The Finishing Touch

When it comes to furnishing a print service provider with equipment, in many cases finishing equipment—from laminators and seamers to cutters and routers—many times will fall to the bottom of the priority list. These days, however, with the growing install base of flatbed printers and digital cutters and routers—as well as the need for durable graphics—the post-press department is becoming more and more essential to a successful print business.

We interviewed several experts from the post-press side of the business. In the following pages they’ll discuss many of the questions print service providers have about finishing equipment. Such as: What is the most important piece of finishing equipment in a shop—the one piece I shouldn’t do without? Should I buy new or used? How much time will it take to train my staff? I have a flatbed/roll-to-roll/hybrid solvent/UV/aqueous/latex printer. Does it matter what finishing equipment I purchase?

What type of finishing equipment are the most popular additions to a print shop?

David Conrad, senior product manager, finishing, Neschen Americas: It all depends on the applications being served. For vehicle wraps and outdoor signs a reliable cold roller laminator can be used for applying a protective layer of pressure sensitive film over vinyl and for mounting images to rigid substrates is key. For photo finishing, a small format, water-based liquid coater along with the appropriate liquid finish to support such projects as book covers, menus and photographs is important.

In a production environment where both pressure sensitive and thermal applications will be present, you will want a versatile production based roller laminator with dual heated roller capability that can keep pace with printer output or possibly even a bi-directional machine. A small or newer print shop just getting introduced to finishing may find entry level laminators a wise choice for versatility, ease of use and dependable service. If the shop is looking to add support for walk-in business or for retail environments, pouch laminators are the simplest wide format laminator in the world to operate. Utilize it to provide kiosk type services for the print shop who also has a busy store front business.

Steve Milazzo, manager, channel marketing, GBC: Lamination equipment, (cold only, cold with top heat assist, and thermal laminators) are popular additions to any finishing department. They offer the print shop the opportunity to become a total solutions provider to their clients. Lamination will preserve, protect, enhance and provide rigidity or texture to any printed application. By finishing what they print, the print shop is offering additional benefits to their clients while generating additional profits for their shop.

Tim Saul, business development manager, D&K Group, Inc.: A laminator is a popular addition to a print shop. Most often, when a print is made, it simply looks like a paper print. With a laminator in the shop, they have the option to apply a laminate and enhance the print. The opportunity to create specialty graphics comes alive due to the different types of laminates and finishes available. Laminates can be applied to the print for added UV protection or to make prints for POP, trade show, floor graphics, backlit translights, and vehicle graphics.

Which equipment should any shop not do without?

Conrad: A shop must have a reliable laminator that will provide years of uninterrupted service, deliver professional results as well as additional services and products that only can be achieved through print finishing. A reliable table top and wall mounted multi-substrate cutter/trimmer is also necessary.

Frank Corey, senior sales and marketing manager, Quality Media and Laminating Solutions: Any print shop that does wide-format lamination should have a “cold” pressure sensitive laminator. You need the laminator to mount prints to boards, laminate print media (give clients the surface they are looking for—gloss, lustre, matte, textured, dry erase, anti grafitti) and protect the image from weathering. Also, lamination is a nice profit center if you are proficient at it.

Also a flat trimmer that can be used with cutting mats or has a base is essential to getting straight cuts without cutting your fingers (makes lesser skilled workers more proficient at trimming). These can cut banners, adhesive vinyl, prints, foamboard, Gator, and Sintra materials.

Milazzo: Since more than 50 percent of the profit in most printing jobs is in the finishing of the printed graphic, a robust finishing department will add additional profits to any shops bottom line. Depending upon the applications being run—outdoor signage, floor and counter graphics, window graphics, trade show graphics, point of purchase signs or backlit displays—lamination finishing will enhance durability while increasing profitability. Lamination also provides rigidity to ease the installation process.

Saul: A print shop should not do without finishing equipment that will render the best return on investment. There are many choices in the marketplace; the print shop needs to make the choice wisely which fits their business model. As a standard, laminators are a great choice due to the options for creating graphics that fit end-user requirements.

Which would be a waste of money?

Conrad: Any money spent on equipment that is used in the pre-flight, RIP, print, and finishing that enables you to provide a quality finished product is never wasted. From the smallest of items such as a quality zippy cutter to the most expensive printer, roller laminator or liquid coater, if it helps get the desired professional result and makes the customer happy, it is money well spent.

