There are a number of factors to consider when choosing your wrap shop laminator. (Photo courtesy of AGL)

Your Next Wrap Shop Laminator

Jerry Hill is vice president of new market business development for Drytac, a manufacturer and distributor of graphics finishing equipment and supplies. He can be reached at laminationtips@drytac.com with any questions or comments.

I like to go fast. So imagine my thrill when a coworker asked if I would like to drive his BMW on the Autobahn during a recent business trip to Germany. The highway was in perfect shape—no construction, no potholes. It has to be because there is no speed limit between major metropolitan areas. Imagine the freedom to go as fast as you like! Well, that kind of sustained speed comes at a cost. One has to completely change one’s frame of mind, change the way one drives and change the way one evaluates one’s car. Concentration is the key. There is no time for eating, drinking or even changing the radio station. Along with good driving skills, one has to also possess the right car with the right features. At elevated speeds, the car features are evaluated from a different perspective. Safety, braking power and tires become important, and the sunroof becomes less important. 

Now what does all this have to do with laminating a car wrap graphic? I am not trying to compare a BMW to a roller laminator, but I am saying that when you use a laminator to produce sellable vehicle graphics in a profitable manner, you must change your mindset and evaluate the features differently. The following is what I consider to be a checklist for evaluating a laminator for car wraps. Let’s first discuss the primary considerations and then look at the secondary features.

Primary Considerations
One of the first primary considerations is overall construction. This will be closely related to the second primary consideration, which is tracking. Typically, car wrap graphics are laminated in a roll-to-roll manner or in long strips of eight to 15 feet.

One of the horrors of laminating is watching a graphic that you just spent hours prepping, RIPing and printing drift off to the right or left and get jammed into the side cases—you know you will be working late that night. Let's look at how to be less prone to this issue.

Evaluating Construction and Tracking
Because we all are not mechanical engineers, how do we evaluate the construction and then tracking? There is one overall objective measurement that can indicate a positive overall build quality, and that is weight. By comparison, a 1,000 pound laminator is more heavy-duty than a 350 pound laminator.

However, weight is just the starting point. One has to look at other factors like the side cases. Are they plastic or metal? Weak side cases will lead to tracking problems and wrinkling due to an inevitable twisting action. This can even happen before you receive the laminator so you may not know it or know to check for it. Twisting occurs when the laminator is not level.

To illustrate this, put two pencils—one on top of the other—between your middle and ring fingers of each hand. Your hands are now the side cases. Now twist your hands in the opposite direction and take a look at what happens. It really doesn’t take much movement to move the pencils.

Evaluating Tie Bars
In addition, look for multiple tie bars that span the width of the laminator and connect the side cases to each other. While you are looking at the side cases, remove the panels to inspect the inner workings. Does the drive system look logical? Are you dealing with metal sprockets and chains (preferred) or plastic parts?

Another quick check is to inspect the casters. The heavy-duty nature of the casters will be an indicator of good overall build quality.

Evaluating Rollers
The next primary consideration is to evaluate the rollers themselves. These are the heart of the laminator. Check the following:

  • Roller Diameter—The rule of thumb with roller diameter is the "bigger, the better." A diameter of 4”-6” is usually beefy enough for vehicle wrap graphics. That said, it doesn’t mean that 2”-3” diameter rollers can’t work. One will just have to evaluate the deflection of the smaller rollers at full pressure. Weaker rollers will have a tendency to bow in the middle—and that is not good.
  • Roller Flatness—The shape of the roller can make a huge difference in the usability of your laminator. Flat rollers are easier. Shaped rollers—commonly called “crowned rollers”­—are used when manufacturers want to compensate for the expected bow of the rollers. As the pressure is increased, the thinner tapered outside edges compress to create a flat nip impression. Once this is achieved, lamination can take place without issue. However, finding this “sweet spot” can be a challenge, especially in entry-level machines.
  • Roller Circumference—Some laminators come from the factory with irregularities in the circumference of the rollers. These bulges are hard to see with the naked eye if you don’t know where to look. A pi tape is a specialized measurement device that can measure circumferences to the thousands of an inch. But at several hundred dollars, not everyone will have one. One free exercise is to raise the rollers to reveal a slight gap between them. Sometimes a light can be placed behind the laminator to accentuate the contrast. Now you can spin the top roller and watch for any irregularities. If the roller wobbles like a bent bicycle tire, then it is time to walk away from that unit.
  • Roller Composition—Silicone is the best material for our industry. Silicone rollers aid in the release of excess adhesive should misalignment of materials occur. Some manufacturers will substitute lower-cost rubbers (EDPM) or neoprene. Make sure you check the specifications before proceeding and don’t let roller color confuse you. Non-silicone coverings can be made in any color.
  • Roller Cover Hardness—Not all silicone is made the same. The hardness of silicone matters. A Durometer scale is used to measure this. In our industry, a medium to medium-hard silicone is preferred. Soft rollers simply cannot generate the pressure range needed for our applications. The Durometer reading will be in the specs or you can simply ask the seller.

