Delving into the Lamination Landscape
Five manufacturer representatives talk lamination, plus nearly 30 sources of laminators.
In recent years, plastic surgery, cosmetic procedures, and anything that can change a person’s appearance and help him or her find the “fountain of youth” have been on the rise. Chin lifts, tummy tucks, lip injections and other similar medical initiatives are at the top of the to-do list for many people. No one, it seems, wants to appear to grow old, and everyone wants to look better than their best.
Clients are much the same when it comes to their graphics: They often want the printed graphic to exceed their expectations (as well as the image file’s megapixels), and in their ideal world, the graphic would always appear “showroom fresh,” never showing wear or tear.
Luckily for them, the print world’s equivalent to a cosmetic procedure is readily available: lamination. Like its medical counterpart, lamination offers a graphic the ability to resist aging; plus, the right laminate can add a little “oomph” to the original image, providing it with more visual impact and a more effective marketing tool.
This month, we reached out to five industry suppliers of laminators and laminates, asking them to give us their opinions on the opportunities that laminating presents to a shop, ways to better understand today’s lamination landscape, and why lamination is the key to sealing the deal on your finished product.
In the past 20 years, the wide-format marketplace has changed its need for lamination equipment, says Jerry Hill, VP, new market business development at Drytac Corporation,
“Gone are the super-heavy-duty and super-expensive laminators. Smaller shops have brought lamination in-house to control quality as well as turnaround time, which in turn, has created a market for entry-level to mid-range laminators. Contributing factors have been the signage channel and the explosion of the vehicle-wrap business.”
What about the argument that the emergence of flatbed and hybrid printers has reduced the need for laminating?
“Even with the proliferation of flatbed printers, which essentially eliminates the need for mounting prints on substrates, laminator installs are still on the rise,” says Hill. “Laminators still play a significant role in overall graphics production. While it’s true that flatbed and UV printer installations are growing, the install base of solvent, eco-solvent, and latex roll-to-roll printers is still tremendous. All of these printers produce graphics that require mounting and laminating in order to produce a sellable final application to a customer.”
Jennifer Corn, product line manager with LexJet, agrees: “Even though the hybrid and flatbed printers are good for high-volume shops on projects where lamination is not required, many times print shops have very specific applications that require lamination – which can add value. Beyond providing a specific finish or texture to the graphic or a specialty application like floor and carpet graphics, lamination can add also rigidity to a graphic so it can stand by itself, so to speak.”
“Finishing should be considered an added-value generator for print jobs. [Shops can] achieve consistent margins by offering mounting and laminating,” says Laurent Bouchard with Kala, the France-based company that is now marketing its laminators into the States. “On rigid boards printed with UV ink, there’s a need for protection against scratches. In most cases, UV colors are usually a bit matte – lamination can be used to enhance the print and give them more saturation/highlight.”
No matter what output hardware is being used, laminating will continue to have a role in the production of a variety of graphics applications, our interviewed companies indicate. These applications include the aforementioned floor graphics as well as window and wall graphics, plus vehicle wraps and signage – particularly products that might take a bit of a beating.
“Wherever there’s a need for graphics that go into harsh or rugged environments, there will always be a need for protection of some sort,” says Bob Elliot, a product expert for GBC. “Lamination offers the protection for those valuable graphics.”
And says Angie Mohni, VP of marketing at Neschen Americas: “The number one thing laminates offer is flexibility. Graphics can be printed on any type of media with any type of finish. Laminates allow the customer the flexibility of changing the finish of that media to gloss, luster, matte, or textured.”
An in-house solution
Bringing laminating capability in-house is a no brainer, industry sources say.
“If lamination is outsourced, a print shop might not be able to offer his customer a ‘just-in-time’ project,” says Corn. “Whereas having all the equipment in-house will allow them to capture last-minute specialty jobs that come in unexpectedly, as well as have more control over the quality.”
Owning in-house lamination equipment is definitely the way to go, agrees Bouchard. He says the benefits include “becoming independent from outside services and gaining better control of production time resulting in more flexibility; being faster in deliveries, avoiding damage on the work during transportation; and simply making a larger margin.”
