By Cassandra Balentine
Media selection can make or break a job in terms of quality, durability, and price. With supply chain challenges, the pressure is on to ensure the best options are ordered ahead and stocked as needed. Print service providers (PSPs) should also be informed and ready to swap out media options when required.
Rigid substrates range from plastics to paperboard, acrylics, and aluminum. What is the state of these solutions today and where does sustainability fit in? We answer these questions and more.
Above: Example of Falconboard used in a retail environment.
Supply Chain Considerations
Supply chain disruptions are an ongoing challenge across the board for manufacturers. Print providers are absolutely affected.
The supply chain is impacted on the materials side, especially for printers that rely on overseas suppliers. “We expect it to take at least another year to normalize. What PSPs can do is leverage domestic suppliers to help shorten supply delivery times,” predicts Mike Sherrod, market development manager, signage and graphics, Vycom.
“We are affected with higher prices on our raw materials but also in any services related such as sea and land transportation, packing, and customs,” admits Pedro Nieto, North America commercial director, Alutec. “We are also affected by longer and uncertain lead times, which in turn has affected our relationship with customers as we constantly need to change delivery dates.”
While freight increases and driver shortages continues to be challenging for all, Bob O’Neill, national sales manager, Competitive EDGE US, Falconboard manufacturer representative, believes it is starting to settle down from pandemic-based difficulties.
When it comes to metals like aluminum, Richard Dettman, director of sales, Duraluxe, says the commodity recovered to near pre-COVID-19 levels. However, demand increased due to educating customers about new product uses.
There is always a silver lining to consider, and Michele Pistone, marketing manager, Neenah Inc., says for PSPs and end users there is an explorative mentality and willingness to innovate what previously was lacking in the industry. “Our materials aren’t immune to shortages and delays, however the demand also increased substantially as PSPs rethink their process and represent options to their clients. This is a good change environmentally and for production efficiency,” shares Pistone.
“With all of us trying to be better stewards of the environment including many corporations signing on and committing to net zero, we see great demand for recyclable paperboards for trade shows and retail, visual merchandising applications, signage, and display,” agrees O’Neill.
Stock and Order
Ordering and stocking items while supply chains are in flux is a challenge, but not impossible.
“Managing proper inventory levels throughout a pandemic wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it did teach many PSPs the importance of being nimble and in a way, prepared them for moments like this,” says Sherrod. He adds that stocking versatile products that can be used for multiple types of applications help individuals stay as nimble as possible and in today’s climate—that is a key to success.
Not only should PSPs accept more versatile products, they should be open to alternative board types and sizes, as this would provide quicker lead times, according to Stacy LaFleche, national marketing manager, Panel Processing, Inc. For example, thicker board and particleboard are easier to acquire than MDF and HDF at the moment.
Specific to Xanita board, Rowan Maher, CMO, Xanita, recommends that customers plan with their physical footprint in mind. “The material can take up more space than you think.” He says it is also important to consider that paper is alive and responds to elements like climate conditions. This also needs to be considered when stocking and using it.
Industries are accustom to working with low inventories, but Nieto says that right now it is important to have at least a month’s worth of stock to prevent delivery issues.
“Work closely with your distributors to ensure they have inventory for your upcoming project needs and if it’s a larger project make sure the manufacturer of the product(s) being specified for your project have the capabilities to deliver to meet your timeline needs,” comments O’Neill.
Pistone reiterates this message. “Stay ahead of the game, assess and average your clients’ quarterly needs. Stock sufficiently, stay nimble, and win the business. Educate your sales teams and clients that in many cases a slight change in thickness is a worthwhile concession to maintain speed to market. Work with your distributors to also assess and average your needs as a PSP.”
Dettman points out that certain finishes are in high demand so it is important to order in advance to avoid not being able to maintain inventory levels.
“It seems as though everyone is feeling the pinch. Whether the preference is to print on foam core, PVC, or acrylic, PSPs will face extended lead times. As an organization we do our best to stay transparent and communicate changes and challenges as we see them coming down the pipeline. In most cases the best way to combat this would be to plan production schedules as far in advance as possible. It requires some creativity and plenty of communication but at the end of the day, planning ahead helps everyone manage both their inventory levels and price points,” offers Sherrod.
Pistone says the availability is cyclic across plastics, papers, and metals. “Understanding the cross compatibility and maintaining communication with manufacturers and distributors is key. Domestic manufacturing does allow for better consistency as the uncertainties of transit are eliminated.”
While supply chain issues are a major area of concern for many in the print industry, sustainability is another media trend to watch. Several players in the rigid space are making environmentally driven moves.
The makeup of the media itself is one way to prioritize sustainability. For example, Alutec only uses recycled polyethylene from shopping bags to manufacture its aluminum composite material core.
A highly durable metal, aluminum is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled without degrading its inherent value. “Nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. In addition, 99 percent of the volatile organic compound-free powder is reclaimed during the process of powder coating,” shares Dettman.
