At the SGIA Expo in Orlando several weeks ago, EFI garnered a Product of the Year award for its GS Pro-TF thermoforming system. Interstate Graphics Inc. (IGI), based in Machesney Park, Ill.—just outside Rockford—was the first company to install the GS Pro-TF. The 28-year-old family-owned business, like many in today’s wide-format and specialty graphics world, started in screen, printing on rigid and flexible vinyls. Eight years ago, IGI added digital capabilities with a Vutek QS series wide-format press. Today, the company produces a wide variety of materials: signs, labels, decals, POP displays, you name it, with an emphasis on dimensional materials. 

Like many companies that started with analog printing technology and gradually acquired digital equipment, IGI has found that some customers are not entirely comfortable with digital—even when quality and cost are better than, say, screen.

“We are running into customers who are quoted screen and digital and the choose the more expensive process,” says Jim Norwood, general manager of IGI. “Customers are still old school.”

IGI had been doing a lot of print work for clients who were vacuum formers, printing on substrates that would later be thermoformed for installation on slot machines and other applications for, among others, the gaming industry.

“We try to keep as much work in our shop as possible,” says Norwood. As a result, the company pursued the EFI thermoforming system. “It opens up another market for us. We talked to our existing clients and they seemed excited by it.”

The GS Pro-TF system comprises a modified two-meter GS2000 UV printer, software, and GS-TF inks. The system prints on flat, plastic materials that are then “thermoformed”—stretched over a mold under high temperature—into 3D shapes. The inks are specially formulated to not discolor, crack, or flake as a result of the printed substrate being exposed to heat and stretching during the thermoforming process. The GS Pro-TF system has also been touted as ideal for the development of new applications for the automotive, marine, aircraft, and other industries.

IGI will begin using the system to produce prototypes and test runs, short-run work that is not cost-effective to produce using screen or other analog printing methods.

Given the wide variety of work that IGI handles—with run lengths that run the gamut from 10 to 5,000 pieces—the company needs to keep a mix of technologies on hand. “We keep investing in the screen side of things,” says Norwood, “but digital [has become] so important in this industry.”

Earlier this year, IGI became the first U.S. installation of the EFI Vutek HS100 Pro high-speed 3.2-meter inkjet press. The company also has a battery of other equipment and offers die-cutting and CNC-machined plastics for other types of dimensional signs and custom objects. An in-house art department has CAD capabilities for designing and developing dimensional graphics.

The investment in digital has been vital to handle the fast-turnaround jobs that are becoming more and more common. “I don’t even know what lead times are anymore,” says Norwood.

“It’s all about serving the customer’s needs.”