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Jan 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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John Glenn's recent return to space as member of the space shuttle Discovery crew provides an apt metaphor for thermography foil stamping and embossing and holography. Even though NASA's cutting edge technology now enables us to peer deep into the cosmos, we retain a certain mixture of awe, gratitude and nostalgia for the pioneers who made it all possible. As space shuttle missions have become routine, there's a tendency to forget that yesterday's science is at the cornerstone of today's achievements.

It's much the same with these finishing techniques--a combination of old and new technologies is paving the way for the next generation of innovative equipment and exciting applications.

Although thermography has been with us for nearly a century, it's not getting older, it's getting better. 'Improvements in thermography equipment in the past 10 to 20 years have taken the inconsistencies and labor out of the process,' submits John Schmitt, group vice president of the imprinting group at Taylor Corp. (North Mankato, MN). 'The biggest breakthrough has been in the development of better thermography powder.'

Until a few years ago, explains the exec, thermographed letterhead and envelopes could not be run through laser printers and copiers because the intense heat would melt, smear or flatten the thermographed images. 'Some potential customers were scared away from thermography,' recalls Schmitt, who's also the current president of the recently formed Worldwide Printing Thermographers Assn. (Washington, DC). 'If you wanted laser-compatible stationery, you had to choose among flat printing, foil stamping or engraving.'

About eight years ago, however, special thermography resins were introduced. The new resin is cured when heated and isn't affected by subsequent exposure to heat sources. 'Now that this laser-printer-compatible powder has been developed, a whole new market has opened up for thermography,' claims Schmitt.

'Thermography is alive and well,' agrees Tim Rice, vice president of sales and marketing at Sun Raise (Lexington, MI). 'Our customers are thriving and not just in the U.S.--this is very fast growing market overseas, particularly in Europe, South America and Asia.' Sun Raise's thermography units include 12-inch, 15-inch and 20-inch units. The firm acquired the equipment division of Virkotype Corp. in 1996--it also supports Gibson products.

While thermography has long been a popular choice for business cards and social stationery, new markets are emerging, thanks to the new colored, iridescent, pearl and glitter powders. Annual report covers, decorative packaging, greeting cards and labels are helping the process win new fans. 'Using thermography in combination with four-color offset adds a texture that cannot be reproduced by any other printing method,' declares Greg Anderberg, vice president of sales, Anderberg-Lund (Minneapolis). 'The poster market is another area starting to realize the potential of the thermographic process.'

Adding extra compounds to therm powder enables the printer to offer a variety of unusual effects. Twelve years ago, the Minnesota printing company developed a unique 'sand' process with a gritty texture. 'We've printed mailers with an asphalt background for promoting in-line skates and highway striping machines and pages of 'stone' for an insurance firm's convention in Arizona,' explains Lundberg.

Anderberg-Lund's thermography expertise also has been employed for record album, CD and videotape covers as well as greeting cards. One of its continuing projects is the popular children's book, Eric Carle's The Very Busy Spider. Over the past four years, the printer has added a thermographically enhanced 'spider web' that has entertained more than 100,000 young readers.

Anderberg estimates that more than 70 percent of its therm jobs are done for other printers. Many of these outsourced jobs only require thermography--the offset printing is handled by the printer-customer.

As for its own equipment, Anderberg-Lund's therm oven features a 30-inch tunnel--the longest you can get for commercial use--which is fronted by a 23 x 29-inch Heidelberg Harris single-color press. Big jobs are run on an SPE screen printer that can handle 26 x 40-inch paper--maximum image area is 241D2 x 37 inches. Although you wont see too many therm ovens longer than 30 inches, Sun Raises Rice reports his firm recently sold a 40-inch unit into the Asian market. 'That's a real credit to the vitality of our industry,' notes the exec.

As for the smallest therm units, some tabletop devices are too slow and labor-intensive for most commercial printers. 'The tabletops are best left to the churches and schools,' is Therm-O-Type's Chris Van Pelt's candid assessment. 'We sell them and that's what we tell our clients,' says the exec with the Nokomis, FL-based firm. Therm-O-Type recently introduced the Green Machine 13000, which reportedly consumes between 7,300 to 8,700 watts of power during a typical production shift. The 13000 automatically switches between run, standby and automatic modes, reducing heat loss and energy consumption when the equipment is idle.

According to Van Pelt, therm shops are doing a lot more combination work these days. 'More and more frequently, foil stamping, blind and foil embossing, diecutting, custom watermarks and other graphic processes are being combined with traditional thermographed products to create finished work with high visual and tactile impact. Ten years ago, few thermographers had in-house foil stamping capabilities,' reflects Van Pelt. 'Automatic foil stamping equipment available during this period was considered too expensive and too slow--typically between 1,200 and 1,800 iph.

'In the late 1980s, however, new foil stamping equipment became available that offered an improved balance between the cost, productivity (up to 5,500 iph) and ease of use. Since this equipment offered up to 450 percent increase in impressions produced per hour, the manufacturing cost required to produce foil, blind- and foil-embossed work dropped dramatically.'

