Planet Earth may be a welcoming home for life, but it’s brutal on graphics. From the moment they roll off the printer, graphics are assaulted by moisture, ozone, and light. Outdoor graphics have an even meaner existence, bombarded by wind, rain, sleet, hail, and a relentless sun. Indoor graphics may escape the full brunt of nature’s wrath, but they too are subjected to the indignities of grasping, greasy hands and vandelism.
There is but one line of defense against these depredations: lamination.
"People often view laminating as a necessary evil. We need them to understand that it is a necessary good," says Alan Boese, executive director of the Post Print Manufacturers Association (PPMA), an industry trade group compromised of finishing manufacturers.
Lamination is not simply a solution to protect a print or graphic, it’s a means to enhance profitability, says Jerry Hill, VP of sales, Drytac Corp. "We are teaching our customers to up-sell lamination as a finished product. They need to understand how it can impact their customers. You don’t want them to leave your shop with half a product and have them return it later because it was damaged."
According to a report from PPMA, print providers often sell prints simply to make a profit on the finishing in the same way that theaters screen movies to make money on the concessions. Citing industry statistics, PPMA states that the, "finishing stage of graphic production and fabrication is roughly 20 percent of the total time required. Yet finishing may account for as much as 50 percent of the profit on the job."
Even for graphics that may not typically demand laminating, it can be an insurance policy against hand prints, sun damage, or other environmental dangers, Hill adds. "You buy car insurance, but you don’t always get into an accident. When you do, you’re glad you have it," says Hill.
There is, in fact, more to lamination than mere protection. Adept use of laminating films can serve to enhance the look of a print, adding texture, gloss, or rigidity.
"You can use a glossy film and really provide pop to an image," says Dave Conrad, product manager, Seal Graphics Americas.
With the influx of solvent inkjet printers, fade resistant pigmented inks, and UV flatbeds, there is the perception among some print providers that finishing may go the horse-and-buggy route. Not true, says PPMA. According to a recent white paper, the association asserts that, "digital technology hasn’t changed the laws of physics or the way in which severe weather, UV light, mechanical stress, and pollution affect printed images," adding that, "there is no substitute for a physical barrier between the image and environmental stressing agents."
"We have seen the impact from flatbed printing to rigid substrates on our mounting adhesives business, but not on the laminating end," says Cindy Pilch, senior product manager, GBC. Eco-solvent prints can show scratches and the UV cure can flake off, so you still need lamination, Pilch adds.
In the realm of fine art preservation, where printer OEMs have been touting increased durability, lamination remains essential, says Terrence Crowley, founder and chief chemical engineer, Optima International. "The ink manufacturers don’t want people to know the life of their inks, so no one tells you that you need to coat your print when that’s the only way to ensure longevity."
Most manufacturers agree that in terms of basic functionality, laminators are largely the same. "The fundamental technology was developed a while ago," says Eric Hotaling, president, Repro Technology. "There are no earth-shattering technological advances," seconds Pilch.
Where they differ, however, is in robustness and durability, safety, ease of use, and cost.
"You have to look at the quality of the machine and how well the manufacturer takes care of its customers," Hotaling adds. Pilch says GBC is addressing safety concerns by integrating an OSHA-compliant electric eye that will automatically shut-off the rollers if an operator gets his or her hand stuck in the machine.
Vendors may differ on the virtues of their devices, but they are unanimous in their purchasing advice—work backward from your applications. Do you want to mount and encapsulate? Do you simply want to finish a single side of a graphic? What is your volume? What’s the widest graphic you’ll likely need to finish? How thick is your media?
"It’s almost like buying a printer," says Garth Bertini, marketing manager, USI, Inc. "They tell us what they want to do, and we can direct them to a solution."
"We ask our customers, how do you want to grow your business?" Pilch says. "If they’re always doing outdoor banners, then they’ll always need a pressure-sensitive solution."
"If you print on vinyl, you may think all you need is a pressure-sensitive machine, but sometimes just a little bit of heat—110 to 120 degrees—will make the adhesive more aggressive," Hotaling says. Room temperature must also be considered. "If you do cold lamination in a room that’s 60 degrees, you’re going to get terrible results," Hotaling adds.
