A new surface decoration process uses an immersion coating technology to give products a new look.

This new surface decoration is created through an advanced image-transfer technology. Known as Final Finish, the process, refined by Immersion Graphics Corp., Columbus, GA, instantly and permanently affixes any color, design or pattern selected to virtually any nonporous surface. It adheres neatly, evenly and fully dimensionally to steel, aluminum, plastic, glass or pottery, maintaining total integrity of the originally selected design.

For scores of consumer and industrial products, the process can be a versatile styling enhancer and product value booster in the competitive marketing arena. As such, it ensures greater visibility for such merchandise in the marketplace and allows for broader mark-up margins at the point of sale.

The Process

On first glance, the elements of the process seem rather simple: an open 4 1/2-inch-wide tank of water, a 20- to 40-inch-wide roll of specially formulated film imprinted with a given pattern or image, and a spraygun of solvent, along with some basic surface conditioning, clear coating, and drying processes.

Essentially, the Final Finish process involves the digitized transfer of a given image to the surface of a specially engineered sheet of film. As such, the image is printed as an exact replica of the original. Such images are derived from photography, art or computer-generated forms, and can consist of almost any imaginable graphic. Choices range from marble veins and wood grains to metallics or camouflages in a variety of earth and foliage tones; stripes, plaids, checks, dots and swirls; and a variety of colors and patterns from the developer’s library. Even customized images, such as brand logos and other graphics, can be created to express the corporate personality and marketing stance of the manufacturer and its product line.

The film itself serves as a carrier for the image or pattern. As this graphic is only a few microns thick, decoration, or coating, is possible for such flexible plastic products as ski goggles, water bottles, and, most significantly, rotational molded parts such as all-terrain vehicle fenders and related components. Film coverage, adhesion and long-term durability are never a problem.

Initially, the product planned for such surface decoration is sprayed with a basecoat, which neutralizes its surface for better adhesion and creates the desired tonal background for the pattern application. The basecoat can be lacquer, polyurethane or a powder coating, depending upon its compatibility with the type of surface to be treated. The recommended coatings go through the process of crosslinking. A key step in this process is to “attack” the surface prior to its crosslinking, so that the ink in the pattern becomes a part of that substrate, thereby maximizing adhesion. In the case of a plastic substrate, the chemical activator that is used actually etches the surface of the plastic to create a bond for the ink with the substrate surface itself. Thus, given the suitability of the substrate color, no base coat is needed in such cases.

The various applied basecoat colors blend with the patterns and colors printed on the film to produce a range of distinctive shades, tones or tints in the final design as it adheres to the product. For example, a marble veined pattern can ultimately appear as a green Carrara strata, or a pink, gray, or white strain according to the basecoat color applied. Similarly, wood grains can express the look of oak, walnut, mahogany or white pine according to the background color applied. On the other hand, the basecoat coloration can be omitted on some materials if the original surface provides the background tone desired.

Next, the pattern selected is floated atop a clear-water surface in a specially designed immersion tank. Sliding baffles adjust at various points to confine the pattern to a fixed position. At this point, the pattern is sprayed with a special chemical activator, which dissolves the film into a gelatinous state. As such, this dissolved image continues to float atop the surface, and remains intact in its newly liquefied form. The chemical activator not only dissolves or re-wets the inked image, it also serves as the catalyst for transcription of the image to the coating.

Then the item to be coated is fully immersed into the liquid and quickly withdrawn from the tank. It is here where the item or object takes on all the color and design elements of the original pattern selected. The image clings to the product, wrapping around every peak, dip, angle and curve in its construction to achieve a degree of total, uniform coverage overall. Not to be confused with the flat sheet in-mold process that’s limited to one surface, this is truly a three-dimensional (3-D) technology in the strictest sense of the words. Water follows all 3-D contours of the immerged item by the process of displacement; the item is totally transcribed by water pressure thus effecting the 3-D coverage.

In the next step, the product is rinsed free of any excess film residue and hung for drying, either in the open air or in a special oven. No actual heat is needed, however; the oven is merely an option when faster-than-air drying is desired as a last step. Thus, as a heat-free process, Final Finish adheres well on polyethylene and polystyrene products produced by blow molding.

Finally, a clear coat is applied according to the product’s intended use, in order to provide durability and ultraviolet (UV) protection. The top coat process can use a variety of finishes from any number of manufacturers: polyurethane, lacquer, clear powder coat, or other clear finish. The end use of the product itself determines the most appropriate top coat to be applied.

