Laminators and Film

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Selecting The Right Laminator

It's wise to be discriminating when
buying equipment for laminating

Do I really need a laminator?

Why don't these outside resources want your business? One reason is that trade laminators often focus on higher-volume jobs. And it is costly to set up a large laminator for any given job. Another reason trade laminators shy away from digital graphics is because they don't know how your materials will react to lamination. They may be wary of ruining such costly graphics.

If you do send work outside, make sure your provider knows how to handle your output. It's a bad sign if you have to define the terms "inkjet" and "electrostatic" for your vendor. Send along some rejects to be test-laminated for your approval first. Also, agree with your vendor in advance on who will pay if the image is ruined during finishing. Some trade laminators will take responsibility for your materials. Others will only do the work at your risk.

Some trade laminators are very good at finishing digital images, but be prepared to pay handsomely for their services. Digital graphics generally require much higher quality laminating films than traditionally printed graphics do. For example, digital graphics require low-temperature films with high clarity, more aggressive adhesives, and high polyester content for strong bonding with less risk of stretching and wrinkling. When you send out a job that is just one piece the cost per piece can seem exorbitant.

Fast turnaround is also critical. Many of your customers and prospects will be driven to buy digital images for the same reasons they buy fast food: "I want choices, I want it my way, and I want it right now!"

What kinds of images will I be laminating?

If you're just getting into large-format digital graphics, the first and most important step in selecting the right big-format color imaging system -- including the laminator -- is deciding what markets you are aiming for and what kinds of images you are likely to need. In order to pick the right equipment, you must have an idea who your customers are going to be and what kinds of images they will buy.

It is true that technology-driven companies can succeed by developing new products and services, and then developing new markets. But even this process requires some ability to look at a world of potential new customers, and then guess which segments are most likely to want particular products. Too many imaging systems are sitting idle while their owners wait in vain for the world to beat a path to their door.

Once you have an idea of what you want your imaging system and your laminator to do, you are already.

Should I use hot or cold laminates?

Most manufacturers of laminators for digital imaging make:
  • hot machines (on which laminating films backed with heat-activated adhesives are applied at temperatures ranging from 220 degrees F to 300 degrees F);
  • cold machines (which apply pressure-sensitive films without heat); and
  • dual-purpose machines that will apply either heat-activated or cold pressure-sensitive materials.

Many high-volume imaging businesses thermally laminate almost everything. For example, Jim Offut, owner of Mediagraphics, Inc., Belleville, NJ, estimates that 98% of the work from his five 36-inch HP and Encad printers is thermally laminated on his 38 inch imaging laminator/mounter.

Cold lamination must be used with piezo inkjet inks or when thermal films won't adhere to the media or if the media won't tolerate any heat. But cold lamination has taken a backseat to hot lamination for many graphic applications because cold laminating films typically cost several times more than hot laminating films of the same thickness and quality.

Also, most cold laminators coat only one side of an item per pass. On a one-sided job, exposed adhesive from the laminating film can stick to the rollers, causing a wrap-around or making a mess elsewhere inside the laminator. So to protect the rollers from exposed adhesives, one-sided laminating must be set up by feeding scrap paper or by running a roll of masking paper under the whole job. On a typical doubled-sided thermal laminator, this problem is eliminated because as the two opposing webs of material unwind from the supply roll, there is no exposed adhesive -- even when the film is being advanced without laminating anything. However, some double-sided cold laminators are just hitting the U.S. market.

Even though heat -intolerant inkjet inks and media must be cold-laminated, some heat-sensitive inkjet materials can still be finished on a hot laminator with the right film and technique. For example, some inkjet papers tend to warp when exposed to heat too long. They can still be run on a hot laminator if you increase the speed of the machine. It's like moving your fingers through a candle flame. If you move your finger quickly, the flame won't hurt you.

Will the equipment be used for mounting?

