By Cassandra Balentine
Many types of printable materials fall under the rigid umbrella. These include plastics and metals, as well as paper-, wood-, and fiber-based options.
Paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid substrates offer benefits and limitations depending on the requirements and specifications of the job at hand.
This type of media is often used for display purposes, from point of purchase (POP) to trade show booths. “The applications are truly endless but in general, you’ll find them used for promotional signage, exhibits, wayward signage, window displays, floor displays, and more,” comments Tim Bolton, president, UltraPartners, LLC.
Above: Monadnock’s ENVIsual Board is part of the Envi line of products. It is FSC certified, available in 100 percent post-consumer, wood fiber that is recyclable.
Room to Grow
Beyond retail and event displays, paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid media options are moving into new spaces. As awareness of availability and product quality increase, Bolton is confident that opportunities for this type of rigid substrate will also grow.
Bob O’Neill, national sales manager, Competitive EDGE, U.S./Canada Falconboard Manufacturer Reps, sees many trade shows, stores, and other consumer-visited areas starting to embrace rigid paperboard products to displace their legacy “this is what we have always used” projects.
For example, Roberto Rodriguez, managing director, DGS USA, sees new applications including tri-dimensional structures such as backdrops, trade show booths, POP displays, and furniture.
For wood-fiber rigid products in particular, Vince Queau, senior sales representative, Monadnock Paper Mills, says typical applications include retail, both indoor and outdoor signage and displays; replacements for vinyl, styrene, and PVC; as well as shelf talkers and trade show displays.
Specific to paperboard, Adam Reiser, GM, Lamitech, Inc., suggests that it is a prominent material in most retail environments due to its versatility. Its applications include packaging and retail displays. Paperboard is also utilized for gift and specialty boxes including elegant jewelry displays and decorative gift boxes, greeting cards, tags, journals, and books. “Because of growing trends in sustainability, eco-friendly brands increasingly turn to recycled or sustainably sourced paperboards.”
Paperboard and fiber-based materials are versatile and offer numerous design and functional possibilities. “They can be easily printed upon, molded, and folded, allowing for creative packaging solutions without sacrificing sustainability. This adaptability makes them an attractive option for businesses looking to enhance their brand image while prioritizing eco-friendliness,” notes Mark Beamesderfer, packaging services director, Metsä Board Americas.
Sustainability is a big driver for new uses of paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid media. While the discussion surrounding eco-friendly options is complex, it is safe to say that many print buyers seek plastic alternatives wherever and whenever it makes sense.
“The ‘green’ movement is gaining genuine traction now, with opportunities expanding daily,” comments Reiser. “It seems that every day a brand manager is asking for something more sustainable. Increasingly, companies inquire about the materials, asking questions like, ‘what is this made from?’ and ‘how do we recycle it?’ This reflects a broader shift towards environmental responsibility and consciousness in the printing community.”
Queau sees a strong desire for reduction in single-use plastics and global interest in recyclability, compostability, and biodegradability. “We are committed to constant innovation and development of new ways to provide sustainable products that demonstrate advancements in durability without compromising the ultimate goal of being able to recycle and reuse with the most minimal environmental impact.”
O’Neill agrees, adding that it’s imperative for rigid board distributors to embrace paper-based substrates and have it readily available for their print customers. “Distributors who have filled in their warehouses with custom printable rigid paperboard products alongside their rigid plastic materials are now being rewarded by their print customers and have gained a significant advantage against their competitors.”
The mass adoption of sustainable products is in its infancy, as the market becomes more accustomed to use. Rowan Maher, CMO, Xanita, expects more innovation and opportunities to follow.
“Tons of current applications are temporary and don’t need to be made of traditional substrates, like applications such as graphics for social and corporate events decoration, brand activations, temporary pop-ups, and trade show booths that need to be easy to handle and in some cases disposable/recyclable,” notes Rodriguez.
When considering rigid media options, paper-, wood-, and fiber-based solutions present many advantages.
