While the process has been around the sign industry for many years, thermoformed signs are revolutionary in the signage industry.
This type of signs are created by a process that uses heat and pressure to mold a flat sheet of thermoplastic material to achieve raised images or symbols, that later will be used to create dimensional signs for P.O.P. displays, vending panels, consumer products or for industrial applications.
The Booming of the Thermoformed Signage
The Second Word War had its effect on the sign industry; it brought the prohibition of metal usage in manufacturing of metal signs, since the metal was indispensable for manufacturing weapons it was considered critical to the war effort.
With the prosperous post war sign market growing and the demand for new materials, plastic manufacturers began the development of new materials for signage. One benefit of plastic signs is the minimal maintenance compared to the neon signs that were previously used. Plastic also lowered the level of skill needed to produce the end product and as a result sign businesses began to pop up quickly.
The most widely used materials in thermoforming are:
- ABS or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene
Decoration of Plastics, Progress over the Years
Previously the method for the decorating thermoformed objects were achieved by traditional printing techniques. Hand painting, airbrush painting, screen-printing, decals, vinyl lettering, even labeling in mold were some of them; but all of these technics demanded skill, were time consuming and therefore costly.
Luckily, since a few years ago we have one more technological option that allows us to achieve accurate results and in less time, “the pre-printing” method.
With this method we apply the graphics to sheets before forming. In other words printing the plastic sheet before the thermoforming process. With this pre-forming decoration we remove the time-consuming manual steps required in traditional decoration processes, achieve accuracy on mass productions and more important SAVE MONEY.
With the advances in ink chemistry, wide format printers can offer the image quality and timesaving benefits of pre-forming decoration while eliminating the challenges that traditional decoration presents.
Thermoforming Pre-Printing Systems
In 2005 Oce made a special printer (Oce Arizona T220) with special solvent ink for thermoforming. So in the beginning, heat forming was achieved with solvent ink on a plastic sheet.
The key to all of these products lies in the hyper flexible inks rather than the printers. Advances in UV-LED curing have helped increase the range of substrates that could be used. LED curing uses less energy and produces less heat, which in turn allows you to print on many more materials.
Circa 2013, EFI launched its GS Pro-TF printer for thermoforming applications.
Fujifilm also has two flatbed printers, capable of handling pre-printing for thermoformed: the Acuity Select and the Acuity Select HS.
Mimaki has the JFX200-2513 and UJF-7151 plus UV-LED flatbed printers for thermoforming.
UV ink formulations continue to evolve. Many inkjet ink vendors offer multifunctional products that not only work with traditional wide format printers, but also with thermoforming applications.
In theory you can use almost any UV-cured printer as long as you employ the correct special heat-formable ink.
“Using a conventional thermoforming process, it might take seven and a half hours of labor to produce two 13.5×4-foot vacuum-formed signs. Using digitally printed thermoforming technology, 34 of the same signs can be produced in the same seven and a half hours”. This is a reduction of 93 percent in labor costs and a productivity increase of 95 percent. With conventional processes, the same 34 signs would take three and a half weeks to produce,