoming dominant. All applications need protection from UV rays, precipitation, human contact, and simple wear and tear.

More vendors are creating entry level solutions to target PSPs looking to add protective finishing services to their shops. Liquid and film lamination are not dueling technologies. Both have a place in the industry. Whether it be a short-term or long-term project, PSPs are able to find what they need.

Jul2009, Digital Output

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