Richard Werner, president of Repro Inc. in Chicago, says he loves the variety of jobs that come through his plant. From letterhead for law offices to cigarbands and brochures, Repro does a wide a variety of printing, engraving, foil, thermography and tab projects. 'It's like being a kid in a sandbox,' says Werner, the current president of the International Thermography Assn.(Alexandria, VA). Werner says business has rebounded from the prelaser-safe powder days. He notes that for many customers, 'Price is not the most important consideration--people are paying for craftsmanship.'

Located only a few blocks from this magazine's offices, the walls at Repro are lined with industry awards. 'We don't even have all of them up,' notes Werner. 'We are running out of room.'

Repro's equipment includes Kluge, MAN Miehle and Heidelberg foil stampers. On the sheet-fed side, the Chicago printer has two two-color presses (Planeta and Hamada), four A.B. Dick two-color presses and three Virkotype units. The engraving pressroom features seven die stamping presses of various sizes.

Diecutting also is on the rise at therm plants that have added in-house foil-stamping capabilities, according to Van Pelt. 'Traditionally, thermographers producing door hangers, rotary index cards and odd-shaped business cards had to purchase expensive, pre-diecut stock,' explains Van Pelt. 'As you might imagine, this added inventory expense, created production problems and reduced profitability. In-house diecutting, using low-cost steel rule dies, eliminates these problems.'

While foil stamping still is perceived by many as a specialty process, it's drawing more interest from commercial printers, according to Tim Miehl, regional sales manager for Brandtjen and Kluge (St.Croix Falls, WI). By bringing these finishing jobs in house, printers can maintain greater control over the end product while trimming time from the manufacturing process. 'Over the past few years, more printers have brought foil stamping in-house,' observes Mary Fuller, executive director of the Foil Stamping & Embossing Assn. (Portland, OR).'But some may be in for a surprise--you can't just jump right into it--there's a learning curve involved.'

Combination stamping represents one such potential surprise. Doing a combo stamp--foil and embossing in one pass--is perceived to be quicker and more economical. Since a flat stamping set-up can be predicted and the emboss can be predicted, there's a strong argument to be made in favor of two passes. If you flat stamp on one pass and emboss on the second, you can run at maximum press speeds, giving your operator full control. More importantly, all factors are predictable.

Combo setup, on other hand, is unpredictable and generally takes two or more hours to accomplish desirable results. Plus, combo press run speeds can only reach half that of flat stamping and embossing on a second pass. Careful attention to pass success and failure can help you choose the correct pro cess for your shop.

Miehl notes that foil stamping equipment is accessible for printers of all sizes. One recent installation for example is Regal Impressions, the one-man specialty finishing division of Regal Printing (Carmel, IN). Chris Latty, co-owner and partner in Regal Impressions, operates a Kluge EHD 14 x 22-inch foil stamping and diecutting press. The division was created several years ago, after Latty's partner saw an opportunity to prove small and medium-sized customers with basic finishing sevices. On the other hand, greeting-card giant Hallmark has 55 Kluges 'for stamping in all different seasons,' says Miehl.

Therm-O-Type recently introduced the SFX foil press for applications including 12-up business card shells with a four-up die, blind or foil embossing multiple-up work with a single die and diecutting multiple-up work. Production speed is said to be 6,000 iph. Rollem Corp. (Orange, CA) is targeting small and medium-sized shops with its new Auto-4 Multi-Pro hot foil stamping and blind embossing system. Production speeds are reportedly 10,000 sph. In addition to stamping and embossing, the Auto-4 offers numbering, perforating and scoring functions. Typical applications include letterhead, forms and eight-up business cards.

On the materials side, Fuller predicts further consolidation among the 15 to 20 major foil suppliers. The exec notes that Astor Universal (Lawrence, KS) and Dri-Print Foils merged last year--the new name is API Foils. Also, Foilmark (Newburyport, MA) has joined forces with New Jersey-based Transfer Print Foil.

'As major manufacturers of foil equipment compete for your business, it's a buyers' market,' adds John Gallager vice president Total Register (Brookfield, CT). 'There has never been a better market or economic climate to add a finishing department, including foil, diecutting or thermography.'

New from Matik North America (West Hartford, CT) is the Steuer Foil-Jet FBR 104 R. stamping unit. 'It's the technology of the future,' claims Frank LaCroix, vice president. A second stamping unit is said to eliminate the need to run the sheet through a second time for combo jobs.

Look for a multitude of new concepts and technological breakthroughs on equipment. Touch-screen controls to set up and monitor foil data as well as for storing and sequencing foil pulls during stamping have been developing at an extraordinary pace. Photo sensors, front lay and side guides monitors also have given the industry high tech bragging rights.

What's driving the foil boom? The greeting card industry's role certainly can't be ignored. Sharon Malonie of H&F Products, a Kansas City-based greeting card manufacturer, expects national sales to grow by 30 percent to 40 percent.

