plastic sheet stock

Plastic Fantastic!

Mike Fruciano is a Market Development Manager for Coherent Inc. Mikes brings 25 years of laser systems, laser processing, and materials experience, and is a frequent writer and speaker on these topics. Contact Mike at 602-616-4971 or at mike.fruciano@coherent.com.

Note: This article appears in the February 2018 issue of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!

If you are into engraving, then you are into plastic—engraving plastic sheet, that is. Today’s range of plastic sheets are fantastic and offer many opportunities for engravers of all types to expand into new markets and create new applications.

In this first installment of a series on plastic, I explore the range, types, and applications of plastic sheet products for engraving applications with a focus on the varied markets and opportunities for plastic sheet engraving. In a future issue, I will explore the fabrication basics of engraving plastic sheet materials, highlighting processes and techniques for professional results.

Plastic sheet products are one of the most common substrates used in lasers or rotary engraving systems. Engraving sheet plastic is comprised of multiple layers of different color plastics. During the engraving process, the top layer or cap layer is removed to reveal the core layer. Using contrasting cap layer and core layer colors creates a high-contrast look that is both legible and durable.

What is Engraving Plastic Sheet?

To create the multi-layer engraving sheet plastic, manufacturers use a variety of industrial processes to form the sheets. Methods used to create the sheet vary based on the plastic formulation and the raw materials. Often the raw plastic compounds come in pellet form and are then ground and mixed to a proprietary formula. Manufacturing processes include hot or cold lamination or a co-extrusion process to create the layered color sheet plastic. The type of plastics used in creating a sheet of engraving plastic are typically a mixture of acrylic and ABS. Acrylic gives the plastic sheet improved engraving and cutting quality while the ABS makes the sheet material bendable and durable.

Manufacturers spend millions of dollars developing the processes and plastic formulations to create a professional quality product that engraves and cuts well and is durable. Consistency is another level of quality that engraving sheet plastic manufacturers work tirelessly on. Product consistency in the form of controlling the density and mixture of the plastic compounds as well as the thickness translates into higher consistency for users to engrave and cut the plastic sheet.

Sheet Size and Thickness

The standard sheet sizes we use in the industry for plastic sheet are based on the size of the extrusion presses and other manufacturing equipment. A full sheet size is the largest available and is typically 24 by 48 inches. Breaking down the full sheet is usually done using a large shear and can be done by the manufacturer or local distributor.

Using simple math, a standard half sheet size is 24 by 24 inches, and a quarter sheet size is 12 by 24. Many laser systems have a standard bed size of 12 by 24 inches, so a quarter sheet of plastic fits perfectly.

The gauge or thickness of the engraving plastic sheet is another important specification. Plastic sheet manufacturers have developed a wide range of available thicknesses for every application imaginable. Thin and flexible to thick and rigid thicknesses of engraving plastic sheet are available. With over 10 different thicknesses available for some color combinations of plastic engraving sheet, most engraving shops keep four different thicknesses on hand to handle the typical engraving jobs.

Thin gauge plastics do not get enough love in my book—they fit so many applications, from trophies and awards to industrial. And by thin, I mean almost paper thin engraveable plastic sheets are available with a thickness of .004 inch. Available with or without adhesive on the back side, these thin materials can be easily engraved then laser cut in a simple or intricate shape.

A slightly thicker gauge of engraving plastic sheet commonly used for engraving is a thickness of .020 inch (.5mm). This gauge provides a slightly more rigid substrate but still retains a lot of flexibility for attaching to curved objects. Available with or without adhesive on the back, the .020-thick plastic sheet provides excellent durability with ease of engraving and cutting.

The most common thickness for engraving plastic sheet material is 1/16 inch or .0625 inch gauge. 1/16-inch thick engraving plastic sheet is the standard thickness for name badges and badge holders, signage, control panels, and so many more engraving applications. Slightly flexible in nature, the 1/16-inch thick materials are durable and substantial enough for demanding engraving applications. Need to cut scalloped corners or a special shape? The 1/16-inch thick sheets are easy to fabricate and cut with a laser or rotary system.

