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Razor sharp!

Bayer MaterialScience AG : 14 October, 2004  (Company News)
Bayer MaterialScience AG has made an important breakthrough in its research into developing three-dimensional plastic parts with photorealistic decorative features. Bayer experts have succeeded for the first time ever in combining digital printing technology with the tried-and-true film ;INSERT molding (FIM) process.
At the heart of the new patent-pending method is a tailor-made film structure specially developed for this purpose. It comprises of a digitally printable polycarbonate film from the Makrofol® range which is printed on the reverse side and then laminated with a special second film. The resultant composite can then be thermoformed and back-injected with plastic. The technology enables decorative features in resolutions comparable with offset printing. It's also possible to personalize the print sheets and therefore also the plastic components.

Armin Berger, an expert in films at Bayer MaterialScience, explains: 'When it comes to decorating Makrofol®films for FIM applications, digital printing offers various advantages over the screen printing method established in this field. This way, no printing screens or films are required and print setup times are eliminated. Small-to-medium runs in particular are especially cost-effective to manufacture – right down to a 'run' of one.'

The design is generated digitally at every stage of the printing process and is then transferred directly to the film, thereby enabling personalized printing. The Bayer MaterialScience film experts achieve optimum results using the digital printing method from Hewlett Packard, Indigo Division, and utilize the HP Indigo Press S 2000 system. Up to 16 coatings of ink can be applied to the film in one step with this process. According to Berger, 'The resolutions achievable go far beyond the print qualities offered by screen printing and cover a range of 812 dpi through to 2,400 dpi (virtual). This means we can generate a print image that is truly photorealistic.'

Various difficulties had to be overcome when looking for a practicable method. 'The toners or liquid inks used in normal digital printing methods only offer limited heat resistance,' notes Berger. To avoid wash-out effects arising from the high temperatures during back-injection, the Bayer experts opted for a two-layer film structure. After printing the Makrofol® film, a further polycarbonate film with a special coating made of a compatible thermoplastic adhesive is laminated on the printed side. This special layer increases the peel strength of the laminate considerably.

The Makrofol® film was also coated to ensure good compatibility between the liquid inks used and the substrate. This coating is supplied by Folex Imaging in Switzerland. Berger says, 'It was the optimum interplay between all the components and the exceptional support from our partners Hewlett Packard Indigo and Folex that enabled us to reach this stage of development and now we're already at the prototype stage.'

Berger sees possible applications in the areas of dials and scales, instrument displays, switches, cell phone casings, front panels for domestic appliances and other components that are already being produced using 3D FIM technology. He says, 'The idea of personalizing ID cards using color is quite conceivable. So too are applications where, for example, the end consumer adds his own image via the Internet in order to give a truly personal character to the plastic molding!'
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