Nationwide Laminating & Finishing
Nationwide Laminating & Finishing: Helpful Tips

Wide-Open Future In Wide-Format Laminating

Published in Quick Printing

The secret's out! For large format, very-short-run printing, look no further than high quality multicolor plotters. In recent years, plotter technology has improved a lot. Now, high-end systems rival conventional printing. As expectations increase for this growing product area, so does the demand for high quality finishing alternatives.

Small commercial printers have discovered the profitable world of very-short-run, large format printing. Evidence of growing market demand is everywhere. For example, it's impossible to enter a tradeshow without seeing display booths laden with beautiful, multicolored, large-format printing. The process colors are simply gorgeous. In this dog-eat-dog world, visitors flock to companies with the best looking displays.

Similarly, in-store signage is very important to any retailer's success. The days of one-color signs with big red block letters hastily taped to windows are long gone. Large format, four-color process printing adorns windows and walls, hangs from ceilings and is securely affixed to floors. In my part of the country, it's hard to enter a department store without being greeted by a large picture of the store manager claiming how his or her store will take care of valued customers - like you.

More uses? How about large-format local maps hanging in shipping departments? Hotel and conference center signage that points visitors in the right direction? Outdoor signage promoting food and other attractions? Sponsored hole-in-one prizes on golf courses? These types of printed products all need large format coating for durability. However, when production runs are limited to one or two pieces, different production economics are involved. Typical trade finishing procedures don't apply to very-short-run work because of the extraordinary risk involved.

Finishing Risks
Trade finishers accept a lot of risk when finishing wide format, very-short-run work. Since most of this high quality work is done on plotter style printers, any spoilage allowance is almost always impractical. Therefore, trade finishers must get it right 100% of the time. Success in a zero-defects operating environment is very different than in a typical trade finishing environment because most trade finishers and their customers plan for some production spoilage.

Laminating services companies in the wide format, very-short-run finishing market have made mistakes, ticked off customers and paid for reprints. As a result of sliding down the learning curve, most competitive finishers in this demanding market have developed internal quality control procedures that emphasize prevention of problems. Bottom line? Make sure you entrust your valuable plotter work to a finisher with a lot of experience in this niche.

Common laminate alternatives include the following:

Before you decide which laminate to use, consider what the product is supposed to do and where it will be used. For example, if your piece is a backdrop for a tradeshow and has direct light shining on it, high gloss laminates will refract light in many directions, resulting in poor readability and a lot of glare. If the piece is a photograph, and positioned close to aisle traffic, perhaps the intense colors brought out by gloss laminate are exactly what you want. However, if text is involved, a satin or matte finish may be a better choice, even though process colors will appear to be a little bit duller. Be safe and start with the end use in mind before choosing your laminate material and finish.

If you want a solid backing for large format printed products, mount them onto a substrate such as gator board or foam core. When mounting short run paper products, the two most practical methods are 1) dry mounting, and 2) pressure sensitive mounting. The dry mounting process involves placing a strip of dry adhesive between the paper and board, and fusing them together in a vacuum-style machine. The pressure sensitive process involves applying the paper to the substrate and running the combined product through rollers that squeeze out air. Although the pressure sensitive process is more expensive, it's generally preferred because there's much less chance of unsightly air bubbles or creases. In addition, the lack of heat during application prevents inks from moistening, melting or running.

Applying easels to the back of mounted products allow large format work to stand by itself. If ceiling banners are intended for long life, consider inserting metal grommets or eyelets for better performance and a sharper look. One advantage of finishing very-short-run quantities is that the extra cost for additional services like grommetting, easels or mounting isn't a big deal and fits in most budgets - unlike when you're dealing with large quantities.

Tricks and Traps
No matter how technology marches on, successful thermal lamination depends on wax-free inks being used. Heat laminate adhesives don't adhere to wax-based ink because the laminating process requires heat, which melts the wax. Albert Einstein himself wouldn't be able to laminate a candle - it just doesn't work. If waxed ink is unavoidable, you may consider using a cold process for laminating. For the most part, cold laminating performs the same as heat (thermal) laminating, except for the obvious - heat. The major drawback in the cold laminating process is cost. In some instances, the cold process can cost as much as 75% to 100% more than heat laminating.

Even today, most inks will still fade over time when exposed to light. Surprisingly, normal laminates do little to prevent this problem from occurring. There are UV-resistant laminates that add time to the life of a product, but as of yet, there is no such thing as permanent protection. Not too long ago, wide format plotter printing almost always had to be laminated because old ink formulations ran upon contact with any moisture. Today, many plotter inks are moisture resistant, but not all are. Regardless, most papers aren't moisture resistant and so lamination still is a good idea. In short, it's better to be safe than sorry.

A lot of problems that "occur" while laminating wide format jobs really happen long before your laminator even sees the project. Smudges, fingerprints, creases, paper stretch, angled cutoffs and improper rolling techniques all contribute to final products that looks less than perfect. If present on the sheet, fingerprints and other contaminants will be sealed under the laminate and be preserved for the life of the product. If a gloss laminate is used, these imperfections will be accentuated.

Projects with lots of ink should be dry before attempting to move, roll or laminate them. Plotter prints with heavy dark solids can take many hours, or even days, before they're fully dry. If you attempt to roll them up for transport while the ink is wet, smudging likely will occur. If you have no choice, using plain white paper as a separation sheet might work, but if you do this too many times, eventually you're bound to be disappointed.

Wrinkling and bubbling are common problems during the lamination of large format projects. Once a wrinkle or bubble starts, it will continue for the length of the product. These types of problems are more likely to occur when laminating previously folded material, such as large format maps. Folds produce raised edges and require compensation during production to avoid wrinkles and bubbles.

When planning long banners, make sure their corners are formed with exact 90° right angles. Since many commercial laminating systems have no fixed cutoff limits, any extra-long project that starts off with crooked lamination will end up with an exposed corner. When working on products longer than five feet, laminating operators must carefully feed the front end into the mouth of the machine because if it's mis-fed by even one degree, the back corner may be exposed. Although some laminators use rigs to help start long pieces; there is still a lot of operator skill involved.

Once my company laminated an outdoor sign that was four feet wide by fifty feet long. Since this job took well over 24-hours of continuous plotter printing, we were well aware of the value of the piece we were handling. Due to its extraordinary length, we had, for all practical purposes, zero tolerance for feeding misalignment. After verifying that the piece had a 90° corner, our best operator calmly fed it into a hand-fed continuous laminating machine. Once we hit the ten-foot mark without any variation in laminate position, we breathed a sigh of relief because we knew he had it right.

When choosing your main laminating services company, tour several facilities and look for a clean operating environment. Large format paper often has static electricity, which attracts dust particles. When trapped underneath lamination, dust looks awful and will ruin an otherwise beautiful job. Needless to say, quality laminating services and dusty manufacturing environments don't go well together. Also, check if a laminating company's production workers wear white or rubber gloves when necessary. Finally, make sure your chosen vendor offers same-day and/or 24-hour turnaround times at no additional charge.

* * *

I know that many quick printers pride themselves on being responsive and don't want to be saddled with big-company style red tape. Nobody is suggesting that quick printers should adopt a "Cross-Your-T's and Dot-Your-I's" kind of culture, but proper paperwork between customers and laminating service suppliers is necessary for efficient production, reduced turnaround times and consistently low prices. Good paperwork habits will let you do more printing. Isn't this your real goal in the first place?

Information Links