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Digital Printing

Understanding Media

A roundup of digital-media manufacturers



Marshall McLuhan probably would have likened the importance of digital media to the relevance of myriad forms of news media — after all, they play as important a role (if not greater) in conveying a digital print’s message as the inks or the RIP.

However, a tremendous number of variables exist. Is one manufacturer’s media most appropriate for thermal transfer or inkjet? How will it interact with inks? Will it require lamination to withstand outdoor conditions?

ST contacted numerous media manufacturers for their input about the digital-media market. Here are some of their insights.


Arlon Inc. (Santa Ana, CA) specializes in one type of media, according to Marketing Supervisor Claudia Lazar: direct-print media for solvent-based systems. Its product line includes 2-mil cast and 3-mil calendered materials, as well as 3.8-mil "engineered" materials, including those specifically designed for fleet and vehicle markings, changeable signs and promotional graphics.

Arlon recently introduced its newest material — DPF 6000, a 2-mil, cast film. According to the company, the material offers appropriate dot gain, thus optimizing the resolution and faster ink drying due to proprietary surface coatings.


Lazar noted that significant issues relating to direct-print media include developing formulations that more readily accept ink, due in large part to proprietary formulation modifications that accept higher dpi.

When a buyer surveys media for purchase, Lazar suggests that companies first understand the print’s anticipated lifespan — so that the customer has realistic media-performance expectations as well. Second, the print provider should consider the viewing distance and set appropriate expectations.

Other factors to consider include the installers’ level of experience — for newer personnel, Lazar recommends looking into repositionable adhesives — and a film’s opacity when a new graphic must be applied where old graphics were once affixed.

Avery Graphics

Tiffany Witham, Avery Graphics’ Hamilton, OH-based digital-imaging media marketing manager, says, "We’ve found more people leaning towards solvent-based printing. There was some initial interest in eco-solvent machines, and there has been a trend toward purchasing fully solvent-based machines that offer outdoor durability at an economical price. There hasn’t been a total shift away from water-based printing, but [solvent-based machines] do offer graphics that don’t [always] require an overlaminate for outdoor applications."

In the future, Witham anticipates that the market will demand more durable media with stronger adhesives. She’s been surprised to see expensive, UV-curable, inkjet machines, which accommodate flexible or rigid media, successfully penetrate the sign market, but she believes their adaptability has been well received.


The bulk of Avery’s digital media sold to the sign industry comprises banner substrates and adhesive-backed vinyl, with the latter being its largest-selling product. The company’s most recently introduced inkjet media include:

* IPM 2000 EZ, an adhesive-backed vinyl that incorporates the company’s "EZ" technology, meaning that the film’s liner has a combed texture that remains in the adhesive, and it contains channels that expel air to prevent bubbling during application; and

* IPM Scrim Banner, a banner fabric with two layers of laminated PVC material with a scrim layer.


Gerber Scientific Products (South Windsor, CT) converts raw films into thermal-transfer materials for its Gerber EDGE and EDGE 2® printers, including high-performance 220 and 225 cast materials, after inspecting the media to ensure they’re free of contaminants and defects. Gerber also operates Ultramark, a Bristol, England-based subsidiary that makes Quantum® calendared films. The company is also developing inkjet materials for Jetster, its newly created, eco-solvent-based inkjet printer.

Gary Soltoff, Gerber’s marketing product manager, noted that inkjet materials are "all the rage in the industry. This doesn’t mean that [routing, plotting and other non-digital] materials are any less important, but products relating to digital technology continue to get top billing."


For new-product development, the company has implemented its Matched Technology System™, which Soltoff said "seeks to optimize performance of respective digital-processing technologies," including software, media and printers.


Hewlett-Packard (HP), Palo Alto, CA, produces high-, semi-gloss and satin-finish photo papers, plus bond and coated materials, in widths ranging from 24 to 60 in. Nils Miller, HP’s ink and media senior scientist, said current inkjet media have been upgraded with proprietary coatings on ink-receiving layers.

