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Calendared Vinyls Shift to High Gear for Vehicle Graphics

(October 2005) posted on Wed Nov 02, 2005

Improvements made to calendared vinyls have created new opportunities for their use in the production of vehicle graphics. This article highlights these enhancements and explores the applications that await calendered vinyls in vehicle-based product branding and promotion campaigns.


By Roland Castonguay

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The popularity of vehicle graphics as important components of brand promotion and ad campaigns is on the rise as advertisers seek ways to bring messages to the consumer on the road, at the curb, or near the rail. Graphics on buses, trains, trucks, shuttle vans, and taxis make a unique contribution to the brand-promotion effort by carrying the campaign to the street by way of bold, colorful graphics that delight the eye and capture attention. With vehicle graphics, a single rolling advertisement can cover a wide geographic area and fulfill the function of multiple window ads or billboards.

The value of vinyl for these graphics applications is hard to dispute. Premium calendered vinyl is noted for its superb printability and its ability to hold up under exposure to challenging environmental stresses. However, a bit of controversy currently exists among suppliers, printers, and users of vehicle decorations and wraps regarding the relative value of calendered vinyl as compared to cast vinyl.

Cast vinyl has traditionally been viewed as the premier material for vehicle applications. Cast vinyl's superb conformability allows it to smoothly follow the complex contours of a vehicle's winding, rolling, varied surface, such as a bus exterior with its corrugated surface, curves, and rivets. The way in which cast vinyl is manufactured allows it to perform this function extremely well for long periods of time. Cast vinyl is produced from a liquid version of polyvinyl chloride (plus various additives). It is poured in a very thin layer during the manufacturing process and is then cured at high temperature. The result is a thin, pliable substrate that has no memory of its pre-manufactured state. When applied to a curved, bumpy, vehicle surface, it takes that shape for the duration of the application, like a second skin.

Calendered vinyl, in contrast, starts as a Play-Doh-like clump, is mixed and milled, and then is rolled into a flat sheet by huge, heated, metal rollers, much as a pie crust is rolled into shape with a rolling pin. Calendered vinyl has been viewed, until recently, as cast vinyl's poor cousin—a lower-cost, lower-performance choice for vehicle applications that are short in duration and do not pose major conformability challenges. The flat side of a dairy truck and the flat surface of a subway kiosk, for example, were viewed as appropriate surfaces and applications for the calendered product. Why not a heavily curved surface? Because calendered vinyls have a tendency—a memory, if you will—to return to their original, pre-calendered dimensions over time. Extremely hot weather can hasten this tendency.

Today, however, the usefulness and appropriateness of the calendered product has blossomed. Calendered vinyls have come a long way in terms of conformability, durability, and utility, and they're growing in use for vehicle graphics.

Better products and performance

Three major reasons are behind the upswing in use of calendered vinyl in vehicle graphics. First, the products themselves have improved dramatically. The formulations for calendered vinyls—that is, the recipes for plasticizers and other components—have been tweaked to build better conformability right into the product, making calendered products suitable for long-term use on compound, curved surfaces that would have been unapproachable a few years ago. Finishes are more varied, too, with products available in matte or gloss, white or colored. Calendering equipment itself is becoming more sophisticated and precise, allowing some calendered vinyls to be manufactured in thicknesses below the norm of 3 or 4 mils of a few years ago. In fact, some premium calendered vinyls offer calipers approaching 2 mils—the neighborhood formerly inhabited solely by cast products.

A second technical improvement relates to better repositionability and removability of today's adhesives. The combination of calendered vinyl products and these enhanced adhesive capabilities saves time and money compared to cast vinyl systems. At the job's start, new calendered vinyl products and adhesives can be repositioned easily and consistently, allowing technicians to quickly fix errors. That reduces graphic spoilage and the need to order a duplicate graphic and start over. On removal, the calendered vinyl graphic is less likely than cast products to break into pieces or leave a lot of adhesive residue on the vehicle's surface. Additional time in the garage—and labor costs—to clean things up is eliminated. Removal problems are significantly reduced with the enhanced adhesives and calendered vinyl products. The faster the bus, taxi, or other vehicle is returned to service, the more quickly it can resume earning money.