Bolton says the top ones are recyclability, low CO2 emissions, high-quality print and fabrication characteristics, as well as price. “All are very important but in the grand scheme of things, using a fiber-based option allows end users to confidently dispose of their campaign materials with the existing channels they have at store level. This allows for a true circular process we all need to meet sustainability objectives.”
Aside from sustainability considerations, Maher points out that the strength-to-weight ratio of rigid solutions like Xanita board is “astonishing.” “The versatility of Xanita board is also something that many other materials can’t compete with. The product is regularly used for retail POP displays, trade shows, shopfitting, visual merchandising and store design, caskets, and signage.”
Versatility is another advantage to paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid substrates. “Paperboard’s properties and versatility make it a preferred choice for many retail applications, from packaging to displays. Paperboard’s versatility and excellent print surface, ability to be easily converted, and various finishes make it adaptable for eye-catching creations,” shares Reiser.
Rodriguez says many of these options are easier to manipulate before, during, and after production and easier and cleaner to cut and transform. “This is especially important if the printing machines are close to the ‘cutting’ equipment; more cost effective in terms of freight; and easier and faster installation and turnaround.”
Back to sustainability, Queau feels that responsibly sourced, wood fiber-based substrates often lend for ease in recyclability. “After the use of fiber-based products, the ability for it to be repurposed into a new product is an attractive advantage and is what customers and businesses are requesting.”
While paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid media offer many benefits, challenges may also arise based on the specific job.
Reiser points out that for one, paperboard can absorb moisture, which may cause it to warp or lose its rigidity.
Maher sees the biggest limitation as long-term outdoor applications, without treating or adding “protection” to the materials.
“Generally speaking, the construction of fiber-based substrates have a more limited use for outdoor applications when fully exposed to the elements. When there is additional protection, they can have longer durability outdoors, an example being bus shelter applications,” comments Queau, adding that it is important to consider the specific needs of an application when reviewing the pros and cons of a particular media.
Specific factors like cost, durability, print quality, and weight are considered when looking at different types of rigid media for a particular job. Let’s review what the experts have to say about each.
The cost of paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid media options compared against other products depends on the application and substrates considered.
“It goes both ways, it depends on the substrate,” admits Maher.
Queau stresses that it’s difficult to make such a generalized statement in either direction as it pertains to wood fiber or polymer-based substrates. “The main reason for this is that rigid substrates come in many different, unique options with various fiber and chemical compositions that are custom designed to meet a specific application—especially as it relates to customer-specific needs for durability and longevity.”
With the exception of some commonly used lightweight PVC foamboards, O’Neill says most rigid paperboard substrates are generally lower priced than other PVC-based options.
Rodriguez agrees, noting that paper-based rigid substrates are less expensive than other plastic materials when comparing the same material thickness. For example, half-inch PVC versus half-inch honeycomb board.
Reiser points out that paperboard is generally considered to be a more economical option compared to rigid substrates like foamboard and other plastic materials. “This is because it is less expensive to produce, manufactured domestically, and derived from renewable resources.”
“Depending on the application, fiber-based options shouldn’t be much more than traditional resin or metal substrates,” notes Bolton.
Again it’s hard to generalize specifics, but paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid substrates don’t typically perform as well outdoors for a long length of time when compared with plastic- or metal-based alternatives.
“In most cases rigid plastic, steel, and aluminum are better suited for outdoor signage applications. For indoor applications rigid paper boards tend to last well within the timelines needed for the promotion, which makes it a more eco-friendly choice when evaluating campaigns,” shares O’Neill.
Rodriguez says for applications that require a long-lasting product, which will be constantly exposed to contact and manipulation or used outdoors—POP floor displays, for example, medium density fiberboard (MDF), acrylic, PVC, or aluminum composite material (ACM), are probably the best option. “For any other applications, paper-based substrates work well,” he states.
