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Business Management

Looking for Trouble

Jim breaks down several vinyl failures



There’s nothing more satisfying than solving a good graphics mystery. That’s usually true if you’re a technical service person who thrives on troubleshooting challenges and has no financial stake in the job.

But, in the real world of the signmaker, when graphics fail, someone pays for it. If that failure affects your pocketbook, that enjoyable intellectual exercise often becomes emotionally charged, and there’s nothing satisfying about that.

From the signmaker’s perspective, what’s really important about troubleshooting is discovering the cause of the failure, so it’s not repeated.

Common-sense suggestions

As with most things in life, there are right and wrong ways to handle complaints. Here are a few of my gems of wisdom on the subject.

Respond quickly. One very wrong way to handle a problem is to ignore it, hoping that it will just go away. Years ago, I worked with a classic procrastinator, who documented complaints in detail. There’s nothing wrong with that, but these documents were just filed in his desk’s bottom drawer, with no action taken. After three years of inaction, more than 400 unresolved complaints had accumulated. I had the misfortune of cleaning up my co-worker’s mess, which took several months.


None of these problems went away; they just festered in customers’ minds. The longer a complaint drags on, the more difficult it is to resolve. In my opinion, when there’s a problem, deal with it now. At the very least, visit the complaining customer promptly to demonstrate your concern.

In troubleshooting the problem, don’t try to conduct your investigation at arm’s length over the phone. Few vinyl mysteries are unraveled in this manner, because critical information is usually communicated badly or not at all. Solving complex problems requires stepping on the playing field and conducting a firsthand, thorough investigation.

Is it really a problem?

Early in the troubleshooting process, assess whether or not the customer’s claim is valid. In spite of the old saying, the customer isn’t always right; most have no idea what is commercially acceptable. Complaints about mottled vinyl, tiny air bubbles and overlapped seams are really non-issues. Sometimes customers expect vinyl to do what vinyl wasn’t designed to do, such as conform to extreme, compound curves without seams in the vinyl.

My advice is to listen to the customer, provide an explanation, then move onto the next topic. Many of these "non-complaints" can be avoided by properly instructing customers prior to the vinyl application. Mottling on a vinyl surface disappears after a few days in the sun’s heat. Tiny air bubbles trapped beneath vinyl eventually breathe out and disappear. In fact, overlapped sections of vinyl graphics are preferred to butt seams.

Keep your cool. Even if some customers react in a loud, insulting and demanding manner, don’t fly off the handle. Ask the customer for suggestions on how the complaint might best be handled. In this way, the customer has an opportunity to constructively vent any built-up anger.


Ask better questions. Complaints must be handled in the same systematic manner that a detective uses in solving a crime. This process includes thorough questioning and accurate recording of pertinent information, such as photographs. I’ve included a list of questions, which I hope are helpful, when you’re looking for trouble.

Asking the right questions is critical. Also, listen carefully and document the answers. (Remember the saying, "God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.") Improving your listening skills helps your chance of success, and they are essential to good customer relations.

If a customer has a problem with his graphics, he’s often defensive and sometimes ready to rumble. Avoid arguing with a customer or implying that he is wrong. In addition, don’t dismiss the complaint with a glib explanation. Even if your answer is right, it will seem suspect.

Use a process of elimination. Discovering a problem’s root cause usually entails the person investigating the problem by working through his list of potential culprits. Fading colors, for example, can result from various possible causes. Some possibilities include improper material selection, poor processing of inks and clearcoats, repeated chemical spillage and abusive cleaning practices.

In working through your list of suspects, you need to ask detailed questions, carefully record facts, take plenty of photographs and gather the necessary samples and lot numbers of the failed material and the unprocessed raw materials. The lab people at the raw-material manufacturer need samples to conduct thorough testing, which often involves trying to replicate the failure.

Continue your industry education. Education and experience are also indispensable tools in problem solving. The more you know about the business, the easier it will be to determine possible causes of failure. Reading trade publications, such as ST, The Big Picture and Screen Printing, should become a daily ritual. More technical information, such as vinyl troubleshooting guides and application guides, is also available from the vinyl manufacturers and industry associations, such as SGIA. Production and technical people can be a source of indispensable knowledge.


Develop a professional network. A technical service manager for one vinyl company recently gave me some sound advice: "No matter how experienced you are, you’ll never know it all. The key is to at least know where to get the answers." He meant that you should build a network of industry friends who are experts in the business and can provide necessary information.

The usual suspects

I recently inspected a graphics failure in which a large bubble developed between the plastic sign face and the applied graphics. Because of the sign’s complex construction — it consisted of polycarbonate sheet, mounting adhesive, polyester print media, ink, PVC overlaminate and application tape — several possible causes existed. Complicating this mystery was the fact that several manufacturers supplied raw materials.

Many of my associates expected the manufacturers to point fingers at each other and then run for cover. While some of this occurred, one manufacturer picked up the tab for all of the materials used in the job. I believe the manufacturer replaced the material to accommodate a good distributor and maintain its good reputation. While this was commendable, it’s no substitute for real problem solving.

Vinyl problems result from various causes, which can include:

Raw material problems. Every manufacturer occasionally makes something out of spec that slips past quality control. Some problems include adhesive skips, low coating weight, caliper inconsistencies, surface imperfections and compounding problems. These raw material problems can cause adhesive failure, cracking, chalking, poor opacity, excessive shrinkage, fading and color change.

In today’s manufacturing environment, these problems are fairly rare. In the last decade, manufacturers have instituted more stringent production standards. As a result, less than 0.5% of a product fails to meet manufacturing specifications.