In many cases, the application and removal process must be done with the speed and efficiency of a NASCAR pit stop. Consider the requirements of Clear Channel Taxi Media. Its taxi-rooftop system features three panels of translucent vinyl with removable adhesive installed on a polycarbonate surface. The vehicle's three graphics must be removed and the new graphic reinstalled within two minutes. That means the vinyl and adhesive system must be able to meet that tough standard. The goal is to replace the graphics at lightning speed and get the taxi back on the road, where it generates revenue. Today's better adhesives and dimensionally stable calendered vinyls help make this happen.

A third key improvement in calendered vinyl products relates to special engineering for cold-crack resistance. New calendered-vinyl formulations have dramatically reduced fracturing or splitting of vinyl graphics when they are removed in frigid temperatures. The graphic can, in most cases, be removed intact, year-round, indoors or outdoors—another saver of time and money.

Lower total applied cost

With recent improvements in quality and performance, calendered vinyls have begun to close the gap with their cast cousins for many applications. Especially appealing is the advantage in total applied cost that calendered vinyls offer compared to cast vinyl. Total applied cost is the cost of raw materials (pressure-sensitive vinyl, ink, and pressure-sensitive laminate), plus the cost of production (machine time, finishing, laminating), plus the cost of installation and removal. In ballpark figures, calendered products offer about 30% lower materials cost compared to cast products and roughly 10-15% less time for installation. The total applied cost saving can be dramatic for a company that decorates several hundred vehicles.

The recent advertising trend toward shorter-term messages, campaigns, and visual programs also makes calendered vinyl products attractive to the advertiser. Commercial firms with large fleets, for example, need to freshen the look frequently, keep up with design trends, react to the competition, and generally keep the target audience visually interested. A typical promotional campaign now lasts for less than a year. The typical life of a full bus wrap advertisement in 2005 has been measured in weeks or months. With frequent turnover of messages and related graphics, the longer-life advantage of cast vinyl becomes less relevant. The expected life span of a calendered-vinyl application is more than adequate to meet the needs of a campaign that will change often.

Better affordability and the market trend toward shorter-lived ad campaigns are among the reasons that companies are taking increasing advantage of calendered-vinyl vehicle graphics to push their brand into the consumer's consciousness. Cross a city street, or cruise down the highway next to a truck or van, and it's inevitable that you'll see those big, bold, bodacious ad messages and graphics on wheels.

Bus wraps and posters, train wraps, truck graphics, taxi advertising—all can be significant weapons in a company's full-product-branding arsenal, along with P-O-P displays, billboards, window advertising, floor advertising, door decals, direct-mail pieces, and other promotional applications. Brand awareness and loyalty can be advanced through persistent visual reinforcement, and pressure-sensitive films are an ideal means of delivering the message.

Buses, trains, taxis, and more

Vehicle-graphics applications are varied. Most are well-suited to a calendered-vinyl solution. Let's take a quick look at the major vehicle applications and some factors that you, as a printing and imaging company, should keep in mind when shopping for the right pressure-sensitive film product.

Full-wrap systems Buses and trains that are fully wrapped in graphics make a dramatic display (Figure 1). The bold graphic that decorates the entire vehicle generates tremendous visual impact and very high levels of recall for the advertiser. You should look for a product that offers superior adhesive performance for repositionability of the film during installation and provides a good bond to painted metal, stainless steel, and corrugated surfaces. Clean removability is needed at the conclu-sion of the promotion. The film must conform to the compound, curved surfaces of the bus or train. Good opacity is required to hide other elements, such as paint or old graphics.

The window portion of the application must perform double duty. It should maintain the visual appeal and continuity of the graphic and provide clear viewing through the window for passengers seated on the inside. Perforated products are the solution here. Look for perforated window products that have a film-to-perforation ratio in the order of 60 to 40. In other words, the product should be approximately 60% material and 40% open. This allows the best balance of image quality and see-through capability.

Bus posters have always been a popular way for advertisers to deliver promotional messages to potential customers in a neighborhood or town, even back in the days when these ads were printed on styrene sheets and inserted in metal frames, rather than on pressure-sensitive vinyl applied directly to the vehicle's exterior. Look for a product that can withstand the range of tough environmental conditions to which buses are often exposed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to 12 months. They include UV rays, moisture, tem-perature extremes, abrasion, graffiti, and exhaust fumes. You'll notice that bus posters are often referred to as kings, queens, or tails. These terms refer to the size of the graphic and the section of the bus to which it is applied. Poster products for kings, queens, and tails are designed for smooth, flat surfaces. In general, these products should not be applied over corrugations or rivets.

