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Rigid, Today & Tomorrow

Market Growth for Specialized Printing

By Kim Crowley

Rigid substrates include everything from metals, boards, tiles, and PVC. Using them through direct flatbed digital printing brings savings and efficiency to print service providers (PSPs) and offers unique options for customers. As the market grows, there is a specialized demand for niche applications that require printing directly onto a substrate. Many components factor into this popularity.


Direct printing onto rigid material speeds workflow. “There is a faster turnaround time, allowing for same day print and delivery,” says John Joyce, category sales manager, alpolic materials, Graphic-al, Mitsubishi Plastics Composites America, Inc. (MPCA)


Waste is also minimized when printing directly to a rigid material. “Printing directly allows for material maximization and flexibility, with the capability of printing multiple images, either the same or different, on one substrate and then cutting to size,” notes Candace Martin, jr. product manager, EnCore Products, a division of Elmer’s Products, Inc.


Rigid Exhibit

Digitally printed rigid boards brought form and function to exhibit panels for the Mobile, AB, Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center’s traveling See the Bigger Picture museum exhibit.


The exhibit originated when Airbus—the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and National Geographic launched an international photo competition for young adults to submit photographic interpretations of biodiversity.


The digital photographic images were sent to Rapid Materials in Austell, GA, from Good Relations, a London, UK-based public relations firm that produced the exhibit. Rapid Materials cut the panels to size and worked with North Light Color of Austell, GA to digitally print the images on MPCA Graphic-al LT four-millimeter aluminum rigid material using a Hewlett-Packard Scitex UV flatbed printer. The printed panels were then mounted to metal supports using 3M Graphics Market Center VHB Tape.


Hardware Investments

According to Joseph N. Masters, marketing manager, graphic display, 3A Composites USA, use of rigid substrates is down, but recovering and showing promise, in correlation with the economy. “Prior to the recession, rigid substrates enjoyed record sales, even as other competing technologies were entering the industry. As the economy bounces back, we expect the rigid substrate demand to grow. Retailers will begin to move forward with signage and rebranding campaigns as their finances improve,” he says.


Many PSPs invested in a flatbed printer, despite the current economy. They see the value in being able to print directly to a rigid substrate, especially using UV ink. In fact, InfoTrends’ research projects that the total system revenue from wide format UV-curable inkjet printing systems, which includes hardware, ink, media, and the value of service contracts, will reach $2.33 billion in 2013, making UV-curable inkjet the fastest growing technology in the wide format digital print market.


UV print technology continues to improve and new entries lead to lower hardware price points. With these changes, printing directly to rigid substrates continues to grow, especially using UV ink.


Specialized media is certainly finding its niche thanks to UV. American PERMALIGHT, Inc. offers a specialized, rigid media for sign makers that glows in the dark. The rigid PVC sheet comes in five different glow durations.


Direct Benefits

Printing directly to rigid substrates eliminates the time consuming mounting and finishing steps associated with printing to a flexible media and mounting to a rigid board. “It streamlines the process,” says Masters, adding, “printing to rigid versus flexible media allows for a communication piece that has depth, and weathers wear and tear much better.”


The ability to print directly and skip some of the finishing work leads to less project handling and more efficiency in the print shop. “PSPs are finally beginning to recognize the efficiency that can be gained by printing directly on rigid substrates, as opposed to laminating printed vinyl to a rigid substrate,” notes Stan Schultz, director of marketing, Palram Americas.


Savings is key to surviving as a digital print provider. Timothy R. Boerst, business director, Decorative Panels International (DPI), notes that directly printing to rigid substrates presents a significant reduction in working capital for the value stream, while not reducing the quality of graphic output.


Stiff Flight

Some rigid substrates are used for 3D modeling, architectural mock ups, and other projects that may not necessarily require printing. In these cases, sophisticated CAD software and routing and cutting devices are used to design and shape rigid material.


A manned airplane was recently created using 3A Composites’ Gatorfoam. The plane was entered into the annual Red Bull Fly Day, a man-made aircraft flying competition held on November 7, 2010 in Sydney, Australia’s Botanical Gardens.


