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Engineering & Testing Graphics for Reliable Performance

How confident are you that your customers' graphics will look good for the life of the intended applications? To help protect your customers' brands (and your reputation) this article discusses the necessary tests, standards and questions you should be asking your suppliers when it comes to graphic performance in a variety of environments.

By Kenneth M. White, Lead Senior Research Specialist
    & William J. Hunt, Ph. D., Senior Research Specialist, 3M Graphics Market Center

Blistering sun, scorching heat, torrential rains - the environment's destructive forces can wreak havoc on graphic materials - altering colors, dimensions and overall structural integrity.

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  • Weathering Tests & Standards
    What levels of testing are conducted? Who performs the tests and analyzes the data? Typical environmental exposure tests in the industry are performed to meet end user specifications. The specifications generally indicate minimum acceptable product performance for a particular end use.

    Standards organizations such as ASTM provide a set of test methods by which suppliers agree to test their products. Most often, tests are conducted for a specific exposure period and results must fall within levels of acceptable change set forth by the specifications. These tests, however, are not always indicative of outdoor performance and a single test may not be applicable to all materials.

    Some suppliers rely on independent testing organizations to perform tests on products to meet ASTM or other standards. Keep in mind that these test houses don't usually interpret test results or have "materials experts" on hand. Manufacturers and suppliers may operate their own testing facilities and rely on a combination of standard (specification) tests, proprietary laboratory tests and outdoor exposure tests to determine product durability and estimate product lifetimes.

    Pitting Products Head-to-Head with the Environment
    Does the supplier have capabilities for in-house research? Are outdoor and accelerated exposure tests conducted? Weathering studies should include both outdoor and accelerated exposures. Reliance on only one type of test, either outdoor or accelerated exposures, has its pitfalls. Outdoor tests require a substantial time investment before information is available and accelerated tests carry an increased risk of returning information which may not correlate with actual performance.

    At one of the world's largest accelerated testing facilities, the 3M Weathering Resource Center (WRC), in-house researchers study material failures that result from exposure to light, heat and moisture using data collected at outdoor testing sites and through accelerated lab studies. With a major emphasis on exterior solar effects on polymeric materials, the WRC has the ability to coordinate controlled outdoor weathering in 15 strategic climate areas, globally. Testing at multiple sites under multiple climatic conditions provides valuable benchmarks and a better understanding of how products will actually perform. With outdoor testing, products are exposed to the environment for years to see how well they withstand sunlight, heat, pollution, moisture, freeze/thaw cycles or even blowing sand. But testing under natural conditions takes time. For this reason, WRC also tests products in an accelerated weathering facility.

    Accelerated weathering tests are used to help predict the life of products. For example, imagine that you had to wait years to find out if a new film is more durable. Using accelerated weathering devices, a supplier can test the new and old products side-by-side in a weathering machine for six months and tell you whether or not the new product performed better. The WRC can choose from as many as 20 accelerated weathering tests, including a series of proprietary test methods recognized internationally as improved predictors of real-world weathering results. These proprietary tests accelerate the stresses - light, temperature or moisture - and can be used to help predict graphic suitability, reliability and durability, whether for short-term or long-term use.

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    These tests are performed using devices capable of running a range of standard (specification) tests, proprietary tests as well as service life prediction protocol. The devices can weather some products up to 20 times faster than nature alone. Faster tests can be achieved through the use of patented light sources, which yield higher levels of realistic solar radiation. With these unique resources, years can be turned into weeks and weeks into days.

    The Sum of the Parts
    Are individual components and finished graphics tested? Are they tested in appropriate application settings? An important question to ask your suppliers is whether they test both individual components and finished (constructed) graphics using real-time and accelerated weathering tests. Testing constructed graphics is a critical process, since graphic components could together fail to perform.

    Does the supplier evaluate films, inks, clear coats, overlaminates and finished graphics? Are graphics put through durability assessments to examine the effects on adhesion, film and color integrity? To ensure optimal performance, products should be tested for intended applications while keeping factors such as temperature, solar concentration, lighting or water exposure in mind.

    Choosing Products & Suppliers
    If a graphic fails, your customer's image may suffer along with your company's reputation. By asking suppliers the right questions and selecting materials that are engineered and tested for reliable performance, you will be better prepared to deliver on customer needs and expectations, whether for intermediate or long-term identity graphics.

    When choosing materials and suppliers, consider taking the following actions:

    • Learn more about their testing standards. Who performs the tests and analyzes the data? Do they have in-house materials experts and dedicated researchers?
    • Ask if outdoor and accelerated exposure tests are performed. If so, are both individual components and finished graphics tested?
    • If graphics will be used outdoors, find out where the weathering tests were conducted. Ideally, tests should occur at multiple sites under multiple climatic conditions.
    • Look for suppliers who offer matched components or materials with documented performance. Suppliers who are confident about their products (and their testing) will stand behind their warranties.
    • To ensure product consistency, ask whether the suppliers have ISO certification. Consider also whether they conduct market testing and voice of customer research to better serve the industry - it indicates that they are tuned into and actively trying to address industry needs.

    The peace of mind you seek when protecting your customers' brands (and your reputation) can only come from the level of confidence you have in your suppliers and the materials they provide.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 4th Quarter 2010 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2010 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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