Printable Decorative Laminating & Coating

By Tom Kerchiss – RK Print Coat Instruments

Home make over TV programs; glossy magazines showcasing celebrities, their LA homes and their lifestyles may make us envious; they may cause us to pause, look around and consider how we could make decorative changes. Next there may be the visit out to kitchen showrooms, furniture and the home improvement store, which may or may not meet our needs. Then there are the distractions that we are subjected to from TV adverts and the glossy brochures showing those fashionable kitchens and built in work units and wardrobes. All of the aforementioned may influence us and play a part in encouraging us to find ways to enhance our homes, add value and make us the envy of friends and family.

Most of us if pressed would admit that we derive our decorative inspiration from many sources. Vacationers and those on business; those staying at Ritzy 5-Star hotels and conference centres cannot for instance fail to be impressed by the frequent changes made to furniture and fitments, the marble effect countertops, the exotic wood panelling and so on. Frequent upgrades and refurbishments of hotel, restaurant, coffee shop and entertainment venues build the brand, shows off success and makes us as the guest or consumer feel valued and special.

Decorative filmic laminates are one of a number of interior design options; others include wallpaper, shutters/blinds and decorative fabrics or textiles.

With regard to decorative laminates, these are structures made of multiple layers of film combined together and which are printed and converted using photorealistic printing and converting processes such as gravure print and coating processes. On completion the finished product simulates very expensive and often scarce, difficult to extract or manipulate; the heavier materials, the hard woods, metals and ores.

Apart from products such as kitchen and worktop surfaces, flooring laminates, furniture and panel laminates are profitable business sectors. Decorative laminates are widely used in automotive, aeronautics, marine and other areas where attention is given to presentation, comfort and luxury.

Materials that can be realistically rendered include mahogany; teak and ebony; chrome; brick, granite, marble and much more beside. Sometimes they are manufactured in the form of foils. Regardless of the finished end product appearance, the large majority of products consist of clear layers, decorative layers and a core base or foundation layer. Most items begin with a clear coat that is either produced by an extrusion process or is manufactured using a cast film technique so as to create a lower stress product. The resultant clear layer if often of a high gloss but it can be of matte finish, or manipulated so that the finish is textured. Almost all of the clear coats are based on an alloy of acrylic, fluoropolymers or a urethane.

The next stage in the process is to apply some form of decoration in with the clear coat; the clear coat serves to protect the decorative medium from the rigours of the environment. For applications where the main decorative theme is a pattern or patterns the gravure print process is often employed as nearly any pattern can be duplicated or repeated on a continuous basis. Technical finishes brushed and distressed metals; wood grains and organic patterns or themes can be produced using gravure rendering a product finish that looks genuine and natural.

The decorative printed layer is sandwiched between the clear layer and the substrate. In many instances a primer is applied to the substrate to ensure optimum adhesion of the laminate. The decorative layer must be protected as many of the laminated products; kitchen work surfaces for example, are subjected over time to the harsh and abrasive action of chemical cleaning products. The substrate or base layer is much thicker than other layers and provides the laminate and other components that make up the finished item with the necessary strength.

Decorative printed laminates offer a variety of practical, aesthetic, economic and some might say environmental benefits. For a moment consider the gravure printing of a wood grain pattern for laminate flooring. With a natural wood product there are geometrical limitations in that the wood grain effect only stretches within defined parameters. Gravure printing on the other hand permits any number of repeats to be made.

Decorative laminates contribute significantly to weight reduction strategies – a laminate weighs considerably less than marble. Furthermore, taking marble as an example, a laminate does not need to be mined, shaped and transported, often over vast distances. Earth resources do not need to be plundered, labour and energy and other material costs are minimal.

Furnishing, fitments; the choice of curtains, wall and floor coverings and decorative fixed units and panelling is for the most part one of individual choice. Consumers and householders are encouraged to make decorative changes frequently in line with the dictates of fashion and to replace products that have experienced wear and tear. For corporate applications, the construction, upgrading or fitting out of a restaurant that is part of a chain decorative decisions have been made at board room level and there is less room to manoeuvre for those charged with bringing the commission to fruition. Quality control is high on the agenda. Branded colour and other corporate themed requirements must be adhered too.

Brand owner, marketers, key suppliers, contractors and converters are united in their desire to produce a consistent product. For the printer/converter the objective is to turn out a print pattern with the approved pattern and colour. For consumable providers and the manufacturer, the need is to expedite an item that meets pre-determined physical requirements. Meeting colour requirements can be demanding but it is critical if ISO accreditation and other control standards are to be met. The need for quality control and product development tools is recognised as being of great importance.

Colour communication devices, proofing and sample preparation systems such as RK Print Coat Instruments K Printing Proofer enable users to meet colour matching and other associated processing parameters. This compact system is able to accommodate a wide range of flexible materials, which may be printed or laminated. An advantage of this system is that it can produce high quality proofs using not only gravure, but also gravure-offset and flexo. The K Printing Proofer can also undertake a variety of laminating tasks – both wet and dry laminating samples can be obtained using the gravure print head in conjunction with RK’s own K-Lam laminating accessories.

Mention should be made of the important role that coating and coatings play in the production not only of laminates but also in other aspects of furnishing and fitments. Coatings are widely used to enhance and alter the physical properties and appearance of fabrics. Coating and laminating have bridged across virtually every product area associated with furnishing, textiles, composites and non-woven categories. Coated fabrics once had specific fields of application and demand but a better understanding of the interaction between fibre structures and coating has enabled manufactures and converters to overcome problems associated with wrinkling and distortion, etc., opening up possibilities in areas such as geo-textiles.

Various coating products are of course used to protect decorative laminates and other print related products, providing scuff, chemical resistance and providing protection against wear and tear and the elements.

Quality control, product development and systems able to meet the increasingly demanding requirements of industry are available, one of which is the new VCML Lab/Pilot Coater.

The VCML-Lab/Pilot Coater enables operators to print, coat and laminate on all types of flexible substrates and on a reel-to-reel basis. The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater has the ability to apply various inks, varnishes, adhesives and paint using environmentally acceptable formulations and where necessary solvent-based materials as well. It offers short run production capability, making it ideal for speedily bringing products to market; for monitoring quality and for undertaking many types of tests and procedures.

The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater has a web width of up to 300 mm, is touch screen controlled and is equipped with a cantilevered unwind and rewind, head mounting station with tray lift and trough and a laminator station with pneumatic nip. Flexography, offset gravure and gravure, knife over roll, reverse coating, meter bar, slot die and many other processing options can be made available. The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater can be configured for hot air drying, infrared, UV curing and for corona treatment. Edge guide and heated laminator and ATEX coating zone can also be integrated in with the system.

Finally, the VCM or Versatile Converting machine can be designed and configured for customers with specific needs operating across many industries.