Review: EDITOR'S CHOICE--Primera Accent Disc Laminator
Posted Jul 16, 2004

EDITOR'S CHOICE

Synopsis: Until Primera's Accent Disc Laminator came along, desktop disc decoration had seen and done it all. The Accent raises the stakes for inkjet-printable label durability, appearance, and visual authentication. A specialized device best left for volume-batch production situations, the Accent introduces useful and innovative capabilities, and challenges the industry to take note.

Direct-to-disc inkjet printing has long been a favorite for producing recordable CD and DVD labels in both office and commercial settings. The technology is easy to use, turns out attractive and colorful results, and does so with only a minimal amount of graphic arts knowledge, and all for relatively small capital outlay. Practically speaking, however, the results do have some shortcomings. For example, labels printed to inkjet-printable media are susceptible to scratching, can be smeared by damp fingers or high humidity, and pose a problem for form-fitting packaging.

Improving the robustness of inkjet-printable disc labels is the mission of Primera's new Accent Disc Laminator. The Accent brings new cosmetic possibilities to the table by providing unique decorative and security features all in a compact, straightforward device that can be used on the desktop.

Unlike most disc printers and duplicators, the Accent does not necessarily require a computer or even an additional control system to operate. Reviewed here as a $3,495 manually operated standalone device, it is used to best advantage when installed into one of Primera's many robotic disc-handling systems to allow for completely hands-off operation. Geared toward standalone batch-laminating, Primera's ADL-100 companion offers 100-disc capacity and a unique two-headed disc-picking mechanism for increased throughput. (see sidebar pg. 2) The Accent also connects to newer Composer XL and Pro systems (manufactured after August 1, 2003) and ComposerMAX units through separately available connectivity kits. Composer XL, Pro, and MAX systems can be configured for complete inline recording, printing, and laminating operation while the XL and Pro units also support standalone laminating.

Housed in an unassuming, chunky metal box, the Accent is self-contained and very straightforward. It features a bare minimum of controls to operate and monitor the unit, limited to a couple of buttons, two status indicators, and a simple slide switch. The unit's hinged lid lifts easily to expose its innards and provides unobstructed access for straightforward consumable changes.

Some Like It Hot
The Accent uses a hot lamination process employing a continuous roll of overlaminate material consisting of a polyester sheet coated with a clear resin-based ink and adhesive. This roll is threaded from a supply reel at one end of the unit to a take-up spool at the other (much like an ink ribbon in a thermal transfer disc printer). The Accent applies heat and pressure (from a hot roller) to melt and transmit the clear ink and adhesive from the polyester substrate, advancing between its supply and take-up spools, to the surface of the disc as the unit's motorized tray moves the disc past the roller. The deposited film then cools and hardens into the desired coating (roughly three microns thick). Currently, the Accent supports standard 12cm round writable CD and DVD discs with an adapter kit for 8cm round and business card sizes promised for the future.

Two types of overlaminate film are available for the Accent. The first is Primera's standard ClearCoat material, a simple transparent coating to enhance label scratch and water resistance. The second option is AuthentiCoat film offering the same finish and protective characteristics as ClearCoat but adding a pattern of holographic images to impart a unique appearance and visual authentication. AuthentiCoat comes either off-the-shelf with a stock design featuring rows of a simple abstract disc illustrations and the word "authorized" beneath each or, for enhanced defense and unmatched cachet, can be made to order using customer-supplied artwork and can even embed a secondary UV (black light-visible) graphic. Primera indicates that it will not replicate custom orders for anyone but the original customer, thereby adding to security.

During testing, a selection of inkjet-printable discs first labeled then ClearCoat-laminated proved to be impressively water-resistant. All emerged unscathed from repeated smearing attempts by dry and damp fingers and even in completely ill-advised trips under a running kitchen sink faucet. Not surprisingly, both activities proved to be disastrous with unprotected labels. Inadvertent scratching, while not as much of an issue as water solubility, is also addressed by Accent lamination. Although labels could still be spoiled or punctured by a sharp object or aggressive fingernail, the overlaminate established good protection against scuffs and other reasonably incurred abrasions.