Pressure Mechanisms
The next major consideration when considering laminators is to evaluate the method the machine uses to generate pressure for the rollers. Most laminators will fall into three categories.

  • Spring Loaded Lever—To select the thickness and to set pressure, you must turn a cam-synchronized lever located on the side of the laminator. The cam action lifts and lowers the rollers into position while simultaneously setting the pressure. The pressure is governed by a set of springs located on either side of the top pinch roller journals. The limitations of this type of system include low pressure and no specific adjustment capability.
  • Hand Crank—Most laminators utilize this method. A hand wheel is tied into a mechanical screw which in turn raises and lowers the roller. There are many variations. Some have two screws on each end of the laminator that have to be adjusted. These are an acceptable method; however, the limitation is a slower speed of adjustment. Most laminators have opted for a single height adjustment. One caution—on some lower cost imports, you’ll find that the rollers are not connected and cannot generate pressure. The top roller is simply resting on the bottom roller. For this reason, it is nice to have some type of pressure gauge so that the setting can be replicated for the next job, saving time and material. An evaluation method is to raise and lower the roller to its maximum settings and monitor the ease or smoothness of the mechanism.
  • Pneumatic—Some of the most heavy-duty laminators employ this system, which utilizes compressed air to actuate a cylinder that raises or lowers the roller. These systems usually have a shim dial to easily set the nip opening. The advantage here is ease of use and the ability to quickly change the set up. As nice a system as this is, I have witnessed two disadvantages. With an easy-to-set pressure, operators tend to create too much pressure. This can cause laminating errors and tends to wear out the laminator. A second issue is when shim dials are improperly calibrated.  This gives a false sense of pressure and can lead to tunneling and delamination.

How Many Shafts?
The last major consideration for evaluating a laminator is the number of shafts it uses—usually termed “unwind and rewind” or “supply and take-up” shafts. If the goal of producing car wrap graphics is to laminate roll-to-roll (and it should be), then the laminator must have the necessary shafts to physically get the job done.

A supply shaft is needed for the printed graphics. This is usually located below the rollers. A supply and take-up is needed for the lamination film and for the associated release liner that is removed just before lamination takes place. These two shafts are usually located above the nip rollers.

Finally, a take-up shaft is needed for the finished graphics.  If one of these is missing, then one cannot laminate roll-to-roll. This will hurt efficiency and yields.

Secondary Features
Now that we have looked at the major points of a good car wrap laminator, let’s look at some secondary features that can make the laminator easier and more productive to use. Also, you will need to consider your use of the laminator for other non-vehicle wrap related jobs like mounting, decaling and pre-masking. Consider the following:

