Direct Printing to Solid Surface
In a previous article, I touched on the process and benefits of adding color to solid surfaces through Dye Sublimation. But did you know there are other ways to add graphics to designs?
When I started surfaceLAB in 2014, we began to do some experimenting with solid surface and direct printing because we had a client who wanted metallic graphics on a series of Corian tables for a hotel cafe. Knowing that dye sublimation wasn’t an option and resin infill would be cost prohibitive, we looked at the possibility of using a high-resolution printing process and the right surface preparation to capture the architect’s concept.
Through trial and error, we developed a proprietary process that we call surfacePRINT that is a combination of material preparations with printing techniques to get a result that bonds well to any solid surface material. During the R&D we also testing a variety of protective coatings and their application processes as well as whether solid surface that had a printed image on could be heated and thermoformed just so that we truly knew what the possibilities and limitations would be for the process.
What Is Direct Printing?
This is the process of printing a full-color image directly onto a solid surface, with startling vivid and precise results. Images can be as simple as company logos (surfacePRINT) or more complex such as matching and graphically reproduce natural and man-made surfaces (surfaceMATCH).
Using full-bleed, high-resolution graphics, we can print large format images up to 6’x12’ in size. For the sharper details required to match a natural surface, high-resolution raster images are required that are a minimum of 300 dpi.
After the image is printed, typically a UV/Abrasion coating is applied in a matte, satin, or glossy finish, so that the printed solid surface can be used in either interior or exterior locations.
Direct Printing versus Dye Sublimation
Again, Dye Sublimation, also called thermal image transferring, is the process of transferring graphics into the surface of another solid material. The process is created by utilizing digital graphics. From those graphics, an ink transfer plate is created. That plate, along with the solid material being transferred into, are heated and compressed under a vacuum. This transfers the graphics from the plate to the material without affecting the non-porous and hygienic nature of the material. Meaning the properties of solid surface that make it fundamental material choice for healthcare designers are not compromised in any way by dye sublimation.
Dye sublimation, which is a great process for solid surface used in healthcare and other harsh environments, has some limitations when it comes to design.
For example, because the image is transferred through heat, once a panel has had a dye sublimated image applied, it can’t re-heated again or else the ink in the solid surface will off-gas and fade. This means that dye sub panels are generally flat and cannot be thermoformed.
Also, additionally, because the image is transferred into the material itself, the sharpness of the graphics and color is ever so slightly softened and subdued. This is not necessarily a bad feature for designers but if, as in the example of the hotel, the designer wants a more vibrant graphic, dye sub isn’t really the best choice.
On the other hand, we found that a solid surface panel, if properly prepped and with the right graphics application, could be direct printed flat and then post-thermoformed with no stretching or crazing seen in the image! Further, because the image is on the surface instead of within, lines and colors are crisp and rich.
However, while dye sublimation performs well in high-contact environments, direct printed solid surface is best suited for low-traffic uses such as walls behind reception stations, office corridors or any area without frequent touching, handling or cleaning. Again, with the graphic being on the face of the solid surface, even with a coating, it is prone to having the image scratched off by abuse or hard contact.
The saving grace, however, is that if severe damage or abuse occurs, a panel can be removed, sanded clean and then re-printed with minimal loss of the solid surface substrate.
A final significant consideration for a design team when deciding between dye sublimation and direct print is cost. While dye sublimation has many inherent technical issues when applying it to solid surface, direct printing is relatively straight forward. So, a design team looking for the most cost-effective means of getting color on to a durable material like solid surface should be looking at direct printing.
Best Applications for Direct Printed Solid Surface
While it’s apparent the design possibilities for direct printing to solid surface in signage, there are some really unique and exciting uses we’ve seen and worked with clients on.
Probably the most compelling use of direct print is to use the process to recreate exotic natural stone slabs that are becoming harder to source due to scarcity and regulations. Most of those stones have a smooth polish or finish which can be closely recreated with direct printing and the secondary coating.
Additionally, the large sheet sizes that can be printed make it comparable to the slab sizes available in the natural stone market.
Another application we’ve seen a great deal of interest is in using the matching abilities of direct print combined with the thermoforming capabilities to expand design options. For example, in areas where a hard, flat natural or man-made stone is used and the surface transitions to a curve, like a column, a different material would have to be selected. However, because of the stunning re-creation possibilities surfaceLAB has, it is possible to print a match to the stone on solid surface and then thermoform it after the fact. (See image.)
In retail applications, where stores undergo design updates on a fairly regular basis so that the brands stay fresh and relevant, a thoughtfully designed concept that integrated printed yet removable solid surface panels could provide store and other retail chains the chance to update while remaining material-efficient. That is, printing graphics, textures, etc. to match today’s design and then removing the panels, sanding them clean and re-printing them with any necessary updates. This has tremendous potential in sustainable design if, again, the removing of the panels is planned in ahead of time.
And since solid surface is frequently machined with pockets and graphics for backlit applications, it is worth noting that images can be printed to opaque as a well as translucent sheets, still making it possible for backlighting and illuminated features to be made from solid surface.
Final Word: Understanding Images and Copyrights
These days it’s extremely easy to open up a search bar and find just about any image you’d like online. Unfortunately, for the most part, using another image without the proper permissions is a violation of copyright laws. So, surfaceLAB™, for example requires that customers receive written permission from the copyright owners prior to reproducing any copyrighted material. At our sole discretion, after proper verification by us, the copyrighted material will be reproduced.
A copyright is a form of protection provided to the creators of original works by the laws of the creator’s resident country and through International Treaties. Copyright owners have the exclusive rights to reproduce their copyrighted work. They may, however, grant permission to others who wish to reproduce the copyrighted work. Photographers, artists, authors, architects, publishers, singers, writers, and composers can all be copyright owners.
Again, these days with vast images available in a few mouse clicks, it’s hard to tell what is free to use and what is copyrighted. Many times, copyright owners may place a copyright notice (for example, © 2017 surfaceLAB Design Group, Inc.) on their works. However, this notice is not required under the law. Works are still considered copyright-protected without depicting a copyright notice. Therefore, it’s a good idea to source images from websites such as Getty Images, Shutterstock and others.
There are, however, free images available online that do not violate the copyright laws because they have a CC0 license. The Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license was released by the non-profit organization Creative Commons (CC). Pictures with the CC0 license are free for personal and commercial use, and can be modified, distributed or copied. A website where CC0 images can be found is www.pexels.com .
Please note that mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, photograph, computer software program, or a copy of such items does not give the possessor of these items copyright ownership or the right to copy or modify them.
Direct printing to solid surface is a such a new and exciting option for fabrication and exponentially expands the design possibilities for the material. It is durable, vivid and cost-effective.
If you would like more information about surfaceLAB’s proprietary surfacePRINT and surfaceMATCH processes or want to receive samples, just visit us online at www.surfacelab.us