Some days I would rather face lions, tigers and bears than troubleshoot a client’s problems with 3D lamination. I especially hate when failure is predestined before the first part is ever produced. Mismatches are often created between product/production requirements and the technology that is being used to achieve them. Equipment is ordered, orders are taken and production begins. An anxious scramble for answers is not far behind.

The term 3D laminating started being used in the late 90s because none of the terminology used at the time had the ability to incorporate all of the available equipment methods. The problem with settling on one term, however, is that too many have assumed what can be done with one technology can be done just as well with another. But are bladder presses, membrane presses, membraneless presses and vacuum formers really interchangeable? (For a definition of each, please see my 3D Laminating Glossary)

Not long ago I gave a presentation on troubleshooting and quality control. The attendees included representatives from several industry suppliers and producers. I started with a question that I thought many might be uncomfortable answering. “True or false,” I asked, “A vacuum former can do everything a positive pressure press can do; only a little bit slower.” The entire room, several of them adhesive and 3D laminate suppliers, immediately and emphatically responded, “NO!”  I looked for dissenting opinions, but found none.

A vacuum former is a system that relies totally on vacuum drawn beneath the 3DL to form it to the part. Typical positive pressure presses use the same vacuum, but can also apply up to 100 psi of air pressure over the surface of the 3DL to force it into the detail. It really shouldn’t be difficult to figure out which system is going to perform better with highly detailed profiles. In addition, because of the lack of positive pressure and pressurized cooling, vacuum formers also cycle significantly slower.

Please understand I am not picking on vacuum formers. I believe they have their place in the world of 3D laminating, as long as their limitations are understood and the product design and production requirements don’t exceed their capabilities. The problem is this doesn’t appear to be clear to many of the companies that have purchased them. Whether it is wishful thinking or lack of communication, I really don’t know. But when I look at a press owner and tell him his equipment wasn’t designed to do what he’s asking it to do, the look of disgust is clear.

So why is this important to 3DL component buyers?  Here’s how the story goes. Newby Store Fixtures has a company ask for some nice shelves done in 3D laminate. These shelves have end panels with a very deep and detailed logo in them. Not only does Mr. Newby not have a press, he doesn’t really know anything about the process. He remembers hearing about a company across town that has just bought a brand new machine. He gets on the phone and gives Rookie Components a call.

Mr. Rookie is pretty sure his new machine can do the job. Besides, he’s got some big payments coming up next month, so he rolls the dice and takes the order. When the first cycle comes out, he notices that the 3DL has not formed into the deep profiles like the customer wants. He remembers a trick someone told him about. He takes a hot air gun and aims it directly over the profile while the vacuum is still on. Sure enough, the 3DL starts to collapse into the profile pretty nicely. What Mr. Rookie doesn’t know is the glue beneath the 3DL is probably not activating, but there’s no way to be sure.

The job gets done and the product is shipped.  But six months later those nice logos look like they’re gaining some weight. The stores complain and Mr. Rookie gets frustrated. Mr. Newby decides he’s never doing this again, and goes back to using only HPL. 

It all could’ve been avoided had Mr. Newby and Mr. Rookie taken the time to ask the right questions.  They’re busy guys though. And that crosstown business is oh so convenient.


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