Sticking It to The Man
Equally exciting, however, is what a trip through the Accent does to the visual appearance of inkjet-printed labels. Unquestionably colorful and attractive, ordinary inkjet labels still look somewhat unremarkable and dull when compared with the latest adhesive labels or even output from a Rimage Everest. The Accent evens the score, dramatically elevating the look of inkjet-printed labels by conferring a smooth and glossy finish. Labels output to white surface media are brought to an eye-catching wet luster, while images on silver finish discs are ignited. In fact, silver media were so transformed during testing that they overpowered many label designs.

AuthentiCoat is the most novel possibility to hit disc-labeling in recent memory. Primera's off-the-shelf "authorized" film gives test discs a unique appearance, but custom-made holograms are the ultimate in cool and a valuable option for applications benefiting from visual authentication.

On the downside, the unit lacks the precision control of a printer and therefore cannot direct where it delivers overlaminate to the disc surface or even the orientation or placement of embedded holograms in relation to the label image. A two-position sensor ring located in the disc tray can be manually set to signal the unit to laminate or not to laminate the disc hub area. Beyond this gross ability, the overlaminate simply breaks off where it does not adhere or where pressure cannot be applied by the roller. Consequently, the unit is not appropriate for laminating inkjet media already containing partially silkscreened images (such as Verbatim's inkjet-printable Digital Vinyl CD-R). Similarly, other topographical disc features prove critical to keeping the hub free from loose ends. For example, when testing with non-hub-printable media some discs had their hubs partially covered in overlaminate (even with the sensor ring adjusted properly). This issue manifested itself on newer disc designs which remove the CD stacking groove/moat or DVD stacking ring in order to create flat surfaces. Both elevation changes help to sever the overlaminate and prevent unwanted spillover into the hub.

Primera's Accent development and testing focused on laminating discs labeled with Lexmark-based inks (used by all Primera disc printers). The company reports success from some companies using Hewlett-Packard printers. In fact, this present evaluation proved positive using both a Primera SignaturePro and Epson Stylus Photo R800. Be aware, however, that straying beyond using Primera's printers is a gamble unless performance is explicitly guaranteed with the device you choose.

The attractiveness of the result and successful adhesion of the overlaminate depend upon a number of factors. Like any glossy sealant, lamination visually amplifies texture and imperfections. Labels printed on smooth inkjet printable surfaces obviously yield the best-looking results. During testing, perfectly clean surfaces also prove important as any dust or debris present create voids in the overlaminate or become embedded for all to see.

Most critically, labels must be completely dry for the overlaminate to stick but wide variations in the performance and drying times of inkjet surfaces emerge with different manufacturers. As well, certain colors and types of graphics deposit significantly greater volumes of ink and take longer to dry. To accommodate some of these variables the Accent's lamination temperature can be manually adjusted (350 to 450ยบ F) by using its slide-switch. Primera is encouraging most disc producers to perform Accent compatibility testing and adjust their products accordingly. But until the industry gets up to speed on the Accent, the field of usable discs is narrowed considerably. For example, Primera currently recommends Taiyo Yuden and SKC CD-Rs as well as BeALL and Maxell DVD-Rs. Primera offers Taiyo Yuden CD-R and BeALL DVD-R under its own TuffCoat name.

In batch situations, letting the discs stand longer to dry is a relatively simple proposition, although production time suffers. However, in inline production situations where recording, labeling, and laminating are performed in sequence there is no opportunity to wait. During testing it was possible, even with recommended media, to print certain types of label designs using a SignaturePro, wait a minute or two, and still have them too wet to laminate. Obviously, this might create some issues in service bureau and other settings where it is difficult to control label designs and where trial and error is time-consuming and costly.

In terms of its production speed, the Accent is very fast. During testing it took only nine seconds for the unit to retract its disc tray, laminate a disc, and return the tray to its fully extended position. Thus, while the Accent is obviously an extra production step consuming additional time, it should not present a bottleneck if attached to inline production systems. The Accent is tardier, however, when it comes to readying itself for operation. For example, during testing it took the unit roughly nine minutes from a cold state to complete its initial heating cycle to be ready for use. Also, after 30 minutes of inactivity, the device cycled into a cool-down mode. It took a little more than seven minutes thereafter to return to operating temperature to laminate again. In situations where the heat setting needed to be adjusted, it took anywhere from three to five minutes for the unit to heat up or cool down to the selected temperature.

