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Adding Value to the Industrial Printing Process

(May 2010) posted on Wed Apr 21, 2010

Businesses have limited resources to accomplish all of their goals, even during the best of times.


By Benjamin Gorenberg

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Screen printing is a mechanical method that is appropriate for many types of high-volume jobs. Press setup can be quick or take hours, depending on the job. When appropriate to project requirements, a digital press can speed the manufacturing process significantly. Job setup for digital imaging requires fewer steps than mechanical prepress. Compatible electronic art files may need a bit of work prior to production, as the digital press is not constrained by small details created in electronic files or subject to mechanical distortions.

Production
Vendors capable of industrial printing maintain a suitably large array of inks and should be experts at mixing inks to color match to customer specification. They should also proficient with specialty inks that provide specific properties. Examples include:

• Mirror chroming inks that contain aluminum flakes to appear bright with a smooth and shiny reflective surface
• Conductive inks that contain silver or carbon for membrane-switch circuits that conduct electrical impulses
• Formed or stretched inks for use with uneven in-mold surfaces.
• Transparent inks used for printed instrument-panel clusters or labels for clear bottles or containers.

A vast assortment of materials can be printed as part of the industrial-manufacturing process. Industrial printing generally requires a range of features that are usually met by plastics or metals, while papers are most commonly used for commodity products.

Plastic substrates range from low-cost synthetics such as polypropylene, polystyrene, or vinyl (typically used for display graphics) to high-performance, high-durability plastics such as polyester, outdoor-durable vinyl, and polycarbonate (used as electrically insulative materials). Metals typically used are variable thicknesses of aluminum or stainless steel. In addition to printing, other decorating methods may be used, such as electroplating, etching, engraving, or laser marking.

Finishing
After production, any necessary finishing will occur using the appropriate equipment. Paper, metal, or plastic parts can be embossed or debossed, metal and plastic parts can be formed, and papers or films can be foiled. Each of these processes adds unique characteristics to the finished product.

Any parts requiring fabrication can be cut and shaped using a die (flexo, steel-rule, or class-A), CNC or machining mill, laser, router, or plotter cutter. Certain materials may also be chemically etched. Adhesives are generally applied during finishing. Adhesives are chosen for specific properties. They include specialty formulations that can be electrically or thermally conductive or optically clear, as well as structurally bonding adhesives that can be used in place of rivets and other traditional mechanical fasteners.

Part of the finishing process includes assembly as needed. This entails joining together components, materials, or multiple layers. One example is the final assembly of the components of a membrane switch: the top printed-overlay layer, zoned adhesives, spacer or insulation layers, and snap domes.

Added value through a single vendor
Wide-ranging capabilities and resources on the print side of the manufacturing process add value to customers’ projects beyond low price by allowing them to interact with a single vendor rather than negotiating with multiple resources and service providers.

Throughout each of the major stages of production, a vendor with expertise in several complementary industrial-printing technologies—screen printing, lithographic printing, digital-offset printing, flexographic printing, pad printing, and thermal printing—can offer an extensive mix of imaging technology, inks, and substrates to provide the options customers need to obtain the proper blend of appearance, durability, functionality, and cost.

Labels, custom identification components, molded and decorated plastics or elastomers, and electronic user interfaces—front panels and printed membrane-switch assemblies—are separate products with unique manufacturing requirements (Figure 1); however, the common thread that joins them all together is that they are each produced using printing technologies and techniques derived from this expertise.

Benjamin Gorenberg, for GM Nameplate
Benjamin Gorenberg is a Seattle, WA-based copywriter.


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