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Metal, Paper, and Plastic


A Look at Rigid Substrates


By Katrina Ceruolo


Part 1 of 2


As advancements in digital printing continue, the ability to print on varied materials becomes more accessible, in particular rigid substrates. In the 2012 Wide Format Inkjet Equipment Benchmarking Report issued by the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) the organization states that the rise of flatbed printing has contributed to rigid substrates entering the digital printing space.


“Printable rigid materials came to our industry as the result of the rise of flatbed inkjet printers. Foamboards—several types, rigid plastics, and corrugated boards are the most widely used rigid materials in our industry,” the report shares. 230 U.S. print providers were polled. Out of the respondents, 64.4 percent—nearly two-thirds of the companies—indicated they were either entirely or mostly digital.


In the study their chart reports the percentage of use for each rigid substrate. Foamboard, Gatorboard, and PVC lead the usage with 91.9 percent with rigid plastics closely following at 89.2 percent. Corrugated board is utilized 85.1 percent of the time. Metal/plastic composite board has a usage percentage of 79.1 percent, while metal only substrates have a usage rate of 66.2 percent. Glass is used 31.1 percent of the time.


Based on SGIA’s report, we’ve classified printable rigid substrates into three categories—those with a metal, paper/wood, or plastic base. Here, we discuss the varied subcategories, their ideal environments, and ink compatibility.


Metal Base

Aluminum is a popular metal-based rigid substrate. Some are comprised of aluminum alloy and feature a UV resistant polyethylene core or a solid polyethylene plastic core, while others are comprised of solid aluminum sheets with smoothed enamel baked on the surface. For digital printing on aluminum substrates, UV-curable and solvent-based inks are best. 


Aluminum substrates include a variety of uses. Because of its durability, aluminum is ideal for sustainable outdoor signage, but eye-catching indoor signage can also be achieved by printing digitally onto aluminum. Its strength also serves as a great choice for marketing stands and structures.


Paper/Wood Base

Foamboard can be an economical, soft paper-based substrate that is often coated with a wood fiber veneer or white clay. Classic corrugated cardboard, comprised of at least three stacked layers of brown kraft paper, is a lightweight rigid substrate option. Similar to metal-based substrates, UV-curable and solvent inks are most compatible.


Foamboard is a good choice for three-dimensional (3D) displays and both substrates are ideal for interior short-to-medium term, point of purchase (POP), point of sale, and traveling showcase displays due to its lightweight nature.


Some wooden rigid substrates are made from a mixture of materials, such as MDO wood with a plywood core and rigid water proof vinyl coating and Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood Fiberwood with a plywood core between two fiberglass plates.

Due to their durability and weather proofing these wood-based mixed media rigid substrates make for reliable and durable exterior signage and displays.


Plastic Base

A widely used plastic-based rigid substrate in a variety of media is acrylic—also known as Plexiglass—a strong, unyielding, and transparent thermoplastic polymethyl methacrylate material. Lexans and polycarbonates are other plastic rigid substrates. Acrylic, lexan, and polycarbonate are utilized in indoor applications, such as displays on office windows, or outdoor applications such as backlit signs or 3D lettering. For the best outcome on an acrylic application UV-curable inks should be used.


Polystyrene is another plastic made of a synthetic polymer. This plastic usually showcases a matte finish for easy printing and is often double sided. A popular polystyrene foamboard is Gatorboard, a foamboard concealed by two layers of very thin polystyrene veneer. Gatorboard is ideal for 3D display applications. Polystyrene is used in an assortment of ways, from CD packaging to foam shipping containers, display structures, and POP signage. To achieve high-quality imagery UV-curable inks are best for printing on polystyrene.


Those that prefer corrugated cardboard but wish for something slightly more durable, corrugated plastic is available. Corrugated plastic is a twinwall plastic-sheet material that is comprised of high-impact polypropylene resin and is recyclable. For a plastic it is lightweight yet strong and easy to cut through, much like its paper counterpart. This substrate is used for indoor applications such a packaging material, POP signage, and display structures as well as in outdoor short-term signage. For indoor applications, screenprinting ink is recommended while UV screen ink is best for outdoor applications.


In the form of a smooth plastic foam sheet, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is used in a variety of applications including in-home decorative projects, POP and trade show displays, and medium-term indoor and outdoor signage. Acrylic-based PVC ink is best for printing on this substrate.


A Look at Rigid Substrates

Each rigid substrate is a fit for a specific environment. It is important to consider all options before deciding on the correct board. Just because your flatbed can print on a substrate, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. In part two of this series we look at available rigid substrates from vendors.

Click on the link above to get more information on the vendors mentioned in this article.

Dec2013, Digital Output DORS1312

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