If your refrigerator is anything like mine, the ability to apply printed graphics to a magnetic-backed material is nothing really new. Small magnetic tchotchkes have been used for novelty and promotional purposes for decades, and you can even buy magnetic sheets at Staples or Office Depot to run through a standard desktop inkjet or even laser printer.  

But new developments, and at least one new system, are opening up magnetic media to entire new applications for small- and wide-format printers and installers. Vehicle graphics is one burgeoning field, as is magnetic signage, and even entire wall coverings.

Poles Apart
Printing on magnetic sheets is not without its challenges. For one thing, they’re thicker than paper, sometimes as thick as even the thickest card stock. At the same time, toner-based systems—and the heat involved—can soften, deform, and even melt the substrate. "Not every magnet can take the heat," says Robert Ross, CEO of Xanté. Xanté’s Illumina series of digital presses can print on magnetic materials. "Laser-safe magnetic materials can take the heat, and not all magnetic material is laser-safe." There are also some of the basic problems with feeding any kind of rigid or semi-rigid substrate through a printing system. “It needs the pliability to bend and move through the system," adds Ross.

At the same time, they’re, well, you know, magnets, so there can be feeding problems when run through a system that has metallic parts. There is also the potential for machine and printhead damage—damage which can run afoul of warranties and service plans. Then there are the evergreen issues of color management and getting high-quality and consistent color on such an unusual substrate.

Finishing also presents issues, especially in terms of cutting, and more especially in terms of contour cutting. Many systems require users to score the output and pull it apart by hand.

As we have seen with other unconventional substrates, there are some options for printing on magnetics. The traditional method as been to print—either via offset, digital, or other means—onto a label or transfer sheet and then apply it to the magnet. This avoids most of the issues with printing on magnetic materials.

However, if you are like most wide-format printers in this day and age of flatbed printers, transfer sheets and decals are so-o-o-o yesterday’s technology. So, some systems will allow you to print directly on magnetic materials in one form or another.

One solution to the challenge of running magnetic material through a printer has been to use a magnetic material that is magnetized after printing—referred to as post-magnetized material. That is, you print on it just like any thick, plastic or vinyl substrate then, in a finishing process, run it through a magnetizing machine. Using post-magnetized material also helps solve one other ancillary magnet problem: stacking. If you stack magnetic graphics, not unsurprisingly, the sheets all stick to each other. (Sticking-stacking also affects feeding on the input side of things if you are printing pre-magnetized sheets.) So post-magnetized sheets are an attractive option (so to speak).

But you can see what this also means: one extra piece of equipment to buy, be it a large, industrial magnetizing machine, a small, handheld magnetizer, or all the varieties in between. Either way, it’s an extra step after printing, but such substrates are good for giving shops the versatility to print on magnetic substrates without having to invest in a whole new system. Incorporating magnetic media into a preexisting workflow can require a few kludges and some degree of substrate handholding, but adding even rudimentary specialty graphics capabilities is a great way, says Xanté’s Ross, "to print ‘interesting pages.’ There’s little margin when printing pages, but [there are opportunities] in higher-margin, lower-volume specialties." In the past year, Ross says that election-related materials and political signage were hot markets for magnetic media, and retail is a perennial hotspot.

One supplier of magnetic substrates, and one who works with Xanté, is Magnum Magnetics, based in Marietta, Ohio. They offer a variety of magnetizable substrates, as well as magnetizing equipment. The company’s media is compatible with a wide variety of hardware, laser and inkjet. The company’s Web site has several videos showing how its post-magnetized material can be run through a variety of digital printing systems.

Giant Refrigerators
One interesting new application that has logistical benefits for clients and installers alike comes from Mendon, Mass.-based Visual Magnetics. The killer app of Visual Magnetics’ system is to create a platform for oft-reinstalled or dynamic graphics, especially those used in wallcoverings and décor. That is, décor that is frequently replaced or switched around. Here’s how it works. You paint a wall or other surface with a primer comprising the company’s ActiveWall Micro-Iron paint. It’s a thin layer of paint that contains iron particles. This effectively “turns the wall into a giant refrigerator,” says Dan Halkyard, Visual Magnetics’ director of marketing and product management. The primer can be overcoated with any other type of paint, if desired.

The InvisiLock magnetic sheet is applied to the ActiveWall primer, where it will stick magnetically. (Alternatively, the InvisiLock can be adhesively applied to a surface without using the primer.) Then, the graphics to be installed are printed on the company’s MagnaMedia which is not a magnet, but contains the same Micro-Iron as the Active Wall. MagnaMedia is compatible with many wide-format printing systems, especially UV systems (although most varieties of MagnaMedia are not compatible with water-based inkjet systems—the company’s Web site offers a general printer compatibility chart), and the final print can then be layered on top of the InvisiLock. And, in fact, you can add different layers of MagnaMedia to create various effects and overlays that can be swapped out readily and “interactively”—kind of like large, magnetic Colorforms, for those old enough to remember such things.

The graphics can be applied as rolls or tiles, and the advantage to this is that the actual graphics are pretty lightweight, which allows installers and customers to save on shipping costs. Indeed, the printed graphics—even those for a large wall display—can be rolled up and sent in a tube, so even last-minute graphics can be overnighted less expensively than large rigid materials.

The MagnaMedia is available in many different varieties, from films and plastics, to canvas, to bamboo, to faux wood veneers.  

Since the installation is just stuck to the wall magnetically, it is very easy to remove it and replace it with a new one. The InvisiLock can be applied directly to other objects or fixtures, making them receptive to the MagnaMedia.

"Certain companies don’t want static graphics," says Joe Deetz, CEO of Visual Magnetics. "They want new and fresh and our technology enables that."

The Visual Magnetic System is ideally suited for retail spaces, and in fact the system is getting a rollout December 5–7 at the Retail Design Collective (RDC), an annual event produced by the Association for Retail Environments (ARE), in New York City. (You can check out a video preview here.) Last month, InvisiLock, by the way, won the SGIA Product of the Year Award in the Finishing—Display Exhibit Hardware Category.

Businesses in Flux
Magnetic media can be used not only to create large displays, but smaller applications can be ganged, printed, and cut. Management software can identify how best to gang the jobs to make most efficient use of the substrate-like vinyl and other specialty substrates. And while magnetic media do present some difficulties technologically and logistically, they offer one more specialty product niche for printers to exploit, offering customers new types of-or new variations on-specialty objects.