Sheet Materials - April 2014

Mulitpanel UK

A Digitally-printed sign made with alupanel sheets Shopping centre sign with mulitple signs on made from alupanel sheets Alupanel Mirror Panel on an outside sign

James Meylan, Mulitpanel UK European Sales Manager, notes that Aluminium Composite remains a popular choice owing to its versatility, affordability and durability.

Alupanel is both cost and time effective, giving the best results for print and fabrication due to its flat, smooth composite characteristics,” he affirms. The material can be cut to a high-quality finish either by hand or with a CNC router, and sign makers can improve their finished piece by downloading the Fabrication Guide from Multipanel UK. It offers hints, tips and recommendations on how to get the best out of Alupanel sheets.

With regards to Aluminium Composite materials there are 3 standard aluminium gauges available depending on the application:

  • A Standard (0.30mm) skin is designed for full fabrication, which includes routing for sign trays, light boxes, etc, in load bearing projects.
  • A Lite (0.21mm) skin is designed for FLA, non-load bearing signage, and printing in non-load bearing projects.
  • An Eco(0.15mm) skin is designed for temporary signage, such as hoarding panels around construction sites and banners around football grounds. The latter would both be great examples of substrates suitable for vinyl application.

“For display application where the edge of the panel may be visible we have developed Alufoam, and aluminium composite sheet with a foamed polyethylene core,” James reveals. “Not only is Alufoam 30% lighter than standard aluminium composite, its enhanced flexural strength mean it can be used over large spans.”

Choosing the right aluminium gauge

Not all aluminium composite panels are made alike, and not opting for the right one can lead to issues down the line. James notes the large majority of mistakes seen by the experts at Multipanel UK can be attributed to not selecting the correct aluminium gauge for the project. “As a cost saving exercise, cheaper, lower quality materials are often used on projects which can result in a false economy when the materials prove to be inadequate for the application,” he says.

Another key factor is correct installation to avoid the effects of thermal expansion, which can be easily avoided by compensating for the 2.4mm expansion rate of ACM materials over 1m at temperature. According to James, incorrect installation can cause panels to expand and warp if they are fixed rigidly without space for expansion and contraction.

This versatile substrate has many applications, and can potentially help sign makers get the best out of each project when the right type of ACM is selected. “Used correctly, Aluminium Composite material provides the best price-quality ratio for most sign making projects,” says James.

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NE Plastics

A CNC router An ACP Sign Tray with Lighting System ACP Sign Tray made from aluminium composite 

Nick Warne, Managing Director of NE Plastics, notes that there are many sheet materials that work well specifically for use with vinyl application.

“Materials of choice that we stock at NE Plastics include ACP (Aluminium Composite), Foam PVC and Perspex Acrylic,” he says. “Printing direct to ACP is achievable with our special formulated coated print grade. PETG & Polycarbonate also allow ink to key (bond) to them, which is significantly better.”

NE Plastics supplied the Aluminium Composite for the 5km round Olympic park when it was being developed, as the dimensional stability and direct-to-print qualities of material made it ideal for the job. According to Nick, boarding has in fact become one of the biggest areas for signage. “We have recently stocked a new product called Viscom Easy-Print, which is lightweight, durable and applicable outside,” he says. “This material is perfect for printing directly on to, and is a versatile  part of the display board family.”

Aside from the materials for use with outdoor boards and signage, Nick notes that sales of Foam PVC remain strong, as it continues to be a  safe choice for simple signage. “That said, there are problems with it not being very dimensionally stable,” he says. “Aluminium Composite on the other hand, offers a far better solution when in need of a cost effective material, where flatness and rigidity is a priority.” Aluminium Composite trays are also becoming more popular, he reveals.

