2-sided acrylic

Digitally Decorating Full-Color Acrylic Awards

Bill Leek of Houston, Texas, has over 33 years’ experience in digital decorating system development and graphic design. He has developed several lines of color imprintable products utilizing inkjet, sublimation, and color laser transfer technologies. In addition, he has extensive working knowledge of color management and product durability testing and has consulted for many of our industry’s leading companies. He may be reached at wfleek@jblgraphics.com.

There are more styles and designs of full-color photo quality acrylic awards and gifts available now than ever before. Over the last 10 years, production methods and creative options have dramatically increased. Full-color acrylics have a high-perceived value. Viewing a photo or graphic through the acrylic adds depth and dimension to each image composition.

In this article, we will review four major acrylic digital decorating technologies:

  • Dye-sublimation transfer
  • UV-LED direct printing
  • AcryliPrint
  • White toner color laser transfer

All of these can produce great results and each method has specific strengths and capabilities.

DYE-SUBLIMATION TRANSFER

Dye-sublimation heat transfer has continued to be a popular digital decorating method for over 20 years. Entry level system costs are relatively low and the production learning curve is short. If you are already using a dye-sublimation system, you should consider adding special dye-sub coated acrylic blanks to create high-end awards and gifts.

The first acrylic sublimation imprintables were introduced about six years ago and have been available in a limited number of shapes and sizes that include free-standing thick rectangles and round/square coasters. Image quality is good and the sublimation inks produce vivid color. The acrylic has a high-quality white sublimation coating applied to the back. Images are sublimated into the white coating, resulting in an opaque image viewed from the front of the acrylic.

NEW COLORLYTE ACRYLIC

Condé Systems is in the process of releasing a new thinner acrylic sublimation product that allows a sublimated image to be viewed from both front and back. Image quality and color saturation are both excellent. Optionally, the flat, completed acrylic sheet can be subtly curved using a custom jig. Colorlyte will be available in a variety of sizes from standard photos to large photo panels.

UV-LED DIRECT PRINTING

Over the last six years, a new generation of desktop UV-LED printers has provided a powerful and versatile method for digitally decorating the widest range of clear 3D acrylic objects and substrates. UV-LED allows direct printing on both sides of the acrylic. Utilizing UV-LED technology, you can economically print the widest range of substrates and three-dimensional objects imaginable.

Unlike sublimation transfer and solvent inkjet printing, acrylic items do not need to be pre-coated before an image is applied. The LEDs generate virtually no heat and require little power. In addition, they will last up to 10,000 hours before replacement is necessary. The other three methods described in this article must be heat pressed using transfer paper or heat/pressure activated adhesives.

The UV-cured CMYK inks are very bright with a wide, well-balanced color gamut. The density for all colors including black and especially white is excellent. White ink allows striking results when printing on transparent (acrylic/glass) surfaces. The applied inks dry in milliseconds. Because of the instant drying time, multiple layers of both white and clear plus CMYK may be applied simultaneously in a single printing pass. This results in unique printing capabilities that cannot be duplicated by the other printing methods. The inks can be applied selectively to build up embossed objects and letters as well as custom textures.

UV-LED printing excels in the production of unique acrylic awards. The initial purchase/lease price may be higher than other options, but these printers will allow you to print on almost any substrate in addition to acrylics. Just one UV-LED printer can often replace pad printing, screen printing, sublimation and other transfer techniques. In many cases, the UV-LED results will be superior in image quality, finish and durability. Printers are available from a wide variety of UV-LED printer manufacturers.

WHITE TONER COLOR LASER PRINTING SYSTEM

Five years ago, TheMagicTouch introduced a turn-key color laser printing system that incorporated dense white toner with standard CMY colors.

This system provides an affordable, ideal method for decorating clear acrylic plaques, signs and personalized gifts. For the first time, a color laser printer could be used to decorate both sides of an acrylic award with vibrant opaque or translucent images and text. Ordinary uncoated acrylic can be used. The CMY toners by themselves are relatively transparent and would look washed out on the acrylic. Adding the white toner as a base behind the colors adds density and eliminates the washed out effect. Photos, graphics and text are all reproduced beautifully and accurately.

The base system includes an A4 size Okidata C711WT, which is a CMY plus White Toner LED color laser printer capable of 1,200 dpi output. The C711WT produces accurate, full gamut color with dense white output for image transfers. The printer is bundled with TheMagicTouch proprietary ‘Space Control’ software utility designed to control and optimize the white toner application.

TheMagicTouch CPM Hard Surface transfer paper is approved by Okidata for use in their printers. CPM is an ideal transfer paper for acrylics. The Okidata C711WT utilizes four toner cartridges: cyan, magenta, yellow and white. Black is generated by combining the CMY toners. The printer can be switched between CMY and CMYW modes by software control or simply pressing a button. Print resolution up to 1,200 by 600 dpi is available in both modes. Print speed is up to eight pages per minute for transfer papers and 34 pages per minute for standard media.

The ‘Space Control’ proprietary software manages the efficient utilization of white toner in the C711WT printer. It allows the user to specify the amount of white toner to be used on a given clear acrylic substrate. ‘Space Control’ determines exactly where on the transfer the white toner should be applied. There is no need to manually define selections or set up masks using other software applications. Only the toners are fused to the acrylic. No extra finishing steps are required. This greatly reduces print setup/production times and associated costs.

When printing a transfer for the front of the acrylic, the image must be mirrored and only one pass through the printer is required. When printing a full-bleed image on the back of the acrylic, the image is not mirrored and two passes are needed.

A heat press is required to apply the toner. Maintenance is minimal. Purchase and operating costs are both low, production speed is high. The addition of white toner technology opens up a whole new dimension of affordable high-quality acrylic digital decoration.

ACRYLIPRINT

The AcryliPrint process was invented by the Acrylic Idea Factory in 2006. A lamination process fuses pigmented inkjet printer output permanently to the back of crystal clear acrylic awards and signs. The back side of the acrylic pieces are factory-coated with a special clear adhesive that is activated using a combination of heat and pressure. The finished products are stunning in appearance and are very durable. The AcryliPrint system is ideal for larger production environments. The key benefits of the system are production speed, ease of operation, flexibility, and reliability.

The AcryliPrint FusionProcessor was specifically designed to fuse digital prints to thick, smooth, solid acrylic substrates. It uses compressed air to create the high level of pressure combined with heat that allows the fusing to take place. Pressure is evenly distributed on the platen from end to end. Simple controls regulate heat, pressure and time, the three essential elements of the fusion process. The FusionProcessor is large enough to handle four 8-by-10 acrylic plaques at a time. Given the short 90-second processing time, the Acrylic Idea Factory estimates that you can produce more than 400 8-by-10 plaques in a single day.

The photographic quality of the full-bleed inkjet Epson and Canon prints is excellent. Viewing a photo or graphic through the acrylic adds depth and dimension to each image.

FINAL COMMENTS

All four acrylic digital decorating techniques are worthy of consideration. Which is best for you is dependent on your production requirements, budget and creative options.

Note: This article appears in the February 2017 edition of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!