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Fantastic Plastic

For awards and personalization retailers looking to expand their customer base, engravable plastics offer a world of creative possibilities. Already armed with rotary and laser engravers, retailers today are using plastics to create custom signage, awards, name badges, desk plates, and even electronic control panels, to name a few products.

Fantastic Plastic

Inventive Suppliers Creating Original New Materials for Everything from Signage to Gifts

(Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Recognition Review.)

For awards and personalization retailers looking to expand their customer base, engravable plastics offer a world of creative possibilities.

Already armed with rotary and laser engravers, retailers today are using plastics to create custom signage, awards, name badges, desk plates, and even electronic control panels, to name a few products.

Plastic sheeting is durable, easy to fabricate, and available in thousands of colors, gauges, and finishes, making it an ideal material for creating a vast array of products for many markets. To choose the best plastic sheeting for the job, retailers need to understand their equipment and what their customers are trying to achieve. Working with plastic sheeting first requires detailed information from your customer.

“Having knowledge about the product they’re going to create, what the end use is going to be, and how they are going to create it are the three most important factors,” said Sam Warden, national sales manager at Bur-Lane Inc. in Oklahoma City, OK.

Like any other type of engraving material, plastic requires some basic understanding of its components to achieve the highest quality finished product. Plastic sheeting typically consists of a core color and a top cap, depending on the end product. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant signage, for example, does not require a top cap, but engraving or sublimation may need a top cap. (The top cap may be known by other names, such as top coat, microsurface plastic, or foil.)

During the manufacturing process, plastic resin and colorant are blended using high-pressure turn screws, then fed through precision-tooled dyes and rollers within a clean room to produce a quality, consistent plastic sheet that conforms to customers’ specifications on everything from color and surface quality to substrate thickness and flatness. “We make sure that sheet is very, very flat. That’s important to customers,” said Gary Harder at Duets by Gemini. Duets by Gemini, a wholly-owned, produces its plastic sheeting in a clean room environment to eliminate possible imperfections from lint or dust. “We’re the only ADA and engraving sheet stock manufacturer operating in a Class 10,000 clean room,” Harder said.

Recently, Rowmark opened its new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Findlay, OH, featuring enhanced clean room technologies and cutting-edge co-extrusion capabilities, as well as an expanded research and new product development laboratory. The facility features a temperature controlled, positive pressure and static-free environment for superior product quality from pellet to sheet.

Though the facility is newly opened, Rowmark is a pioneer of the engraving industry. The company has nearly 30 years of experience manufacturing plastic sheet products at its state-of-the-art ISO certified facility, serving a worldwide customer base with multiple extrusion lines and an extensive product selection.

Choose the Right Plastic

ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and acrylic are the two main types of plastic used in the awards and personalization industry. Both can be engraved with a rotary engraver, but lasers should only be used on the acrylic, not the ABS. “ABS has a lower melt point. If you try to use ABS with a laser, it can warp, which is bad news. It also burns more easily, creating a residue on the plastic that is difficult to clean,” Harder said. ABS, which is generally less expensive than acrylic, works well with a rotary engraver for interior applications.

Acrylic sheeting, which can withstand laser engraving, has better UV stability and weatherability, making it optimal for outdoor use. “UV stability and weatherability are two different things,” Harder said. “UV strictly speaks to the material’s ability to withstand UV light. Weatherability refers to how it withstands the elements, such as hot, cold, rain, or freezing. You can have both in your plastic sheeting, but you may only get one or the other.”

Knowing the distinction is particularly important if the end product is signage. “When you think about signage, it really matters if it is going to be used indoors or outdoors,” Harder added. “Will it be in direct sunlight? How far away are people going to be looking at the sign? How is it going to be installed, and what are you mounting the sign to?”

Plastic sheeting choice can even come down to how it handles cleaning. Does the product need to maintain its integrity even with the use of solvents and long-term scrubbing? “Particularly with hospitals, landscaping, and restaurants, these environments need to be cleaned all the time, so it’s important to use a heavy-duty plastic for signage and wayfinding that stands up to repeated cleaning and solvents,” said Don D’Antonio, president of Innovative Plastics Inc.

If you want to add four-color detail to the design using UV-LED, direct-to-substrate printing; screen printing; or sublimation, the top cap used on the plastic sheeting matters as well. Choose a plastic sheeting material with a top cap specifically designed for the printing process you use. Sign makers especially are moving more into color printing on plastic as their customers request logos and other colorful custom details.

Signage and Beyond

Plastic sheeting is an ideal material for sign makers primarily because of its versatility and durability. “Plastic sheet materials and acrylic sheet materials in particular are one of the most popular options used for signage. The possibilities are only limited by your own imagination,” said Phil Noakes, director of sales and customer service at Rowmark.

The benefits of using acrylic sheeting for signage include flexibility in style and function, durability, vast color and pattern options, and ease of fabrication. “Acrylic sheet materials also offer an affordable, high-quality design media that can provide great aesthetic value, particularly with all the color options available today. You can also easily further enhance acrylics by layering for dimension, framing the material, or utilizing stand-off and mounting hardware,” he said.