"The coatings within these materials confer unique characteristics, such as water fastness, fade resistance or — especially important for signage — UV resistance," Miller said. "The final goals are, ultimately, image quality and permanence."

One of the company’s more innovative products has been its line of photo papers for HP’s DesignJet 5000 printer series. These inkjet materials include a microporous coating that enables the media to dry faster and move more quickly to the finishing process. The biggest challenge with creating an inkjet-receptive coating, Miller explained, is determining its limitations and modifying its properties accordingly.

Miller noted that quick-drying materials generally possess quite porous coatings. To address this issue, HP created a multi-layered coating that makes the material less porous, with the top layer serving as a self-sealing surface.

Miller said that synergies between in-house ink and media-development departments enable a streamlined process.

"When ink and media developers are interacting on a daily basis, there’s a much greater probability that the end result will be better," he said. "If you tried to create media that would work with every ink and printer in the universe, the result would be a lowest-common-denominator material that might be OK for those that just want quantity. But the product wouldn’t be of very good quality."

Another media concern is the amount of ink that a printer spreads onto the media. For example, if paper is too stiff, it can create a feeding problem and material banding. Another potential problem, coalescence (the beading of ink droplets on the media surface), occurs because of ink oversaturation or media incompatibility, much like water droplets on a newly waxed car.

Miller warns against basing a media choice on a single criterion. "It’s important to understand the difference between price and value," he said. "A lower price point might be initially appealing, but if it doesn’t fit the volume or type of application — or worse, doesn’t mesh with your type of ink or printer — you could be in for a very ugly surprise."

Whereas image quality was once the dominant concern, Miller sees the industry shifting to permanence, durability and speed.


Leggett & Platt
Leggett & Platt Digital Technologies (Jacksonville Beach, FL) manufactures fabrics for inkjet printing using UV-based inks. The company’s materials include:

* VirtuWoven™ polyester materials, VirtuKnit™ warp-knit fabric — which is fabricated flat on a flatbed machine, offering ample flexibility and varied styles and textures, with a stitch pattern moving in a straight line;

* VirtuSpecialty™ — a blend of polyester, cotton and foamed acrylic; and

* VirtuNon Woven™ media.

According to Natalie White, materials manager for Leggett & Platt, the fabric’s structural integrity is often dictated by installation techniques and environmental conditions. White notes that woven fabrics are typically more stable than knit materials, because their construction allows them to be equally stable in all directions, whereas knits may be slightly less stable.

The company’s newest materials are its VirtuPrint fabrics. According to White, the company’s process controls monitor manufacturing and finishing processes from the raw fibers to the finished product.

When buying digital fabrics, White suggests that the purchaser determine whether the media source is a manufacturer, converter or distributor.

"When quality is of the utmost importance, it’s in the buyer or fabricator’s best interest to align him with the manufacturer," she explains.


Lintec of America Inc. (Bensenville, IL) manufactures polyolefin-based inkjet media, some of which it offers with acrylic overlaminates. Jim Halloran, the company’s marketing director, notes that its Japanese parent company "doesn’t have the luxury of the landfill space we have." As such, the company fabricates materials that biodegrade more easily than PVC film.

These materials, which have been available for approximately one year, are best suited to truck markings — their limited conformability makes them generally incompatible with vehicle wraps — and outdoor applications up to three years. Polyolefin materials are well suited to water-based printing with pigmented inks, and the acrylic overlaminate replicates the properties of calendered films.

"What do you paint your house with? Acrylic paint," Halloran said. "It prints and looks better than PVC, and it weathers well. Polyolefin is strong as well; trash bags are made from it."

To adapt to dropping media prices, Lintec has entered the architectural-interior market. The company offers Printerior™, a textured, fireproof, inkjet-printable coating that contains an overlaminate enabling it to comply with commercial fire codes.

"If you use standard digital media as wallpaper, its PVC component is poisonous," Halloran said. "Some digital-print providers have marketed standard digital media as wallpaper, which can be very unsafe in a fire because of the hydrochloric acid released by PVC that’s not been made fire-retardant."