Elliot chimes in with five reasons as to why having a laminator in-house is beneficial: It offers you full control over production schedules; when reruns or additional sheets are required, you save time for unnecessary shipping; you save money on unnecessary freight costs; it differentiates you from the competition; and, finally, he says, it increases your profits.
To Hill, the biggest benefit of owning a system is indeed profit potential: “Finished graphics allow print service providers the ability to charge more per-square-foot than unfinished graphics. In-house finishing also provides a level of control and the ability to turn jobs around in a timely manner. The key to successfully transitioning from outsourcing lamination to in-house production is training on the laminator – shops should make sure to purchase the training from the manufacturer or reseller. It’s the best money a print service provider can spend.”
Running hot, cold, and more
The various types of laminators that can be acquired include an array of machines, some utilizing liquid and solvent laminates; some that are hot, low-temp, and heat-activated; and machines that range dramatically in size and performance. What’s right for your shop or a specific project, and what factors should you take into consideration when determining your best solution?
It’s all about the printer(s) you own in house, says Elliot: “Certain printer output such as solvent/eco-solvent cannot be laminated with thermal films, so these shops would purchase only cold units” he says. “If a shop has both aqueous and solvent, they would look into purchasing a thermal for its versatility to run both PSA and thermal films. Inexpensive, short-term graphics that aren’t going to be handled very much and don’t really need much protection are fine with liquid coating.”
“There are many things that factor into the decision of buying a thermal (hot) or pressure-sensitive (cold) laminator,” says Corn, “but what it really comes down to for us is discussing with our customers what they want to get out of the machine now and where they see their business growing with the use of the machine. If they are looking at only doing vehicle wraps, for instance, then the customer would only need to work with a cold laminator. However, the lamination needs of a print shop doing production poster runs would require a hot laminator.”
“It depends on the application,” she continues. “Any graphics printed with aqueous, solvent, UV-curable, or latex technology should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for lamination, depending upon final application, location (does it need to protect against scratches and fingerprints from passersby?), time frame, special requirements, display lighting, and so forth.”
Yes, choosing between hot and cold laminators all depends on the type of job your shop is dealing with, says Hill. And, he stresses, keep in mind that there is a distinction between a fully heated laminator and a “heat assist” laminator. “On a fully heated laminator, both main rollers are hot and there is an additional set of ‘pull’ rollers to maintain the flatness of thermal laminates,” he says. “This laminator is usually set up to encapsulate prints. However, a heat-assist laminator has only the top roller with a lower heat threshold. Top laminating, like vehicle wraps, are best done with this kind of laminator.”
If you’re working on wallcoverings or vehicle wraps, try liquid laminates, says Mohni. “Many times, wallcoverings require a liquid coating for installation in retail environments – especially for restaurants, where health and safety codes require cleaning to be possible. Vehicle graphics that will be installed for multiple years also use fleet-graphic-grade liquid coatings; these help protect against wear and tear, abrasion and other cleaning processes that buses, box trucks, and other commercial vehicles go through.”
“Hot lamination would be recommended for printers using paper and water-based ink for the production of indoor displays,” says Bouchard. “Eco-solvent inks are more suitable for use with cold lamination. Pressure-sensitive films are also easier to process and require less skill from the laminator operator. There are some very interesting alternative products, requiring more heat than standard PSA films (heatset or thermal), with or without protection liner, for instance for the protection of canvas material or UV printed boards. The single-sided use of a heat-set or thermal film is appropriate for both performance and cost.”
“All ink technologies can benefit from laminating assuming you choose the right film for the application and have tested the compatibility before beginning full production,” says Hill. “Liquid laminates are very effective for enhancing signs, banners, and vehicle wraps while also providing the maximum amount of UV protection. Liquids do this at a significant cost savings. They are also ideal for specialty applications like wallpaper, fine-art and canvas prints, and truckside curtains.”
Improving the line
When it comes to lamination equipment, adjustments in technology and competition within the marketplace continue to push manufacturers into adjusting the lamination landscape.
“Like all technologies in the wide-format-printing market, laminators continue to improve in both construction and features,” says Corn. “Though there are no radical changes in the core laminating technology, we’re seeing greater throughput with fewer problems – like silvering and other issues in the output – during lamination. In other words, it's easier to find a durable, consistent laminator with features that make them easier to use, such as more intuitive and accessible control panels for making adjustments, for a lower cost.”
