Ryan McGinness

Today’s Lamination Films Do More Than Just Protect

If you were put on the spot and had to answer the question, “What do overlaminates do,” you’d probably answer that overlaminate films are used to protect surfaces and graphic films. And you’d be right, but the area of lamination films has evolved into much more.

Car wraps, floor laminates, wall wraps and specialty laminates have all come into their own in the past decade. What was once a product that many considered an afterthought has become one of the hottest trending items in the sign and digital graphics industry.

“The laminates, overall, have been a really very important part of the signage process because laminates are there to protect the ink, protect the graphic from any type of scratches,” says David Timmerman, regional technical specialist for the West Coast for Avery Dennison.

Most makers of overlaminates make them in matte, gloss and luster finishes. Gloss is great for outdoor uses, like cars, but it might not be as good for wall graphics where people are trying to read a menu. Matte finishes work better in that instance, he says.

“That’s why we have the different finishes, so for different applications the end result is what the customer wants,” Timmerman says.

“The day they came out with inkjet, they had to come up with a protective layer to give that durability. It’s been a fun industry because it constantly changes and you have the installers out there pushing the product to the limit,” he adds.

Installers constantly question why laminates aren’t more durable or don’t last very long. Why can’t they take a beating? It is these types of questions that drive innovation in the industry.

Overlaminates are “The unsung hero. The one who doesn’t get all the parades but is doing a lot of the work,” Timmerman says.

Mark Elvester, senior technologist technical service for 3M in Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of the biggest innovators in the overlaminate space, says that the adhesives used on its overlaminate materials haven’t changed much in the past 10 years. It is a permanent adhesive that is mostly made with environmentally friendly raw materials.

As far as its films go, they have changed slightly over the years. The biggest change is that its overlaminate went from being a PVC material to a different formulation that is more environmentally friendly.

PVC is “not as environmentally friendly. It doesn’t break down as nicely,” Elvester says.

In the past, overlaminates were mostly used to protect a finished graphic from scratches and weather. Now, overlaminates do so much more and the companies that manufacture them are coming up with new uses all the time.

3M makes slip resistant and durable overlaminates for floor advertisements. It also makes graffiti-resistant overlaminate.

“Most are a little more expensive than basic films but are a pretty inexpensive part of the overall manufactured graphic,” he says. “Most of the expense is coming up with the artwork to begin with. Materials are a smaller portion of that.”

UV light poses the biggest danger to all graphics. It is hard on colors, Elvester says.

The large-format printer manufacturers have come up with UV durable inks to help combat the damage caused by UV rays, but “without overlaminate to protect them, they don’t fare very well out in the sun or outdoor graphics of any kind,” he says.

Matching materials

3M has a match component system. It has a warranty table that informs clients which films and overlaminate to use with what printers and inks. If clients stick to the company’s recommendations, the items produced with those materials will have a two to seven-year warranty on them, depending on where they are placed.

Car wraps have a shorter warranty period for films that are placed on the hood, trunk or roof of a vehicle because they take the brunt of the UV rays. If films are on the vertical surfaces of the vehicle, they have a much longer warranty, Elvester says.

Arlon Graphics has both cast and calendered overlaminates. The calendered versions are more for short-term applications and the cast laminates will last five years or more.

Kelly Kwo, technical service manager for Arlon Graphics in Placentia, California, says that where sign shops get into trouble with overlaminates is when they have a roll of cast or calendered overlaminate in stock and they use it on everything. Calendered laminates shrink differently than cast laminates so if you put a calendered laminate on a graphic that is expected to last five years or more there will be a problem.

“If you use the right combination you won’t have a problem down the road,” Kwo says.

Like 3M, Arlon has overlaminates specifically designed to go with different versions of its digital printable films.

“When you install anything with a base film by itself it is very weak. You always want to have an overlaminate on top to give it body. It makes the installation better,” she says.

Specialized overlaminates

Like some of its competitors, 3M has developed overlaminates that can change the look of the films underneath. It has brushed metal and carbon fiber overlaminates.

“With these, you can take any material and make it look like a specially made panel out of brushed aluminum or carbon fiber panel for a car. It can make it look fancy like that,” he says. “They’re looking at expanding that line. They are still in the process of deciding which different textures and what different items to add to it. Hopefully there will be some new announcements in the second quarter,” says Elvester.

Specialized film laminates are constantly changing, says Timmerman.

“We are trying to keep up with the needs of the customer base, the end user base, as well as coming up with the next great idea,” he says.

Avery Dennison has an anti-graffiti film that has been out for some time. It also has an optically clear laminate for window perforated graphics.

“Those window graphics, if not properly covered or protected, all those holes can fill up with dirt and grime and water when it rains. It can make for an unsatisfactory advertisement,” Timmerman says.

One of the newest products released by Avery Dennison is a gloss urethane laminate that protects prints from the harsh environment outside. This product does a great job in protecting surfaces that are in direct sunlight, particularly the roof, hood and trunk of a vehicle.

Another new laminate is Avery Dennison’s sparkle laminate, which puts ultra-metallic flake inside the laminate.

It adds sparkle to vehicle wraps or flat wall applications.

“Anytime the light hits that sparkle, either a beam of headlight or sunlight, it really takes your eyes to it. It is not only to provide protection but adds sparkle effect to your graphic,” Timmerman says. Customers are using it on boats, wave runners, cars and motorcycles because they like the added sparkle it gives off from the reflection of the water or the sun.

Ryan Scislowicz, manager of business development and marketing at KPMF USA Inc. in Lake Orion, Mich., says that his company was a pioneer in the overlaminate space. It launched its Starlight Overlaminates in 2012, which were metallic flake laminates in gloss or matte in three different colors.

“They enhance digital print films,” he says. The launch was in Europe and that market didn’t appreciate them as much as the U.S. market did when the company launched operations here in 2014.

“When we launched our operation over here, we put a Starlight laminate on a color change film. It drove the wrappers absolutely crazy. They said, ‘what is this color? We’ve been trying to make custom colors forever,’” he says with a laugh.

KPMF has numerous color options with its laminates, which give customers an opportunity to create a unique color. It recently added silver and copper laminates.

“There are a lot of unique effects we are working on. We are always trying to be an innovator and stay ahead of the game,” he says.

Specialty laminates are currently KPMF’s most popular product.

“Now that these options are out there and the norm, I imagine people would come up with more and more. I don’t know what will be next,” Scislowicz says.

Wrappers in particular are into mixing and matching colors with laminates. The possibilities are endless, he says.

And while printable films and laminates are used in numerous industries, including retail, restaurants, billboards and point of purchase displays, KPMF likes to focus on the vehicle market. Eighty percent of the company’s business comes from companies that wrap cars.

“As long as we can continue to make a profit and do as well as we do, we don’t need to branch out as much. We can stay focused and keep being the best at what we do,” Scislowicz adds.