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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: The Magic of Thermochromatic Inks

Purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

I was digging around in the cupboard a few days ago, readjusting the coffee mugs that were often stacked three cups high. My fiancee’s second favorite thrift-store item after clothes is coffee mugs, so I’m usually greeted by pithy statements about life when I open the dish cabinet door.

In this particular case, I saw one that was entirely black, except for some faint words around the periphery of the mug printed in blue. Since “Bioluminescence” was one of the words I saw (and since I had just done some research on deep sea fish and their light sources for our art therapy group for the autistic), I was intrigued.

The Magic Mug

Then I knew. This was a promotional mug that used thermochromic ink to change color based on temperature. (Apparently these are all the rage because the inks are no longer toxic, and the changeability they afford to the marketing message is a show-stopper.) They really grab the viewer, so they can “capture client share and ensure brand loyalty.”

In this particular case the use of thermochromic inks was ideal (that is, appropriate for the ultra-deep-sea, miles-below-the-surface, no-light-anywhere ambiance of the subject matter). On the bottom of the mug there was a “cheat sheet,” a drawing of about eight deep sea fish. One of them I recognized from the art therapy project: the angler fish. I knew I was onto something.

So I turned on the tap and put some water in the mug. Then I put the mug in the microwave. Thirty seconds later the same drawing I had seen on the bottom of the mug was visible on the side of the mug (only larger and more colorful). However, the top half of the mug was still black. Apparently, this was because the top half of the mug had not yet reached the temperature needed for the inks to change (or more specifically for the black ink to turn clear and reveal the image printed below it). Way cool. Fortunately I was smart enough to lift the mug by its handle, which was still cool to the touch.

Why This Works

So I went to school on thermochromatic inks. The “thermo” part means temperature. The “chromatic” part means color. (I had Latin in high school, but not physics, and this is why I found this mug so unique. It’s also why I missed the note on the bottom of the mug about not washing it in the dishwasher.)

To simplify all of the technical, scientific information, there are two ways to achieve this color-changing effect with heat: by using thermochromatic liquid crystals (TLCs) and by using leuco dyes.

Quoting from Wikipedia, “At lower temperatures, these liquid crystals are mostly in a solid, crystalline form. In this low temperature state, TLCs may not reflect much light at all, thus, appearing black.” Heat applied to the TLCs changes the spacing between them, and this changes the way they reflect light (thus changing the color of the substrate). Mostly TLCs are used for things like thermometers, since they are harder to use successfully than their alternative, leuco dyes.

Leuco dyes, like TLCs, are microencapsulated into three- to five-micron-size droplets that protect them from interacting with other chemicals. (This makes them ideal for use in inks: water-based, solvent-based, epoxy-based, etc. You can even blend them into paint.) When the leuco dyes are cool, they reflect color (like the black of my fiancee’s coffee mug). But once heated, they become translucent, so you can see what is beneath them (words, colors, whatever you have printed).

TLCs are more temperature specific. Hence they are great for thermometers and such (they require a black background for the most vivid coloration, which is not a problem when designing a thermometer). Leuco dyes, unfortunately, will change form (and therefore color) over a larger window of temperatures: 5 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit but usually “within 6 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit…of the intended temperature” (Wikipedia) (This is fine for marketing work.) And, as noted, leuco dyes are easier to use.

Technical Applications

As noted earlier, thermochromatic inks can be used in thermometers. They can also be used as a security device for doctors’ prescription pads and bank checks. In addition, they can be used in battery-charge indicators. They can show whether a food has been heated to the proper temperature (and is therefore healthy to consume), or they can indicate whether a cold product has reached a dangerous temperature (think about what heat sometimes does to mayonnaise-based products outdoors on a picnic).

In the realm of interior design, some ceramic tile custom printing vendors have even used this technology with shower tiles. As the water temperature rises, the originally black tiles change to vivid, bright colors. These thermochromatic items can even be positioned near lights, so the heat of the lights can change the colors of the home décor items.

Marketing Applications

The Wikipedia article on thermochromatic inks includes a photo of a football with a handprint on it. If you haven’t seen a multicolored handprint on a football before, this image will be permanently burned into your memory.

And that’s what makes this process great for marketing.

If you can intrigue the potential customer (get him or her to stop doing life’s activities automatically, without thought, for a moment), you will grab her/his attention. If you can pair this with something unique, you can increase awareness of your brand. People will think your company is cool. They will be more likely to buy from you. Or at least they will remember the cool, color-changing product and presumably also the name of your company.

And if your use of the thermochromatic ink is integral to the marketing message, you’re even closer to the sale. To illustrate my point: My fiancee’s mug focused on sea creatures from one, to many, miles below the surface of the ocean. It’s very dark there. And the mug reflects this theme of darkness as long as the overall color is black. It’s appropriate to the theme of the “magic mug” (which is what these are called if you research them online). When you apply heat, you reveal the aquatic inhabitants of the deep, dark ocean. I’ll bet the fish, the cool thermochromatic inks, and the name of the aquarium that originally sold this mug (before it wound up in a thrift store) will all be linked in the mind of the original owner.

More Marketing Uses

Back in the 70’s they sold “mood rings” based on these inks. They said they changed with your mood. In reality, they changed with the heat of your ring finger. Still, they became a marketing sensation.

A pancake syrup company used thermochromatic inks to trigger a message (visible through the window of the microwave oven) that the buttery syrup was ready to be poured onto your pancakes or waffles.

Coors Light beer did a marketing promotion on their cans using this custom printing technology. There were mountains on the can. When the can was room temperature, the mountains were white. But when you cooled the can, the mountains became a bright blue. As your hand warmed the can again, however, the mountains returned to their original white color.

The Takeaway

So the takeaway from all of this is that thermochromatic inks have serious potential.

  1. They are no longer toxic.
  2. They are easier to use.
  3. They have uses in functional commercial printing (security, protection of health, etc.).
  4. They have great potential for use in interior decorating (a hot venue for digital custom printing these days).
  5. And they have unlimited promotional marketing potential, particularly for pens, hats, clothes, and other give-away items (often called “tchotchkes,” a Yiddish term).

In short, they catch the eye in an otherwise undifferentiated sea of marketing materials. They allow the marketers to link a cool effect with the brand name. And potentially they foster brand awareness, brand affiliation, and brand loyalty. All with a little bit of heat sensitive ink.

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