Due to how different these processes are, they will each have different benefits and drawbacks that each print finisher should be aware of. Let’s look at a few major categories that may impact which finishing method is selected for a given project.
While both a laminate layer and a UV coating will inherently add value and durability to prints, both still require an additional investment in terms of equipment, time, and materials.
UV coating requires an initial equipment investment for the coating machine and regular replenishment of the chemicals used for the spray. Even though a UV coating does not increase the value of the finished piece, it’s a necessary step in ensuring the final product can adequately meet the customer’s expectations in terms of performance and protection. UV coatings can be applied and dried quickly and can be further processed immediately off the machine, which means lead times are typically short. Still, printers should be aware of several hidden costs, including labor and safety requirements, such as proper ventilation systems that protect operators from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced during the UV coating process. Coating lines need to be flushed out at the end of each day, which can prove time consuming and messy.
Thermal lamination has a steeper initial investment than UV coating. Finishers will need to purchase a thermal laminating system and regularly source any laminates required for their projects. Because thermal laminates include an EVA adhesive layer, they tend to be pricier than UV coatings. Despite this, laminates provide an excellent return on investment as laminated sheets can receive a variety of embellishments, which increases product value for higher revenue. Laminated sheets cool shortly after they are laminated and can be further processed immediately off the machine. Automated laminators typically cost little to nothing in terms of labor and are designed to account for any safety concerns with specialized safety features. Modern laminating systems have short warm-up times, and the act of swapping film rolls takes far less time than changing out coating lines. At the end of the day, a thermal laminator can be shut down with no cleanup necessary.
Print finishers should consider the type of applications they are producing along with their average run volumes to decide which method will be the best financial decision. In the end, the difference in cost per MSI can be a fraction of a cent. Price alone is not enough to determine which finishing process will work best for any specific workflow. The following factors will typically have a much larger effect on whether or not the chosen method maximizes an operation’s revenue potential.
Because a UV coating consists of a durable polymer resin, it will increase a printed sheet’s resistance to scratching and help keep ink from being rubbed off as the piece is handled and transported. It can also provide a moderate amount of protection from moisture. However, UV coatings may rub off with regular use, leaving behind an unappealing residue on the customer’s hands. When folded, prints that are UV coated tend to crack, becoming visually unattractive and exposing the sheet to damage. For this reason, UV coatings are typically used in applications that have a short life expectancy or are intended to serve a utilitarian purpose before being thrown away.
Lamination gives sheets a highly durable protective layer that prevents them from being damaged by dirt, grease, and moisture. Depending on the laminate’s topcoat, it may also provide complete resistance to scratching, tearing, smudging, and a host of other types of damage. For applications that require advanced durability, double-sided lamination is capable of protecting a sheet on both sides and can even completely encapsulate the print for total water resistance. Laminates will not crack when folded, making them an obvious choice for pocket folders, greeting cards, and folding cartons. Because a laminate’s thickness and material type can affect its performance in specific applications, such as polyester (PET) laminates being too rigid for folding applications, print finishers should carefully research which product will best fit their needs. To learn more about this topic, see our blog post How to Choose a Base Material for Thermal Laminating Films.
Ultimately, print finishers will need to know what degree of protection their products require to ensure their customers receive a high-quality product capable of withstanding whatever will come their way. While some applications may need only a UV coating, products made to last will benefit greatly from a laminate layer.
The vast majority of laminates are more than able to preserve the sharpness and tonality of a wide variety of designs. Gloss laminates help colors pop and give fine details, such as text and small design elements, a visual boost to help them stand out. Matte finishes can bring out the richness of dark tones and provide a soft appeal. Still, certain finishes and thicknesses may affect coloration or leave designs with a slightly muted look. In instances where color shifts occur, printers may try to adjust their press to achieve their intended results in conjunction with lamination.
Because UV coatings are relatively thin and have only two visual effects to choose from, there is little chance they will obscure or dull the printed design. The original tones and vibrancy of designs are enhanced by gloss coatings without risk of hazing or color shifts, and a matte coating will soften the design without obscuring any finer details.
On the whole, both methods will provide a similar performance in terms of image fidelity. However, print finishers who use lamination will need to validate that the specific laminate they are using can meet their desired clarity levels via a trial run before using it on a live job.
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