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VEHICLE WRAPS COVER UPS: the world is watching

Vehicle and fleet wraps are efficient and effective means for placing outdoor signage in plain sight by turning a bus, truck, touring vehicle or car into a mobile billboard that puts a client's advertising all over the place.

By Louis M. Brill

The concept is simple, instead of using billboards in a fixed location and depending on people to pass by the sign, the sign instead, is 'wrapped' around a vehicle and then taken for a ride around the city to promote itself. Anything with four wheels and an exterior shell, and a willingness to become a signboard is fair game.

Sign Elements Vehicle Templates

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  • The elements

    This form of mobile outdoor advertising seems to be popping up in every major city in the United States and abroad. Wrapping vehicles to place gigantic detailed decals and perfectly apply them to vehicles is a very sophisticated process of being able to print on the vinyl films and to perfectly cover the vehicle with that advertisement. A good wrap must be able to cover, but not impede, widow visibility and its vinyl materials must be weather resistant to heat, UV, cold and wind. Adherence to the vehicle shell is important, as the wrap must stay on without it peeling off before purposely being pulled off. Lastly, the vinyl must be easily removed without damaging the vehicle surface with an adhesive residue or even worse, stripping the exterior paint off the vehicle.

    Applying a pressure sensitive vinyl film to create a vehicle wrap may seem an easy job of placing adhesive backed vinyl film to cover a bus or truck shell, but appearances can be deceptive. Applying fleet/vehicle wraps requires a tremendous amount of patience and concentration in lining up each vinyl film element and transferring it to the vehicle. There are no special machines to apply this; it's all done by hand and is definitely not for the faint of heart.

    The coverage of a vinyl wrap on a bus can be akin to placing a series of gigantic decals in exacting proportions in very specific parts of the bus. The trick is getting all the different vinyl panels to perfectly line up as one complete picture. Not easy. When applying a vinyl film on a bus, one must take into account whether the wrap is temporary or permanent, and where it's going on the bus and what the material is (metal or glass). There is also the surface condition; is it smooth? Is it corrugated? Are there separations within the surface (window openings, door gaps, gas inlet hatch, etc.)? Covering windows is easy, but it requires a different kind of vinyl, a perforated one-way viewing mesh that allows it to cover windows, yet letting passengers still see through them. Most acute in the design and manufacturing process is creating a two-dimensional product, computer-altered to be applied to compound curves, such as those found on the ubiquitous P.T. Cruiser.

    MACtac IMAGin JT5915P perforated window film makes one-way visibility easy to achieve on any application. The vinyl film, which provides see-through graphics capabilities, is a popular choice for vehicle and public transportation advertising.

    Once the deal is signed and the plan is launched, there are essentially five stages in the creation to completion process of wrapping a vehicle or bus. This includes the design process of transforming the advertisement into a format that 'reads' as a vehicle wrap, the computer processing of fitting the image onto the designated vehicle, printing the vinyl materials, applying it to the vehicle surface, and once the campaign is finished, removing it. Each stage is very sophisticated and involves a serious of specialized steps in massaging the advertisement or graphic image into its final vehicle cover up.

    Some of the players

    One international provider of high quality vinyl films is MACtac (Stow, OH), a manufacturing company and leading supplier of pressure sensitive adhesive materials as applied to fleet/vehicle wraps. Covering up cars and other assorted vehicles has been a niche in the outdoor graphics market for about a decade, observed Fran Lawrence, a MACtac product manager for Large Format Imaging.

    Designed specifically for solvent inkjet printing, MACtac IMAGin films provide high print quality and consistency with long-term color and gloss and offer superior conformability over simple curves, rivets and corrugations.

    "Bus wraps have been offered since the mid-1990s. Around 2000, vehicle wraps became even more popular and since then, there have been a parade of 'wrapped' vehicles including delivery trucks, vans and cars." Lawrence attributes this expanding market opportunity to the release of a recently new class of printers, the solvent ink jet that allows for a more efficient printing of digital images on vinyl films. "Typically our customers for vinyl wraps are the print shops who create the final advertisements for vehicle placement, which would include either screen printers or ink jet digital printers."

    Sign Elements Vehicle Templates

    To meet the market demand for wrapping these vehicles said Lawrence, "MACtac supplies several vinyl films including the JT5529, which is an ultra-conformable pressure sensitive film that can be used on compound curves and to fit over riveted and corrugated metal surfaces. There is also the JT 5900 series. This vinyl film is also used for curved surfaces and corrugations, but not as conformable as our JT5529 product. For window segments we offer IMAGin JT5915SP, a perforated see-through mesh. And finally to protect the vinyl films, there is also an over laminate, IMAGin LF3699."

    Although fleet wraps is an emerging application, Lawrence says for MACtac its product output is really a small portion of the overall graphics sign market that MACtac serves, but it's definitely one of the fastest growing product lines for the company right now. Lawrence surmised that for wrap applications the big step going forward is making the application of the vinyl films easier to apply and in doing that, it would be a big boost in helping to grow the market.

