By Olivia Cahoon
Digital printing technology enables the modernization of photographic output. As technology advances, so does the opportunity for photographic-quality applications—attracting new users and creating new opportunities.
One trendy capability involves printing photographs to untraditional substrates such as wood, metal, and acrylic. Print providers handle these substrates with the use of a flatbed UV printer to create items like ornaments, trophies, and awards.
Based in Ocean City, MD, Plak That started as a one person operation in 2012. From a 1,000 square foot garage, it originally offered photographic wood printing services to display surf imagery.
“It was a new and unique way for people to print and display their photography so it was a good business opportunity at the time,” comments Wyatt Harrison, owner, Plak That.
Since then, the company moved on to large format printing to different materials as well as CNC cutting and routing services. Plak That specializes in digital printing to wood, metal, and acrylic up to 4×8 feet, serving local, regional, and national customers. It is now considered a premier company for immortalizing cherished photographs and moments on custom wood, acrylic, PVC, and aluminum.
Currently, 80 percent of its business is digital printing with the remaining 20 percent CNC work. With five employees and a shop dog, the print provider operates out of a 2,000 square foot facility.
Taking Photos to New Widths
The photo industry has evolved over the past decade. While consumers now take more photographs, they are more likely to share images on social media outlets rather than through prints. To spark innovation in the photo printing industry, some of today’s photographs are produced on unlikely substrates.
Plak That offers photographic-based applications including awards, ornaments, outdoor signs, trophies, and wood materials such as planked and solid wood prints. The business prints on Dibond ACM, Plaskolite acrylics, Komacel PVC, and variety of different woods that are hand selected from 100 percent FSC-certified sustainable sources. “These brands are made specifically for digital printing and we have found adhesive and quality are best with this,” shares Harrison.
Printing to untraditional substrates requires a heavy-duty industrial press. The print provider uses a 4×8-foot Vanguard VR5D flatbed printer, selected for its speed, printhead technology, white ink capabilities, vacuum zones, and registration pins. The VR5D utilizes dual-channel Ricoh Gen 5 printheads with the ability to run two colors within the same printhead. It handles a variety of substrates from acrylic, canvas, and foam to brick, wood, and porcelain with a maximum four-inch thickness.
Plak That installed the VR5D in 2018, which allowed the company to move into more diverse areas of digital printing. “The registration pins on this machine not only allow us to increase our step-and-repeat jobs, but have given us the ability to bring on print-to-cut projects involving our CNC router,” explains Harrison. With this ability, the company moves products from the press to the router for custom shapes and sizes. “The machine has helped us open up more revenue streams for the business.”
The VR5D also prints in higher resolutions and faster speeds than Plak That’s previous flatbed device. According to Harrison, the ink coverage is better as well because it offers a double color configuration. Increased coverage helps to cover nozzle dropout from showing and prevents damaging printed products.
With its Vanguard VR5D, Plak That uses Vanguard proprietary inks to ensure UV-curing strength and durability. Most of its products don’t require added protection except for wood. For wood-based projects, it applies a spray polyurethane finish.
In October 2017, Plak That acquired a 5×10-foot Biesse Rover Plast J CNC router with an automatic tool changer and camera system. With this device, the print provider can surface, shape, and create objects out of wood, aluminum, acrylic, PVC, and other materials. It also helps the business reduce turnaround time compared to its traditional table saw finishing methods.
Photographic design and printing software includes Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator as well as ONYX RIP Thrive for image processing. While its software accomplishes most of the business’ quality needs, color matching can be a challenge, especially on projects where clients need exact colors to match branding or décor.
“What you see on the screen doesn’t always look the same when it is printed,” admits Harrison. As a result, Plak That generally does a lot of sample printing to address color issues before full production.
Waterparks Get Creative
In 2018, Maui Jack’s Waterpark approached Plak That for promotional materials to display in its new waterpark. The repeat client is a management company that needed to obtain high quality and unique photographic signage for a new location.
“A lot of the printed material was informational and used in an outdoor setting so the prints had to be eye catching and durable,” shares Harrison.
Most of the signage was printed on white PVC for its outdoor durability and light weight for easy hanging. The print provider created the design files in Adobe Illustrator and printed the signs using the Vanguard VR5D. “Adobe Illustrator gave us the ability to design the prints and generate CNC cut files for our CNC router,” offers Harrison.
After printing, the signs were finished on the Biesse Rover Plast J CNC router for custom-cut shapes, such as a surfboard height ruler. The shop also produced large acrylic artwork for the waterpark’s locker rooms.
Together, the VR5D and CNC router worked in tandem for quick print-to-cut capability. “These systems worked well together in order to complete the project,” shares Harrison.
In total, Plak That produced 21 products including a variety of different printed custom shapes ranging from directional signs, photographic-quality work, price and package boards, rider height rulers, and large logo cut outs. Each piece was either hung or nailed directly into the wall. It took the print provider one month for planning, design, printing, cutting, delivery, and installation.
The most challenging portion of the waterpark signage project was coordinating with the company’s project manager to decide what types of signage, sizes, and quantities were needed. “There were also a few last minute changes,” admits Harrison.
Plak That successfully completed the waterpark signage on time. According to Harrison, this job stands out from other projects because it allowed the company to use all of its digital printing equipment. “It was a true test to see how well each component worked together in producing custom print-to-cut signage,” he explains.
Maui Jack’s Waterpark was happy with the final product and has since ordered more signs and cutouts.
Display Unique Photos
With the prevalence of online photo-sharing opportunities, printed pictures now have more impact. Printing technology offers businesses and consumers advantages they cannot receive from digital images including products from 4×6-inch prints to large format renderings and photographic merchandising on wood or metal.
Plak That takes advantage of this trend by maintaining the latest digital printing equipment and ensuring optimal color matching. “Digital printing allows for high-quality prints, repeatability, consistency, and speed,” concludes Harrison.
Aug2019, Industrial Print Magazine