  • Shafts: Chuck vs. Chuck-less—Chucks keep the roll of material from spinning or wandering on the shaft. When changing rolls, the operator has to remove a chuck and usually reposition the other. Chuck-less shafts can speed roll changes as they use a rubber band to grab the inside core of the roll to keep it from spinning.
  • Shafts: Removable vs. Swing-out—Most shafts can be removed from the laminator.  The shaft is usually placed on a work surface, and the roll of material is changed. A swing-out shaft has the benefit of having a fixed end so that rolls can be easily changed right on the laminator without having to remove the shaft. The only downside is that you need the space in your shop, usually about 12’ for a 60” roll width.
  • Clutch/Brake—The clutch/brake assembly acts to slow down the shaft so that tension of the web can be adjusted. There are many types that usually involve a friction plate of some kind. Some high-end laminators have pneumatically controlled brakes. Look for the logic here. You do not want a system that wears prematurely or easily loses its calibration.
  • Controls—Variable speed control is nice because it allows the operator to start slow, thereby working out any wrinkles in the web. Also, a reverse mode allows for backing substrates out after setting the nip opening.
  • Pinch-Point Opening—Car wrap graphics need only a small opening; however, a 1-2” opening will not limit the laminator when mounting to thick rigid boards. A wide opening allows for easier webbing, too.
  • Heated Rollers—Choices include no heat, heat assist or full heat. PSA adhesives cure with pressure over time, so technically no heat is needed. Most shops prefer a heat assist (110°F) as this speeds the flow of PSAs and helps eliminate silvering. Full heat (250°F) is needed to process HeatSet and Thermal copolymer films if those will be used. If encapsulation will be a big part of the throughput, then choosing a laminator with pull rollers is necessary.
  • 110 Vs. 220 Volts—The difference will be the time it takes for the laminator to warm up. Of course if you do not have a 220V circuit in your shop, it can be expensive to run one. Check the specs. A laminator with both options is ideal.
  • Width—What is the best width to buy? Most choices come down to 55” or 63”+. The most common print material for car wrap graphics is 54”, so a 55” laminator will work as long as the tracking is true. The 63”+ width laminators will allow for more wiggle room when running 54” materials, and they are the only option if you want to run 60” material.
  • Drop-down In-feed Table—This is a super feature that makes webbing a laminator easier. Don’t think about this one—just get it.
  • Crate—I bet you never thought of this one. Evaluate for sturdiness—will it hold up during shipping to your location? How easy will it be to extract the laminator? Damage can occur during the uncrating process.
  • Safety—Let us not overlook important safety features; after all, it’s hard to apply the graphics with crushed fingers.
  • Emergency Stops—Emergency stop mechanisms are very important. The question is how many are there, and are they easily accessible. They should be tested weekly.
  • Foot Pedal—Does the foot pedal have a shroud over it to protect from inadvertent activation?
  • Pinch Point Protection—Plastic cover or electric eye? Can it be bypassed? Most users prefer a non-physical barrier.
  • Strain Relief—Check the exit point of the electric cord. Does it have a plastic strain relief? Metal ones or just bare wire can conduct current through the frame when accidently jammed into the back wall of your shop.
  • Wide Base—This helps prevent turnovers. It is also nice to have extra roll storage on the base. The extra weight keeps the center of gravity low.

Choosing a Vendor
Thus far, we have looked at both primary and secondary criteria for evaluating vehicle wrap laminators. So now that you have a laminator checklist you can just fill in the blanks you're done, right?

Nope, sorry, we have one more evaluation to perform. That is to consider which vendor to purchase from. Below are some key factors to consider:

  • Technical Support—This seems obvious, but let’s look deeper. Does the manufacturer have its own technicians? What about phone support? Is there a certified dealer network available? 
  • Dealer Network—If there is a dealer network, how extensive is it? Is there national coverage? How many technicians are on staff? Location—is travel involved? Are parts available? How knowledgeable is the customer service staff?
  • Application Support—Is training available? Is there a showroom or physical location? Are demo models available? How about videos? What happens when the warranty runs out?
  • Trade Shows—Do manufacturers or dealers participate in trade shows? 

Parting Advice
Obviously there is some work to do as you consider not only what brand and model, but from whom and where you will purchase your new laminator. Some parting advice -- don’t ask someone who is happy with their laminator, but ask someone who bought the wrong laminator. You may find the information more revealing. That is, if they are brave enough to talk about their experience. Finally, don’t use a 60 mph mindset when evaluating a car wrap laminator and then try to drive 150 mph. If so, you are certain to get a ticket for inefficiency.

* From the 2014 issue of WRAPS magazine.