Another aspect of finishing big-format color graphics is mounting. Like lamination, it may be done with either heat-activated or cold pressure-sensitive adhesives. Heat-activated adhesive mounting, also known as dry mounting, is a process that has been typically used by art or photo-framing businesses. Conventional dry-mount adhesives often don't do a good job of holding coated inkjet papers to coated mounting materials such as foamboard. While some new heat-activated adhesives have been developed especially for coated papers and mounting boards, many imaging businesses still use cold pressure-sensitive adhesives for mounting. Although more costly than heat-activated adhesives, these adhesives will stick just about any paper to any mounting substrate.

If their equipment is up to the task, most imaging providers will simultaneously mount and laminate all items that are going to be mounted. If your machine can't handle laminating and mounting in one pass, you'll have to run your images through the machine twice, and change the setup between runs.

Even when your machine is set up for encapsulation, you can still do one-pass mounting and laminating. Laminating the back of an inexpensive mounting board can enhance its rigidity and offer additional protection. And, you avoid set-up changes.

What should my laminator be able to do?

Listed below are some of the specific functions you might want a laminator to perform. These functions will vary depending on the type of printer you use and your most frequent applications, but will generally apply to the vast majority of digital imaging businesses.

Encapsulation. Many successful shops say that they automatically encapsulate most items. The only decision then is whether and how to mount the image.

Mounting. Most shops will want to be able to cold mount some items and hot mount others. Most will use mounting substrates less than 1/2 inch thick. If you choose to buy uncoated mounting board, make sure your machine can also apply typical one-liner cold mounting adhesives. At this time, there is no practical process for using a laminator to apply thermal adhesives to uncoated boards.

One pass mounting and hot laminating. Many images are going to be mounted, so you'll save a lot of labor and wasted material associated with changing machine setups if you can simultaneously hot laminate and mount, using either cold or hot mounting adhesives. (Yes, cold mounting adhesives can be applied with heat. The heat doesn't have any adverse effects and will generally improve adhesion.)

Cold lamination. Many experienced, high-volume digital-imaging shops say they don't need cold lamination. Others avoid setup changes on their larger, multi-purpose machines by buying a cold laminator exclusively for mounting and occasional cold-laminating needs. In my opinion, few digital imaging shops can work cost-effectively with cold lamination alone.

If you do buy a cold laminator for mounting, look for one with a release-liner take up feature. A release-liner take up is not necessary when applying one-liner mounting adhesives to mounting board, but a take-up is needed to apply overlaminates or the kinds of double-liner adhesives most often used for face mounting on glass or clear acrylic.

Electrostatic output. Shops with electrostatic printers will be able to produce a greater volume of images, so their general finishing requirements will differ just a bit. E-stat graphics producers will probably need to put a roll of images on the laminator and laminate the whole works in one non-stop process, separating the images after they are laminated.

Transfers. Producers of e-stat graphics most likely will also want to use their laminator to transfer electrostatic images to vinyl for banners, fleet graphics and other applications. Once you have determined which transfer process your shop will use, make sure your laminating equipment has sufficient heat and pressure capabilities.

What kind of equipment is available?

In your search for the right machine, here are some of the general types of laminators you may encounter:

Double-sided thermal laminators designed for the digital market. Reflecting the diverse needs of digital imaging applications, these machines generally will handle hot or cold mounting and different cold laminating film applications. When operating as thermal laminators, the laminating rollers pull the heat-activated film from tensioned supply rolls onto a heated surface and then into the laminating nip (the pressure line where the two rollers meet and the lamination takes place).

There are two general types of these imaging laminator/mounters: hot shoe and hot roller. The differences between these two are in the nature of the heated surface that activates the film. In a hot shoe machine, the heating surfaces are fixed parts (the shoes), which heat both the film and the surface of the rollers. In a hot roller laminator, the heat to activate the film comes from within the laminating roller itself.

Double-sided thermal laminators designed for general-purposed hot laminating. These may or may not be suitable for particular digital imaging applications. Some of the very inexpensive units may not be good even for general purpose laminating, much less for the more demanding world of digital image finishing.

