Plastics Printing — Handle with Care
PART OF the beauty surrounding printing on plastics is that the potential for applications is limited only by the imagination of designers. And, judging by the creativity of some gizmos and gadgets printed on plastic, that doesn’t appear to be an issue.
Even with limitless possibilities, this discipline comes with caveats. The substrates cost more than most paper stocks. The adhesion can be difficult. Some substrates can be high maintenance. Not every great concept will fly. And neophytes need to educate themselves thoroughly on the nuances of plastics printing.
Color Ink, based in Sussex, WI, has worked in the plastics space since 2001, with the installation of a KBA Rapida 105 hybrid UV sheetfed offset press. The company produces a wide range of products, from phone cards and signage to point-of-purchase (POP) and point-of-sale (POS) items, notes Mike LaForest, vice president of operations.
Color Ink works with a good deal of heavy-gauge plastics, and it uses six or seven different substrates on a regular basis. Much of its direction has been dictated by the evolving needs of its client base.
“We had a couple of customers who were branching out, especially on the POP and packaging side,” LaForest says. “Plus, we wanted to give the sales reps something to sell that we didn’t have before, which was the hybrid UV process. It allows you to do different things, and it’s opened us up to new markets.”
While Jackson Press just recently embarked on plastics printing at its facility in Indianapolis, the man brought in to spearhead the initiative, Lynn Kendall, was a local forerunner in UV printing on plastics. The newly added capabilities complement Jackson Press’ traditional sheetfed offset, binding, fulfillment, direct mail and database services offerings.
The company has focused much of its energy providing POP items for its customers, with vinyl and styrene being its most typical substrate varieties. But Kendall notes that Jackson also churns out menus, lenticular prints, plastic rulers and Cling Mates, which are very popular with the appliance sector.
“It’s pretty diverse; there isn’t really any one market segment that we’re focused on,” he says.
At the other end of the experience spectrum is IWCO Direct, which has been printing on plastics since 1984. The Chanhassen, MN-based company, one of the nation’s leading providers of turnkey direct mail solutions, focuses much of its plastics energies on promotional cards, along with promotional plastic key fobs, luggage tags, gift cards with magnetic stripes, postcards and specialty items such as plastic rulers.
IWCO Direct counts PVC and styrene derivatives among its primary substrates, according to Chuck Fisher, manager of procurement. He notes that the primary challenges faced during the manufacturing process are controlling static, maintaining the correct dyne level for ink adhesion and ensuring that the substrate lays flat and is cut straight.
Dyne level is not an issue for printing on paper, but it dictated the printer’s ability to adhere ink to the plastic and was a challenge early on in then-Instant Web Companies’ initial forays into plastics printing.
“The learning curve was steep but, by working closely with our ink and plastics providers, we learned what steps needed to be taken to ensure a quality result,” Fisher says. “In addition, our entry into plastics was roll-to-sheet and we had some insurmountable issues with cards that wouldn’t lay flat. We quickly switched to sheetfed printing to resolve that issue.”
Not having the proper dyne level is only one of many costly mistakes that can be encountered. “Perhaps the most common mistake in working with plastic substrates is not recognizing that you’re ultimately creating an ‘adhesion sandwich,’ ” Fisher stresses. “The ink has to be right to adhere to the substrate and the coating has to be receptive to foil for embossing.”
Color Ink’s LaForest adds that education goes a long way toward making the ramping up process less of a minefield. “The toughest part about going from conventional printing to hybrid is realizing that it won’t do everything,” he says. “All litho grade plastic substrates aren’t the same. Over time, you’ll learn what works well and what doesn’t.”
On the educational theme, Kendall of Jackson Press cautions to consider the source when receiving input as to what inks and substrates can be married successfully. When he first got into plastics printing, people who were selling (or trying to sell) him inks, coatings and plastics all had their own opinion as to what would work, some unfortunately motivated by self interest, which led Kendall down a proverbial blind alley.
“I believed some of the wrong people in the beginning and got myself in trouble,” he remarks. “Eventually, I learned how to test the material and move forward safely in projects by doing some research before putting materials or inks on the press.”
Kendall recommends first-time printers bring aboard someone who has a substantial background in working with plastics, someone who has “lived through the learning curve” and can mitigate the most common mistakes.
Selling the plastic products has been an utter joy for some members of the Jackson Press sales force. Kendall, who also has some accounts, noted that one representative in particular has been on a tear, cranking out jobs for a number of accounts due to the vast amount of applications available. The durability of the product is another tool in their sales belt.
“Someone who sells plastics packaging told me, ‘People may look at the price point of something on paper or cardboard versus plastic. But if they really like (plastic), they’ll find the money for it,’ ” Kendall remarks.
LaForest notes that sales reps who have sold POP and packaging in the past have a better concept of selling plastics than those whose background is pushing primarily general commercial work. Salespeople, almost as much as production personnel, need to become as familiarized as possible with the process.
Though a great profit center, material costs are not insignificant. “The costs are quite a bit more than paper, so when a job starts to go sour, it can be very expensive,” LaForest cautions.
Substrates are not the only profit encroachers. Fisher notes that printing on plastics is a learned skill, and even the most common of occurrences can result in major problems. One bad plastic jam, for example, can dent a cylinder.
For Fisher and IWCO Direct, the strength of selling plastics lies in its value as part of a turnkey solution—in this case, as a direct mail component that drives higher returns and consistent volume for the client.
In Kendall’s estimation, the ability to print on plastics is pivotal for those printers who fancy themselves as single-source solutions providers.
“Look at the applications, look at what you see in grocery stores, liquor stores—anywhere you go,” he says. “Frequency cards are everywhere. We just got a new Pantone book and it was in a plastic box. The U.S. Postal Service is allowing odd diecut direct mail now, and that’s almost exclusively plastic. It’s all about making people pay attention to what you’re producing.
“The world is gradually accepting plastic as a medium, and packaging sells.”zz