Printerior is partnered with Olympus’ X2 printer, Halloran said, noting that its oil-based ink system accentuates its textured coating.

Wincos™, another new Lintec product is a 36-in.-wide, UV-resistant, thermal-transfer material. Lintec chose thermal-transfer printing for the film because it can be printed white — printing white isn’t yet possible for inkjet inks, he notes — or for an etched-glass appearance.

Further, he noted that window films should be applied wet to eliminate air bubbles, which heat-transfer systems suit because they withstand heavy moisture.


MACtac (Stow, OH) fabricates adhesives that coat its myriad films for solvent, aqueous and thermal-transfer printing. Adhesive variations include opaque (when graphics must conceal older materials), permanent for long-term applications, or removable for short-term pieces.

Among its newer products are 79-in.-wide, white, matte vinyl for solvent-based applications and a clear-vinyl material with a removable, acrylic adhesive backing. According to product manager Fran Lawrence, the roll widths allow printing and installation of seamless media. The clear vinyl is preferable to static-cling material, she said, because a large graphic may be applied to windows without concerns that the graphic will peel from the window.

Also, she notes that materials are thoroughly tested. According to Lawrence, printer and media manufacturers communicate during the product-development process. Both test media for color accuracy, ink adhesion and fading.

"Testing media prior to the launch of a new printer results in a more successful product launch and a more satisfied customer," Lawrence said.


Magnum Magnetics
Magnum Magnetics (Marietta, OH) offers DigiMag® inkjet-printable magnetic sheeting. Compatible with dye- and pigment-based inks, the sheets are intended for indoor signage, digital photos and presentation materials, particularly short-term graphics that will be changed monthly or quarterly.

According to Ruth Wyckoff, Magnum Magnetics’ marketing director, DigiMag sheeting is available in widths up to 24.375 in., and can be cut to specification.

Originally, in 1999, DigiMag was available only with a matte surface. Two years later, glossy sheets became available, which Wyckoff said better replicates a conventional digital print while offering better scuff resistance.

The company soon will introduce new types of surfaces "to keep pace with and accommodate new printing technologies."


Océ-USA Imaging Supplies (Itsaca, IL) offers outdoor canvas, mesh and backlit films, as well as wet-strength poster paper, pressure-sensitive vinyls and Tyvek® polyethylene banner materials.

Bruce Winfield, Océ USA’s vice president of supply marketing, explained that the company’s newer media includes Océ Matte PhotoPerfect Plus, a photopaper material with universal matte coating; Océ Outdoor Scrim Vinyl, a banner material that prints with either dye- or pigment-based, aqueous inks because of its proprietary coating and a reported blockout layer that achieves 98% opacity. The material withstands 400% ink retention — meaning it accommodates full saturation of all colors in a CMYK process.

When print providers employ non-spec media — materials that aren’t certified to be supported by a specific printer — the printheads are jeopardized, Winfield said. If the media don’t properly convey through the printer and don’t lay flat on the print platen (or if warped or uneven edges exist), the media can strike the printheads, potentially causing irreparable damage. Neither the printer nor the media manufacturer will cover the costs incurred by such damage.

Additionally, problems can occur if the media mistmatches the ink. For instance, Winfield cited using dye-based inks in a pigment printer, or using one company’s printer with an unsupported media.

"The ink formulations are different, and they don’t work interchangeably," he said.

Color shifts and finishing problems can occur when overlaminates won’t affix to the media, which causes separation.


Oracal USA Inc. (Jacksonville, FL) manufactures pressure-sensitive media for water- and solvent-based inkjet printers, as well as thermal-transfer media and compatible laminating films produced by its German material manufacturer, Orafol Klebetechnik GmbH.

Some of its newer products include its Series 3164 and 3640 four-year, calendered films; Series 3631, a 51/2-mil, three-year, PVC perforated film for window-graphic applications; and Series 3551, a 23/4-mil, six-year, conformable film designed for vehicle-graphic applications.

