Volume 49, Issue 4 - April 2014

Refining Art

Some Decorative Glass Fabricators Find Interlayers Best for High-Resolution Images
by Megan Headley

When it comes to decorative glass options, end-users are finding that the sky is the limit. However, fabricators are more likely to pick and choose the options that they find offer the biggest bang for their investment bucks while meeting market demand. Although a growing number of companies are opting today to print images direct-to-glass (see page 28), others see printed interlayers as having quality advantages that can’t quite be matched by other processes.

Quality Shows
Liquidoranges Studio LLC in Sharon, Mass., touts its decorative glass products as “fine art” in glass. The company uses a laser-exposed film interlayer within its laminated glass, which it says offers “flawless, continuous tone, ultra-high resolution quality.”

According to Reese Schroeder, president of Liquidoranges, that level of quality simply isn’t possible when printing direct-to-glass.

According to Schroeder, “RGB provides maximum color saturation and is natural for translucent imagery, versus CMYK, which is designed for printing on paper and has inherent compromises. Ink-based printing is typically CMYK. Our interlayer is designed for maximum projective quality, where light passing through our glass projects the color within the glass accurately across spaces and onto surfaces.”

Robert Carlson, mechanical engineer with Tristar Glass in Tulsa, Okla., says that this transparency is a quality of printed laminated interlayers that direct printing just can’t match.

“To me, the big advantage of glass is its transparency. That’s what sets it apart from all the other media out there,” Carlson points out. “With direct-to-glass printing, if you want to be able to see through the image you have to pixelate the image you’re printing. There aren’t transparent ceramic inks.”

If you’re going to the trouble of creating a detailed image on glass, as compared to on a wall, your art should harness the transparency of this medium. “Getting that transparency is one of the benefits of printing on the transparent film and laminating it in the glass,” Carlson says. “When light passes through the transparent print, it actually casts that color of light down on the ground. It’s like stained glass: when light comes through stained glass you see the blues and yellows and reds of the image casting those colored shadows on the ground. It’s the same thing with the transparent images of the laminated glass.”

Karen Elkin, president of Classic Glass Inc. in Bladensburg, Md., adds that the transparency allows the product to be edge-lit for beautiful effects.

"To me the big advantage of glass is its transparency. That’s what sets it apart from all the other media out there. With direct printing to glass, if you want to be able to see through the image you have to pixelate the image that you’re printing. There aren’t transparent ceramic inks." —Robert Carlson, Tristar Glass

Classic Glass’ laminated glass features a polyester film printed by Australia-based Montage Graphic. Elkin also has found that printed interlayers offer extremely high resolution, clarity and translucency that she has never seen with printed graphics and/or images.

Of course, there also are certain properties inherent to laminated glass that add to the benefits (if also the cost) of this decorative option.

“A smooth glass finish on both sides means that it can be installed as a room divider and will look the same from both sides,” Elkin points out.

Carlson adds that laminating an image protects it better than surface printing. “Whenever you’re laminating something that image is encapsulated in the laminate, so you can’t really get at it whereas if you’re printing on glass somebody could potentially scratch the ceramic frit,” he says. “Somebody would have to attack it pretty hard, but they might be more inclined to scratch at a fritted surface than a smooth glass surface.”

In addition, laminated glass itself offers protection that other products cannot.

“We subscribe to laminated safety glass as a better architectural solution for most applications, as it provides greater protection from injury under catastrophic failure, as well as acoustical properties important to hard surface interiors,” Schroeder says.

Versus Direct Printing
Liquidoranges has had little call to consider direct-to-glass printing, which, Schroeder acknowledges, does have its positive attributes. “We have not considered migrating to that process,” he says. “Our clients regularly comment on the unbelievable quality we achieve in glass, compared to printed PVB or other technologies. For us, it is critically important to preserve the light quality passing through our glass, and we believe inks, dyes and ceramics risk altering that transparency.”

He explains that the advantage of working with a printed interlayer is the opportunity it affords for mixing “opacity with transparency, including white over clear.” According to Schroeder, “We cannot do that with our technology without a great deal of highly skilled artistry hand work in the clean room.”

James Thornburg, product manager for Columbus, Ohio-based Trudeco, the decorative glass arm of Trulite, agrees that interlayers lend themselves to high-quality imaging. “[Trudeco’s] Visual HD is a proprietary process we developed over six years ago. It produces one of the highest DPI in the industry, and I am certain we would not have been able to replicate some of our completed installations using digitally printed ceramic frit. In fact, Visual HD was born out of a need for higher quality resolution in laminated glass. When the technology first emerged on the scene we were not pleased with the results, so our design team collaborated with industry experts to develop a process that would surpass anything in production,” he says.

“That being said,” he notes, “I know we have some wonderfully complex installations taking place using [direct-to-glass printing] that would be difficult to replicate using Visual HD.”

For example, Thornburg says that monolithic printing is an obvious advantage to the direct-to-glass process that cannot be replicated using digitally printed interlayers.

Schroeder notes that his company had performed initial research at its startup, examining the use of digital printing as well as PVB printing solutions. “At the time, in our opinion, neither technology came close to the quality of color, depth, transparency and projective aspect we achieve with our interlayer process,” he says. “If we were to reconsider direct printing, we would need extensive testing for side-by-side comparison evaluation.”

Likewise, Carlson had joined Tristar right as the company was investing in an autoclave lamination system.

“We tried 16 different film types, seven different printers and five different kinds of laminate until we found a combination that would hold up for the long term, wouldn’t fade over time, had great adhesion and was a reliable product that we could produce on a consistent basis.” Five years ago, direct-to-glass printing was still a new phenomenon and a big investment. Even today, he points out, “To go down the direct-to-print glass road, you can’t just buy a printer.” In addition to big equipment costs, Carlson points out that direct-to-glass printing typically requires a full-time graphics employee to work with the technology.