Elliot says GBC has tailored its new wide-format laminator line to “fit the latest line of printers in size, speed, and inks. Additionally, we created an exceptionally competitive line not only in practical applications but more importantly price: Performance doesn’t have to be expensive.”
“We see that the trend during the past few years has been to add ease-of-use features to entry level laminators,” says Hill. “One example is the addition of heat to the top roller to act as a heat-assist for pressure sensitive laminates. The heat speeds up adhesive ‘flow’ and eliminates silvering. Another added feature is extra shafts that allow for roll-to-roll operation. These increase efficiency, decrease labor costs, and increase yields due to improved handling.”
“Pressure-measuring gauges are yet another improvement that helps ensure consistent repetition of the lamination process – a quality control feature that is definitely worth having,” adds Hill. “Small touches like auto grip shafts, single height adjustment, locking casters, and fold-down feed tables also help with ease-of-use.”
“Most of the feature enhancements in the Seal range of laminators have come in terms of ease of use and expansion in width to meet the changing needs of the market,” says Mohni. “Applications are requiring 60-inches-plus sizes in media and films to create finished projects, particularly in vehicle wraps and window graphics.”
Sealing the deal
Overall, most industry sources agree, all ink technologies can benefit from laminating. But, importantly, understanding the lamination landscape and then bringing the equipment and knowledge in-house is the way to make your graphics truly shine, and your final product outlast the rest.
Because his customers have laminators in-house, says Elliot, “They can create graphics with a lot of different finishes – and that sets them apart from their competitors.”
Corn agrees. “Many of our customers offer specialty options to their clientele,” she says. “Whether it is a high-gloss finish for fine-art reproductions or creating a non-slip, UL-classified surface for floor graphics, laminates can offer a wide variety of appearances and solutions to clients who are looking to widen the breadth of product offerings.”
Wicked Wraps: Visualizing Lamination
Owners Katherine and Wade Becher of Wicked Wraps (wickedwraps.net), located in the Seattle metro area, wanted to add flare to their newest fleet with bright green and black graphics to represent their “wicked” shop.
Katherine designed the graphics that were printed using the shop’s HP Latex L26500 printer onto Avery MPI 1005 Supercast Easy Apply RS Cast Vinyl Film. They then turned to their Kala Mistral 1650 laminator with Avery DOL1360 overlaminate to put the finishing touches on the wrap. Wade completed the installation, utilizing Geek Wraps Power Slam magnets, squeegees, propane torch, and other tools.
They see many benefits of lamination when wrapping vehicles, says Katherine, including:
• Protecting the printed graphics from scratches/fading;
• Providing the desired “finish” – high gloss, matte, or luster;
• Enabling the vinyl to be stretched more during installation, making for an easier install;
• Making future removal of wraps easier; and
• Enabling wraps to be polished with specialty products like Wrap Care.
“We hand-wash our fleet two to three times per week, on average, in order to make sure that our work always looks its best” she says. “Without lamination on the graphics, and with the high frequency of washing that we do, the latex ink would get destroyed in no time. The lamination, however, provides protection and preserves our wraps’ brilliant shine. It also enables us to be able to polish our wraps with vinyl-specific products.”
Wicked Wraps’ primary area of focus has been on vehicle wraps since it opened its doors in 2007. As the economy struggled, Wicked Wraps moved its emphasis away from customized cars to helping small businesses at a time when the economy made it very difficult for those companies to stay afloat. “Customers who started out with one wrapped vehicle came back with a second, third, or even fourth to get wrapped because their first one(s) were proving to be so valuable to their business,’ says Katherine Becher.
30+ Sources of Laminators
The laminator sourcelist that follows is a directory of nearly 30 suppliers of wide-format laminators, including machines that use pressure-sensitive and thermal films as well as those utilizing liquid laminates to protect, encapsulate, and mount wide-format graphics. Visit the respective websites for a full list of the company’s offerings. Note: We are only referencing companies manufacturing or branding their own laminators, not companies who are only selling other companies’ branded machines.
Advanced Greig Laminators
Coatac Distribution Inc.
Graphic Finishing Partners
Lamina System AB
Marabu North America
Professional Laminating Systems
Royal Sovereign International