Edward Killion, Oracal’s vice president of sales and marketing, noted that he’s seen steadily increasing demand for multi-year, repositionable fleet graphics. Further, while he appreciates the variety of materials serving the market today, he’s curious how they’ll interact with future developments in print technology.

"The ongoing discussions of UV ink printing systems are exciting," Killion said. "Will everyone be positioned effectively when that happens?"


Roland DGA
Roland DGA Corporation (Irvine, CA) markets piezo, solvent-based and thermal-transfer media. According to Laura Wilson, Roland’s supplies and accessories product manager, inkjet printing evolved from the early digital era, when dye-based inks and thermal printers, which super-heated the inks and sent them through the printheads, were the sole option.

As technology has changed, ink composition has changed with media types. The first pigmented inks used in thermal machines required heat. However, with the advent of pigment inks for piezo-inkjet printers — which don’t require heat, and instead force the ink from the printhead with pressure — formulations improved. One standing challenge is creating media that accommodate mild-solvent inks.

"Mild-solvent inks are a newer ink type, and they have a more limited range of media compatibility at the moment," Wilson said. "The solvent content in these inks isn’t sufficient to etch into the surface of uncoated PVC. There’s the rub. You need something to absorb that ink until it’s cured."

At one time, Wilson said thermal laminates were difficult to use because heat generated by thermal inks caused outgassing, bubbling and delamination. This is less of a problem with piezo inks, she said, because they contain a higher glycol content — which serves as a carrier agent — and lower water content. However, she recommends using low-melt thermal or pressure-sensitive laminates.

Tradeshow graphics are one application that Wilson sees increasingly transitioning to inkjet printing and lamination, though there are some hurdles to overcome.

"In the past, many tradeshow graphics were directly screenprinted onto Lexan® [polycarbonate]," she explained. "With digital prints, especially pigmented inks, you can’t print on uncoated Lexan. However, there are other options, such as printing on coated polycarbonate substrate or on translucent film, then laminated with Lexan or a similar material. The same effect can be achieved, but it just requires a new approach."

In the future, Roland is committed to "growing its mild-solvent ink offerings." As a whole, however, Wilson thinks the industry wants what it perceives as the convenience of printing on an material with aggressive solvents. This approach, however, has costs of its own.

"There are equipment and maintenance expenses to be overcome, as well as environmental regulations," Wilson explained. "Increasing regulation on aggressive solvents is why Roland is looking at eco-based ink solvents."

She also noted that, despite the growing popularity of UV inks, Wilson doesn’t see the day when multitudes of digital providers will print on uncoated substrates.

Wilson remains optimistic that business will withstand the specter of conflicts abroad.


Sihl USA (Chesapeake, VA) offers wide-format, inkjet media; backlit and white-opaque films; self-adhesive vinyl and various other films and display materials. Sihl recently introduced WindowGraphx, backlit, front-printed, waterproof window film that’s also appropriate for retail stores and outdoor, backlit lightboxes. The company has also launched paper, backlit and vinyl products for mild- and aggressive-solvent printers.

Mike Richardson, a Sihl product manager, offered several "rules of thumb" for making a "best value" media decision:

* Dye-based inks should be considered primarily for indoor and short-run applications.

* Pigment inks can be used outdoors for applications of six months or longer, but weather-resistant media are essentially for outdoor use.

* Whenever possible, purchase media with available ICC profiles. This saves time, optimizes ink usage and creates outputs that realize the printer’s potential.

* Don’t buy a media type that is application "overkill," such as using heavyweight, scrim vinyl when an indoor-grade banner material will suffice.

* When addressing post-print finishing, it’s especially important to avoid "cheap" material. Richardson emphasized that reprinting costs incurred due to scratches, wrinkles or tears overshadow initial savings. Further, he noted that acid-free media with a neutral pH, such as Sihl’s, can be archived and outlast the ink’s lifespan.

