As the sign industry continues to advance at such quick rates, many sign shops are finding that they need to upgrade their equipment in order to keep up, and laminators are no exception. Laminators have seen many improvements in the past five years, and these new capabilities can go a long way in increasing a sign shop’s competitiveness. With faster turnaround times and more flexibility in substrates, a sign shop can provide its clients with better service and products.
When It’s Time To Buy A New Laminator
Of course, sign shops commonly enter the market for new laminators when their current units break, but many are also interested in purchasing a second or third laminator even if there are no problems with their original equipment, says Jerry Hill, vice president of new market business development for Drytac, a graphics finishing equipment and supplies manufacturer and distributor in Richmond, Va. Tight deadlines are the reality of the industry, and with an extra unit or two, a sign shop can greatly increase its productivity for a higher profit.
Most often, though, Hill finds that sign shops are ready to move forward with another laminator because their current units lack the required capabilities to operate in today’s business environment. When a sign shop first opens its door, it typically makes the minimum purchases to run the business. The laminator may have been serviceable in the early years, but as client demand increases, the lack of capabilities doesn’t always cut it.
“You basically have a bare-bones unit in the beginning, but once you’re in business for six months, you start looking around and wondering why you’re wasting a lot of time and energy with this laminator,” Hill says. “It’s taking two people to do this operation, and if you had a better laminator, you could free up a person. That’s when you have to look at the expense you’re paying for a second laminator with more capabilities in comparison to the labor costs and your profit potential.”
New Available Features
The new laminators on the market now offer new films and adhesives to account for improved inks and toners, says Bob Elliott, product manager for lamination equipment at GBC, a laminator manufacturer in Lincolnshire, Ill. Many inks and toners contain additives to help them pass through print nozzles without clogging; however, those additives also made it more difficult for laminate adhesion.
This is especially true for UV inks, and there are laminators designed specifically for that application, says Francesco Romanello, co-founder and CEO of Rolinx Performance Products, a laminator manufacturer in Irving, Texas. With this laminator, a new grade of steel and silicone are used on the rollers in order to apply additional pressure, which helps achieve the proper bond between UV inks and the adhesive or laminate.
Roll-to-roll laminators are playing a large role in the market, especially as wrap applications continue to grow, and more sign shops are finding that heated laminates are necessary, Hill says. In the past, sign shops typically relied on cold laminates, but the trend is moving toward using a heat assist. With a heat assist, the top roller is warm rather than hot like some laminators, and this improves the performance of the lamination.
“The heat assist softens pressure-sensitive laminates and helps with the flow,” Hill says. “It can eliminate silvering, which is a visual effect that basically traps a little air in the laminate and keeps the pressure-sensitive adhesive from flowing into the nooks and crannies, but if it’s a little warm, it flows a little better to eliminate that silvering.”
For some roll-to-roll laminators, drifting can be an issue, Hill says. Sometimes this is a result of a poor setup while other times this is due to poor shifting capabilities. Whatever the reason, this causes the print to the side by a few inches. This may not be a problem for a 30-inch graphic in a 60-inch laminator, but this can cause major problems for a wide-format print.
“When drifting happens, you’re dragging the side of the machine, and you get wrinkles as a result,” Hill says. “It’s not a pretty picture, so you have to evaluate a machine in terms of how is it set up and whether it is beefy enough so that you don’t get these drifting issues.”
To keep the print straight, roll-to-roll laminators now include an auto-calibration feature, Romanello says. Before auto-calibration was available, an operator had to manually ensure the print remained straight, but that wasn’t an easy process and often caused creases and air bubbles.
“Auto-calibration has pretty much eliminated these concerns,” Romanello says. “It’s a very easy step; it just requires pushing two buttons on the control panel, and the machine does everything else on its own. The whole process takes about two minutes.”
Some of the new features on laminators also greatly reduce setup time, Elliott says. For example, today’s laminators come with more unwind and rewind shafts.
PREPARING FOR FUTURE NEEDS
When purchasing a new laminator, a sign shop should not only look at its current needs but also evaluate future requirements. While determining what the future holds is hardly a science, a sign shop can prepare for multiple scenarios by purchasing a laminator that offers add-on features, Elliott says. The initial laminator offers more basic options, and as business grows, a sign shop can buy the appropriate features for its specific line of business. For instance, a new upgradeable laminator can offer the capabilities of adding more unwinds and rewinds to work better with pressure-sensitive adhesive and side slitters for increased efficiency for trimming.
Often, sign shops simply buy laminators on price, but this can cost them in the long run, Romanello says. Many laminators are offered as generic bundled packages that do not consider possible future needs. But without the right capabilities, a sign shop cannot take on larger projects and will have to either turn down work that could lead to more business in the future or farm it to another shop, missing out on the potential profit.
“If you just buy on price, you may find yourself stuck with a unit that is extremely difficult to run that creates a lot of waste, loss of money, down time, print time and frustration,” Romanello says.
Ultimately, purchasing a laminator should be a strategic business decision. Price is an issue for every business, but the initial cost is only one part of the picture. New laminators are an investment, which requires a greater upfront cost for longer-term rewards.