When it comes to rigid substrates, not all products are created equal. With the proliferation of flatbed printers, substrate manufacturers have unveiled a cornucopia of media types, all with their own distinct benefits and intended uses. They range from basic paper boards to UV backlit films to opaque materials, enabling two-sided printing and much more.
But that leads to the question: With so much to choose from, how do PSPs select the right rigid substrate? And does it really matter?
Rigid substrate manufacturers have well-articulated answers to each question. First, however, let’s take a look at a few of the companies offering rigid substrates, and present the wide range of offerings now available.
Lamitech, Inc. makes special grades of cardboard and chipboard for a number of industries. Its best seller is Thru White, says the company’s national sales manager Andrew Londergan. “It’s a solid white board, which offers the benefits of affordability and ease of use. It’s a tried-and-true product.”
EarthBoard is an environmentally-friendly version of Thru White, made from 100 percent recycled fibers, with a brown edge. EarthBoard can also be recycled via most stores’ recycling receptacles. “One big box retailer actually factored that in to their cost projections how much they would be paid on the back end [of use],” he adds.
A third product from Lamitech is called Opacity. “This is the same kind of material playing cards are made from, but thinner,” Londergan says. “You can’t see through it, because it has a black adhesive in the middle, guaranteeing 100 percent opacity, and allowing you to print two sides. It can be rolled up in a tube for easy distribution, and easily changed out with the need for a sign crew.”
Those who have printed campaign signs are likely well acquainted with another provider, Sign Zone. “For the most part, our customers buy from us the corrugated plastic materials,” says Jim Siesennop, Sign Zone’s director of sourcing and new product development.
“They’re durable, also inexpensive and perfect for yard signs, political campaign signs, and other temporary signs. They also can adhere them to plastic A-frames. It is temporary signage, and our customers do a lot of that.”
About 80 percent of the company’s rigid substrate business is corrugated plastic, with styrene and other materials representing much smaller percentages. Styrene is usually used in higher-end restaurant and indoor signage.
MightyCore Rigid from Encore Products, a division of Elmer’s Products, Inc., is a rigid substrate with an extra-rigid core of dense polystyrene that makes it ideal for digital printing, cutting, and any indoor application where rigidity is required. It’s available in white, black-on-black, white-black-white, white-black-black, and bright white in 3/16, 1/4, and 1/2-inch thicknesses.
The protective release liner can be lifted to prepare the board for quick mounting applications in a roller laminator or without a machine by cold mounting. Its dense polystyrene core provides an extra rigid structure to support heavy and hard to hold items. MightyCore Pressure Sensitive is offered in white and black-on-black in 3/16-inch thicknesses.
MightyPrint Canvas allows users to print directly to a rigid artist canvas substrate. The embossed canvas surface gives printed images a rich, hand-painted appearance, and can be used to create canvas wraps.
MightyBull is a heavy-duty, all-plastic board that features an extra-rigid polystyrene core with a bright white, high-impact polystyrene surface. Its high-impact polystyrene facers are corona treated, making them perfect for screen printing, digital printing, vinyl lettering, and POP applications.
Specializing in eco-friendly substrates is conVerd. The company produces a paper product designed to replace petroleum-based products, says conVerd CEO Don Tomes. The product, conVerd Board, on which there is a patent pending, is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. “Our paper comes from upstate New York, where Finch Paper has been harvesting stock for paper since before the Civil War,” Tomes says. “That’s an FSC-certified forest. So we’re starting with a base stock that’s renewable and sustainable.”
The product also includes 10 percent post-consumer waste from recycled paper. When the paper has served its purpose, it is fully recyclable, not just biodegradable. “When someone says they’re biodegradable, they’re not even in the race,” Tomes says. “We took our board to North Carolina State University School of Wood and Paper Science, and they certified the recyclability of it.”
Combining all these characteristics results in a dimensionally stable product that’s rigid and very strong, he adds. Those qualities ensure users have low scrap when going to press. The strength prevents boards from being damaged when they’re put on the press, a common issue with foam board.
Also, conVerd Board doesn’t include benzene, a known carcinogen common in many foam products, and can be printed screen or on a UV press.