Richardson said last year was a red-letter year in inkjet evolution. "2002 marked a turning point in our industry that is only now becoming visible," he explained. "It seems to me that a number of technological advances in printhead technology, on-board memory, image capture and color and file management converged with materials science in a way that enables untrained, non-technical people to use wide-format systems reliably and quickly."

As a result, Richardon envisions wide-format graphics exceeding the print-for-pay, business-to-business market and reach business-to-consumer applications.


Uniwood/Fome-Cor, Statesville, NC, manufactures JetPrint™ Board, a 1/4-in.-thick, paper-faced, rigid media that’s flatbed printable with water-based dye or pigment inks. Made of enhanced polystyrene foam, it contains a proprietary coating that makes it suitable for indoor applications.

Paul Huzyak, Uniwood/Fome-Cor’s manufacturing and technology manager, said that digital-flatbed printers were introduced based on public demand. The process of printing a digital image on paper and then mounting it onto a rigid substrate — and the resulting costs — created a market for flatbeds.

According to Huzyak, flatbed printers work best for short-run, rigid-print applications. For longer production runs, lower cost may make screenprinting or lithography a more suitable choice.

Rigid media can be manufactured two ways. Huzyak notes that when proprietary coatings are required, they can be applied directly to the finished board’s surface, or the coating can be printed onto the paper coating, and then be combined with the paper and board.

"In my opinion, the superior option is to apply the coating to the paper," Huzyak explained. "Coating paper is easier and more economical than coating individual sheets, because the paper can be run in a reel-to-reel operation for reasonable manufacturing speeds. Coating individual sheets results in less uniformity, and produces more waste."

He notes that rigid media are more difficult to handle than roll-dispensed material, as each sheet must be controlled individually.


Digital-Media Manufacturers/Suppliers
Editor’s Note: This is a partial list of material manufacturers and suppliers.
St. Paul, MN
(800) 328-3908
www.mmm.com3M Industrial Adhesives & Tapes Div.

Santa Ana, CA
(714) 540-2811

Painesville, OH
(800) 231-4654
www.averygraphics.comAvery Dennison Graphics Division

Color Textiles Inc.
Las Vegas
(702) 845-5584

Digifab Systems
Los Angeles
(213) 689-3400

|2127|, a Kodak Company
San Diego
(800) 453-6223
www.encad.comEncad Inc.

Indian Trail, NC
(704) 821-8870
www.fishertextiles.comFisher Textiles

South Windsor, CT
(800) 433-4186
www.gspinc.comGerber Scientific Products

Buhler, KS
(800) 835-2221
www.gregory1.comGregory Inc.

Horizons Imaging Systems Group
(800) 482-7758

Intelicoat (formerly Rexam Image Products)
South Hadley, MA
(401) 438-0614

KangWoo Co. Ltd.
Seoul, Korea
(82) 2-830-4071

Kent, OH
(800) 791-8963
Jacksonville Beach, FL
(904) 249-1131
www.lp-digital.comLeggett & Platt Digital Technologies

Lintec of America
Bensenville, IL
(630) 238-3122

Duluth, GA
(888) 530-4021
www.mimakiusa.comMimaki USA Inc.

Springfield, IL
(800) 826-4132
www.nudo.comNudo Products Inc.

(800) 441-4788
www.oce.comOcé North America Inc.

South Plainfield, NJ
(800) 440-1250; www.coburn.comR Tape Corp.

Irvine, CA
(800) 542-2307
www.rolanddga.comRoland DGA Corporation

Seal Graphics Americas Corp.
(800) 257-7325

Sihl USA
Chesapeake, VA
(800) 366-7393

Tape Technologies
Green Cove Springs, FL
(800) 433-0451

Rockaway, NJ
(800) 368-7858
www.ultraflexx.comUltraflex Systems Inc.

Statesville, NC
(800) 438-1701

Value Vinyls
Arlington, TX
(800) 654-8405

Xerox Engineering Systems
Stamford, CT
(866) 937-2656




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