Choosing the Right Rigid Substrate

All rigid substrates are not created equal. With the proliferation of UV flatbed printers, substrate manufacturers have developed a veritable cornucopia of different options.

There are many different possibilities in our industry, depending on how long you want it to last, whether or not you want it gloss, the color palate required—so it’s important for the print provider to ask questions about the durability of the product, its life expectancy, etc., acknowledged Bruce Merklinghaus, vice president of sales and marketing at Vycom Plastics, a division of CPG International.

Headquartered in Scranton, PA, the company manufactures highly engineered Olefin and PVC sheet products designed to replace wood, metal, and other traditional materials in a variety of applications. For the graphic arts industry, its products include Celtec Expanded PVC and Celtec Ultra White. These plastic signage materials are lead- and heavy metal-free, and are available in a variety of sizes, including oversized sheets, as well as a variety of colors.

“ConVerd designed a product portfolio with a sustainable mind and a direction to performance,” said Paul Paulette, president of East Longmeadow, MA-based ConVerd.

The company’s FSC-certified print media offers sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based materials, said Paulette, incorporating 10 percent post-consumer waste to maximum sustainability, without sacrificing printability requirements. Its products are used for POP, hanging signage, displays, wallcoverings, backlit, and banner applications for supermarket chains, children’s retail stores, and discounted retail stores.

“For the most part, the application dictates the type of substrate we use,” said Chris Cocco, lead production for Harlan Graphics in Cincinnati. The company is a provider of graphic signs and displays for national and regional corporate, retail, and hospitality accounts.

It relies on a wide variety of rigid substrates, that includes PVC sheets, Styrene, Gatorfoam, Foam Core, acrylic, fluted board, Ultra Board panels, Dibond Aluminum—the list goes on, and is poised to expand as new applications are found. Accommodating the array of substrates also requires an array of digital printers, including the Durst Rho R1012 and the HP Scitex FB6700 flatbeds. “They complement each other—each one does certain things really well. Having all these different machines allow us to output on a wide variety of substrates and materials,” said Cocco.

Exterior signage for First National Bank, consisting of several 5 x10 panels made of Max-Metal material, was run on the company’s HP Scitex machine. “The substrate is gloss-laminated and looks great in aluminum frames.”

Every material has its own challenges, said Cocco. “Not all brands are created equal, and you have to find what works with well the specific printer and plays to the process.”

For Cocco , who has a long background in offset printing, the range of substrates—especially rigid substrates—available for digital wide-format was one of the hardest parts to get around. “There are so many options, so many wild things you can do,” said Cocco. “It’s different every day.”

Although Harlan Graphics depends on a wide array of substrates for its many projects, once a specific substrate is found to perform well, Cocco doesn’t jump to another. “If I find something that works, I like to stay with it,” he said. “I learn which printers to use it with, its limitations.”

Cocco and his team works closely with his substrate providers. “They are helpful; when we have trouble they go to bat for us,” he said. “They bring in new stuff and I let them know if I have something on my radar I am interested in.”

The relationship is more like a partnership. “We had one manufacturer who wanted to know why we didn’t buy more from them. I told him it was because his substrates always had fingerprints on them. You couldn’t see the fingerprints until you ran the ink on top of it. They started wearing gloves, and we started buying from them.”

For the print provider, education and communication with the end user is critical, notes Merklinghaus.

A lot of the end user clients looking for display materials will base their decision purely on physical appearance, without knowing the specific nuances of the product.

“I’ve seen some applications misused and, therefore, cause the exhibits to be unacceptable,” he said.

For example, in some cases fire properties are important. “For exhibits and signage with major exhibit halls, fire marshals have specific codes, and there are certain materials that have passed those codes,” Merklinghaus explained. “I know of an instance where somebody chose a substrate that had a high level of flammability and when it was used for the displays for the trade show, the fire marshals basically made them take it down. The exhibitor had nothing to show or display. It was a seven-day show so the exhibit was pretty extensive, and expensive—plus there were additional shipping and handling costs.”

If the customer is going to discard the oversized graphic in a short amount of time, substrates such as cardboard, corrugated, or gator board—the less expensive alternatives—will work fine. If, however, more durable indoor/outdoor signage is required, expanded PVC is a much better option, said Merklinghaus.

“From the foam PVC, you can move onto products that are even more durable and stiffer,” he added. “The more durable the substrate is, the most costly it is.”

Color can also be an issue, depending on which substrate is used. “The customer may want to use foam PVC for the application, and ask for it in red, and want it to come out shiny and glossy like an acrylic,” said Merklinghaus. “ But it’s just not possible—the technology is not there.”

The nature of the substrate itself, foam PVC vs. a Styrene, for example, will produce two very different “reds.” If the customer specifies PMS 485—depending on whether the surface of the substrate is glossy vs. frosted vs. textured, will all produce very different looking examples of PMS 485.

“Color expectations, and how close you can get to a specific corpo-rate color—it is always a basis for communication so as to not disappoint the customer,” noted Merklinghaus.

Vycom’s Celtec Expanded PVC is used by such brands as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Lowe’s for end uses that include overhead signage or shelving. “Every major supermarket is using foam PVC for overhead signage because it’s lightweight, has superior fire properties, and is very printable,” said Merklinghaus.

Foam PVC has come a long way, comments Merklinghaus. First patented in 1912, it ebbed in and out of popular use beginning in the 1930s, achieving its current high rankings in the mid-to late 1970s, with the manufacture of PVC foamboard. “And now with digital printers, more and more companies are looking to use the material,” commented Merklinghaus. “Most wide-format providers will understand the nuances, but it’s a case of the print provider explaining the attributes to their customers to inform them as to what will work best for a particular application.”

“At the end of the day, the selection of the right substrate is going to be based upon achieving the desired finish properties,” said ConVerd’s Paulette. “The rigidity of our ConVerd Board for example, should cut, hang, mount, and transport without complications. If it is a hanging signage, choose a moisture-resistant material that will help your signage maintain its shape overtime independent of climate changes.”

Key elements to look for when choosing a substrate are to use a bright white smooth paper with high- quality finishing for vivid colors and natural skin tones, added Paulette. “The rigid substrate should have a surface that supports a wide color gamut in order to reproduce higher resolution images. And the most important one is the simplicity of recycling the product down stream so that you can achieve a natural environmental balance.”

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