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Rigid substrates

Rigid substrates can be used for traditional signage, and as Genevieve Lewis finds out, can also be used for much, much more. Here is a look at some of the latest products

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An example of printing onto Aluminium Composite, courtesy of printMAX

Look your best 

One of the greatest aspects of both the sign and print industries is that there is so much consistent innovation – it’s a bit like Formula 1. They’re not huge changes that are being made, but smaller tweaks to get the most out of the machine, product or tool.

When discussing rigid substrates – you may think, how much can really change? But the types of substrates that have been discussed in the pages of this feature can be used for so much more than just traditional signage.

Different substrates are available and it’s not just board or foam that sign-makers are working with, but also aluminium composites and more environmentally friendly options. Antalis is one company that has continuously introduced new options for those looking to use rigid substrates. Paul Neale, visual communications product manager, explains: “Antalis offers a wide range of fibre-based and plastic substrates in the rigid category.

“Traditional choices such as foam PVC, Correx and display boards are joined by a growing range of aluminium composite products under our new Coala Printbond brand, innovative fibre-based boards such as Xanita and Katz Board, as well as environmental plastics like Tiaprint, Priplak polypropylene and Lumex A PET. Other specialist materials include Stadur Easyprint, which is ideal for fabrication to three-dimensional shapes.”

Traditional choices such as foam PVC, Correx and display boards are joined by a growing range of aluminium composite products

So, as a sign-maker your decision on using any substrate will be based on how the final product will ultimately look. How can using these rigid substrates improve the final look of your project? Neale continues: “Our range of materials is varied in order to give customers choice depending on the desired finish of their signage project. Choices might be dependent on the client’s budget, the expected life of the sign, and whether it is for indoor or outdoor use. Printing results on all our materials is excellent.

“Customers may choose Triaprint polypropylene over more common Correx-type materials for a flatter, smoother print surface and subsequent high-quality finish. Xania fibre-board may be used to demonstrate a client’s environmental awareness, while others might specify clear Lumex A as an alternative to more traditional acrylic use for its better impact resistance and fire-retardant qualities without any loss of clarity in the sheet.”

Use your imagination

At this year’s Sign & Digital UK trade show, Antalis showcased how rigid substrates could be used for more than just signage. When visiting the stand at the show, stalls, tables, and various other decorative items were made out of rigid substrates – and people could sit and use all of it. Neale explains more: “Our rigid substrates are for use well beyond just signage applications. As an example, our Xanita and Stadur products are able to be fabricated into three-dimensional shapes and be used creatively for POS and exhibition stands to name just two applications.

Stadur Easyprint from Antalis can be used to create 3D shapes

“Xanita board is a sustainable closed-cell fibre-board manufactured from fibres recovered from recycled cardboard boxes. Available in thicknesses up to 16mm, Xanita can be used for a wide variety of creative projects and is supported by full design care direct from the supplier.”

Xanita is a fibre-based board that can be use for many different projects

Once a sign-maker has decided on the substrate they will use, are there any tips and tricks for working with more rigid materials? Neale says that more specialist kit is involved, but most of which sign-makers will already own. He comments: “Rigid substrates may require specialist kit such as CNC plotter tables upon which to convert to finished shapes or sizes. The choice of material may be affected by the customer’s plant list and ability to route, cut and v-cut.

“Rigid substrates require special handling when printing. The use of gloves to avoid contaminating the print surface is always a good thing to note. Additionally, the choice of dimensionally stable, flat sheets is important for customers printing on flatbed devices in order to avoid costly head strikes.”

He adds: “Sheets produced to a high degree of thickness tolerance may be important to customers mounting or laminating vinyl graphics in order to achieve a quality finish.”

Another rigid substrates provider is printMAX. The company offers solutions from Perspex Distributions, including Perspex cast acrylic, extruded acrylic, polycarbonate composite, PVC foam, palopaque solid PVC, polystyrene, composite plastics to name but a few.

Works of Hart used rigid substrates to produce more abstract signage

“Rigid substrates are incredibly versatile,” says Chris Martin, head of sales at printMAX. “We have a great deal of customers who use an eclectic range of materials for a variety of different applications. For instance, a few of our customers use materials such as aluminium composite for hoarding design and site safety signage.

“Others use materials like PVC foam board to print and build exhibition stands for trade shows, or for other events services such as corporate or private functions. Further still, materials such as Perspex cast acrylic are used for abstract signae such as stand-off art on walls and light boxes, which are eye-catching and effective.”

Martin adds: “When used in conjunction with a CNC router, printing and routing rigid substrates for signage, is truly limitless as with enough creativity, you could design and create almost anything.” 

