Since 1902, 3M has offered a wide array of products stretching across nearly every business vertical, but a large amount of the company's divisions trace their technology back to the importance and evolution of adhesives. This is especially true for the wraps industry and the vinyl and film products that allow graphic installations and wrap projects to come to life.
When vinyl graphics first began to emerge on the market, they were primarily intended for fleet graphics. This meant products were designed for long-term application on flat surfaces, providing little in the way of flexibility, customization and relief, leaving installers without much ability to alter the vinyl once applied to a vehicle’s surface.
From this point forward, adhesive technology was all about one thing: making installation easier. What began as an industry geared specifically for large-scale production and fleet owners now exists as a multifaceted marketplace that serves personal vehicle wraps, graphics for walls, floors and buildings, complex installation surfaces and locations, and much, much more. Thus, the demand for superior, easy to use products has skyrocketed, prompting manufacturers like 3M to double down on innovation.
The Right Stuff
As graphic installations and wraps have shifted from something consumers view from afar to up-close viewing, the technological focus of adhesives has followed suit. Over the last few decades, film technology has seen major breakthroughs—improving the films themselves and creating new desirable adhesive features.
Every installation project has its own sets of challenges, but there’s also a baseline for what’s needed from a film’s adhesive. In today’s wrap films, adhesives and liners are often synonymous. What are most often thought of as adhesives, like Controltac and Comply technologies, are technically film liners that contain the product’s adhesive properties. Although they may vary from product to product, the following is a list of features in today's film adhesives and liners that are essential for optimal installation and performance.
- Slideability—Early vinyl films had very little in the case of slideability compared to their modern counterparts. Instead of the adhesive qualities that allow today’s products to move easily across an application surface and be repositioned, earlier films needed far more accuracy upon first connection. What worked for large fleet installations at the time would not stand up to the intricacies and precision needed for current wrapping installations on personal vehicles.
- Pressure Activated Adhesives— Everything changed with the wide adoption of pressure activated adhesives. PAAs create their bonds using initial pressure and flow, unlike other adhesives that rely on chemical reactions or curing processes. For wrap installers, this technology has dramatically increased the ease of installation, allowing them to find the perfect placement of a film without having it prematurely adhere to a substrate.
- Initial Tack—One of the most noticeable and important traits that differentiate films from one another is initial tack. This is the first applied pressure that sets a film to a surface. Some adhesives offer low tack properties, which can result in easy repositionability, but difficult in short term and long-term adhesion. Other vinyl films may provide high tack, which can create a strong initial bond, but frequently limit an installer’s ability to successfully snap the material back up. This partisan split is best met in the middle, where optimized initial tack can offer the best of both worlds.
Using a thumb test, you can see the difference between the different tack qualities of a film. Each adhesive liner is composed of active groups and soft segments that combine to provide a balance between repositionability (snap-up capability) and long-term bonding. As you push a film onto a substrate, it may feel like it lacks proper hold. A high-quality product offers adhesive properties that allow for give-and-take during installation, but a lasting bond—especially when enhanced by post-heating in deep channels for example. Over time, installers can sometimes get used to the rigors of working with low and high initial tack, but it’s far easier and faster when it’s in between.
- Non-Visible Air Release—Nothing looks worse than a wrap installation chock-full of bubbles. Air-release technology lends a unique characteristic to a film’s adhesive properties that enables fast application with very few air bubbles. The quality of this technology has vastly improved over time, and was first introduced to the market by 3M as Comply Technology. This advancement allows installers to remove bubbles more easily, which leads to a better-looking wrap that features stronger bonds.
When air-release technology was first introduced to the market, the channels in which air escaped were often visible on the surface of the wrap. As the industry primarily consisted of graphics installation viewed from afar on fleet vehicles, these visible channels were of little concern at the time. However, as the marketplace shifted towards installations and personalized vehicle wraps that are viewed from up close, these channels slowly became a problem.
Therefore lab technicians reformulated the product so it would generate air channels that were non-visible. The most recent developments have led to a network of microstructure air channels that exist within the adhesive, permitting air to escape laterally beneath the film. Today, this feature is present in high-quality graphic films, including 3M’s breakthrough Comply Adhesive with micro technology. Now films featuring non-visible air channels still alleviate bubbling, but don’t compromise the aesthetic of a wrap project.
Adhesive Variation & Film Selection
Understanding the evolution and characteristics of adhesives technology is valuable and provides a baseline for selecting wrap films on their quality. However, not all films offer the same adhesive features, and many are specially designed for different end-uses and unique application types. It’s important to know what kind of adhesive a film features before selecting it for a project, as there may be a product better suited for your needs.
Primarily, adhesives can be broken into three major (and largely self-explanatory) categories: permanent, removable and ultra removable. Within these categories are individual films tailored for specific tasks and primary applications.
Permanent adhesives are designed for long-term installation with adhesives that promote strong and lasting bonds. This also leads to a more intense removal process when graphics have run their course, usually involving the use of heat and chemicals. Some examples of specialized wrap films featuring permanent adhesives can include:
- Low surface energy (LSE) wrap films—These films are designed to adhere to hard-to-bond surfaces, such as LSE plastics found on ATVs, motocross bikes, snowmobiles and other motorsports vehicles.
- Stainless steel wrap films—These films are expertly crafted to adhere to stainless steel vehicles like tankers, refrigerated trucks and food trucks. The strong adhesive bond ensures they’ll cling to the surface without lifting or peeling.
Removable adhesives are engineered to strike a happy medium between durability and removability. Most versatile, go-to wrap films feature removable adhesives, which require only heat to remove from the application surface. Products featuring this type of adhesive include print wrap films, color change wrap films and more.
Ultra-removable adhesives function just as they sound. Designed for shorter-term applications and projects that need to be frequently updated or replaced. Products featuring ultra-removable adhesives can be removed without the use of heat or chemicals. An example of this film is the new 3M Print Wrap Film IJ180mC-10UR. These films can even be applied over more permanent graphics to provide a promotional message or short-term campaign, and then removed without damaging the underlying graphics.
Adhesive colors are another component of films that are often overlooked. Although most are grey, new breakthroughs in technology have led to the development of clear adhesives, perfect for products used for window graphics, partial vehicle wraps and more. With clear adhesives, and optically-clear overlaminate adhesives, graphics installers can create graphics that allow sight of the base substrate, and in the case of window graphics, the ability to see through glass.
Apart from simply selecting a base graphic film, it’s important to consider the properties of overlaminate adhesives and film chemistry. With the proliferation of numerous print films and adhesive technologies, the varying chemistries that exist from product to product make it possible to encounter films and laminates that perform seamlessly together, and those that don’t. Before finalizing a project, be sure to confirm that all layers are tested together by the graphics manufacturer. If properly tested/approved, comprehensive warranties like the 3M MCS Warranty can be offered, providing peace of mind that an installation will last and perform.
At the end of the day, advancing adhesive technology is all about improving installation and making people unafraid of using wrap materials. As the industry further enters the mainstream, adhesives will continue to change in tandem with the demand for more specialized and customizable wrap film selections. These possibilities could include further increasing installation ease, the ability to cure films at different temperatures, continuing the variation of adhesive permanence, expanding the range of film removability and more. Whatever the case may be, you can bet that 3M will continue to be at the forefront of adhesive innovation.