Flotation printing is three dimensional and can be applied to product components made from any non-porous material such as plastic, metal, glass and ceramic. Timber and medium density fibreboard needs to be totally sealed before coating and flexible plastics like ski goggle frames can also be printed using the technique.
Cubic Pacific, based in Sydney, is part of a larger Japanese group that specialises in flotation printing worldwide. The Sydney plant opened in June 2000 and is one of only ten fully automated plants around the world.
Paul Jelfs, Managing Director of Cubic Pacific showed Curve the new Cubic plant and explained the flotation printing process.
According to Jelfs, flotation printing (often known as Cubic Printing) is a three-stage process. All of the components are assembled onto intricate, custom designed jigs, which carry them through progressive steps.
“The first stage is a base paint coat with the base colour contributing to the overall effect once the component is printed with a pattern,” Jelfs explained.
“The base paint coat is approximately 10 microns thick, and once it’s dry the components are then transferred to the flotation printing bath. The printed pattern, which can be selected from the ‘open catalogue’ of patterns or custom made, is developed and printed in Japan.
"The pattern is printed onto a film of PVA so that it can be transported easily. When it arrives at our plant the film is mechanically decoiled and a chemical activator reactivates the ink making it wet.”
Describing the intricate process further, Jelfs explained: “The activated film is then fed onto the surface of a bath of water, floating in one direction, and the PVA dissolves into the water. The ink is then free to float on the top.
“The painted components are carefully lowered into the water by conveyor and, as they touch the ink, the water pressure in the bath pushes the ink onto the component which is slowly removed complete with print. The ink coat is approximately 5 microns thick.”
Jelfs explained that the parts are then rinsed and dried to remove any PVA film residue and the final clear coat is applied at a thickness of approximately 25 microns. The clear coat, applied robotically, gives the product its lustre and durability.
Alterations in the final coat have enabled Cubic to develop a ‘soft feel’ finish which feels likes rubber, and a ‘velvet wood’ finish which feels like finely sanded timber.
Up until two years ago, the automotive industry in Australia sent components to Japan, Taiwan and the UK for printing. Now Cubic in Sydney can service the industry ‘locally’.
Cubic Pacific is one of about ten fully automated plants servicing the high volume, high quality flotation printing requirements of the world’s car manufacturers.
Since its inception, requests for Cubic’s flotation printing have increased to include toothbrushes, light switches, mobile phone housings, boat parts and trims for household appliances.