Lamination has long been the method of choice to secure graphics against the slings and arrows of nature’s misfortune. While flatbed printers and more durable substrates are gaining in popularity, many businesses continue to laminate to add protection and a finish that simply cannot be duplicated.
"Many print providers buy flatbeds and durable media with the assumption that they won’t have to laminate," says Michael Hannon, president, Graphic Laminating, Inc. "But lamination is a very different and unique animal from simple durable media."
"While UV inks may last longer, they still can’t offer the kind of protection that lamination affords," states Ike Harris, president, Daige, Inc.
The general adhesive business has taken some hits from the rise of flatbed printing, says Jerry Hill, VP of sales, Drytac. "Lower end solvent printers are pushed on the notion that you don’t need to mount or laminate that output, but we continue to see people laminating." Hill chalks it up to the benefits of physical protection, particularly in high use areas and especially vehicle wraps—a business enjoying strong growth.
Many print providers will laminate output to prevent damage in the handling process, especially when presentation is critical, Hill continues. Graphics can be finished to prevent even small dents, chips, or smudging that may not be immediately obvious to the eye but will rear their head when the light hits a print at a certain angle, Hill adds.
"We’ve seen [durable media] delay the laminator buying process, but not stop it," Hannon says. "People experiment before realizing they still need to laminate."
Many end-users coat graphics coming off of flatbeds to prevent UV inks from chipping, states Cindy Pilch, senior product manager, GBC.
"Printer makers have made strides in durability," acknowledges Angie Mohni, director of marketing, Neschen Americas. But printers use laminators to add texture and graffiti resistance, she notes.
The same is true with fine art, where vendors are improving the longevity of inks and media. "You can’t get long term conservation for fine art without a UV absorptive coating," says Terrence Crowley, founder, Optima International.
Aside from protection against the elements, laminates provide a variety of textures and finishes to augment the appeal of a graphic. They can provide "canvas-like textures" for prints on non-canvas media. "It’s easier to laminate a print with that finish than print directly to canvas," Pilch adds.
"We see an increase in artistic applications—using laminates to diffuse light," says David Cowart, sales director, Remington Lamination.
Some businesses will go the extra mile and brand a certain finish to give laminated output added cachet, Hill says.
"When you look at a laminated graphic versus an unlaminated one, people just prefer the finished work," says Brian Franks, Advanced Greig Laminators (AGL).
Of course, people may like the look, but it’s the allure of a better bottom line that drives decisions. According to Al Boese, president, Post Print Manufacturers Association (PPMA), laminated output commands higher margins for printers versus simply selling an uncoated product.
"The general rule of thumb is to more than double the price of a print when appropriately finished," Boese says. PPMA sponsored a study of 109 wide format print providers—conducted by Web Consulting, Inc.—to gage the bottom-line impact of finishin. According to the research firm, 36 percent of those surveyed described mounting and laminating as "highly profitable" followed by 45 percent who characterized it as "marginally profitable."
According to Boese, about 32 percent of all coated inkjet media gets a clear laminate, while a little over 30 percent gets mounted to a rigid substrate using a film-type adhesive. "The mark-up for a single-sided laminating and/or mounting job can be as much as five times the actual cost per square foot."
Boese estimates that at least 35 percent of print providers are not finishing or under-valuing their print finishing.
"Many people approach laminating as a necessity, not a profit center," says Hannon.
"The traditional photo markets and ad agencies understand the benefits of laminating," Mohni says, but many new comers, such as sign shops adding digital to their cut vinyl business, often don’t. "It can broaden the scope of the products they offer—from tradeshow displays to window and floor graphics."
Print sellers who laminate can use the higher cost to sidestep nasty price wars, Pilch states. She adds that customers who steer their business clear of bargain basement buyers tend to weather economic downturns better. "People shopping on price tend to be bad customers, they’re late with their payments and they don’t value" what you do, she says.
Laminating also imparts an intangible benefit for some print buyers, Pilch asserts. "It helps give a graphic an air of quality."
Much as overseas suppliers have pushed down brand-name media costs, laminator manufacturers are responding to a competitive market by introducing lower cost machines for new and established markets. The expansion in economy level hardware has two purposes, suppliers say: to entice printers to bring lamination in-house and to cater to new entrants to digital printing who don’t have the high volume needs of established firms.
Laminators are following the proliferation of inkjet printers into more and more markets, Hannon observes. "People start by out-sourcing, but over time grow dissatisfied with the waiting and the loss of control over the final output."
Education remains the key challenge. "I’ve always said I wouldn’t want to be an end-user in this market," since there are no established standards for long term conservation, Crowley says.
"The most common mistakes result from too much heat, too much pressure, too much speed, or too much break." In this, Mohni adds, laminating is as much an art as it is a science.
For end users, low melt laminates are increasingly popular, Boese says. The added UV protection and ease-of-use of the product is helping to drive lamination of graphics from solvent and flatbed printers, he adds.