Starleaton Digital Solutions, a supplier of graphic display technology and consumables, worked on this plane, which was three-winged—with a large air scooping wing at the front and biplane wings to the rear. Gatorfoam and Enviroboard MR were CNC routed on a MultiCam, Inc. machine. The Gatorfoam allowed the plane to be lightweight while maintaining rigidity.


Working with Rigid

Rigid substrates can be expensive and should be handled with care. Connie Hartman, co-owner, Hartman Plastics, Inc., advises PSPs to store foamboards flat and dry, and never stand them on end.


As with any print project, care should be taken when pairing a particular rigid substrate to the correct printer and ink set. This all depends on the final purpose.


“There are so many competing ink types, technologies, manufacturers, and equipment providers. Add to this the unknown variables that affect each printing facility—humidity, machine set up, and upkeep. It makes it hard to suggest any one print solution,” shares Masters.


To aid PSPs, EnCore offers a preferred media chart that matches an EnCore foamboard product with a specific printer and ink combination. “We discovered that ink composition, drying method, and surface paper all play important roles in the quality of the printed result,” explains Martin. EnCore works with test partners that use various ink types to review their products and provide feedback.


Several rigid media manufacturers partner with printer manufacturers and ink developers to help determine compatibility. Palram works closely with most major digital printer manufacturers to ensure excellent performance, including OEMs, customers, and distributors in blind tests comparing different variations of their products against competitors.


DPI tests its products with solvent, UV, and latex ink-based printers.


The surfaces of MPCA Graphic-al substrates are compatible with a variety of UV printers and inks. “In all cases we recommend that the customer test Graphic-al materials with the UV printers and inks first,” says Joyce.


Masters agrees. “3A Composites makes it a practice to tell our audience that trialing is recommended to ensure suitability for the proposed print solution before full scale commercialization.”



The average price for popular rigid substrates varies based on order quantity. Often the material is sold through distributors who price the product themselves.


Ultraflex Systems, Inc.’s UltraStyrene ranges between $0.20 and $0.50 per square foot, depending on the thickness. Jaime Giannantonio, marketing manager, Ultraflex, notes that most customers print using UV when working with the UltraStyrene, to achieve a more desirable result.


DPI’s GreenCore Rigid Print Media is typically $0.65 per square foot through distribution for one-eighth-of-an-inch of media and about $1 per square foot for one-fourth-of-an-inch of media. Boerst notes that the cost per square foot that most PSPs charge their customers varies depending on the output desired.


Rigid on a Roll

Rigid substrates are most often heavy-duty board or other flat materials not bent or rolled. Some vendors, such as Drytac Corporation, categorize rolled material as rigid based on how it supports itself.


“We typically differentiate roll material as rigid by how well it can support itself without waves or wrinkling,” explains Regan Dickinson, marketing communications specialist, LexJet Corporation. The company considers some of its polycarbonate and polyester films to be rigid materials. LexJet 9-, 12-, and 18-mil Solvent Display Films SR are durable, rigid PVC films with a waterfast coating. The material is compatible with eco-solvent, solvent, and UV-curable printers.


Another rolled rigid product is Value Vinyls’ rigid extruded PVC vinyl. The 38-point material is available in up to 48 inches and comes on a three-inch roll core packaged in a hard tube. It is intended for indoor and outdoor displays for two years or more.


Rigid, Today and Tomorrow

The retail sector continues to drive the use of rigid substrates. The future is especially bright for substrates with environmental benefits aimed at reducing municipal waste and dependence on petroleum-based substrates, predicts Boerst.


Marcus Tam, sales director, Eastsign International Ltd., agrees that consumers are looking for more environmental substrates. “Maybe there will be a paper rigid substrate targeted toward outdoor application in the near future.”


Viable practices power industries, from directly printing to rigid board to flexible media printed on roll-to-roll printers and then applied to rigid substrates manually. There is a place for this new technology, as well as a place for a number of tried and true practices.


Click here to view the Rigid Substrates Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!

Feb2011, Digital Output

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