Packaging is a booming market as foil is used to win the battle for consumers' attention and dollars. Wine and liquor labels represent a primary growth market in Bulgaria, Russia and Europe.

'Consumers are willing to pay for what they perceive to be a more elegant product,' reports Stewart Glazer, vice president of sales and marketing for Crown Roll Leaf. 'Even if you put a little gold banding on a wine label or a box of chocolates it really makes a difference.' Of course, foil isn't just for these goodies--it also helps lowly corn flakes jump off your grocer's shelves. Indeed, Kellogg found adding a foil hologram to cereal boxes led to a dramatic jump in sales--reportedly as much as by 10 percent. It's also a popular choice for sports trading cards, book covers and eye-popping point-of-purchase displays.

Security (anti-duplication devices) is another hot market for foil. It's used for bus passes, checks, tickets, etc. In the Pacific Rim, foil is used extensively to 'foil' counterfeiters. Developments include the application of holographic, diffraction and lenticular die patterns that are a stamping die partially etched with chemicals and finished by a hand engraver. These new foils and techniques have stretched the limits of creating with foil further than ever before.

While the future of thermography, foil stamping and emb ossing looks bright (not to mention shiny) the importance of training and education shouldn't be overlooked. All of the major manufacturers of foil and machinery offer training programs to assist end users with education, applications and technical support. Astor Universal, Bobst, Crown, Heidelberg, Kurz and Kluge are excellent examples.

How do you reach the designers? A variety of special interest groups can help--FSEA, for example offers The Designer's Guide to Foilstamping and Embossing, a useful tool for printers, too. Repro reports great success with annual open houses for local chapters of PIA and Women in Design. The invitations to these events--a showcase of special effects--also help promote its capabilities.

'Foil use begins with the designers,' notes Crown Roll Leaf's Glazer. 'We try to keep them informed.' In addition to attending trade shows specifically geared for the designers, the firm aims to provide customers with one-stop shopping via its 'vertical integration.' Crown Roll Leaf's in-house design team will work with a designer customer and that customer's printer to provide mock-ups, immediate turnaround on custom and color patterns and hologram help. 'We have our own research and development department and that saves a lot of headaches, too,' adds Glazer.

As firms look for creative ways to promote their corporate image, it's quite possible foil or thermography could factor into your future. With careful preparation, you'll be ready for liftoff.

Here's quick definitions and a few historical footnotes on the finishing techniques highlighted in this article.

Thermography or raised printing was developed in 1905 as a lower-priced alternative to steel or copper engraving. It adds an embossed effect to ink. Once a sheet of paper has been printed on an offset or letterpress, it is then conveyed through a powder shaker. The thermographic powder adheres to the wet ink--excess powder is then vacuumed away by an air suction unit. As the paper travels along, it moves through a heat tunnel where gas or electric burners heat the powder on the ink, causing it to rise, resulting in a raised image on paper. Finally, the paper enters a cooling area.

n Foil stamping--this process begins with the heating of a die mounted on a platen. Foil is then placed between the die and the matierial to be imprinted. When the die pressed against the foil, the heat releases the coloring layer from the foil and binds it to the end product.

As late as 1955, Werner Rebsamen, RIT professor and american printer contributing editor, recalls using a gas-heated, hand-operated stamping press during his days as an apprentice and journeyman bookbinder. Prior to the development of hot stamping foils, some book covers required as many as 14 different setup and foils. Ernst Oeser, a German master bookbinder, pioneered the development of hot-stamping foils in the 1880s. However, foil manufacturing really began blossoming in the 1950s. 'Vacuum metallizing became extremely popular among all foil manufacturers,' recounts Rebsamen. 'Forming such thin metal films of simulated gold and aluminum resulted in quality stamping--fine definitions could be maintained.'

Embossing creates a raised image on paper by pressing the paper between a heated die and counter die.

Combination stamping--this process combines foil stamping and embossing into one press pass. It is usually accomplished via a brass-sculptured embossing die with a foil breakage edge.

Holograms--Dennis Garber, Nobel prize-winning physicist, discovered holograms--a laser-generated image, that when viewed under ambient light appears three-dimensional--in the late 1940s. In the early 1980s, the technology was developed for transferring a holographic image to a metallic plate and mass producing it on mirror-like foil.

The next time you're in Chicago, check out the Museum of Holography. Located on Washington Blvd. just down the street from Oprah's televison studio, the museum claims to be 'the world's most complete facility for display and sale of artistic and scientific holography, holographic instruction and production of commercial holograms.' The 20-year old museum features four galleries of holograms, many of which are animated. Contact the museum at (312) 226-1007; or visit it on-line at

Other useful sources include the Foil Stamping and Embossing Assn. (FSEA), (Portland, OR); phone: (503) 331-6221. International Thermography Assn. (Alexandria, VA); phone: (703) 519-8179. Worldwide Printing Thermographers Assn., (Washington, DC); phone: (202) 393-2818. Source: FSEA, WPTA