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Super Substrates

The COVID pandemic affected every market in ways that will likely be felt for years. And for industry plastics suppliers, recent events have truly been a “best of times, worst of times” scenario.

Super Substrates


By Brian Stanley

The COVID pandemic affected every market in ways that will likely be felt for years. And for industry plastics suppliers, recent events have truly been a “best of times, worst of times” scenario.

A very urgent need for product? That was good.

Limited availability of materials and personnel? That was bad. New markets? Very good.

A virtual wipeout of some old ones? Obviously bad.

“2020 was a difficult year for all substrate manufacturers,” said Alan Ceresney, materials manager for Trotec Laser of Plymouth, MI. “A lot of materials that are most commonly used in the awards and personalization industry were no longer needed because of the pandemic, so we had to identify how the needs of our customers and communities had shifted because of the change in demand.”

Eric Hausserman, president of Rowmark in Findlay, OH, agreed the pandemic had unprecedented effects.

“Rowmark’s sheet business for the signage, awards, and trophy markets was impacted by state lockdowns, which essentially put a halt to new construction, school sports, and academic events in most of the country,” Hausserman said. “However, we were fortunate to be able to work our way through the pandemic by shifting production to clear acrylics for sneeze guards and face shields.”



Photo courtesy of Trotec Laser

Personal protective equipment (PPE) and barriers were the big items for suppliers last year as their use skyrocketed becoming virtually mandatory for businesses that wanted to continue operating. Already common sights at banks and gas stations, plastic shields were now needed at grocery store checkout lanes and fast-food restaurants.

But demand for acrylics and plastics to create clear barriers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic had immediate effects for many manufacturers and distributors, Ceresney said. “Due to the demand and the urgency, clear acrylic, especially in large sheet sizes, was hard to come by, and oftentimes customers had to wait longer for shipments to arrive,” he said.

Dave Johnson, product manager for Gemini Inc. in Cannon Falls, MN, said beginning in March 2020, the company was receiving many requests to provide clear acrylic sheets in a variety of thicknesses.

“Gemini pivoted to start producing this clear material to meet demand. The initial request was for thin acrylic to be used for protective shields, and we felt a patriotic duty to provide this to our healthcare workers when there was a shortage at the onset of the pandemic,” Johnson said. “Following this, the need for clear barriers arose, and we began producing thicker acrylic sheets for this purpose.”


Photo courtesy of Rowmark

New Products for 2021

Even while working hard to keep up with demand, these industry suppliers have been innovating. They’re launching new products to address your needs, challenges, and opportunities. (More information is available in the Product Feature section on p. 26.)

Trotec is now offering smaller-sized sheets (12 in. by 12 in. and 12 in. by 20 in.) on additional ecommerce and industry platforms. The new sizes are designed to fit more easily into smaller laser systems.

Rowmark has launched a couple of new products in 2021. In January, it announced the release of DurMark, which is designed to withstand increased wear for outdoor usage with outstanding ultraviolet resistance and increased durability, Hausserman said. The company introduced a new plastic sheet material—LaserMax Tri-Laser—in February. It is made with three layers: a film, cap, and core, and aims to help fabrication speeds. Rowmark will launch additional products in 2021 and is focused on developing new metallic finishes and a product line with a glitter look. Hausserman noted production remains at full capacity. “As businesses return, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for your custom needs or requests or if you would like samples or have any questions,” he said. “Our goal is to help save customers time and money by offering the right products for the right application.”

Duets by Gemini is launching three new lines for 2021:
The Textures line has a slightly textured surface that can be used for interior or exterior applications, such as name badges, directional signage, plant labeling, and golf course sprinkler heads. It is recommended for rotary engraving but can be lasered, which may require two passes, Johnson said.

The Selects line uses a unique technology to produce extremely flat sheets for laser or rotary engraving. It allows for single pass engraving on even the most difficult color combinations, is available in a satin or matte finish, and is suitable for exterior or interior applications. “This material will be great for producing name badges, but the applications are endless,” Johnson said.

Gemini’s new Ultimates Reverse is a durable reverse-engraving material that extends their Ultimates line.

“This line has a .010-in. cap, which engravers prefer for its durability and sheet flatness. Since the engraving is on the backside, the signs can be cleaned without fear that the surface or engraved area will be tarnished,” Johnson said. “This material is popular in high-traffic areas like schools and hospitals. It is also popular in industrial settings.”


Photo courtesy of Rowmark

Trotec also implemented some process changes and retooling at their manufacturing plant in North Carolina so they could offer clear PET film and modified acrylic sheets— substrates the company didn’t offer before 2020. These materials were used by customers to make protective face shields and other COVID-related products that were quickly in high demand, Ceresney said.

If you’re reading this and thinking you’d better start supplying this type of PPE, you may want to pause. Suppliers agree demand for this market has peaked.

“There absolutely was an increase in finished clear barriers as well as a demand for the clear sheet to produce custom barriers. This volume continues, but not nearly at the levels that were seen in the spring and summer of 2020,” Hausserman said. (Rowmark also produced face shields from clear acrylic during the pandemic to support the critical need for PPE.)

“Now with many of the requests for these materials satisfied, the call for clear acrylic across the industry has diminished.

It is possible that requests may pick up again in the future, but as of now, it is not seen as a growth opportunity,” Johnson said.

“The initial rush of the demand has mostly subsided,” Trotec’s Ceresney said.

For retailers still getting PPE orders that require clear substrates, this is good news. “This need has not yet gone away,” he said. “We have caught up with the demand and are able to fulfill orders without issue.”


Photo courtesy of Rowmark


While the effects of the COVID pandemic will likely alter business plans for years, suppliers have returned to looking ahead.

“Manufacturers in the U.S. continue to be busy, even as the service industry has suffered greatly,” Gemini’s Johnson said. “New hospitals are being built every day or are being acquired by others, which means the signage needs to be replaced. Therefore, the demand for signage by both industries has continued to increase. That is why we focused on creating high-quality material that is suitable for heavy traffic and rugged environments.”

Gemini’s Duets Tactiles line—a single-ply material used in making tactile, ADA-compliant signage—sold steadily throughout the year because of a consistent need, Johnson said.

“Essential businesses continued to order signs that were ADA compliant, with many needing additional pandemicspecific signage. Hospitals, schools, and government public buildings are examples of the sectors that did not slow down,” he said.

Hausserman agreed quality remains a top focus after the pandemic. “As budgets have tightened for businesses, customers are looking for products that have durability and will last,” he said.

Right now, modified acrylics, PET film, and other materials that can be used for PPE-related products are trendy still, just not being used at speeds manufacturers struggled to keep up with.



Photo courtesy of Rowmark

“It’s important to keep these in mind when developing products to offer to your customer base,” Ceresney said. “Signage materials such as engraving plastics and cast acrylics are also still sought after, as there is always a need for unique, eye-catching signs and displays.”

He suggests retailers look into acrylics or plastics that work well with a number of submarkets, such as LED-complimentary acrylics for lighted signage, plastics with good ink adhesion for direct-to-substrate printing, and durable substrates that can be used indoors and outdoors for a long lifespan.

“In addition, products that are more eco-friendly are always trending, as environmental consciousness has become a more common practice among many industries, with many end users seeking products made from renewable or recycled resources,” Ceresney said.

The trends cited by Trotec’s Ceresney align with what Hausserman has seen at Rowmark: an increase in purchases of The Naturals product line (pictured above), which combines durability with nature inspired textures and patterns.

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