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Custom Printing: Troubleshooting Lamination Problems

I heard back from a client recently that the lamination on her fashion color chip book pages had air bubbles on all pages of all copies. This is the little print book of color chips I have written about many times in this blog, and given the problems we have had with the scheduled reprint, I was not pleased to hear this news.

Fortunately, the books were salable. My client did not want to reject the job, since it had been reprinted and laminated, and since the colors produced on the HP Indigo had been dead-on accurate.

The collection of color chips bound with a screw and post assembly had had a long history. This had included printing the books in Australia, and producing them locally at a book printer that had recently gone out of business. (Before going out of business, the commercial printing vendor had upgraded their equipment, with the result being that their HP Indigo no longer printed my client’s fashion color books with accurate colors.)

So this has been a nightmare. But this is how I approached the bad news.

Next Steps in Analyzing This Job

First I asked my client to check a thorough sampling of the print books to see whether the air bubbles in the lamination had been a consistent–or just a localized–problem. In short, I was trying to determine how much of the print run had been affected.

Then I asked my client to send me samples of the prior commercial printing run (by the other digital printing vendor), since she had been satisfied with the lamination on this job. I also asked for samples of the test-run copies from earlier in the year. (Apparently, the air bubbles were visible on these color swatches as well, but just not as obvious.)

By this time, my client, who has been a long-term buyer of these fashion color chip books (very similar to a PMS book only smaller in format), had decided to accept the print job and try to work with this printer to make future print runs of this job better rather than to look for a new printer.

This is why my client’s decision was so important:

  1. If she had rejected the job outright, I would have approached the digital book printer immediately with a description of the problem and an estimate of its extent (how many of the 126 overall copies of her 22 master books had been affected–some originals had 3 copies, some 30). Time would have been of the essence, and I would have been asking for some kind of “consideration” to make my client whole. This might have been a discount or an additional press run.
  2. Making a distinction between this particular problem with the fashion color chip print books and a plan for future printing showed that my client valued this printer. She had taken my word as to the usual quality this printer provided, based on my ten-year history of their successful print production work.
  3. Another reason my client considered it prudent to work with this book printer to resolve the problem was her history of other printers’ not accurately matching her specified fashion swatch book colors. One printer had even “no bid” the job, saying he could not guarantee accurate color on his digital equipment. In contrast, the current printer had maintained color fidelity throughout the initial test run and the following 126 books.
  4. My client acknowledged that all of the print books were salable to her clients. The bubbles in the lamination did not obscure or alter the color of the fashion color chips. (The bubbles were annoying, and the prior printer had done the job without introducing air bubbles, but the prior printer had not matched the colors accurately and then they had gone out of business.)

How to Approach Future Print Runs of This Job

My client’s having accepted the print job, albeit with concerns for the future, made the next steps less urgent but equally important. I didn’t need to approach the custom printing vendor immediately. I could take the time to collect the samples and carefully decide how to proceed.

For now, this is my plan.

  1. I have seen this kind of problem before. One of my other clients had produced a square, perfect-bound book of flowers (a day-book with beautiful photos and pithy quotes about life). The cover had been offset printed with heavy-coverage black ink and then laminated with a dull film laminate. The printer had not allowed the heavy coverage ink to dry sufficiently (which involved the “gassing off” of the ink vehicle, the liquid in the ink). Since the ink had continued to dry after the covers had been laminated, the ink had released VOCs (volatile organic compounds, or in this case gases) that had produced the air bubbles. In this case, to fix the job, the printer had needed to remove the covers from the book, reprint and re-laminate the book covers, and then rebind the job and trim the books (ever so slightly to avoid making them too small and compromising the book’s design). So the release of gas during the drying of the ink had been the cause of the problem.
  2. This is a digitally printed book. One question is whether the drying of the liquid digital ink (leaving the pigment behind) could cause such gassing off. This remains to be seen. But I will ask the printer once he receives my client’s samples.
  3. A number of years ago I had heard from one printer that, due to incompatibilities between the fuser oil in digital ink and the lamination film, sometimes laminates would not properly adhere to digitally printed cover stock. I plan to ask this printer if this could have been part of the problem. However, since the prior printer (who had gone out of business) had laminated the color chip pages without introducing air bubbles, I will ask why. The printer will have samples of the prior run with no air bubbles and the current run with air bubbles. I will look to him for a plan for future work.
  4. To go back to the initial problem with the other client’s flower book (with heavy coverage black ink on the book cover), the job had been problematic due to the printer’s having laminated the press sheets too soon after printing. The ink had needed time to dry. In this case, I will ask the printer if a longer lead time would have avoided the air bubbles. If so, I will ask my client for more time for the next printing.
  5. I also plan to ask the printer whether he sees any difference in the lamination film itself. The prior printer was successful in avoiding air bubbles. This printer was not. Would a different brand of laminating film be more chemically compatible with the printed press sheets from his HP Indigo press?

Why Take the Time to Work This Out?

As with any relationship, if my client and the digital printer actually resolve this issue, my client will have a vendor who can accurately match her colors, and the printer will have repeat work three or four times a year. Both sides will be happy. Just deciding to abandon this printer and move the next job might not have solved the problem. After all, any number of new print vendors could have sworn up and down that their printed jobs would be better than this printer’s work. But who knows if they could have delivered on their marketing claims?

That said, considering my client’s history with this color chip book both in the United States and abroad, it is clearly not an easy job. It has potential problems. And solving these problems now, before the next print run, is prudent and worth the trouble. In another case, if the color were not critical, or if the relationship with the printer had not been such a long-standing and successful one, I would have encouraged my client to change vendors. But in this case, I think it is smart to move slowly and thoughtfully, showing the printer all the samples (prior and current) and asking for help to resolve the problems.

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