In its post-production performance, the process has been proven superior not only for UV resistance, but for its resistance to salt water, jolts and jars, abrasions, solvents, and a host of other chemicals. It has, in fact, exceeded all such standards set by the automotive industry. The company used rigid laboratory standards in establishing the high-performance characteristics of the process. UV lamps, along with Xenon arc lamps, established the high UV-resistance ratings. A gravelometer and taber testing unit were used in the impact and abrasion testing, and a salt chamber was used for humidity and corrosion tests. Solvent resistant readings of 24 to 72 hours’ solvent soak of Hoppes #9 gun solvent was noted.

Experimentation and scientific testing of new coatings and adhesion is an ongoing company function, and close relationships with coating companies are maintained in developing new formulas for optimum adhesion and durability. Field service is intensive, using in-depth maintenance and operational manuals, personal visits from the technical force, and update seminars on new technical findings and production techniques. The firm also uses these facilities for developing imaginative new coating samples for existing customers and target prospects.

The Final Finish process is available either as a manual function or a highly automated system based on size and volume requirements. The process adapts equally well as a final step in a manufacturer’s production line, or as a free-standing operation for a third-party product finishing specialist.

In moderate production, a minimum of 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space is required. Larger production lines with complimentary or ancillary equipment will require 12,000 to 30,000 square feet, depending on the quantity and size of the products to be coated.

Multiple units of smaller- and medium-sized products are coated in singular groups for optimum speed and efficiency. Such items are affixed to specially designed racks, which are immersed and withdrawn as single units. For example, some 70 cell-phone casings can be decorated in one pass; 11 sets of boat dash panels can be transformed in a single pass through a square meter of film.

In manual operations, the film is cut and individually laid onto the surface of the water, with a series of sliding baffles adjusted to hold the sheet in place. Both spraying of the solvent and the immersion process itself is done by hand, and although the chemically dissolved film is virtually harmless to the skin, the use of rubber gloves is recommended. A spray rinse is manually applied and drying is done either in the open air or in a heat chamber.

In high-volume, automated production, the film is rolled into the tank and the solvent is dispensed automatically, as the products are immersed and withdrawn in timed sequence with this action. Following a mechanized rinsing step and drying by way of either air or heat, the products receive the clear coat spray and travel through a curing oven as a final step.

The Marketing Perspective

From a marketing perspective, this finishing process has proven to be pure magic on the competitive front. Manufacturers and marketers note that this finish has made an impact and offers added value. It increases the eye appeal, sales persuasion and profitability of their merchandise. The enhanced quality and consumer appeal has helped users to improve their image of styling leadership and design ingenuity — a look and feel of superior production integrity and industry innovation. For many, this has added appreciably to higher volume sales and profitability overall. The finish is especially applicable to such product categories as electronics, automotive components, sporting goods, housewares and other product groupings where a visual point of difference is crucial at the point of sale. Final Finish gives such products greater interest and intrigue — a far sharper competitive edge in the marketplace.

Immersion Graphics’ clients have found this an ideal way to create a family of products in any category for greater marketability. For example, a bathroom cosmetic set of tissue box, toothbrush holder, soap dish and drinking cup can carry a common pattern of woodgrain, stone, or foliage for a quality family, or group, appearance. Sports and recreational equipment marketers have created valuable new visibility for their products with high impact colors and patterns in the process. They’ve even created the near invisibility of camouflage for hunting gear and related products in woods and wildlife settings. Producers of home and office business equipment such as phone sets, laptops, video monitors and desk sets have enlivened their products with Final Finish patterns ranging from hand-tooled leather to that of brushed chrome and burnished brass.

Immersion Graphics, licensor of the Final Finish process initiates a licensing agreement with the applicant, based on the product line(s) under consideration, the type and number of patterns desired, the anticipated film volume needed, and their annual projection of immersion/production activity. The company supplies all equipment and materials and produces and delivers the immersion-ready film when and where it’s needed.

For more information, contact J. Patrick Epling, Vice President/General Manager, Immersion Graphics Corp., 6106 Coca-Cola Blvd., Columbus, GA 31909; phone 706/568.4424; fax 706/561.2757; e-mail epling@immersiongraphics.com; visit www.immersiongraphics.com.