“The first direct-to-glass printer I saw … was in a room and they had this great set up and a graphics person who would take the images that they got in and would color shift the image so that when the inks fired, they would shift to be the color that they were supposed to be.

“I know there’s some color shifting there, so you really have to have somebody who understands how to put this ink down and how to compose those files, etc.,” Carlson continues. “That’s a significant investment and not necessarily an easy person to find. And if you do find that person you don’t want them sitting around until you get work; you want them to be constantly experimenting or constantly using the machine. If you’re only turning this machine on once a month basically every time you go to turn it on it’s going to be a new learning curve.”

Schroeder agrees that the investment required today for direct-to-glass printing makes it cost-prohibitive for companies considering adding decorative laminated glass to their inventory as a from-time-to-time artistic option rather than a full-time, stock dedication.

“Because we are first a decorative glass design studio, we feel that the enormous investment required to enter into direct printing would radically alter our business plan,” Schroeder says. “It would demand that we convert to volume production of ‘anyone and everyone’ else’s artworks in lieu of our studio efforts. Our company’s role in decorative art glass for architecture is singularly focused on the principle of integrating art with architecture. For us, this does not include standardized patterns, decorations and other graphics in glass.” He notes that the company has investigated contracting with companies that do have the printing equipment in-house, but have found their pricing to be prohibitively expensive, on the order of magnitude of two to four times.

Guiding the Customer
Whatever the decorative option in which fabricators ultimately invest, one way to achieve a big bang for the buck is to help steer customers toward the best solution for their project—whether or not that option is available in your shop.

“Classic Glass has, on occasion, outsourced direct-to-glass printing from a local company when inexpensive color graphics are desired,” Elkin says. She has found this process to be relatively inexpensive, “but is really only useful as one-sided signage (installed with a clear glass front surface) because the inks are not permanent,” she says.

Sometimes the best solution is simply helping the customer understand the benefits of each option available to them.

“When you’re putting something in glass you’re always fighting against vinyl because it’s a readily available option; it’s something that people know and it’s got the benefit of being temporary,” Carlson says. He shares that he spends a good deal of time explaining to customers how best to utilize the qualities that printed interlayers offer.

“I was talking to the Oklahoma City Thunder at one point and they were asking what image to do … [I explained] that you want to put in glass something timeless, like your logo, which is not going to change,” Carlson says.

“When fabricating and designing any highly customizable product, proper channels of communication are key,” Thornburg agrees. “The glaziers and fabricators need to understand the design intent, while owners and designers need to understand the engineering capabilities. Working in harmony, you can take measures to reduce costs and other headaches. As a result, I would recommend every designer and specification writer work with a glass professional to better understand nominal sizing, print capabilities and production times therein.”

Like any product on the market today, all of these printing processes have inherent strengths and limitations, Thornburg says. However, working with an array of decorative options allows for exciting design opportunities.

Each plays a vital role in the industry, but also complement one another quite well,” Thornburg says.


Project Spotlight: Stamp of Approval

The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is a new $66 million addition to the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the world’s largest museum gallery dedicated to philately, the study of stamps and postal history. While the 12,000-square-foot interior of the museum displays a number of dynamic exhibits, unique artifacts and rare stamps, the exterior of the gallery needed its own eye-catching element to entice visitors and to stand out from other nearby attractions. The architectural firm of Cho Benn Holback and Associates, decided to create an exterior wall of 54 illuminated windows portraying reproductions of individual stamps on display inside. AGC Glass Co. North America was selected to support the unique design requirements needed to make this new addition stand out. By combining its Krystal Klear® low-iron glass and the digital imaging technology utilized to produce Krystal Images™, the company was able to successfully replicate the original stamp images with exacting color. AGC worked closely with the design team to give the stamps the exact color saturation they required.

To help bring each of the 54 stamp reproductions to life, the glass was used in the exterior windows. The high-resolution print technology of Krystal Images allowed for images to display up to 1,440 DPI. This glass was combined with an outboard lite of Energy Select™ 63 low-E glass to create an energy-efficient insulating glass unit.

The completed project, installed by Ridgeview Glass Inc. based in Upper Marlboro, Md., features approximately 1,500 square feet of the glass that provides a striking nighttime glow depicting how the history of stamps is intertwined with the history of America.


To Each His Own?

"Each technology serves a unique purpose,” finds James Thornburg, product manager for Trulite Trudeco in Columbus, Ohio. Trudeco produces a Visual HD printed interlayer in Columbus, Ohio; the company also employs a digitally printed ceramic frit technology in Freemont, Calif., and traditional ceramic silkscreen in several other locations, giving the company a unique perspective on market demand, client insight and best practices.

Robert Carlson, mechanical engineer with Tristar Glass in Tulsa, Okla., agrees that each technology has its own benefits. “I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other in terms of the overall performance of the glass,” he says. “They both have their pros and cons and it all depends on the situation.”

Thornburg explains, “Traditional silkscreen was born out of necessity to control solar heat gain, but digital ceramic frit and digitally printed interlayers were developed as a response to the rising sophistication of the client. Digital ceramic frit spoke to high-volume, exterior installations, and digitally printed interlayers were mainly reserved for aesthetically complex, medium-volume, interior installations. Compared to traditional ceramic frit, both allow for increased control and customization while utilizing the benefits of rapid prototyping. It’s safe to say all three technologies have their own merits, but we are beginning to see more and more requests for customization from the owner, designer and glazier respectively.”

Megan Headley is special projects editor for USGlass magazine. She can be reached at mheadley@glass.com.

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