While larger sign makers with their own shops tend to use flat-sheet aluminium to make custom trays, the majority of sign makers will buy pre-made ACP trays. NE Plastics produces bespoke sign trays made from their own branded Aluminium Composite, ‘Alliance’. The demand for these trays has increased significantly in recent years, according to Nick, owing largely to their versatility. The trays can be used in a number of ways:

 ·    Flat panel screwed to wall
 ·    Panels to go into a Panatrim Frame
 ·    Illuminating ‘Perspex Opal’ in an aluminium light-box
 ·    Mounting letters onto a fascia (ACP flat sheet as background)

The importance of correct installation

Nick notes that while choosing the right material is important, so too is taking into account the type of use and therefore installation expected from the sign.

If a sign is being installed in areas prone to vandalism, it should be made with a vandal-resistant, durable material. Similarly if it’s going to be placed outside, a weatherproof material coupled with appropriate installation is just as important. To emphasize his point, Nick recites an old industry example. “A sign was being put together for a shop, black foam PVC was being used as a fascia (20metres long & 5mm thick). This was butted together and screwed in, with vinyl applied on top. When the sun came out, it completely skewed the foam boards. The problem was that the boards where physically screwed onto the building, when the boards were heated in sunlight, they expanded and bowed. The sign-maker hadn’t allowed for expansion; he should have instead put a frame up and let the panels hang, thus giving them space to expand.”  

Finally, to achieve a perfect finish, Nick notes that although a CNC router or laser can achieve an expert finish on virtually any material, the real trick is to ensure that the material is of a high quality. “This is a must to avoid chipping or burring,” he explains. “When routing, it is essential to have sharp premium quality tools to get a clean finish. Quite a few customers buy their own flatbed cutter like a Zund or Konsberg to meet cutting requirements.”

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Perspex Distribution Ltd

Alupanel being made A multi-coloured Fort Dunlop Sign outside examples of PVC foam signs designed with wide format printers

Luke Martyn, Marketing Manager at Perspex Distribution Ltd, notes that the rise in the use of LED lighting in signage can be beneficial for the end-user, but can also be the cause of many mistakes if not utilised correctly by sign makers.

“Many sign makers are now working with LEDs in house rather than subcontracting this work out,” he explains. “Mistakes using LEDs often leave either  'hotspots' of light where the LEDs are placed too closely to the substrate, or shadows because the light doesn't reach all parts of the sign.” One way to circumvent these issues would be to use purpose-built products like the range Sloan LED signage modules, available from Perspex Distribution. Sign makers will be able to discuss their plans for installation with LED Experts, who can produce schematic drawings to guide the installation of LED modules for even illumination. “We also sell Perspex Spectrum LED, which is specifically designed cast acrylic to diffuse light over the sheet enabling thinner sign depths and bright signs,” adds Luke.

When it comes to choosing the right substrate, the intended application is a key factor in knowing what to pick. When choosing sheets for outdoor signage, sign makers may want to consider Perspex®, which comes with a 10-year guarantee for external use and is therefore suitable for long term outdoor applications. For signage to be developed with wide format printing, there are two purpose-built materials from Perspex that are suited to the job. “Our Palight PVC Foam and Alupanel Aluminium Composite have both been developed specifically for wide format to enable clearer detail on signage,” reveals Luke. For example, Alupanel is now produced with an ultra-white surface for optimum print adhesion.”

Available in a wide range of colours, this material can be used for a number of different projects. And now, in a first for the UK print market, it will now be possible to purchase UK-manufactured aluminium composite sheets as Perspex Distribution stocks the Alupanel® aluminium composite made at a new production facility in Kent. “This local supply chain ensures optimum quality control from raw material to end products as well as fast availability for special requirements,” says Luke. “This is key in today’s fast moving market, and helps us support customer strategies for reliable stock availability from distribution partners.”

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PaperlinX Visual Technology Solutions

Sign on the front of a building using Altuglas A shelter made with Lexan Polycarbonate instead of glass Patterned roof window made with Lexan polycarbonate pop up book

Frank Moran, Managing Director at PaperlinX Visual Technology Solutions, reveals the biggest mistake a sign manufacturer can make is opting for the wrong materials for the job.

