It is fascinating how products that have been around for years can-with a little innovative refinement-be repurposed to a completely new use, even advancing a market’s current products to a higher level of performance. Just such a new-old product recently appeared on the scene for print media and overlaminate films used for vehicle wraps and other outdoor advertising graphics.
Repurposing TPU Films as a Graphics Overlam
It started when the application engineers at Argotec LLC, a manufacturer of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) films for the paint protection film market, were tasked with finding additional uses for this product. They soon realized that exterior advertising graphics, including automotive wraps, need the same kind of protection as the paint on cars and trucks.
Art directors, printers and installers go to great lengths and expense to create graphic images designed to promote a brand, convey a strategic message, or in the case of emergency vehicle signage, even to protect people. The right graphic printing and overlaminate films can help deliver and protect those images in the clearest way over long periods of time.
It was thus a logical extension to repurpose paint protection film into similarly formulated TPU film products for the specialty printing graphics industry.
First, using the same polymer backbone with some added engineering technology, Argotec developed and in 2012 introduced a premium overlaminate for promotional vehicle wraps and other outdoor graphics applications.
It is optically clear, conformable and durable, UV resistant, and retains these properties at both high and low temperatures. These uncoated, graphic overlaminate films are typically produced in thicknesses from 1-2 mils (25-50 microns), roll widths up to 62 inches (1.57 meters) and lengths up to 1,000 non-spliced lineal yards (914.4 m), depending on thickness.
Printable White TPU Films
Polyurethane film has been produced in colors for decades. It didn’t take long for engineers to realize that with some additional engineering to the base resin, they could create a white TPU printable media to partner with their overlaminate film. Thus, in 2013, the company introduced white, printable 2-mil (50 microns) TPU film, also in widths up to 62 inches (1.57 meters).
This white, inkjet-printable TPU film is compatible with a wide variety of commercial printing ink systems, including UV screen print inks, solvent screen inks, digital eco-solvent, digital solvent, as well as digital latex and UV-cure inkjet systems. As of this writing, printer profiles and corresponding inks are provided on the company’s website for 28 wide-format printer models from Epson, HP, Mimaki, Mutoh and Roland.
Because it is extrusion coated onto a high gloss PET carrier, the TPU film can be wound and unwound without the need for processing aids that could cause ink deposition problems.
Sign Techniques Inc., of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was one of the first sign/vehicle graphics companies to use the new TPU graphic films system. It is a full-service sign and vehicle lettering/graphics company that designs, manufactures, installs and services interior and exterior signage as well as fleet graphics and custom vehicle lettering.
Its print and installation technician, Scott Weglinski, used the film to wrap an old white service van in an entirely new graphic.
“Our Roland XC-540 printer performed beautifully,” Weglinski says. “The eco-solvent inks went down and dried true, with no bleed or banding. The clear TPU overlaminate bonded smoothly to the printed substrate using our Royal Sovereign RSC-1400C laminator without any bubbles or voids. The gloss finish was like glass.”
Weglinksi explained that the installation was smooth and fast.
“We were able to use just white glove hand pressure and squeegees to apply the film,” he says. “We didn’t have to use the heat gun at all.”
He added that the colors remained true, even when stretched around edges and severe contours. “The TPU product went on very fast, much quicker than many products we have used in the past.”
Because they remain flexible over the life of the application, TPU-based graphic films are also easily removed when it comes time to change the graphic or advertising message.
Today’s typical race car is a lot like a rolling billboard-covered with team names, supplier brands, sponsor logos and more. And underneath those meticulously crafted branding messages may be even more graphics, images wrapped around the entire vehicle that are designed to convey a carefully calculated impression-or to simply make the car look like it’s going fast when it’s just sitting there.
Cars used in professional races-such as those driven by the WE Racing team-take a beating from the dust, dirt, stones, chunks of rubber, fumes and chemicals that they drive through as they hurtle around a track for hundreds of miles per race. In 2014, WE Racing’s #55 Corvette, driven by Paul Plemenos, received a complete new graphic wrap sporting a full-body U.S. flag graphic printed on white TPU graphics film. It is protected by a clear TPU overlaminate. Smaller graphic elements, including sponsors’ logos, are positioned on top of the wrap graphic.
When asked at an April 2015 meet-and-greet event how the TPU product endured the rigors of the pro racing circuit, Plemenos stated, “See for yourself,” pointing at his car. “It’s still on the car and looks great after a full season of racing.” He then added, “In one race when the guys in front of me would get two wheels off in the dirt, my rooftop camera and windshield were being pelted with rocks and dirt, so you know the car was too. Yet besides a cracked windshield, there’s not one area where there’s damage.”
TPU’s Lesser-Known Properties
Another characteristic common to both TPU paint protection films and TPU graphic films is their ability to “heal” after incurring minor damage. The product’s self-healing properties cause most scratches and scrapes to disappear, often in a matter of seconds. This unique property makes the product ideally suited for the harsh outdoor environments in which automotive wraps and advertising graphics exist.
While clear polyurethane overlaminate film was originally designed to protect graphics printed on a white TPU substrate, it can often be used to protect graphics printed on other commonly used inkjet media. Be sure to test.
-This story originally appeared in the 2016 issue of WRAPS magazine. The 2017 edition is being published in June.