When raw material causes graphics failure, factors beside manufacturing process could include poor product design, inadequate product testing or grossly exaggerated performance characteristics (sales and marketing departments often do this, to the chagrin and consternation of the tech people). If in doubt, call or e-mail the manufacturer’s technical department, or call a colleague that you trust.

Poor production planning. Many failures occur simply because a signmaker selected the wrong material for the job. In the sign industry, cheaper, calendered vinyl is often substituted for more expensive, translucent films. While calendered films have become better over the years, they still are prone to shrinkage and cracking.

Or, the materials selected for a job could be incompatible. Compatibility of graphic components is critical to the success of any program. The interaction of substrate, adhesive, vinyl, inks, paints, clearcoats and overlaminates involves complex chemistry. Sign professionals are frequently creative in their media combinations. However, combining components without adequate testing can be catastrophic. This brings me to my familiar refrain: Test, don’t guess.

In my example of bubbling graphics on a plastic sign face, the print-media manufacturer blamed the mounting adhesive selected from another company. The distributor for the print-media manufacturer maintained the manufacturer was trying to evade the problem.

Still, when it comes to material selection, the ultimate responsibility rests with the sign fabricator. The signshop, screenprinter or digital service provider must determine a raw material’s suitability. Many vinyl problems can be traced back to the planning or engineering stage. All too frequently, raw material selection is based on price, not performance.

Fabrication. Just as raw-material manufacturers can encounter process problems, so can vinyl-graphics fabricators. As variables increase in any manufacturing operation, the failure rate grows proportionately.

Look at my example of the plastic sign’s failing graphics. Most of the bubbles occurred near the top and bottom edges of the sign face, and very few occurred in the center of the sign. A technical analyst surmised that the laminator’s rollers were crowned, creating insufficient pressure towards the edges.

Application problems. Application mistakes account for a high percentage of graphics failures. These mistakes include poor substrate preparation and application techniques. With a plastic sign face, many investigators blamed bubbling on inadequate polycarbonate preparation.

Because polycarbonate sheet absorbs moisture like a sponge, sign fabricators must bake it in an air-circulating oven before decoration. This baking process can last 4-24 hours at 250°F (121°C). It eliminates all of the gasses and moisture, along with any residuals (or unreacted polymers still in the sheet). If the polycarbonate isn’t baked and prepped properly, the sheet will outgas, causing the applied decorative material to bubble. Also, the residuals that bloom to the surface can contaminate the adhesive, resulting in adhesion failure.

Environmental and customer abuse. Raw-material manufacturers, sign companies and graphics installers aren’t always to blame for graphics failures. Some problems result from customer abuse of the graphics.

Years ago, I inspected a failure on 12 painted 4 x 8-ft., plywood, construction site signs. All the shriveled vinyl lettering was falling off the surface.

In looking at the peeling letters, we noticed a peculiar clean coating was separating from the vinyl’s surface. Further investigation revealed that the builder had his employees varnish all of the signs. The hot solvents in the varnish penetrated the vinyl, attacking the adhesive system.

More common examples of graphics abuse include chemical spillage and improper cleaning. To avoid these problems, the end-user needs to be instructed on the proper care of graphics. Hard-bristle brushes, harsh cleaning chemicals and excessively high-pressure spraying can easily damage vinyl graphics.

Make a list, check it twice

Problem solving doesn’t always require a Ph.D. in chemistry, nor expensive, sophisticated laboratory equipment. Finding the solution is often a matter of taking a systematic approach of asking the right questions, careful observation and complete written documentation of the entire procedure, complemented with appropriate photographs and necessary samples.

By using a checklist of questions to guide your investigation, you will present yourself in a professional manner. Here’s a sampling of information I would cull from a customer.

* Collect basic information. This includes the customers’ contact information, a description of their complaint, and the number of signs, vehicles or other substrates involved.

* Find out who manufactures the substrate or vinyl. Learn the product series, lot number and other pertinent information. If inks, clearcoats or overlaminates have been used, get the manufacturer, series and lot number.

* Descibe the manufacturing method. Were the graphics computer-cut, screenprinted or digitally printed? What finishing operations were involved?

* Obtain particulars about the application itself. Where were the graphics installed, and under what conditions? What was the surface temperature of the substrate at the time of application? How was the substrate cleaned? When was the surface cleaned?

* Know the type of surface. Was the surface smooth, riveted, corrugated or textured? What was the condition of the substrate? Was there any damage to the surface? If it was an old surface, indicate whether the paint was chalked, pitted, peeling, etc.

* Know the substrate’s paint history. When was it painted? Who is the paint manufacturer, and what’s the product series?

* Find out the application technique. What was the installer’s level of experience? What tools did the installers use? Were the graphics installed wet or dry? If it was a wet application, what type of application fluid was used? Were the graphics edge-sealed? What type of edge sealer was used? Obtain a sample and take plenty of pictures.

* Learn what cleaning and environmental conditions were present. Prior to installation, were the graphics stored, and if so, how long? What were storage conditions? Following the installation, by what method and how frequently were the graphics cleaned? What types of chemicals were used? Were the graphics cleaned using a high-pressure sprayer? Were the graphics subjected to chemical spillage? If they were, find out what kind of chemicals, and how often.

Many of the questions that you ask in troubleshooting a complaint are similar to the questions that should be asked during an equipment or site survey conducted prior to starting a graphics project. The right questions often prevent problems.

For those problems that aren’t avoided, the best way to evaluate complaints is the "hands-on" approach. Above all, listen to the customer. After examining a complaint and discovering the problem’s cause, provide a thorough, effective remedy. Be sure the customer fully understands your explanation by asking questions.

If you don’t answer your customer’s concerns and complaints fully now, you shouldn’t expect repeat business later.



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