Opportunities in 3D and Dimensional Signage
Signage is designed to capture the attention of the passerby, and what better way to do that than with a three-dimensional (3D) image. 3D printing has been around for a while now, and some of the earlier applications were for prototyping in manufacturing and not so much in the display graphics arena. But two manufacturers have created products that are quickly changing that dynamic.
The Massivit 3D printer takes 3D to another level with the ability to 3D print an image 57" wide, 70" tall, and 44" deep — literally life-size 3D prints. Creating giant POP displays, custom shaped SEG frames for soft signage, and interactive event props are just some of the things you can create with this 3D printer. And on the other end of the spectrum in size — but not impact — is the Mimaki 3DUJ-553, which 3D prints in photorealistic full-color. The Mimaki has a 20x20x12" build area and, along with the full-color ink, has a clear ink for transparent and translucent builds. Some of the applications for the Mimaki are prototyping of consumer goods and packaging, along with medical models and video game assets.
I talked with Josh Hope from Mimaki USA and Kim Haimovic from Massivit to find out a little more about this process and software needed to create these stunning 3D prints, and to get their input about the finishing needed after the print is completed.
More Than Just the Printing
For the Mimaki USA printer, Hope noted that users were drawn to the Blender and Zbrush software to create their images. And Adobe Substance Painter can also be used for the texturing of models. For Massivit, Haimovic noted that most CAD software is useful to design and model the 3D files either from scratch, or by using a 3D scanner. Massivit also has their own slicing software called Massivit SMART.
Once the piece has been 3D printed, it may be sanded or coated with a polyester (in the case of the Massivit piece), and with the color 3D print from Mimaki, an overcoat can be applied to give it a glossy or matte appearance. In the case of the Massivit process, the material is white, and therefore open to many different finishing processes. Vinyl wrapping, flocking, and hydro dipping are all used, and many of these processes don’t require the printed piece to be sanded. If painting is warranted, simple car, spray, or acrylic paint work well to bring the piece to life.
Next I asked about any special handling needed, or the robustness of the printed piece. Haimovic mentioned that the SMART slicing software allows the end-user to choose the layer thickness and wall thickness relative to the size of the piece and the application. And the user can use a variable resolution so the base of a piece can be more robust than the top sections. The final 3D piece can also be strengthened with a post-processing fiberglass coat externally, and internally with expandable foam. An example of a mannequin printed in one piece at a height of 5 ft. would not need any internal structure or support to hold it up. Hope noted that 3D resin prints are durable, but care should be taken if the printed models have fine details or thin walls.
New Technologies, New Applications
The other development in dimensional signage is in the UV printing arena. One feature of UV printing is that it sits on top of the substrate, and has a topographical feel when printed and cured. It didn’t take long for manufacturers and end users to realize this was a great way to add eye-catching textures and value to their prints.
I talked with Randy Paar from Canon Solutions America and Lon Riley with LogoJET, and asked them to share information about the process their customers were using with this technology. Riley noted that they have a number of artists using the ability to create texture to their art on a variety of products, and other customers were simulating effects such as stained glass, laser etching, and embossing.
Paar shared that with the addition of a 3D scanner, print providers can capture the brush strokes of a fine art print and then reproduce those strokes in the print itself. They are also producing textures such as leather, wood, stone, and more, and even creating molds for ceramic tiles that are then filled with clay and fired.
For Canon, the magic is in their Touchstone software. This software has two components; the ALPS (Advanced Layer Printing System) driver for the ONYX Thrive RIP, and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator extensions to allow designers the ability to both create as well as preview texture effects in a virtual 3D environment. All the print height or altitude effects are embedded in the same 2D design they would normally send to their print provider.
The Touchstone extensions create an additional greyscale layer within the Adobe PDF file that determines the elevation in the final print depending on the greyscale value, where black represents 100% elevation, and white 0%. The file is then exported as a PDF that is opened in ONYX Thrive and processed through the Touchstone ALPS driver, which automatically creates the required number of layers each containing the white undercoat, build layers, and final color in the appropriate locations relative to the final elevation. This prints the final color image at the same optimal distance from the surface, regardless if it is in the lowest valley or highest peak, resulting in the best possible result. Touchstone software not only ensures textured artwork can be easily and predictably created, it also ensures that it prints in an optimal way that guarantees both print quality and operator safety.
The LogoJET Print Pro software, powered by Kothari, also enables designers to use layering of the inks to generate textures and three-dimensional effects. Print Pro has a built-in feature called “grey gradation” that automatically applies more texture to darker areas, and less to lighter areas of an artwork. Conversely, the “inverted gray gradation” applies more texture to the light areas. Using the layering features, an operator can make the textures more extreme or more subtle to meet their needs. Print Pro can also accept channel-based data from art programs, allowing designers to apply textures or raised print to targeted colors or areas. For both manufacturers, simply raising the printing carriage and printing at an ever-increasing print gap is not enough.
The End Result
As far as special handling of these printed pieces, the prints are cured immediately, however some of the finest details that are both narrow and tall enough compared to their surrounding elevation can be more easily damaged. Canon’s Touchstone extension preview function allows you to identify areas with steep cliffs and limit their degree of slope to essentially create more of a conical shape versus a cylinder, providing greater strength, as well as ensuring the final color is not just on the top surface, but all the way up the sides. As far as height achievable, Canon’s product is typically in the .25mm to 1mm range, and LogoJET’s process can give good results up to 1.5-2mm.
Signage should be eye catching and appealing, and adding 3D printing or even dimensional printing to the mix will allow your signage to stand out (literally) from the surrounding landscape. Working with your design staff to take advantage of something that you may have in your shop right now (UV printer) to bring more life to your prints is an easy way to add additional value to your print offerings — and who knows, it may lead you down the path toward a 3D printer to take your creative game to new levels, pun definitely intended!
Ray assists association members with information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees training and certification workshops at PRINTING United Alliance. Ray is project manager for both the PDAA Certification program and the PRINTING United Alliance Digital Color Professional Certification program and is an instructor for the Color Management Boot Camps as well as a G7 expert. Ray regularly contributes to the Association's Journal and won the 2016 Swormstedt Award for Best in Class writing in the Digital Printing category. Ray was inducted into the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies (ASDPT) in 2020. He also works with SkillsUSA to conduct the National Competition for Graphics Imaging Sublimation. Outside of work, Ray enjoys biking, international cuisine and spending time with his three fantastic grandkids.