Within the signage category, ADA-compliant plastic sheeting material continues to grow in demand with new construction and building remodels requiring upgraded signage that includes tactile lettering, Grade II Braille, and pictograms. Plastic sheeting used for ADA signage is typically a solid-color plastic with an eggshell, matte, or other nonglare finish. “ADA is a big product right now because of the laws increasing the need for compliant signage, and as a result, fabricators also have a big opportunity to expand into signage projects for the construction industry as it gains momentum again,” D’Antonio said.

While signage is a major market, plastic sheeting isn’t limited to sign making. Plastics manufacturers have devel-oped a variety of engravable materials specific to awards, industrial, and gift applications. “The translucency and frosted appearance of a cell-cast acrylic like Rowmark’s ColorHues™, for example, is highly versatile for gift applications,” Noakes said. ColorHues is now widely used for monogrammed jewelry, coasters, cake toppers, key chains, identification tags, and other customized gifts.

A potentially lucrative option, the industrial market is another area targeted by retailers with plastic engraving capabilities. Electrical control panels need labeling, for example, and engravable plastics are ideal for these types of applications. The repeat sales potential is a distinct advantage to fabricating components for original equipment manufacturers (OEM). “When retailers can supply another business, especially if it’s an OEM, that’s great business,” Harder said.

Innovations Abound

More options and more customization are the trends in plastic today, meaning you'll always have something new to offer your customers.

“Custom plastic is a popular product,” said Don Kirch, business manager at Gravotech. “You can create a custom color cap, thickness, finish, and core color—everything you need to create a one-of-a-kind product.”

Custom colors

Plastic sheeting manufacturers are becoming more adept at creating specialized colors at smaller minimum quantities. While the available range of plastic colors is vast, customers increasingly need something special, like the iconic brown used by UPS™, for example. “We’re getting a lot of questions on doing custom colors,” Harder said. “It goes along with what’s happening at retail. Everybody wants it customized. Plastic materials are going the same way.”

Rowmark’s comprehensive sheet color selection has evolved due to years of industry experience and continued feedback from customers. This makes color matching easy for custom projects. Customers can request custom colors or mix and match cap and core colors on a wide range of Rowmark’s products. To make color matching, product recommendations, and sheet sample requests easier for on-the-go customers, Rowmark recently launched Color Snap Match, the only plastic color match mobile app in the industry. Customers can download the app for free through the Apple iTunes or Google Play store.

New surface finishes

Finish options run the gamut, and more options are be-coming available. “Metallic-looking plastic products have always been popular, but they’re even more popular now as more versatile uses and applications are discovered as a replacement to real metal,” D’Antonio said. Some awards makers are replacing engraved metal plates with plastic ones that appear metallic or marbleized. The plastics can bend around trophies and come with adhesive. With the right top cap, plastic sheeting can mimic wood, stone, and marble for use in signage, gifts, or a variety of other products where the durability and cost savings of plastic are preferred.

Color printing capabilities

UV-LED direct printing has really taken off among retailers looking to print four-color designs on plastic. “It used to be too hard to print on a colored sheet, but UV printers are able to lay down a nice white underneath,” D’Antonio said. “Now color comes into play for letters and logos because you can print color on white instead of the colored plastic.”

Creative ADA designs

Even ADA signage is getting more custom as sign makers incorporate it into their designs. “ADA signage has come a long way from its origins as being very utilitarian. Designers and sign makers alike now incorporate ADA-compliant signage as part of their larger signage vision,” Noakes said. “Customers can decorate ADA-compliant materials through digital printing, custom painting, and full-color sublimation. There are now so many different colors, substrates, and mounting hardware that can be used while still remaining compliant—not to mention a variety of signage shapes, sizes, and dimensions. This has opened up a lot of creative possibilities.”

Adjust Process for Best Results

Whichever plastic you choose, manufacturers recommend a test run first to make any needed adjustments to equipment or designs. The more you work with plastic, the more skilled you become, improving production speed and ultimately profitability. “Cap thickness, consistency, and tolerance make a big difference in rotary and laser engraving,” Kirch said. “When engraving, to achieve great detail and quality, you want to just remove the cap material without cutting much into the core. If cap consistency isn’t held to a close tolerance, you’ll waste time and money resetting powers and depths to compensate.”

ADA material also requires special consideration, Kirch said. “When buying ADA material, make sure you purchase a material compound that is not brittle,” he said. “So when removing the excess profile material, you can pull it off in one sheet and it doesn’t break into numerous smaller pieces. Otherwise, this clean-up step will take much longer and cost more than it should.”

Plastic suppliers—including Gravotech, Gemini, Rowmark, Bur-lane, and Innovative Plastics—are great resources for training to improve technique and ideas to expand product offerings. Suppliers also recommend looking to your equipment manufacturers as well. Many laser systems have a library of preprogrammed settings for microsurface plastic, so equipment company representatives are often experts at working with plastic sheeting. Laser, rotary engraver, and even color printing companies can recommend optimal plastic sheeting options and adjustments needed for specific jobs.

The seemingly endless color and material choices may seem overwhelming, but the profit potential is clear.

“There are so many different options in terms of colors, finishes, types of materials,” Warden said. “Really, the creative possibilities are endless.”

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