Taxi advertising Taxi advertising systems allow marketers to reach a mass audience going to and from airports, hotels, convention centers, sporting events, shopping centers, restaurants, and other businesses. Taxi-top (roof) displays (Figure 2) are usually printed on translucent vinyl and applied to backlit panels. For these applications, look for a film product that offers good light-diffusion properties, heat resistance, cold-crack resistance, a good bond to the polycarbonate surface, and dimensional stability for ease of installation and removal with no adhesive residue. Mounted panels on the trunk are another option for taxi advertising. All of the desired characteristics of the taxi-top film product apply to trunk products, except that high opacity, rather than translucency, is required for the vinyl film.

In many campaigns, advertisers cover up a longer-term trunk ad with a newer one for only a few weeks, then remove it so the older ad is again visible. While the temporary ad is in place, the film's opacity must be sufficient to completely hide the longer-term graphic underneath.

Trucks, cars, and shuttle vans Pressure-sensitive film products for trains and buses can also be used for graphics and wraps on smaller vehicles. As with other vehicle applications, you should look for a vinyl product that has the necessary durability and ease of installation/removal, but that also will also allow for the production of vivid, high-resolution graphics. Cars and vans often are viewed in extreme close-up by the target audience. A fully wrapped Mini Cooper or PT Cruiser, for example, will attract many curious fans, even when parked at curbside. For these applications, the vinyl product must support very high print quality. The graphics should be applied by high-quality, professional installers, because the compound curves of small vehicles are particularly challenging.

Laminate for graphic protection

Although vinyl has built-in durability, an added measure of protection may be needed to ensure that the graphic looks as good at the end of the ad campaign's life as it did when it was first installed. That insurance is a pressure-sensitive vinyl laminating film. Often, the laminate is bundled in a vehicle-graphic system along with the base film product. Once the base film is printed, the laminate is affixed, shielding the graphic from many harsh environmental factors, including winter cold, summer heat, UV exposure, and moisture. The laminate also protects against man-made stress factors, such as smog, soot, road tar, and gasoline, as well as high-pressure scrubs, power washings, or other abrasive cleaning practices.

The laminate layer adds strength to the graphic, boosts the vehicle graphic's dimensional stability, and reduces the chance of curling, peeling, and shrinkage. The laminate can also provide the degree of gloss or matte finish that the advertiser desires. In short, a laminate can provide the right balance of aesthetics, clarity, texture, and durability that many applications require.

Your media supplier will be able to tell you where and when a laminate is needed. A reputable supplier of substrates for vehicle graphics should be able to provide a tested and proven product system (base film and laminate) along with approval or certification from an appropriate transit authority and/or large advertising company.

Seek experienced installers

Keep in mind that no matter how good the calendered vinyl system and how high the quality of your printing, customer satisfaction rests in equal part on the performance of the vinyl installer. For best installation results, you should seek the services of vinyl installers who have met the demanding requirements of a professional organization, such as the Professional Decal Application Association (PDAA). Using an installer who is certified by the vinyl-product manufacturer also is an excellent safeguard to ensure that your hard work and quality print job will be well represented on the vehicle and the brand owner will be satisfied.

Certified installers will also assure that safety precautions provided by the film-product manufacturer are followed during installation. For example, window films in buses or trains must be applied in such a way that they do not cover the seam of the emergency exit window (seam coverage can hinder door oper-ation during an emergency).

Calendered is coming on strong

No matter what sort of vehicle graphic you produce, beware of the old myth that only cast-vinyl products will meet your needs. Clearly, today's calendered-vinyl products are a much improved alternative to cast vinyl in many bus, train, truck, car, van, and taxi applications. With their lower applied total cost and revved-up performance—improved formulations, enhanced adhesives, and cold-crack resistance—calendered vinyl products are perfectly geared to the advertising campaigns of today.

About the author

Roland Castonguay is a market development representative for product branding with FLEXcon, Spencer, MA, a supplier of pressure-sensitive films. He has more than 15 years of experience working in manufacturing, global consumer electronics, and product branding. In 1989, he began his career at FLEXcon in manufacturing, then moved on to technical services and later to application development. He currently works closely with customers to develop and improve product branding applications. Castonguay is a frequent speaker at trade events around the world.


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