Pressure-sensitive (cold) laminators are less expensive than their heated counterparts, but cold laminating films are more expensive. Cold lamination is also a more forgiving process, Hotaling notes. Unlike thermal laminating, a cold job can often be interrupted and re-started without seriously damaging your graphic.
If you own an inkjet printer, a low temperature thermal laminator or one with a single heated roller will provide added flexibility over a pressure-sensitive-only machine. Offset and electro-static printers need high temperature thermal laminators.
Entry-level models offer little in the way of controls, but as you ascend the product food chain, the machines become more adjustable, quicker, and physically heavier. They are also capable of handling thicker substrates and laminating films with more finely tuned control over heat, pressure, and speed settings.
For fine art applications, only a solvent-based liquid coating can provide the required longevity, Crowley says. "We give you a 100-year warranty in writing," he adds.
Heat, Pressure, Speed...
Lamination involves the delicate interplay between the media, ink, and laminating film as it reacts to heat, pressure, and the speed of the rollers. It is often, in the words of Brian Franks, director of sales and marketing, AGL, a "tough thing to get your head around."
"There are several variables that should be considered," says Dave Cowart, director of sales, Remington Laminations, Inc. "First and foremost is actual image protection. What is the desired lifespan of the graphic? What is the actual make-up of the printed media? What type of inks were used in the print process? Will the graphic go indoors or outdoors? Is there a special finish required for the particular graphic?"
"Some smaller shops think it’s simply mathematical, that one plus one should equal two, but it doesn’t always work that way," Pilch says. Vinyl doesn’t react like polyester and different machines have different tolerances, she notes. That said, there are some basic rules. "We recommend that if you print on polyester, that you use a pressure-sensitive machine. If you print on paper, you can use a thermal or pressure-sensitive laminate. If you print on vinyl, you use pressure-sensitive," Pilch says. There are caveats, however. "Some polyester you can thermally laminate, if it’s not too hot."
The industry could develop a single purpose adhesive to tackle multiple substrates, but it would be costly, says Drytac’s Hill. Instead, Drytac has developed a portfolio of single-purpose laminates to address specific needs in a cost-effective manner. A lot of the common mistakes Hill sees are, "application-driven—too much tension, not enough heat, etc."
Bertini says that for photo applications, customers have difficulty laminating over expensive glossy photo papers. "I tell them you don’t need a high-end glossy photo paper, but a good bond paper and use lamination for the glossy effect."
Mastering these variables is admittedly a daunting task but there is a wealth of educational resources should you find yourself scratching your head. Either the laminator manufacturer, the laminate manufacturer (often the same company), or the distributor will offer tips on their Web site.
Some firms, like AGL, hold training courses in the art of laminating. "We go through ten applications and teach three ways to finish them—the industry standard, the high-end, and the low-end. We’ve had a great response to these classes in Michigan and we’re thinking about expanding them to Las Vegas," Franks says.
The aforementioned PPMA also offers tips on their Web site along with an Ask PPMA email address, which promises to have questions answered by an expert in 48 hours.
Aside from those resources, there are some other general guidelines that vendors recommend. First, there is no substitute for your own testing. Guidelines on paper are just that, but when the rubber meets the road—or when the roller meets the film—your unique environment and materials will determine the outcome, so it’s best to experiment. Second, wait as long as you can before you laminate a graphic to let the media absorb the ink. Kodak, for instance, recommends that you wait four to six hours before laminating. In other cases, 24 hours is an optimal wait time. When you’re done, wait another hour before you trim the graphic.
According to Pilch, GBC is currently developing a concept machine that it hopes to debut at the SGIA Expo in September 2006 to gage industry reaction. The concept laminator will be a technology showcase without regard to price. While some of the capabilities are still trade secrets, Pilch says, "a self-threading machine," will be one of the highlights.
D&K Group is working on an 83-inch model with a heated top roller to address mounting and laminating for trade show graphics and other wide format output, says marketing director Russ Jameson.
Hill notes that Drytac is developing laminating films for styrene and gator board to address the flatbed market.
Although there may not be revolutionary developments in the works, vendors are addressing new printer and ink technologies and making continual tweaks to improve performance, control, and ease-of-use.