Commentary & Analysis
End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is Where the Real Work Begins
Those new to wide-format printing—and even some veterans—often give short shrift to what happens to a print once it comes off press. In wide-format printing, however, the real added value is often in the finishing.
By Richard Romano
Published: July 31, 2012
Those new to wide-format printing—and even some veterans—often give short shrift to what happens to a print once it comes off press. In traditional small-format printing, be it offset or digital, very often little is actually done to pieces post-press. Sure, sometimes there is folding or at the very least cutting, some pieces are perforated or perhaps scored, and of course publications are typically bound in some fashion. But more often than not, something can be printed and that’s it.
In wide-format printing, however, the real added value is often in the finishing. In fact, back in the late 1990s, when wide-format printers began to penetrate into end users’ shops, often dedicated wide-format print providers found that often clients would bring in their own pre-printed graphics and just require finishing services, although that is becoming less the case these days.
So the wide-format shop of today—and tomorrow—needs to know what the finishing options are, not just to serve the needs of current and prospective customers, but also to differentiate oneself in what can be a crowded market.
A single shop can’t be expected to offer every single option, but knowing what’s out there is a good first step toward offering a finishing “portfolio” that will cover the waterfront for customers.
Know Your Options
Here is a quick-ish rundown on many of today’s options for finishing. Some of these can also fall under the category of “converting,” à la packaging, as graphics are often “converted” into something else.
One of the most basic and common finishing processes is laminating, which involves covering the print with a clear plastic film. Laminating output helps protect the print from the elements—light, water, dirt, inadvertent folding or crushing, graffiti, etc. It can also help make the colors in the print appear more vibrant. Lamination, especially using thick laminates, also helps add rigidity to prints in those cases where mounting or printing on a rigid substrate is impractical or not feasible. That rigidity can also help facilitate installation; if you’ve ever hung wallpaper, you know how unmanageable a large, floppy piece of paper can be.
Laminates come in a variety of finishes such as gloss, matte, and luster. While gloss laminates can make colors “pop,” they can cause glare, depending upon the ambient lighting conditions. A matte finish is less “glare-y,” but can make the colors appear dull. Some users find semi-gloss laminates to represent a happy medium between the two. On the down side, bear in mind that lamination will make a graphic unrecyclable.
Often, a good alternative to lamination is aqueous coating which, as its name indicates, is water-based. UV coating—which is cured by exposure to ultraviolet light—is another alterative to lamination, and can also be used to add a variety of special effects.
Full coverage and spot varnishing are also becoming popular options.
Another popular finishing process is mounting, or applying the finished graphic to some kind of rigid surface. Common mounting options include:
Foamcore—A layer of a Styrofoam-like material is sandwiched between two thin pieces of paper or plastic. Foamcore is lightweight and resists bending, but can be easily crushed, especially around the edges and the corners. Because of this, it may not be suitable for displays that will be frequently transported. (Personal experience also leads me to advise not trying to carry foamcore-mounted graphics on an airplane—or outdoors on a windy day unless you’re a parasailing enthusiast.)
Gatorboard—An extruded polystyrene foam mounting material (sometimes also referred to as gator foam) is more rigid than foamcore and is thus more resistant to being crushed. However, it is more brittle than foamcore, and is also more expensive. (Also variously spelled Gator Board or GatorBoard.)
Sintra—A lightweight rigid board made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
There are many other paperboard, plastic, wood, and metal-based options for mounting, many of which can also be printed on directly using flatbed printers. We will look at these options in upcoming features on substrates and on flatbed printers.
Grommeting involves the punching and reinforcing, often with metal or plastic rings, of holes or “eyelets” in a print, through which string or other material can be threaded and used to mount or secure the graphic. Think about a shower curtain; the holes through which you attach your shower curtain rings are grommets.
Die-Cutting—Similar to die-cutting for small-format presses, a shaped steel “die” functions rather like a cookie cutter, cutting the printed substrate into the shape represented by the die. These dies can also be used to score or perforate rather then completely cut.
Laser Cutting—An alternative to a using metal die is to use a laser to do the cutting. Laser cutting can be used create elaborate and complex shapes or effects not possible with traditional metal dies. One other advantage of laser cutting is that since it does not require a die-manufacturing stage, it can be performed more quickly and can more readily handle any last-minute changes. It can also support variable data. We will be looking at laser cutting in more detail in an upcoming feature.
Routing—Routing is a somewhat more complicated procedure than cutting, and is used to cut elaborate patterns, grooves, and shapes in a substrate. Often routing is used to create pieces that essentially comprise the individual parts that will be assembled into a larger graphic or installation.
Hot stamping, as its name indicates, is basically a “branding” process that uses heat to apply text or some other design element to a printed graphic or object. It is often used for adding company names or logos (“brands” in both senses of the word), part numbers, or other numeric information.
Doming is a finishing technique that applies a thick polyurethane resin on top of a printed area that will harden and thus add an extra dimension—a plastic “dome,” essentially—to decals, labels, or other specialty items. As with lamination, the resin used can also make the colors beneath “pop” and appear more vibrant.
Graphics printed on plastic substrates can be molded so as to create 3D shapes. The process involves heating a thermoplastic material until it is soft and pliable and then stretching it over a mold. A vacuum is used to force the substrate to conform to the shape of the mold. Often found in packaging applications.
Wide-format printers can print bigger than ever these days, but on occasion customers may either want output that is larger than a shop’s capabilities—or output that is larger than any shop’s capabilities. What output providers can do in this case is “tile” graphics. That is, with a little help from RIP software, a very, very unprintably large image is divided into manageable pieces, or tiles. After output, these can be assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Tile overlap can be accurately controlled so that the final output aligns precisely with no visible seams.
Many of these finishing options require considerable expertise, and some also affect how output files are created. Many are manufacturing processes, and require very strict tolerances, especially if there is going to be assembly involved. And even with something as simple as lamination, there are specific issues to consider. “Selecting an overlaminate for UV-cured inkjet printed graphics can be challenging due to the deposition or thickness of the ink and the composition of the inks makes them difficult to bond to,” says Jodi Sawyer, Product Manager for FLEXcon, a manufacturer of adhesive coating and laminating solutions. “Overlaminating solvent inkjet printed materials can also be challenging if the ink-drying process is not complete.”
So Many Choices, So Little Time
The preceding rundown of finishing processes suggests that it is impossible for one shop to offer every conceivable option—space, cost, and operational expertise are but three limiting factors. How should a shop, then, strategize its approach to finishing?
FLEXcon’s Sawyer offers some advice, based on the company’s own experience with a wide range of clients. The first thing to consider is whether to acquire the equipment yourself, or to outsource a particular process to a partner. Of course, there is nothing stopping a shop from starting with the latter and, should demand so warrant, transition to the former. (In the old days, offset printers used this strategy with many prepress and postpress services.)
The “ROI” issue is also of paramount importance. “Understand the volume of the opportunity or opportunities you are considering, the longevity of the business, and other prospects for business as the result of your investment,” Sawyer says. “The combination of increased sales and profitability are critical factors.”
Finally, adds Sawyer, “What differentiation comes from acquiring the capability you are considering? Does the investment provide your company with a unique market position?”
What kind of wide-format shop do you want to be? In what products and applications do you want to specialize? Often, it’s not necessarily the printing equipment that will define this, but the finishing capabilities.
Work with equipment manufacturers and materials suppliers. “A customer can benefit from working with a supplier who has application knowledge of base materials, laminates and the converting process,” says Sawyer. “These suppliers act as consultants in support of your business and in the long run become trusted business partners.”