Corey: There are two ways you waste money on this type of equipment.

The first is to purchase the “smaller size” (usually 40-inch) laminator or trimmer to go with your first purchase of a narrow printer. Soon, you have to purchase a wider 60-inch printer to remain competitive and a wider laminator and trimmer to work with the wider prints. Buy the larger laminator (60+ inches) and trimmer (to accommodate 4x8-foot boards) initially and save money in the long run.

The second way to waste money is to purchase a bargain basement laminator that does not have one mechanism to adjust the tension across the top roller. On pneumatic (air pressure) and crank operated laminators, you can have the top roller evenly go down by turning a switch (pneumatic) or crank down. On bargain basement laminators, you have a dial on each side of the roller to control the downward tension. Unless you can make these even, you will have wrinkles. It is always a crap shoot with this type of pressure system.

Milazzo: Bringing any equipment into a finishing department under a “buy it and they will come” philosophy is at its core a flawed strategy. A shop owner needs to analyze his business in relationship to the current marketplace. Demand for print is shrinking due to the growing preference for electronic media and printer’s margins are increasingly being squeezed. An effective marketing plan to strategically expand services is a must. Also, printers need to partner with companies that provide on-site service and ongoing customer training to maximize their investments.

Saul: Equipment which can waste money is equipment that is only needed for one time or seasonal business. A laminator is a multi-purposed piece of equipment able to provide solutions for unique applications throughout the year.

What level of expertise/training is required?

Conrad: Operator expertise is where good print shops are separated from “great” print shops. The knowledge and expertise of the designer, printer, cutter, and laminator operator is incredibly important. You can never have enough training. Not only should your specific disciplines be experts at their particular craft, a great print shop ensures they are also cross trained in other departments so as to provide complete coverage all the time. Investing in operator training and education is the key to a print shop’s success.

Corey: If you are purchasing a laminator without training, you are going to waste a lot of material (prints, ink, laminate, boards, time) until you hire someone with experience running a laminator or have a technical sales person can explain how to properly use this piece of equipment. Understanding how to properly set up the laminate and print so they don’t skew is critical and so is having the correct tension adjustments or you end up with wrinkles. Also, it is not unusual to have to reset the nips after a brand new laminator is shipped because of the jarring it takes during shipping. That is why it is worth it to buy a laminator from someone who is going to set it up properly.

David Cowart, director of sales, North America, Remington Laminations: The more extensively trained an operator is the better success he/she will have and turn out high quality finishing products.

Milazzo: Production-level machines are normally located in the finishing departments of production houses where the level of experience in the industry is much higher. The amount of training necessary is also to a degree dependent upon the applications that the shop is creating. Applying a cold laminate to a vinyl banner will require less a level of training and expertise than face mounting to Plexiglas. In the current marketplace, every business is being tasked to do more with less; highly trained and motivated employees are a valuable asset to any shop.

Saul: Depending on the expertise of the shop staff, most training is finished in one day. If you have a staff of beginners, it would be beneficial to have a second day of on-hands training.

When does investing in new finishing equipment make more sense than purchasing used equipment?

Emily Conklin, marketing communications specialist, Drytac: New equipment must be justified by its ROI.

Conrad: Purchase new whenever the economic and financial condition of your company allows for it. The continued development of laminators enables newer models to handle new and more demanding applications that may not have been main stream years ago. New equipment can provide increased application satisfaction. Although a well built laminator should last for many years, there does come a time when newer is better. Always be sure to purchase quality new equipment.

When you purchase used equipment you do not always know what you’re getting. Sometimes you may be purchasing someone else’s problem—buyer beware.

Corey: Used finishing equipment is hard to find because any cuts in the rollers transfer to the laminate and leave bubbles where the laminate ran over the cut. Unless you can buy a laminator with perfect rollers or one with few cuts but is cheap, it is usually a better deal to buy a new laminator.

Cowart: When capital is available and a warranty is desired over cost. There is a wide variety of high quality used wide format equipment available.

Milazzo: Buying new equipment from a major manufacturer is an investment in a print shops business. When a new piece of equipment is purchased, the service history is known. The machine is fully covered by all manufacturers’ warranties.