Single-sided thermal laminators designed for the digital market. These can handle hot and cold mounting, but they cannot encapsulate.

Cold laminators. Few of these are made specifically for digital imaging, because the requirements of cold laminating in digital graphics are not that different from the laminating needs in conventional graphics.

What are the most common buying mistakes?

Laminator buyers often assume that any machine big enough will do the job. As a result, some buy big laminators on price alone and soon find that their purchase would not have been a good deal at any price. For example, some find that their "bargain" laminator will laminate some jobs, but will not do any mounting. Others buy a cold laminator only, and find themselves unable to do cost-effective encapsulation and one-pass laminating and mounting. Some buy a lower priced, hot, single-sided laminator; and realize too late they would have preferred to encapsulate many of their images. None of these mistakes is the fault of the machine. The fault is in not knowing what needs to be done, or in rationalizing a price-based buying decision with wishful thinking instead of facts.

Tim Propst of Baseline Digital Imaging in North Garland Hills, Texas, knows firsthand what can happen when you don't know what to look for in a laminator. He paid over $7,000 for a laminator. The machine now sits unused under a tarp in his garage.

"I thought I could throw some film on any big laminator and get the job done," explains Propst. "I didn't shop around. A month after I got that laminator, I wished it could do a lot of things that it couldn't do." He says the machine's shortcomings included insufficient heating, a weak cooling system, wrong-size supply roll mandrels and a speed control that didn't work as needed. Consequently, the machine was inadequate as a laminator and couldn't do any mounting.

The company that sold him the machine knew very little about digital imaging, notes Propst. When he realized his new laminator wasn't up to par, he began taking some of his finishing to a trade laminator.

"When you send your finishing outside, you take a chance of losing your customer, " says Propst. So he went back to square one, shopped around, and recently bought a hot-shoe laminator/mounter. The transition to the new laminator has not been painless, but the dealer for the new machine provided hands-on training and an instructional videotape. Both the dealer and the manufacturer were accessible by phone. Ironically, the right machine for the job cost no more than the wrong one. The new machine is used to finish nearly all of Baseline's images and Propst is happy. He adds, "Now we're getting business doing lamination for others."

How do I find the right vendor?

Once you have an idea of what you want from your imaging system and laminator, find the vendors who can provide not only the right machine, but also the most valuable commodity of all -- information about how to use it. No matter how much you know, you can never know enough in a developing market where the technology and trends can change quickly.

Find a vendor who can show you more than just the workings of the machine itself. You need to understand the principles behind the lamination process. You need to know the optimum media/ink/film "recipes" for all the jobs the machine will do so you can select the right materials for each job. For example, if you're having trouble laminating a certain combination of media, ink and film, you can generally substitute a media and ink combination that will provide an equally acceptable image quality and also laminate well.

Make a list of the jobs you'll want the laminator to do, and you'll be able to screen potential vendors more effectively because you'll know what to ask them. Many newcomers to the digital-imaging field buy a laminator without a clue of what it will need to do, so its' not surprising that they often end up with the wrong machine for their jobs.

Let's say you've made a list of tasks for your laminator and you've found some vendors with some expertise. Your next step should be to verify what your prospective vendors tell you about their machines. Ideally, you'll find a way to see that each of these machines performs as advertised, either live or on tape.

Another way of verifying product information is to talk to people who are already using the machine. Don't sell references short, even if they are supplied by the vendor. It's very important for you to talk to these references. They will often give you a more honest appraisal than you or the vendor might expect. Don't limit yourself to asking general questions such as, "How do you like the laminator?" Use your list of desired tasks to ask specific questions: "How well does it run 5-mil film? Do you do any mounting and laminating in one pass? What mounting adhesives do you use?"

Propst agrees: "Talk to somebody who has a laminator and is using it for imaging work." He adds that ease of use and vendor support are also very important issues to ask about. "Don't balk at paying more to buy from a vendor with training and expertise," advises Propst, because ignorance can be a lot more expensive than education.

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