Xanita board is inherently a sustainable product, manufactured with a high percentage of post-consumer fiber. The board itself is not just recyclable, but it’s fully repulpable. “This means that our board can go straight back to the mill, be repulped, and returned to the paper stream without the need to remove anything from it first. This isn’t possible with most other products. Beyond that, all of the water used in our production is recycled rain water runoff and all of our manufacturing waste is repulped,” says Maher.
Panel Processing’s wood composite panel options are sustainable as most panels are made from scrap wood chips and particles. “Composite panels have longer lives than other options because they are more durable. Our Eco-Finish coating for our digital print media is an environmentally friendly water-based coating,” adds LaFleche.
Working with companies that are certified through various environmental groups is another way to move towards an environmentally forward operation.
Neenah has a rich history of sustainable products, partnerships, and certifications. It devotes significant efforts to increase sustainable premium paper production by implementing responsible fiber sourcing certifications like Forest Stewardship Council and Green Seal and standards like processed chlorine-free and high post-consumer content.
“We focus on energy and water conservation efforts through manufacturing initiatives such as our commitment to using Green-e certified renewable energy and reducing our environmental footprint with improvements to our transportation processes with membership in the EPA SmartWay program,” notes Pistone.
Recycling programs are essential to ensuring environmental sustainability within the printing industry.
The Vycom Recycling Program is designed to take back and recycle printed and unprinted rigid PVC and acrylic sheets, as well as scraps and drops from finishing and fabricating. The program is intended for users of rigid PVC, acrylic, and PE products—in coordination with authorized distributors for drop off or collection—to recycle used signage and scrap, which is returned to company recycling facilities and used to manufacture the company’s residential and commercial products to ensure these materials do not end up in landfills.
Sherrod explains that one of Vycom’s initial partners in this effort is CIP Retail—that serves independent and chain retailers to provide customized retail experiences. Working with Laird Plastics in Dayton, OH, Vycom collects the retired PVC-based signage as change outs occur. According to CIP Retail, this program helped it realize forty percent fewer dumpster hauls, reducing its financial obligation for this service; it also led to a much cleaner workflow in the fabrication area. “Most importantly, the waste is being diverted from landfills enabling CIP Retail to continue to be good stewards of the environment,” explains Sherrod.
More recently, Vycom worked with the International Sign Association, Freeman Exhibitions, and the Georgia World Congress Center to collect rigid PVC and acrylic during the International Sign Expo in May of 2022. Nearly 3,000 pounds of rigid PVC and acrylic materials were collected from the show floor. “Understanding that signage and graphics exhibitions are notable users of short-term rigid PVC and acrylic, Vycom is building a program where these types of collections become the norm,” adds Sherrod.
Inteplast Group also launched a recycling program. PP is one of the most widely and commonly used plastics. “The production of PP is vast and production of it continues to expand every year in large part due to the demand. PP is fully recyclable and we promote this throughout our customer base. In early April we began promoting a recycling program for just this reason on the importance of sustainability,” says Karen Dicang, marketing director, Inteplast Group.
Eye on Sustainability
Sustainability is important to combat and prevent pollution, climate change, and the overall depletion of natural resources. “We need to generate circular economies in which resources continue to be available and in turn our business continues too,” offers Nieto.
“Sustainability is important because it’s going to be something we continue to face as we head into the future. Unless we stick to sustainable paths there will be more issues moving forward,” admits LaFleche.
O’Neill promotes a ‘think before they spec’ concept to customers, and encourages them to consider displacing non-recycled and non-recyclable plastic materials they may be currently using in favor of more sustainable materials.
Pistone says the demand for environmentally friendly solutions is driven in large part by consumer education and awareness. “Brands are being scrutinized for the sustainability of their products and practices more than ever before. As people become more aware of the impact of materials in landfills and waterways, the demand for sustainable products continues to grow. The wide format market has many variations of the definition of sustainable, and often must contribute to the education by discussing the recyclability or end-of-life cycle of their products.”
“Consumers are more eco-conscious than ever and want to help do their part to leave behind a healthy planet,” agrees O’Neill. He sees consumers choosing to engage and support brands and retailers that align with their values. Visual merchandisers dressing up their in-store environments are recognizing that a switch to recycled/recyclable rigid paperboard products is a good start when they know it’s going to be recycled at end of life.
Maher believes sustainability should be the way forward and the new normal. “People are more aware than ever of the negative impact that we’re having on the environment and forcing change. Consumers are speaking with their wallets and publicly calling out businesses that do more harm than good. This has led to big brands making massive changes in favor of sustainability, which finally forced our industry to become more sustainably focused as opposed to just talking about it.”
“Plastic waste is a global crisis. An overwhelming amount of plastic is not properly recovered and recycled, and overseas entities are limiting their acceptance of plastics waste for reprocessing. There are challenges to recycling that can be met with a concerted effort between consumers, recyclers, and manufacturers,” notes Sherrod.
When considering rigid media options, top trends driving evolution in the market include supply chain concerns and environmental sustainability. Planning ahead and communicating with manufacturers and distributors is the best way to handle the former, while reconsidering the environmental priorities of your business, customers, and the brands you work with dictate the latter.
Nov2022, Digital Output