While it may seem like an easy one to avoid, sign makers are often lured towards lower quality products on account of the lower price point. Ultimately, this can lead to a poor quality job that rules out the chance of any repeat business, and can actually end up costing the sign maker money rather than saving it. “We always advise sign makers to use your supplier to help find the best fit for the sign,” Frank explains. “Talk to them and get their specialist teams to support you in the selection process.”

There are many factors to be taken into consideration when it comes to picking materials, the cost being chief among them. Aside from budget, Frank reveals that sign makers should consider the purpose of the material, the type of sign, and installation among other factors when selecting sheet materials. “Sign makers have to look at installation criteria, for example height, exposure, whether it’s an indoor or outdoor sign, fire certification, if it is to be illuminated or not and its expected service life,” he says. “Speed of manufacture, the sign maker’s equipment, physical size of the job and general capabilities also have to be considered.”

The requirements from the end-user will also contribute to deciding which materials are suitable, and as such Frank recommends discussing things like corporate social responsibility objectives to help narrow down the options, as this will determine whether or not an environmentally friendly product is required. With many businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint, offering signs made on recyclable, environmentally-friendly materials can help win contracts.

As an increasing number of clients are looking to integrate LED illumination into signage, Frank also recommends talking through the desired effect of the sign to make sure the design meets the mark. “Adding in LED illumination by modules can really enhance signage. For example, ‘halo’ and ‘shadow’ creates a stunning sign effect,” he says. “The right LED option can maximise light, minimise sign running costs and reduce signbox manufacture times - a benefit for everybody. And, Lumex polyesters print fantastically well on UV printers if the design calls for this.”

Examining the available options

When it comes to selecting the right sheet materials, there’s no shortage of products from which to choose.

Indeed, the many new products and improved materials present a plethora of options, which can often make selecting the right sheet confusing. Frank has numerous recommendations when it comes to favourite products, including Altuglas acrylic. It comes in numerous colours, and with high-quality effects such as ultra-bright or soft fluorescents, which perform particularly well when enhanced by LED lighting. Altuglas Night and Day is a great option for signage that needs to be clear and visible 24/7. The material, available in four colour combinations, adapts to the light conditions to be for example black during day when it’s bright outside, and light at night to illuminate the darkness. This versatile product is UV-resistant, and can be thermoformed for use in even complicated sign designs. “Altuglas also has a large colour range in constant light transmission (transparent, translucent and opaque) including the latest product range of LED opal and colours,” adds Frank.

For sign applications that require a high level of brightness and a Class 1 fire rating, Frank recommends the Lexan SG305OB (Sign Grade) polycarbonate sheets. “They’re very good to print directly on to,” he says. Reynobond and Skybond ACM are versatile choices that print well and can even be 3D shaped. Finally, Frank recommends Foamalux Foam PVC on account of it being a great multi-purpose material.

Getting the perfect finish after cutting the material is equal parts skill and selecting the right tools. While certain substrates can be cut and finished by hand with a hand-held router, others work best with a CNC router, such as ACM, foam PVC, polyesters, acrylics and polycarbonates. To get a clean cut and professional finish, Frank advises working from a smart design and layout on high-quality products. “Source quality materials from a reliable supplier, don’t use a live job to practise on, and don’t rush it!”

When it comes to selecting the right self-adhesive for digital printing, Frank recommends giving consideration to the application and the choice of vinyl to avoid expensive mistakes and wastage. “All too often corners are cut to save pennies,” he says. “When it comes to finishing and applying a digital print, there some new and innovative products that make the job much easier, even for the complete novice. Examples of this are Window Grab, Easy Dot and Ultraflat.”

Ultimately, getting the right finish starts with getting your project off to the right start. Researching the many new (and existing) sheet materials available will help you select the right type for the job at hand, even if it means parting with a few extra pennies to get the best products available. “Ask your materials supplier for advice,” advises Frank. “Stretch the budget, pay a bit more for quality - it makes for a much better end result.”

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