The absence of a petroleum base in this product is worth emphasizing, Tomes says. “Oil is not a renewable resource, whereas trees are,” he stresses. “Trees are naturally part of the carbon cycle, whereas oil is not. Take oil out of the ground and you’ve just added it to the carbon cycle.”
A coating company that focuses optimizing media for digital print, Sihl Digital Imaging concentrates on a couple of key products, says director of marketing and product development Mark Friedman.
The first is Glamour Photo Board, something of a middle ground between a premium photo paper and a foam board. “It has a thick coating on it, [making it] sort of a thick photo paper,” he says. “But it is more like a card stock, or a material that we don’t think of rigid but semi-rigid, crossing the line. It is as thick as something that can come on a roll, yet it delivers the printer and the end application a board rigid enough to do anything you want something rigid to do.”
The other product is a thick UV backlit film, which the company calls UV Fusion Backlit Film. “It also crosses over,” Friedman says. “When UV printers came out, you could print directly to plexiglass. But there were a couple problems: plexi is not inexpensive, and it’s not optimized for being printed upon by UV printers. It works, but not always with the best performance.
“We developed a UV backlit film 17 mils thick; as thick as required for an application. Embedded in the film is a diffusion layer, giving the film a frosted look, which diffuses the light evenly, and prevents hot spots. What you have is a semi-rigid product that can be printed and rolled up. It’s easier to use, install, print, and transport than a piece of plexiglass, is more affordable, and will speed up your production.”
Offering olefin and PVC solutions is Vycom Plastics, the largest converter of both, says product manager Christopher Art. Vycom offers Celtec Expanded PVC, a foam PVC product, and Celtec Ultra White, a solid PVC product. Sheets are oversized by a minimum of 1/4 inch in length and width, which facilitates improved yield for cut jobs. Sheets are square to within 1/8 inch. The same production process is used for all gauges, 1 mil, through 30 mil, which products consistency throughout all gauges. Surface finish is consistent, and one material is acceptable for both screen and digital printing.
Vycom produces Celtec and offers the broadest range of foam and solid PVC sheets in today’s market. All Celtec material is produced in the USA. It is RoHS compliant, and is USDA approved for incidental food contact. Celtec provides acceptable flammability ratings for ASTM E-84, UL 1975 and UL-94.
3A Composites specializes in manufacturing substrates for the graphic display market in North America and South America. Fome-Cor is the original paper-faced foam board, and consists of extruded polystyrene foam bonded between various high-quality papers, featuring smooth surfaces for decorating. It can be die-cut, creating a compressed edge that stays closed, and it may be embossed to create 3D effects.
Sintra, a PVC board, is comprised of moderately expanded closed-cell polyvinyl chloride in a homogenous sheet with a low-gloss matte finish.
Gatorfoam consists of extruded polystyrene foam with wood-fiber veneer facers. Digital printers and screen printers value Gatorfoam for its excellent reputation for resisting dents and scratches, as well as routing cleanly with ease.
Another player is Xcel Products Inc., a manufacturer, converter, and distributor of substrates that sells its own brand of substrates and also distributes other manufacturers’ products. Its best selling product is Xcel Digital XPS Styrene, reports sales manager Brian Cheshire. “It has a high surface tension, it’s digital grade and PVC-free,” he says. “And, as a converter, we can do custom sizes. Styrene is an indoor product used in retail signage, POP and POS.”
Its other product is Xcel Rigid Vinyl, offered in gloss and matte, and in 10, 15, and 20 mil. “Vinyl can be used indoors or outdoors,” Cheshire says. “We do a really high grade vinyl. The surface and white point are consistent. You can use it in pump toppers, and you still see it in some of the point of purchase or point of sales applications, such as shelf danglers.”
Que Media, Inc. offers a PVC rigid board that features double- or single-side adhesive. “The adhesive starts off as a medium tack for application, and then moves into a high-tack permanent adhesive after 24 hours,” reports director of marketing E. Tyler Reich. “The cool thing about our board is that you can still print roll-to-roll and adhere the print to the board.
