The Print Finishing Opportunity

In today’s digital graphics industry, a great deal of attention is paid to the developers and manufacturers of graphics output devices. It isn’t difficult to understand why. Wide-format inkjet devices, whether fast or slow, flatbed or roll-to-roll, are fascinating to watch – the possibilities of the technology truly roll off as the machine runs.

It’s important to remember that the inkjet device alone produces only a print. Further, most prints must be finished in some way before they can be delivered to the customer as a sellable final product.

 Through this step – print finishing – companies may define their markets, expand their offerings and differentiate themselves from the competition, while at the same time improving the potential for additional profit. This, in a nutshell, is the print finishing opportunity.

The Post Print Finishing Alliance (PPMA), operating under the umbrella of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), takes a broad view of print finishing, and defines it as the tools and techniques used to transform a print into an intended product. These processes include, but are not limited to, lamination, mounting, cutting, routing, seaming, vinyl welding, grommeting and sewing. Just think: how many of these processes are currently performed in your shop? They can be helpful in making the sale.

For the purpose of this article, let’s take time to focus on one of the most common and perhaps underappreciated finishing steps used in our industry: lamination.

Nearly everybody knows you can put a protective coat on a print to help protect it from moisture and other forces of damage. Fewer people know the breadth of possibilities offered by lamination, and how it can help to make many end products. Fewer still know how to use lamination to increase profitability.

The basic process of lamination is relatively simple, and can be performed using the following four methods:

Thermal activated films adhere at temperature via a heat-activated adhesive.

Heat assist pressure-sensitive films require a mix of both heat and pressure.

Liquid lamination uses a coating that covers the print surface. Water-based coatings are dried through air exposure or the use of a heater. UV-based liquid coatings are cured using intense ultraviolet light.

Pressure-sensitive films adhere as the result of pressure, which activates a pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA).

There are also two options for mounting:

Single Step: both mounting and laminating are performed in a single pass.

Two Step: the laminating process is separated into a mounting step and a laminating step.

At the higher end of the process, those companies that are adept at lamination procedures are able to create complex “lamination constructions” for applications designed to produce very specific, results-oriented outcomes.

One example of this would be a very rigid, high-gloss application that is also equipped to function as a backlit display. The point here is that the print becomes something else altogether. It does take a firm knowledge of products and processes to create this transformation successfully and profitably.

When Media Met Lamination
Laminate products are made from a variety of materials including the following:

  • Polyester (PET) - thermal and pressure-sensitive films;
  • Vinyl (PVC) - mostly pressure sensitive, limited use with thermal films;
  • Polypropylene (OPP) - a lower-cost film generally used with thermal adhesives;
  • Polycarbonate - a higher-cost rigid and textured specialty film used with PSAs; and
  • Liquid - a water-based or UV-curable coating applied by a coating device, offering gloss and matte finishes, and potential UV protection.

Whatever material (or materials) are used within a lamination or mounting process, it’s important to make sure the films and adhesives used within the process are compatible with the media product used to create the print. Cases of media/film incompatibility can lead to lamination failure, including severe curling.

One of the best ways to determine compatibility is to establish and utilize a strong relationship with your materials supplier. Work with them to locate the materials that will work best with the needed application. If the supplier is unwilling or unable to answer questions, look elsewhere.

With the rise of solvent- and UV-based inkjet printing, a number of graphics producers have made the assumption that the need to laminate has disappeared, given the greater durability of these ink sets. If fact, laminates are commonly used regardless of ink set, as they provide durability under extreme weather or contaminant conditions (think of vehicle wraps) or in situations where print abrasion is extreme (an example here would be way-finding graphics in crowded public buildings, or in a tradeshow graphic where it is rolled up for storage after use).

In some cases, lamination is required even when the most aggressive inkjet inks are used. In other cases, laminates may be used as insurance, hedging that the print will be durable enough to fulfill the customer’s print longevity expectations. In any event, lamination adds substantial rigidity to any flexible media product.

 Finishes and Specialty Products
It has become clear that the digital graphics market has come to appreciate the performance characteristics that specialty films impart. A high gloss overlaminate can enhance the colors of a print, while higher-performance luster, satin and matte finishes offer reduced light reflection without muting or shifting color.

Many graphics producers also add textured finishes to their products as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition. Typical textures include canvas, leather and linen. Special products such as graffiti-proof film can be wiped clean of spray paint and other markings.

Laminating films also enhance the performance of a print in other ways. Special opaque backing films, for example, are used in banners, P.O.P. signage and exhibit graphics to prevent light show-through. Floor graphics wouldn’t be possible at all without heavy-duty polycarbonate films with embossed, slip-resistant surfaces. And revolutionary new products such as printable laminates promise to continue the technology evolution that has made finishing an integral and profitable component in graphics fabrication.

Other significant developments in lamination films include scuff- and scratch-resistant hard coats, light blocking films for P.O.P. and exhibit applications, light diffusers for backlit signs and transparent media, and UV absorbers and blockers to protect the print from the detrimental effects of sunlight.

As customers and designers become more sophisticated in their knowledge of what can be done with finishes and textures, they’ll begin to drive the process from the demand side. The challenge for a graphics producer is to understand these products and their capabilities within their product mix, and to successfully provide what the customer wants.

Making Money
As digital graphics producers seek market differentiation and additional sources of revenue, there will be a shift in thinking about lamination away from the idea that mounting and laminating are necessary evils, and toward the concept that finishing processes are ways to enhance performance and profitable revenue.

Customers want a graphic product that is ready to perform in its specific application - not just a print. If the print will be a trade exhibit graphic, for example, it will require mounting for easy installation on site, lamination to protect it from extensive handling, and perhaps by the addition of flexible magnets or Velcro. If the output is a window sign, it will require a good UV overlaminate to slow fading. In short, the graphics producer is now selling a turnkey graphic solution.

A recent InfoTrends market research presentation to PPMA placed print finishing in an interesting context. A schematic of a typical wide-format production cycle assigned time frames for each phase of the process.

The workflow diagram showed that the finishing stage of graphic production and fabrication consumed roughly 10 percent of the total time required. Yet finishing may account for as much as 50 percent of the job profit. Within this time/profit disparity is a significant opportunity for profit.

In light of these figures, how do we account for such low opinions of the value of print finishing among production personnel and management? According to InfoTrends, one reason is a continued lack of skilled staff in the finishing room.

Indeed, the finishing end of the graphics business has been characterized by this condition from the beginning. As a result, it’s common for finishing jobs to accumulate. In many cases management failed to provide the proper resources to staffing mounting/laminating positions, creating reliably disappointing results.

While print technology has changed the way wide-format graphics are printed and fabricated, the advent of outdoor printing technologies hasn’t adversely affected finishing in the graphic arts. Rather, new applications for mounting and laminating—as well as an evolving understanding of the value of finishing as a performance enhancing add-on—has driven continued growth and innovation in this key industry segment.

You Hold the Key
Whether your company uses lamination, or any of the other print finishing technologies or techniques used within the wide-format graphics industry, the result should be the same. Wisely incorporating print finishing into your product offerings makes you more than a printer. It instead makes you a solution provider – the type of business person who can confidently say, “Yes, we can do that for you.” By understanding print finishing and incorporating its benefits into your operation, you hold the key to increased profitability.