Saul: New equipment is always the best choice. It comes with a full warranty and has options that fit the requirements of today’s production requirements. Traditionally, the reseller or manufacturer has options to have the equipment installed and training for the production staff.

Used equipment has the unknown of how well the equipment has been maintained and will perform in the long run. Purchasing used equipment can be a gamble.

A good value is to look at refurbished equipment that has been serviced by the OEM. Many times there is a great deal for refurbished equipment with a limited OEM warranty.

How important is it to marry up the printing equipment in an existing shop with the correct finishing equipment? In other words, do existing wide-format printers dictate what kind of equipment would be best?

Conklin: The more versatile your finishing equipment is the less you need to worry about your printing equipment. When you purchase a coater that can handle many different applications, the need to marry up the printing equipment is reduced.

Conrad: It is more important to match up the existing printer technology with the appropriate substrate/ink and film/adhesive or liquid combination. You need to make sure that the ink and substrate technology being used by the printer can be effectively protected with film or liquid that is compatible with said technology. This is where money can be lost, jobs ruined and reputations questioned. Be sure you know the right “recipe” for ink, media, film and adhesive to provide the customer with the expected and desired results.

For the printer and laminator equipment, as long as the existing printer satisfies the requirements of the shop and can provide the expected output necessary to retain high quality and customer satisfaction. For example; if you have a 60-inch inkjet printer and you are running 60-inch prints, then it makes sense to purchase a laminator that is at least 60 inches wide. If you have a 42-inch printer and you find yourself outsourcing wider print jobs you would be better served to upgrade your printer, or add another printer to the production floor, and purchase a laminator that is the same width as the new printer. This will allow you to handle the finishing requirements of both devices.

It is always important to ask the question; “where will I be in a year, three years, five years?” Just because your existing printer is 42 inches and all your current jobs are 42 inches or smaller does not mean that in a year or two you will not be taking on new business that requires wider material.

Plan for the future when you purchase your laminator—with a wider laminator you can always finish narrower prints, but you cannot finish wider images with a narrower machine. Think about new opportunities and what those opportunities mean with regard to finishing requirements.

Corey: Regarding matching printing equipment and finishing equipment, obviously you want the finishing equipment to be wide enough to accommodate the prints. Second, most clients are buying solvent or UV curable printers and the trend is to buy a “cold” pressure sensitive laminator since the printable materials coming off these printers typically work better with cold laminates.

Cowart: Yes they do. Some products only laminate well with pressure sensitive laminates, some will work well with both thermal laminates as well as pressure sensitive laminates.

Milazzo: Rather than marrying up the equipment with the finishing equipment, I believe it is more important to marry up the applications being run with the finishing equipment. All wide format printers (aqueous, eco-solvent, solvent & UV) can benefit from lamination depending upon the application. Lamination can preserve, protect, enhance, give rigidity or texture to the output of any of the above print engines. Even solvent & UV inks can scratch. Dye based aqueous can fade over time. Eco solvent & UV printed materials that are printed roll to roll can be run more efficiently on wide format laminators that have enough unwinds/rewinds to accommodate this application.

Saul: Partnering a laminator with the type of printer a print shop has is a priority. When considering the purchase of a laminator it is best to consult with your reseller or the manufacturer. Let them know the applications and growth potential within your plan.

Thermal / pressure sensitive laminators vs. pressure sensitive only laminators have different production control and may not work with all printing output inks. The cost of laminators varies, which will determine the cost of films you may use. Typically, thermal/ pressure sensitive laminators offer the best ROI because a print shop can use thermal vs. pressure sensitive films for indoor print applications. Thermal films cost less money than pressure sensitive. Over time of use, that can relate to dollars the print shop can save.

Another consideration is the thickness of printed material to be laminated. Popular flatbed printers can print up to several inches thick. When choosing a laminator, it is important to match up the aperture or opening of the nip rollers on a laminator to match or exceed the maximum printing thickness of the printer.

Effectively laminating wide-format prints requires enough floor space to work on the preparation and finishing of the laminated prints. If you are going to laminate 4x8-foot prints, the shop will need a preparation table in front of the laminator and a finishing table at the output end to support and run the large print through. Definitely consider your available floor space and the finishing equipment’s footprint when judging options for your operation.