“We have found that running prints and then running them through our standard 42-inch lamination machines works excellently. This way, you can have a nice print on glossy photo paper, for example, and adhere it to a rigid sheet. Graphic quality is outstanding using this method.”
The Selection Process
Manufacturers were unanimous that it does make a big difference which rigid substrates PSPs select.
“Does it really matter? Absolutely,” says Vycom’s Art. “Direct printing to Celtec and other substrates eliminates the mounting and laminating steps necessary when printing to paper, providing cost and labor savings and offering a better performing product. Today’s rigid substrates are allowing PSPs to offer innovative products for today’s and tomorrow’s retailer needs.”
Among the many factors PSPs must consider when choosing a rigid substrate are the following, he says. The first is atmosphere, such as weather, sunlight, indoor or outdoor uses, and chemical exposure. Next is the application, whether it is temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent, for instance. Then there is cost and budget, as well as the ink selection and color consideration of substrate and final graphic. Finally, there’s the question of how the end product will be produced. Will it be die-cut, routed, cut, or formed, for instance?
Choosing a rigid substrate is just as complex a task as choosing any other substrate, according to Friedman.
“Because UV printers have the ability to print on anything, a myth has been propagated that it doesn’t matter what you pick,” he says.
“But it does matter. What will make the most sense in speed and quality of print? What makes the most sense in ease of application and transport? Is paper the right choice? Is film the right choice? Or is canvas the right choice in durability, curl, and whiteness?”
Londergan believes that the biggest issue is price, followed by availability. PSPs must ask if they can obtain an ample quantity “because the industry turns on a dime,” he says. “Quality and workability, the post-printing issues, are big considerations. If you’re making it into a shape, it should be easy to work with.”
Cheshire is another observer who says the industry has come a long way since the days when it appeared not to matter what substrate was chosen. “Five years ago, when the UV flatbed printers were much slower and quality wasn’t as high, you could print on anything,” he says. “Today, the speed has picked up greatly and the quality has been improved in UV flatbed. So the styrene offers high quality, prints better, runs at a higher speed and can have reduced static.”
Which rigid substrate is chosen will depend on the application and the type of printer, he adds. In any application where consistency from job to job is essential, a higher-end product is preferable. But if the main consideration is dollars and cents, and print quality and consistency are not as important, PSPs will probably be better off opting for a less expensive product, he adds.
Several factors must be taken into consideration when choosing the right product for an application, says Encore Products’ junior product manager Candace Martin. One consideration is where the final piece will be displayed, whether indoor or outdoor, and what environmental elements it must withstand.
Another is the desired overall effect of the finished piece: shiny, matte, or canvas. Yet another is the question of whether the image will be mounted to the surface, direct printed, or screen printed. Encore has a Preferred Media Chart on its website which identifies the Encore Foam Board that works best with a specific printer/ink combination. “We discovered that the ink composition, the drying method, and the surface paper all play important roles in the quality of the printed result,” Martin reports.
A final consideration is whether the final piece will be placed into a frame, or whether edges need to be finished, die-cut, routed, machine cut, or hand cut.
Martin says it “absolutely” makes a difference what substrate is chosen. “The texture and/or shine on a board’s surface affect the final output, regardless of the ink set,” she reports.
For his part, Siesennop feels PSPs must consider the intended end use of the boards. Many of his company’s customers use corrugated plastic, both because it’s inexpensive and because the signs are intended for the outdoors.
“The flatbed printers now allow a lot better detail,” he says. “You have more flexibility in what you’re doing. If you want just one or just five signs, you can do that. In the past, with screen printing, you could only justify the costs if you did many, many signs. Now you can virtually take a photograph and print it on rigid substrate such as corrugated plastic, the colors pop right off and it looks great. It’s beautiful. Signage has really changed in that regard.”
In the end, it really matters what product is chosen for both the printer and the end user, Tomes adds, noting that his company’s product provides a quality image at a reasonable price, and is part of the solution to ecological issues.
Tomes is among those who believe we haven‘t seen the end of invention in rigid substrates. “There’s going to continue to be tremendous innovation in the rigid area, as the speeds and quality continue to grow,” he says.