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Keeping Ahead While Staying Flat

Traditional Rigid Substrate Printing

By Melissa Donovan

Despite the ability of flatbeds to print onto untraditional materials such as wood, glass, and metal, there is still a need for foamboard, PVC panels, and eco-board substrates. Multiple manufacturers offer this type of media and continue to do so, proving the need is real. Print service providers (PSPs) are able to utilize traditional rigid substrates for a variety of applications—ranging from point of purchase, trade show displays, directional signage, to museum-based projects.


Part of the allure of these materials is their ability to be easily shaped, formed, and eventually cut on digital finishing devices. Routers and cutters work with rigid substrates to create a clean, finished look for any application.


To demonstrate the successes of traditional rigid substrates in wide format print, we spoke with two PSPs that devote a good portion of their business towards printing on these substrates.


A Memorable History

Launched in November of 1985 as a one hour photography lab, Memory Makers of Pennsburg, PA has always been ahead of the times. In the ’80s, film was still sent out to be processed, so the idea of one hour photo processing was brand new. They embarked on wide format in 1995 when an enlarger needed to be replaced, bringing in a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet 3500CP 54-inch printer.


Word traveled fast regarding the newest acquisition. Once a client saw it in the shop, they inquired about printing conference signage. After the project was completed, another client saw the result and asked for work to be done. That second client’s wife, an art director at a printing firm, became its third customer.


Three years passed and the HP Designjet 3500CP was replaced with two HP Designjet 5000s and an HP Designjet 5500. In 2002, Memory Makers sold all of its photo equipment to concentrate on wide format. 2005 required a move into its current 10,000 square foot facility and adding an Arizona 600 solvent printer from Océ North America. Its first flatbed, a Colorspan 72 UVR, was introduced in 2006.


Today the company includes a heavy sampling of hardware ranging from printers to finishing machines. They now have seven HP Designjet 5000/5500 60-inch printers, five HP Designjet 9000 printers, one HP Designjet 10000 printer, an HP Scitex FB950 flatbed, and an Océ Arizona 350 GT flatbed. For finishing, a Zünd America, Inc. L-3000 leads the lineup, followed by a Miller Weldmaster banner seamer, double needle sewing machines, automatic grommet devices, two 63-inch film laminators, and a 98-inch liquid laminator.


With such a range of equipment, the common observer would assume that Memory Makers operates with a hefty staff, but the PSP runs with four. Each employee is trained on every piece of equipment. A typical day in the shop includes daily maintenance, running the roll printers in the morning, which are left unattended for about two hours. Then the flatbeds are started up or cutting on the Zünd begins.


“As soon as someone is free, we start welding or grommeting banners, or preparing jobs for pickup or shipping. If a printer runs out of ink, it beeps and someone changes the cartridge. No one person is assigned to a piece of equipment in our facility,” explains Brian Werkheiser, owner, Memory Makers.


99 percent of the company’s business is from offset printers, print brokers, design firms, or sign shops outsourcing. Memory Makers ships worldwide, even though the trucking companies have to battle through a cornfield to get to the shop’s brick-and-mortar location. According to Werkheiser, the shop has customers they have never met—they simply take their uploaded files, print, finish, and ship to wherever the location may be.


Memory Makers evolved into direct to rigid substrate printing with the rest of the industry, as when their first printer acquisition occurred, only roll-to-roll was available. When they purchased the Colorspan in 2006, they began using it to print directly to Coroplast. Unfortunately, the dpi was only 600, so signs requiring small point type had to be printed on a roll, laminated, and mounted to a substrate.


Adding the HP Scitex FB950 and the Océ Arizona 350 GT to the mix provided a higher dpi and the ability to print directly to a broader range of rigid materials, such as PALITE from Palram Americas. A PVC white sheet stock, the substrate cuts well on the Zünd without cracking or splintering and comes pre-masked to eliminate fingerprints found in handling. Another favorite rigid material is United Industries, Inc.’s UltraBoard, which features a PVC face.


The PSP stocks a three and six millimeter version of PALITE and has switched many clients to it, moving from printing and mounting. “The three millimeter cuts with a knife, but the six millimeter needs the router. Both have excellent cutting properties. I personally would recommend PALITE to anyone who runs flatbed printers. It may cost a bit more, but the pre-mask alone makes it worthwhile, not to mention the length of the durability of the knives and router bits on the Zünd,” adds Werkheiser.


When estimating jobs for clients, Memory Makers provides two prices—one for traditional printing, mount, and laminate; the other for directly printing to the chosen substrate. Using sample kits of the different rigid materials that are able to be printed directly allows the PSP to visually show customers the benefits. In return, Werkheiser says they are seeing about 60 to 70 percent of clients switching to direct print, namely because of cost. “To save a dollar or two on a print does not seem like a lot, until you are purchasing 800 or 900 prints at a time,” he says.