Not only has Martin considered more traditional rigid substrates, but also highlights the rising popularity of personalisation. “Perhaps the most popular use of rigid substrates other than traditional sign boards is print personalisation onto wood, glass, plastics etc,” he says. “A great deal of our customers focus on personalisation of glasses, water bottles, wooden boxes, phone cases, photograph frames and so much more – the list is endless and the market is huge.”

Acrylic blocks is just one example of using rigid substrates

So, it’s not just the typical rigid substrates for signage that sign-makes could focus on, but other rigid substrates that would help you to diversify into other areas outside of a more traditional domain.

“Promotional products also fall into this category,” adds Martin. “With companies printing onto plastic bottle openers, ceramic coasters and many other items to increase brand awareness. This aspect of print makes up a large proportion of our customer database, outside of traditional signage using rigid substrates.”

Perspex Distribution are the UK distributors of Perspex cast acrylic, which has been manufactured since the 1930s. Luke Martyn, marketing manager, explains: “As our name implies, we are the UK distributors of Perspex cast acrylic. Perspex acrylic has been manufactured in Lancashire since the 1930s and production continues on the same site today. One of the many benefits of Perspex acrylic is its small batch production enabling a vast range of colours, effects and textures to be manufactured. We stock a huge product range to be used for anything from clear acrylic used for picture framing to printing, to frost acrylics used as changing room partitions.”

Perspex has optimised some of its range to improve LED illumination, in both edge lighting and back lighting 

Martyn continues to discuss the other avenues that sign-makers can explore with the use of rigid substrates: “Sign-makers working with rigid substrates should not be limited to traditional sign boards, the application opportunities for rigid substrates is almost endless. We have customers using traditional sign board fabrication techniques to produce exhibition stands, retail point-of-sale displays, printed artwork, glazing and interior design.”

If a sign-maker wants to use rigid substrates for traditional purposes, then Martyns also highlights how rigid substrates can improve the final look. He continues: “Signage applications can be greatly improved through the use of rigid substrates. Not only are the substrates ideal for vibrant printed signs or illuminated displays, they can also be polished or laser cut to enhance their finish.

“Many Perspex acrylic materials are now optimised for LED illumination – for edge lighting or back lighting – creating crisp modern displays. We have recently launched a range of sheets optimised for LED edge illumination in different sized panels.”

The machines

So, that’s the advice on rigid substrates themselves, but what equipment do you need to work with these substrates?

“With regards to machinery requirements for working with rigid substrates, it totally depends on what is being printed as to what would be the best solution,” explains Martin of printMAX. He continues: “In order to print directly to the materials themselves for traditional signage or large-format jobs, a flatbed printer would be the quickest and most effective option.

An example of the Mimaki JFX flatbed printing onto PVC Foamboard

Machines that we supply such as the Mimaki LED UV JFX flatbeds are proficient at printing onto almost any surface and therefore, would work well in conjunction with printing onto rigid substrates such as wood, acrylic, foamex etc, polycarbonates etc.”

In order to print directly to the materials themselves for traditional signage or large-format jobs, a flatbed printer would be the quickest and most effective option

Other equipment available from printMAX that a sign-maker could consider when it comes to working with rigid substrates include the Summa F series of flatbed cutters, because of the ability to accept numerous substrates and work at high speed. “The Mimaki JFX and Summa F series flatbed as a combination has the potential for seriously maximising workflow, quality control and productivity,” says Martin. “As one job is printing, another job is cutting, and substrates can be transferred quickly and easily from one bed to another meaning that production would be increased. This could be further enhanced if both the printer and cutter were running on same RIP software as the print and cut could be configured at once; minimising operator input and set-up time, maximising productivity.”

Martin also considers another area that many sign-makers are accustomed to and that is vinyl wrapping. He says that printing first onto self-adhesive vinyl using a roll-to-roll printer and then applying it to rigid substrates is also another way. However, there are risks such as poor application when transferring the printed vinyl onto the substrate. Printing directly on to the rigid substrate obviously can solve this, while also being less time consuming.

O Factoid: The word ‘sign’ has evolved from the old French noun ‘signe’ and the verb ‘signer’, which in turn stems from the Latin ‘signum’ meaning an ‘identifying mark, token, indication, symbol…etc.’  O

By now, information on rigid substrates will be coming out of your ears. It is obvious that using these materials can result in so much more than traditional signage – artwork, stands for exhibitions, personalised gifts. But even if traditional signage is exactly what you are working with – the correct rigid substrate can improve the overall look of the project.

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