A more durable option for engraving plastic sheet is to use the 1/8 or .125-inch thickness. Retaining the same engraveable cap layer, the big brother to the 1/16-inch sheet is ideal for signage, control panels, and applications that require a beefy substrate. With a total thickness of 1/8 inch, this sheet material is less flexible in nature and best for applying to flat surfaces. Cutting and fabricating 1/8-inch thick is a little bit more challenging but still possible using lasers, routing, or rotary engraving systems.

Textures, Colors, and Patterns

The world of engraving plastic sheet has exploded with dozens of new flavors and continues to grow, and manufacturers use modern decorating techniques to create the products your customers need.

Red, black, blue, and white are popular colors to keep in stock in your engraving shop, but there is so much more. This is where having a good distributor nearby that stocks the less popular colors such as purple haze or hot pink can get you the products your customers demand quickly. Keep plenty of the basic colors and thicknesses in stock at your shop and keep the website handy of your favorite plastic sheet distributor to order the specialty colors.

Need a custom color for a special corporate customer or university? Manufacturers now offer a custom color service to get you the exact color your customer demands. Digital color matching makes this process easier than in the past, and your customer can approve the custom color samples to ensure a no-hassle process for getting them precisely what they need. Reasonable minimums apply to getting custom colors, but this locks in that customer to just your engraving shop, so getting custom color plastic sheets can be worth the extra time needed to produce an engraving job.

In addition to a wide range of colors, patterns have become popular for engraving sheet plastic. Imagine a wood grain plastic sheet fabricated into a sign. The final sign project looks like wood but engraves and cuts like plastic with the durability and function a plastic sign brings. The range of patterned plastic sheets goes way beyond wood grain and into camouflage, sparkly, blackboard, and many other types all designed for special projects and to keep customers coming back to your engraving shop.

Textured plastic sheets add another dimension to the creativity for projects as well. Most customers are familiar with smooth, semi-gloss finishes to engraving plastic sheets and that is just fine. I recommend that you take the time to introduce your customers to textured products like a pebble finish or super high gloss to make their project look special. Want to avoid fingerprints? Chose an engraving plastic sheet that has a fingerprint-proof finish ideal for high-traffic signage applications.

A brushed finish on a plastic can make a practical solution for replacing a metal plate. Gold, bronze, and silver colors are available in a metallic-looking brushed finish. The engraved results of these brushed finished engraving plastic sheets can look so close to a real metal finish only an expert can tell!

Get the Book and Samples

Hopefully this article has given you many ideas on the range of engravable plastic sheet materials and how they can help you grow your business. But how do you show customers what the Purple Haze color looks like or what a pebble finish looks like? You need “The Book.” The book is a sample book that engraving plastic sheet manufacturers offer that shows all of the colors, thicknesses, and textures so you can show your customers.

These sample books often have a small cost but are well worth the value of having exact samples for your customers to see and feel, and add confidence to their purchase decision. Often there is a need from a customer to have an exact engraved sample using the exact color of engraving plastic sheet. The solution for providing an exact sample is an easy one: call the manufacturer or distributor of the engraving plastic sheet and ask for some free samples. The distributor or manufacturer will be happy to send some samples for you to engrave and give to your customer. While you are at it, ask for a specific sample, ask for a few other samples, and try some new textures or patterns to expand your product offering.

More Than the Basic Flavors

Engraving plastic sheet materials is so much more than a few basic colors and a few basic thicknesses. Hundreds of flavors exist to satisfy your customers and grow into new markets. Providing solutions for customers is your business and showing them the capability of the range of colors, textures, and gauges of engravable plastic sheet materials is a great way to impress upon them your expert knowledge and build future sales.