Many of the customers the shop services request seasonal retail, trade show, and venue displays. A recent project was an event display involving prehistoric dinosaurs. A dinosaur was double-sided printed on white-black-white Gatorboard and then contour cut on the Zünd. Spider feet from ImageOne Impact allowed the stand to stay upright. After the event was over, the customer kept the graphic and displayed it in their lobby.


Memory Makers also recently worked with Laminators Inc. to print samples of their products for their clients. Already a Laminators product user, the company jumped at the chance to test even more substrates. Prior to the job, the PSP was familiar with Alumalite, D-Lite, and Omega-Bond. “All of their products are pre-masked, which is great if you are printing direct, and everything prints with excellent quality,” says Werkheiser. For this particular project, sheets of all of the rigid material manufacturer’s products were supplied and graphics printed on the Océ Arizona and then cut on the Zünd.


Werkheiser is thankful for the foresight the company had back in 1995 to replace the enlarger with a wide format printer—citing that if the change hadn’t occurred, they wouldn’t be here today. “Every day we are creating something different, with new challenges. We push ourselves and equipment to the limits,” he concludes.


At press time, Memory Makers purchased its first latex printer, the HP Designjet L26500. The company planned to install it between Christmas and New Years.


Traditional Orders

BIGraphics, Inc., based in Nashua, NH, has printed on rigid substrates since 2004. Using an Acuity flatbed printer from Fujifilm North America Corporation as well as an Océ Arizona printer, the company is able to print on a range of types and grades of foamboard, all the way to PVC boards, styrene sheets, cardstock, and Coroplast.


Both the Acuity and the Arizona run on inks manufactured by Sericol—a division of Fujifilm. The Acuity is loaded with original Sericol inks and the Arizona runs a newer set. A higher print quality comes with the original set, while the newest inks provide better ink adhesion to a wider range of substrates and also runs white ink. Depending on the customer, BIGraphics chooses what projects are printed on which machines based on print quality, material, and production time.


“Trade show graphics that require near photographic print quality would be printed on the Acuity with an older ink set, while a customer who needs a sign printed on black PVC would need to have a flood coat of white ink; and therefore be printed on the Arizona,” explains Joe Dumont, VP of operations, BIGraphics.


In a 9,000 square foot facility, the shop also plays home to an HP Designjet 5000 aqueous printer and three HP 9000 solvent-based printers. With a core business in the New England region, the PSP also ships nationwide. Many of the jobs that come through the shop are wholesale, sold to print producers, marketing companies, advertising agencies, sign shops, and graphic designers. A typical print order could consist of trade show wayfinding signage on foam; retail signage on styrene, cardstock, or Stoplight; or Coroplast yard signage.


With the advent of printing jobs directly to board various specialty projects are popping up, for example lenticular posters with three-dimensional, motion, and flip effects. In addition, BIGraphics now has the capability to print onto non-traditional materials such as aluminum blanks.


While this is ideal, Dumont does not believe the traditional rigid substrate market is disappearing. While digital expands media options, it also allows the PSP to offer a better price point for a sign produced on a high-end material versus a sign printed on vinyl and then applied to the same substrate. “Some of our past customers may have shied away from a certain sign project because of price, but now we are able to supply them with output at a high quality and under budget,” he adds.


BIGraphics recently worked on a project for fitness club franchise Koko FitClub, LLC that required printing on Plaskolite, Inc.’s OPTIX-DA, a special clear digital acrylic. Four- by eight-foot sheets of the material were put through the Fujifilm Acuity and then cut on a router system into 12x96-inch panels. Each order was shipped and then assembled on site into a special frame system, referred to as a divider wall. This type of project occurs regularly and once it is requested, BIGraphics is able to turn it around in three to five business days. Production time varies as it is based on the volume of the order.


Direct to digital print capabilities continue to increase the PSP’s volume intake. Eliminating steps such as mounting, the shop is able to offer a lower price point and that means orders are increasing and sometimes repeatedly requested, making for double the business.


Growing While Staying Flat

The economy has affected everyone, but not necessarily in a bad way. As digital printer manufacturers found time to invest resources into research and development, they created the ability for printers to directly output to rigid materials. While more applicable substrates are introduced to the mix, it also means traditional materials such as foamcore and PVC are able to be printed on a lot faster without the added step of mounting.


Both Memory Makers and BIGraphics are able to capitalize on this by offering lower rates for projects that are justified by the efficiencies found in their print workflow. This allows them to take on more orders and, with the capabilities of digital, offer unique, innovative solutions as well.


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


Feb2012, Digital Output

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