Bolton points out that fiber-based substrates have come a long way and some are now confidently used for indoor and outdoor applications. “Products can be used nicely in outdoor applications replacing styrene and fluted polypropylene materials and allowing for transparent disposal into paper recycling bins.”
The suitability of paperboard in terms of durability largely depends on its intended use. “For short-term packaging or signage, it might be ideal. For long term, heavy duty, or outdoor use, other materials might be more appropriate. Paperboard’s durability is versatile and can be adapted to various needs, but it might not be suitable for all applications, especially those requiring extreme strength or resistance to harsh environmental conditions. Coatings can be applied to make it more resistant to moisture, but it might still not be suitable for applications requiring prolonged exposure to wet conditions,” explains Reiser.
Queau says Monadnock focuses on developing wood fiber substrates that contain durable characteristics similar to plastics—water resistance, strength, and longevity, while providing curbside recyclability.
Maher feels that a discussion of durability is more dependent on the application and the design rather than the substrate itself. “For example, if someone were to use a paper material designed for indoor use for an outdoor application, and the material fails due to torrential rain. The argument shouldn’t be that the substrate is less durable than something fit for outdoor use like an ACM, it should be that the incorrect substrate was used for the application.”
A durable, cost-effective, versatile material doesn’t mean much to a print provider if it’s not easy to print to.
Luckily, Reiser says paperboard is widely regarded as an ideal material for printing. It is compatible with various printing techniques, such as offset, digital, flexography, and screen. “This versatility allows for a range of design possibilities. It is also suitable for various post-printing processes such as die cutting, embossing, laminating, and folding, allowing for endless creative designs.”
Adhesion of the ink to the substrate is another consideration. “I think it’s better in the case of paper-based rigid substrates since it has a porous printing surface,” offers Rodriguez.
O’Neill points out that most rigid paperboards’ top and bottom liners are print treated. “Printing on paper compared to plastics is typically an easier process with digital and screen equipment in the channel.”
Maher stresses that any substrate designed for the printing industry should print well. “Most printers are running jobs at production speed and quality, which means print quality is generally not paramount over speed and efficiency—unless printing fine art or photography—for the most part as long as you can color match with the substrate and it’s able to provide a good finished representation of the brief, that’s all that really matters.”
Queau shares that many substrates are purposely designed with smooth surfaces and specialty coatings that enable the product to be printed with high definition and vibrant color as well as are built to support heavy ink coverage. “Many are designed with universal coatings that allow the same rigid product to be printed across a variety of print platforms.”
In the realm of rigid media, weight is an important consideration.
Reiser says paperboard is generally available in thinner dimensions in thicknesses ranging from 0.008 to 0.180 inches.
“Paper-based rigid substrates such as honeycomb board are substantially lighter than rigid substrate options like ACM, and poly-based materials, especially if we compare, again, same thickness products. The main reason for this difference is that the internal structure—in this case the honeycomb—is 90 percent air,” says Rodriguez.
According to O’Neill, the beauty of rigid paperboards is that most of them have a fluted and/or honeycomb structure to create strength, which is lightweight.
For Xanita board, Maher says on average it is 75 percent lighter than MDF and is considerably lighter than comparable ACMs and plastics.
Alongside providing durable performance, Queau admits that Monadnock’s products are intentionally designed with high levels of clean, recycled wood fiber rather than filler. This unique mix of fiber rather than fluff or filler provides a high level of rigidity and weight. These characteristics allow for the product to lay flat and remain intact for long periods of time on display. Compared to some of the synthetic products in the marketplace, fiber-based products are either the same or lighter depending on how they are manufactured.
Paper-, wood-, and fiber-based rigid substrates continue to improve in terms of versatility, cost, and durability. As consumers worldwide trend towards replacing plastics with more sustainable solutions, these materials are ready to shine. However, it is important to consider the job at hand, what these materials are replacing in terms of longevity, and what needs to be added in terms of pre- and post-treatments to ensure success.
Nov2023, Digital Output