Volume 38, Issue 2, February 2003
Perseverance Pays Off
Two Companies Work Together to Find
a New Glass Decorating Solution
by Kathy Stillman
, founder of Inovatek Digital Imaging Systems in Kelowna near Vancouver, B.C., wants to change the world—or at least a small part of it. He has been involved in decorating for porcelain, enamel signs and architectural glass for 15 years, and he has watched and waited for the digital revolution to reach his world. The parade of technologies continued to pass him by.
As virtually every other graphics application was transformed by digital imaging, Briggs continued with the traditional and time-consuming process of screenprinting, etching or sandblasting vitreous materials. While these processes continue to produce durable results, the markets demand more customization, less labor intensive processes and less expensive solutions.
Finding a New Solution
Three years ago, Briggs realized he would have to create his own digital revolution.
Images are digitally printed onto specially coated decal paper using a frit-based (etched-color) ink ribbon.
“I investigated various digital printing methods at the time and found that inkjet printers were too slow,” he said. “Further, the inkjet nozzles would not stand up to the highly abrasive glass frits. Laser printers might work, but their printer formats were too small. In any case, neither printer types could provide me with spot colors or white for masking on dark backgrounds. I noticed that a small thermal transfer printer was able to print process colors, metallics, spot colors and white. Upon further investigation it became apparent that wide format thermal transfer printers were also available. This was perfect as the printers were also extremely fast.”
Briggs started investigating thermal transfer ribbon manufacturers and came upon IIMAK, based in Amherst, N.Y., who was willing to explore the possibilities of developing and producing a digitally printable frit ribbon.
“We focus our company on thermal transfer technology and have built the company searching and developing new applications where our technology offers sustainable advantages over other digital printing technologies,” said Rick Wallace, senior vice president at IIMAK. “This application was right up our alley: it needs high speed, the ability to carry frit in the ink (coated ribbons make this easy), high durability and the need to be environmentally safe.
According to Wallace, thermal transfer technology, while not as well known as inkjet, is used all over the world in factories, warehouses, retail locations, airports, etc., to produce on-demand labels. Thermal transfer’s reliability and the advantages mentioned earlier make this the dominate technology for this, as well as many other printing applications including outdoor vinyl graphics. However, innovation is not easy. IIMAK and Briggs worked long and hard, encountering—and overcoming—many obstacles. Finally, their efforts met with success.
IIMAK’s knowledge of the thermal transfer printing engines available led them to focus on the Matan thermal transfer printers for printing the frit ribbons. The Matan engines are available in 16-inch, 36-inch and 40-inch widths that utilize full-width print heads.
“These printers offer all the advantages that we felt were needed to make this system a success,” said Briggs.
From his background in architecture, Briggs recognized that there was a huge unmet demand for decorating architectural glass.
“Architects are looking for new and unique ways of decorating glass,” he said. “The expenses of the current methods make this task both onerous and prohibitive in many cases.”
The decal is adhered to glass using a special adhesive and is then fired at 115° F.
The DecoTherm™ Process
Thus, the digital revolution gives birth to the introduction of DecoTherm, a newly patented means of digitally printing fire-able frit decals. DecoTherm was introduced to the industry formally in October 2002 at glasstec in Düsseldorf, Germany. Briggs and IIMAK personnel attended the show and reported that the response was enthusiastic.
“Glaverbel of Belgium [which is owned by Japanese glass giant Asahi] told me that they have been waiting for a solution like this for a long time,” said Briggs.
The patented system encompasses both the ceramic frit ribbons and the unique cover-coat paper decal and a special adhesive for simple application to the glass. It also offers many advantages to traditional sandblasting and etching.
“First of all, there are no masks, and none of the related expenses of preparation and cutting and applying. Ceramic frit doesn’t weaken the glass as in sandblasting and is easy to clean,” said Briggs. “There is higher resolution, halftone capabilities, consistent quality and the ability in the future to fire several colors with just one firing.”
During the firing process, the frit in the ink melts to become part of the glass with the image permanently embedded. The finished product imitates etched/sandblasted decorative glass.
DecoTherm also allows the production of cover-coated decals, which are then applied to the glass with a special adhesive. The glass can then be fired and tempered immediately. Because the process produces a flexible temporary decal, decoration of curved surfaces can be accomplished easily.
Projects in Progress
During the development of DecoTherm, Briggs enlisted the support of Vitrum Industries, a major Canadian glass company which ran many test samples through its tempering ovens. Inovatek and Vitrum are about to earn their first paychecks on the DecoTherm process.
Additionally, the Vancouver architectural firm Henriquez Partners won the design contract for the new Michael Smith Medical Center at the University of British Columbia. The colonnade of the building contains a 300-foot-long expanse of glass. Henriquez proposed that the solar tempered glass be decorated with a motif they call “The Gene of Life.”
The job, as designed, required more than 200 custom graphic elements. Each panel would have required the production of an individual screen printing stencil. Because of the size of each panel, the proposed cost was enormous, more than $400,000—not including the cost of the glass or the tempering.
Using DecoTherm, Inovatek was able to provide a much more economical proposal and won the job. All of the decals for the job will be printed on the Matan Sprinter B36. Total production time for the decals after computer generated artwork, layout and paneling is less than six hours. The panels will be completed by Vitrum in February and the entire installation will be completed by the end of March.
Applications for Tempering Plants
T2 Solutions, an IIMAK company and service bureau in Buffalo, will accept and print the decals and deliver them, along with a special adhesive, to glass tempering plants throughout the world. These tempering plants will need a flat bed laminator that is specially designed to apply the decals. Larger operations will add their own printers so they can print the images themselves.
With DecoTherm, the applications and opportunities for permanent decoration of vitreous materials are ready for dramatic growth. By creating a fast, flexible and economical means of producing ready-to-fire graphics, architects and designers can offer their customers the beauty and durability of custom permanent decoration at attractive and affordable prices.
Kathy Stillman is a consultant with Intelligent Technical Solutions in Veron, Conn. She works as a public relations representative for IIMAK of Amherst, N.Y.
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