The Price Of Beauty
Currently, rolls of ClearCoat film are priced at $52 (to cover 400 discs) and stock AuthentiCoat film at $74 (to cover 400 discs). These translate to 13 and 19 cents respectively per label. Custom AuthentiCoat film is priced significantly higher with a $3,500 one-time setup fee and a cost of $80 to $88 per roll when ordered in quantities ranging from 100 to 5000 units.

Assuming 100 rolls, laminations come to 31 cents each, then 22 cents per disc for repeat orders. The optional UV security feature carries an additional $4,000 one-time setup charge. With 100 rolls, discs initially cost 41 cents each to laminate and 22 cents thereafter. Figuring ink at 15-45 cents to print a full-surface disc, it can cost anywhere between 28 to 86 cents to create and laminate an inkjet label.

The Bottom Line
Until Primera's Accent Disc Laminator came along, desktop disc decoration had pretty well seen and done it all. Now, this new kid on the block raises the stakes for inkjet-printable label durability, appearance, and visual authentication. A specialized device best left for volume batch production situations and by no means faultless or inexpensive, the Accent introduces useful and innovative capabilities to not only inkjet but also disc labeling in general, and challenges the industry to take note.

Component and Accessory Pricing:

  • ADL-100 High Speed Autoloader $1395
  • Composer XL/Pro stand $149
  • Composer Max stand $149
  • ClearCoat Film roll $52
  • Authenticoat Holographic Film roll $74

 

companies metioned in this article
BeAll Developers, Inc., www.bealldev.com
SKC Media, www.skc.co.kr
Epson America, www.epson.com
Taiyo Yuden, www.t-yuden.com
Maxell USA, www.maxellus.com


Primera ADL-100 Disc Autoloader
While it is possible to feed the Accent by hand, volume lamination calls for an automated response. Primera's new ADL-100 provides such an option for situations where discs have already been recorded and inkjet-labeled. A single-purpose device, the $1,395 ADL-100 works in concert with the Accent to operate as an integrated standalone entity, automatically loading, laminating, and then stacking finished discs.

The ADL-100 comes with a pick-and-place disc-handling system and removable input and output bins flanking either side of a center robotic column. But rather than having a single disc-gripping mechanism, the ADL-100 employs two disc-picking heads attached to each other to operate in tandem. The right head picks discs from the input bin and places them onto the tray of the Accent while the left head simultaneously picks finished discs and deposits them into the output stack. In principle, this design economizes mechanical movement to increase throughput.

Setup is straightforward and involves installing the Accent on a raised platform that attaches to the rear of the ADL-100 robot, connecting a communications cable between the two devices, followed by an alignment procedure. Awkwardly, however, flash firmware upgrades require a PC.

Operation is simplicity itself and involves merely placing the inkjet discs to be processed by the Accent into the input bin and pressing the laminate button. The system then keeps going until it runs out of discs.

Though the standalone approach is elegant, the lack of a computer interface does have its drawbacks. There is no way to cancel jobs in progress and there is no advanced warning as to when the overlaminate film will run out. Obviously, Primera has some work to do on bugs. For example, during testing it was possible to pause the robot calamitously in mid-stride while the Accent's tray was ejecting.

Officially, the ADL-100 has a capacity of 100 discs but this may not always be the case. Media from different manufacturers, and even lots from the same manufacturer, can vary slightly in thickness so it is prudent for all automated equipment to make allowances for reality. With the ADL-100, there is insufficient wiggle room. During, testing, only 99 Taiyo Yuden CD-R discs could be stacked in the input bin before colliding with the picker.

An ADL-100-equipped Accent is rated to complete 225 discs per hour. In initial testing, however, it did not achieve this pace, taking 2:20 to laminate ten discs, 14:50 for 50 discs, and 31:32 for 100 discs. Primera acknowledged this discrepancy and provided for evaluation an updated version of firmware with better heat management for the Accent's lamination roller. This eliminated almost all warming time delays during operation to bring throughput closer to expectations. Re-testing took 2:24 for ten discs, 12:10 for fifty discs, and 26:50 for one hundred discs.

Simple and speedy, the ADL-100 largely delivers what it promises. That said, it is a highly specialized device most appropriate to large production environments utilizing multiple duplication towers and printing systems.