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Choosing a Laminating Solution

Enhance Your Print with the Right Finishing Solution

By Gretchen A. Peck

We recommend you laminate all your printed media," quips David Cowart, director of sales, North American region, Remington Laminations Inc.

You’d expect him to say that; he sells laminating systems, after all. More seriously, Cowart suggests there are four primary reasons for laminating a printed document or graphic—the media is intended for high-traffic areas or needs to be physically handled, the print is intended for outdoors, a particular finish is required because of surrounding lighting, or there is a need for scratch resistance or dry-erase properties.

"There are numerous ways to utilize laminating films," Cowart adds, "... exhibits, point-of-purchase displays, boxes, Giclée prints, canvas, interior signage, vehicle graphics, and so much more."

A Matter of Choice
Laminating a print will help protect its integrity, providing a barrier to fingerprints, scratches, and tears. It can add stability and rigidity to a print. And, lamination will generally extend the life of a print—although, just how long depends on the type of process you choose.

"There are three general categories," Cowart explains, "pressure-sensitive—or cold films—thermal, and liquid. Other industry analysts also break them into two different categories—solvent-based and aqueous-based products."

How does one choose the most appropriate process for their print applications? "It all starts with your printer, inks, media, and the intention of the finished product. Some basic guidelines? If the media is going to be displayed indoors, then a thermal solution may be just fine. As a general rule of thumb, if a piece is going to be outdoors, we recommend a pressure-sensitive, vinyl laminate with a solvent adhesive," he adds.

Pressure-sensitive laminates are generally considered to be more media-friendly than thermal alternatives; they can be applied to virtually any substrate on which you’d print.

"We believe users have found pressure-sensitive materials to be more universal, in terms of the types of media they’re using," suggests Lisa Paris, marketing and strategic planning manager, Seal Graphics Americas Corp-oration. "Pressure-sensitive films use a different adhesion technology than heat-activated systems, obviously. With thermal, it’s physics. The compound is heated, becomes liquefied, and then bonds and solidifies. Whereas, with pressure-sensitive, the finish is a little bit more forgiving—especially for applications like glossy inkjet media or highly color-saturated prints. There’s definitely been a trend more toward pressure-sensitive films."

Both types of systems have their strengths. Pressure-sensitive solutions are typically one-sided, while some thermal solutions are capable of simultaneous application on two sides of the media. Unlike thermal, pressure-sensitive solutions have fewer media and ink limitations; they’re a better option when the inks or media are heat-sensitive, or you need to preserve some of the media’s flexibility.

A Solution for Every Need
There’s no shortage of laminating solutions on the market. But, should a customer feel backed into a corner by the off-the-shelf lamination solutions available, a few manufacturers —like Advanced Greig Laminators (AGL)—are capable of custom-building a solution specific to a customer’s industry demands and job requirements.

The smartest way to choose a laminating system, according to Cindy Pilch, brand manager, GBC Industrial & Print Finishing Group, is by the application. "If you’ve been outsourcing laminating jobs, then you already have an idea of what your market is. If it’s banners and vinyl, then you wouldn’t put a thermal over that, so you’ve already [narrowed your options] to a pressure-sensitive or liquid laminating system."

"If most of what you’re doing is posters—and a lot of them—you may want to think about the cost of consumables; and a thermal solution may be more cost-effective," Pilch adds. "Or, maybe you need two-sided lamination, but pressure-sensitive solutions only apply one-sided. With thermal, you may be able to laminate the top and bottom simultaneously and totally protect something that may be subject to moisture or displayed in a light box."

In addition to determining what services you want to offer and how much you can justify spending, Remington Laminations’ Cowart also suggests that you consider each solution’s rated monthly duty cycle, types of media it can accommodate, and how reliable the supplier’s after-sale support is.

Multitaskers
While some solutions are, by nature, thermal or pressure-sensitive, others take a hybrid approach. Other solutions are capable of doing double-duty with encapsulation and mounting features.

D&K Group Inc. has a solution called the Expression 42-inch Professional, which uses low-melt, thermal or pressure-sensitive films. Royal Sovereign also makes four brands of laminators—the RSS Series, RSR Series, RSH Series, and RSC Series—that can be used for both heated and cold applications.

"We’re mainly known for manufacturing thermal laminating machines, but we have options on our thermal units to handle pressure-sensitive as well, because we believe that’s a big part of the business," notes Alan Parkhill, president, Banner American Products Inc. "We have thermal laminators that have top and bottom heat that can encapsulate—meaning, laminating both sides with an edge seal—and the option to top pressure-sensitive laminating."

It goes without saying that media is of critical concern to any business interested in bringing a laminator on board. What types of print are you producing, and what types of media will the laminators accept? Also, how thick is the media for the majority of your workload? Is there a common dimension that will dictate what laminator solutions you can choose?

Many of the solutions are quite versatile when it comes to media. Optima International, for example, makes three models of its Minicoaters line, which comprises 36, 56, and 76-inch models. They’re capable of laminating vinyl, canvas, photo papers, Tyvek, and other media.

A Need for Speed
While speed always matters, don’t assume that you need the fastest solution on the market, and don’t assume that the solutions are capable of running at maximum speeds in all scenarios.

Rated speeds can be muddy criteria on which to base your laminator selection. Most solutions are said to have variable rates of speed—from zero to seven feet-per-minute (fpm), for example. Some solutions allow the operator to set the speed appropriate to the job; others may involuntarily vary, dropping speed when performing labor-intensive tasks or handling a challenging substrate.

"Drying time is a key issue," Paris suggests. "If a print can be left to dry, then generally, you can put a heat-activated laminate over it without a problem. But the print has to be totally—totally—dry. The problem is, in a production environment, you may not have the luxury of time. This is certainly the case for on-demand situations. So if the print may not have ample time to completely dry, a pressure-sensitive process may be a little bit more forgiving."

"I think one of the things that is blown out of proportion is the need for speed," suggests Parkhill. "Particularly in wide format. If you’ve ever seen an inkjet printer work ... it takes a long time. Well, laminators run far faster. Even the slowest laminators run faster than wide format inkjet machines." However, Parkhill notes, laminator speed can be an important factor for high-volume offset operations.

Making Your Purchase
"Try to get the most fully featured laminator you can afford," Parkhill advises. "You’ll always have a new job or a new application come up that you didn’t expect."

Pilch concurs. "You may want to consider paying a little more, getting more capabilities, so, as you grow your business, you haven’t eliminated the opportunity to do other types of jobs. If you buy a pressure-sensitive-only laminator, and get a job that requires encapsulating, you won’t be able to do that."

Generally speaking, there are three pricing tiers for laminating systems. Cold, or pressure-sensitive, systems are the least expensive. Top-heat-only solutions are a bit more, and systems that have both top and bottom heat rollers tend to be the most expensive.

It’s the opposite for the films, however. "Thermal films are less expensive than pressure-sensitive films," states Pilch.

Bottom line? There are lots of laminators out there, ripe for the picking. Don’t act hastily, selecting purely by price. Make certain that the solution you choose will support your lamination needs today, and expose new business opportunities for the future.

Jun2005, Digital Output

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