"Using a laminator is all about training and we will bring the training to the laminator itself," Franks states. In what the firm calls an industry first, AGL introduced the Compadre laminator that can download and play demonstrational videos on its LCD screen and connects to Microsoft’s Zune media player to play MP3 music files.
The Zune docking station will be an optional accessory and will be necessary for downloading videos to the machine. If users forgo the dock, the Compadre will be pre-loaded with instructional and application videos before it’s shipped.
"Whenever we visit customers on the shop floor, they’re always listening to music, so we thought the dock would be a nice addition," Franks says.
The StarLam 1.6 SF laminator applies the company’s water-based ClearShield liquid laminates to substrates, including vinyl, paper, and canvas up to 63 inches wide. The machine is geared to finishing vehicle graphics, architectural signage, POP, tradeshow displays, photographic output, and fine art giclée.
According to the company, ClearShield liquid laminates can be used over solvent based output and pigmented ink systems printed on water resistant substrates.
The latest model in the company’s Cold-Mount line offers an automatic scrap rewind and a floor stand for production environments. It will be available in 14-, 26-, 34-, 44-, and 54-inch widths.
According to Coda, the machine is suited for "low-to-high volume production in a small-to-medium sized shop."
A new cold laminator—the Quickmount 4—was introduced in late 2006 to appeal to entry-level users, Harris says. The machine can tackle media up to an inch thick and comes in 25-, 38-, 55-, or 65-inch roller widths ranging from $1,295 to $2,400.
For some end-users, liquid laminates provide a lower cost solution than film. The firm’s EZ Glide manual coater is "as fast or faster in many cases than a motorized machine," Harris adds. It is available in standard sizes to 62 inches wide and custom built to 85 inches wide.
Alongside 20 new finishes, the firm is putting its back behind the Jet Mounter line. Lower cost printers have created a need for lower cost laminators, Hill says.
The firm’s 63-inch pressure-sensitive laminator will set you back $3,500 while a top-heated roller will cost $7,995.
Another product for the value conscious is the firm’s TriPrint matte inkjet paper with a heat-activated adhesive on the back. Once printed, the paper can be laid on foam core and passed through a laminator to simultaneously mount and laminate the graphic in a single pass.
The firm recently introduced a model that Pilch describes as a "tweener" for users that need a robust, high volume machine on a tight value.
It is not priced at the entry-level, she adds. The 2064WF drops a few of the features found on the higher end Falcon 3064 such as a bi-directional swinging control panel to hit a more competitive price point for potential upgraders, Pilch says.
On the substrate side, the firm introduced a second generation of its AccuShield, which GBC positions as an alternative to liquid coating, applied by using heat and pressure. The new film uses clear resins for more color-sensitive applications and does not require trimming.
"We differentiate ourselves on full service," Pilch adds, "with a direct sales force in the field, control of the manufacturing, and numerous patents."
Graphic Laminating/Ledco, Inc.
"Reliability and ease of use are our primary concerns," Hannon states. There is a two-year warranty on all equipment. The company is also in the process of certifying all of its equipment with various U.S. and international standards bodies, the effect of which is to impress customers with the fact that "these machines are not disposable."
According to Hannon, the company is currently developing products for several promising niche markets. "We want to develop them before the big guys take notice."
The firm’s Cyclone UV liquid laminators are available in 60- and 80-inch widths and can handle media up to two inches thick. Both machines clock in at roughly 50 to 100 linear feet per minute, according to the company.
"We see a lot of activity in the entry level market, such as sign shops that have gone digital and just need a heat-assisted roller," Mohni says.
Under its Seal brand, the firm recently added the SEAL 54 Base wide format laminator which is geared toward sign shops and small- to medium-sized digital graphics producers. It is a heat-assisted, pressure-sensitive image laminator capable of finishing graphics up to 55 inches.
The philosophy behind the firm’s "minicoater" and other liquid laminators is to make the application process as easy as possible. "No one wants another step" in their workflow, Crowley points out.
Optima’s mild synthetic solvent coatings are principally used in fine art applications. When used with recommended substrates, Optima guarantees long term conservation of the works for 100 years, Crowley says.
The company now offers two liquid laminators both capable of handling graphics up to 54 inches wide. The high end Convertible Rollacoat System can be outfitted with an infrared or UV dryer.
To reduce the "orange peel" effect with some vinyl films, the company has changed the release liners on its pressure-sensitive film to a clear polyester. The firm is continuing to offer its line of Star laminators ranging in size from 44 to 62 inches wide.
Cover Your Bases
With more entry-level laminators following lower-cost printers into the market, competition is sure to increase, says Bill Berkan, president, Professional Laminating Systems. Print providers who sell finished output need to be increasingly creative and aggressive to stay ahead, while simultaneously parsing through the multiplying offerings presented by manufacturers.
Avoiding a race to the bottom is important, concludes Optima’s Crowley. "We have a saying in the coating business: ‘there’s nothing more expensive than a cheap coating.’"