    A vehicle wrap of a Chrysler P.T. Cruiser. Great care was taken in applying this wrap as the vinyl film had to be fit against the various compound curves of the vehicle. Well received by the client and burger lovers everywhere. photo credit : Shadow Graphics

    On the manufacturer/installer side there is Shadow Graphics (Orlando, FL), a full service sign and graphics shop that exclusively utilizes 3M Scotchprint printing materials for indoor and outdoor signage and for fleet/vehicle wrap projects. Bill Corio, president of the company has wrapped buses, trucks, cars and then some to satisfy his customers' needs for getting their name out in a big way.

    He pointed out that fleet/vehicle wraps constitute about 50 % of Shadow Graphics business. "Our company has a high standard for fleet/vehicle wraps and we are a licensed 3M Scotchprint manufacturer for electrostatic printing of vinyl films. Our service combines special training from 3M, the use of their Scotchprint materials (inks, toners and vinyls) and 3M application techniques for proper procedures in applying Scotchprint vinyls to fleet/vehicle wrap coverage. We also have a unique, separate 3M license to install the vinyl graphics on the different vehicles as required"

    It's a wrap! Buses as mobile billboards wrapped by Shadow Graphics with advertising or conference or special event promotions. photo credit : Shadow Graphics

    To create a fleet wrap as explained by Vice President Richard Howard is done by what he calls "The 3M Scotchprint System. This is a complete process that incorporates the software, the printing inks, the vinyl materials and the laminates - all part of creating a fleet/vehicle wrap. A project begins with having the advertisement and knowing what kind of vehicle you want to put it on. Sometimes we get a finished advertisement that we can apply to the vehicle template, sometimes we design it for the customer."

    If it stands still long enough - it can be wrapped. One of the more unusual wraps for Shadow Graphics was a Zambone machine at an ice hockey rink in Texas. People love to watch the Zabones do their thing at ice hockey games, Talk about getting their undivided attention, what better to wrap than something that everyone is looking at. photo credit : Shadow Graphics

    The Scotchprint vinyls that Shadow Graphics uses come from a product line family including high performance permanent cast vinyl (2 mil, 8620), two removable vinyl films (4 mil, 8655) and (2 mil, 8652), an electrostatic perforated window film (8671) and a reflective film (680 CR).

    Customers for fleet/vehicle wraps as explained by Corio, "are any business that owns cars or trucks (from semi-rigs to small delivery trucks) and want their brand image on their vehicles. In the case of municipal bus fleets, it's usually an opportunity to extend the bus into a mobile 'targeted marketing' outdoor advertising display."

    As to the cost of doing a wrap, for example of a bus, there is no standard price as it depends on a number of factors including the total number of buses to be wrapped, how much printing is involved, how much vinyl material is required per wrap, how many installers will be involved and how long it takes. All that becomes the calculus for pricing the project.

    Once the wrap becomes a definite project, the first thing is getting a software 'template' of the vehicle to be wrapped. The template is a 100% accurate engineering line drawing of the vehicle to be covered. The first challenge is fitting the final artwork onto the template and getting a proper sense of how that will translate into its vinyl element counterparts. The second challenge says Howard is taking all the different vinyl panels and making sure they will fit together into a seamless image that properly (very important) covers the vehicle or bus. To cover a bus Howard noted, "it normally requires two, but could require as many as five 'installers' to apply the vinyl and depending on the number of installers used, could take between one or two days to complete. Altogether, a single completely wrapped bus could consume up to 1000 square feet of vinyl"

    For some jobs or a single vehicle wrap, Shadow Graphics can complete the wrap at their shop. For doing a fleet project, it's more a case of 'Mohammed going to the mountain.' This means that once the vinyls have been printed, a Shadow Graphics installer team will travel to the client's site and set up an on-site workshop to do the final installation of the vinyl films on the client's vehicles.

    It's a vehicle wrap, except this one goes up and down instead of back and forth. Shadow graphics wrapped a two-level passenger gondola at Sea World, Orlando, FL. The wrap image was the soccer ball in honor of the World Soccer Championships held at Orlando. The soccer balls were large enough to be noticed at least 100 aeronautical miles away from the low flying jet planes arriving at Orlando's international airport. photo credit : Shadow Graphics

    Shadow Graphic's reputation as a fleet/vehicle wrap provider has spread far enough that other sign shops have begun to ask if they can also provide the service. To this end, Shadow Graphics has begun to prepare a franchise program where franchised sign shops can become fleet/vehicle wrap or large graphic providers. In this process, Shadow Graphics will train franchisees how to qualify customers, price jobs, acquire the artwork and install the final vinyl on a bus or vehicle.

    Part of the beauty of setting up a franchise outlet is that it can be anywhere in the United States, said Howard. "Because of the Internet Age, it's now very easy for other sign shops to digitally transmit data and artwork back and forth and get approvals. With the efficiency of door-to-door shipping services, a sign shop in Kansas City for example, can take an order, transmit it and the artwork back to Shadow Graphics where we can print the order and then ship the vinyl back to Kansas City, where the franchisee can do the final installation."

    With fleet/vehicle wraps popping up more often on city streets, advertisers have increased their product coverage from print, radio and television to four wheels giving new meaning to moving messages and new life to vinyl films.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He is also writing a book on the history and future of film entertainment. He can reached at (415) 664-0694 or

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