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Technology Focus

Holograms Becoming Feasible Option

by Allen Rhody

November-December, 2000
Many foil stampers believe that image holograms are somewhat of a mystery and have strayed away from becoming too involved with hologram projects. Innovation with equipment and technology now allows companies to create holograms in-house for a budget as low as $100 - 125 thousand dollars. It is possible to purchase the equipment and supplies needed to originate and replicate quality holographic images that can be integrated into various films and foils, including hot stamp materials. Although specialized factories best serve high volume customers with state-of-the-art requirements, there are few practical reasons why a modest hologram production line should not be incorporated into printing plants and finishing facilities that want to provide additional services to their clients. Producing your own holograms is now reasonable, cost effective and potentially quite profitable.

As the demand for holograms grows (now a billion dollar per year industry, by some estimates) it is questionable whether the customer with relatively simple needs is being attended to. Most of the major hologram manufacturers seem to be concentrating on producing high volumes of wide web foils and films for corporate packaging applications and/or complex optical security devices for personal identification and product authenticity applications. This leaves an opportunity for companies that can supply reasonable quantities of smaller and less complicated custom-designed holograms and quickly apply them to paper, board or plastic products for promotion or low-end security applications.

Over the past decade, the machinery has been perfected and the manufacturing process has been streamlined to the point that one or two well-trained operators can produce striking prismatic effects and/or dimensional images on rolls of film or foil using a technology called “dot-matrix embossed holography”. (Before continuing, it is important to note that the term “embossed” in relation to the field of holography actually refers to a micro-embossing process separate from the conventional embossing performed by brass embossing dies.)

The Hologram Process

The equipment that is needed to make quantities of embossed holograms can be divided into three groups: origination, electroforming and mass replication. Each group corresponds to a basic production step. The holograms that you commonly see on credit cards, drivers licenses, greeting cards, concert tickets, product tags, packaging, stationary, documents and signage are all made using this three-step process or some variation of it.

Very simply, holography is initially an optical process that involves simultaneously exposing a selected piece of artwork (a 2D graphic or a 3D model) and a photosensitive recording material with laser light in a certain way. Unlike conventional photography, the desired image is recorded as a complex microscopic pattern called a holographic interference pattern (i.e., a hologram). The recorded image is unrecognizable until a beam of light illuminates the hologram at a predetermined angle. This produces a unique visual effect.

Unlike photographs, holographic images can look flat, multi-layered or fully dimensional. The images can appear to project off the surface of the recording material or recede behind it. They can be monochromatic, prismatic or realistically colored. In addition, it’s possible to design eye-catching kinetic images that change, morph or flash as the viewer moves past.

If the interference pattern is recorded on a glass plate coated with photo-resist, the optical image is retained as an unrecognizable microscopic surface relief structure. For the sake of this discussion, a hologram image recorded on a photo-resist plate can be called the “master” hologram – an industry term for the original hologram creation. Originating the master hologram is the first step in the production process.

Since the physical demands of mass replication require that many copies of the master hologram be made, a series of shims and sub-shims need to be generated from the master hologram. (A single shim can last 10,000 - 15,000 strikes, depending on hardness.) It is necessary to metalize the master hologram to make it suitable for copying. The second step in the production process is electroforming.

The third step in the production process is embossing. In order to mass produce copies of the master hologram, a production shim is mounted on a platen and repeatedly stamped into a web of material moving by at high speed. Holograms are most commonly embossed into hot stamping foil or laminating films before final application. Each transfer creates a separate embossed hologram. To maximize yields, it is common to gang several images on one shim, so each transfer creates multiple holograms that can be die cut into separate units during the final converting and finishing steps. Rolls of these embossed holograms can be further processed and/or fed into hot stamp machines, label equipment or laminating machines, depending on the final application.

Holograms Simplified

When the holography industry started, it was necessary to utilize a specially equipped, professionally staffed origination laboratory to produce master holograms. Today it is possible to buy a single device, called a dot-matrix machine that exposes a photo-resist plate with a minimum of supervision.

A dot matrix machine incorporates a laser, optics, mechanical positioning equipment, and a table to hold the photo-resist plate on. The system connects to a computer, which directs the laser’s operation in accordance with the supplied artwork. A computer graphics artist using popular software, such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, can generate the appropriate artwork. During the recording process each pixel of the desired image is sequentially exposed with laser light onto the plate as a tiny hologram “dot”. Each dot is a miniature diffraction grating that bends light in a specific direction. Once illuminated by regular room light, the collection of dots creates the composite holographic image.

Dot matrix exposures commonly last a day or two (at normal resolution) or more (at higher resolution), depending on the machine’s writing speed and the size of the image (i.e. how much of the plate is exposed). However, the robotic machine is designed to run unattended around-the-clock. Photo-resist plates and processing solvents are readily available from several suppliers. Pre-coated plates are as inexpensive as $50 each, though it is possible to coat your own.

Making shims involves submersing the exposed plates in a series of specially formulated electro-chemical baths. Basic operations require only one or two tanks, though it may be more useful to employ more. Procedures have been standardized, though a skilled technician with a feel for making shims is invaluable to have on staff.

Narrow-web hologram embossing machines have also been refined to be reliable and simple to operate. Machines capable of stamping a 6-inch by 6-inch platen are considered standard. A roll of raw material (typically 200 feet long) is mounted on one end and is embossed as it passes through the machine onto a take-up reel. Tension, registration and heat setting can be adjusted according to the job requirements. An operator with sufficient training and experience is capable of running dozens of rolls a day.

Typically, high-capacity hologram machinery costs several hundred thousand dollars, at least. According to industry analysts Reconnaissance International, “a full-featured, vertically-integrated commercial holography production set up requires an investment of at least $1 million.” The cost of equipment and staff has precluded many companies from manufacturing their own holograms.

One U.S. company, Dimensional Arts, Inc., is now selling a basic embossed hologram production line for $100,000. The system features its patented dot matrix machine, called the Light Machine. The base model has a maximum resolution of 250 DPI and operates at over 4 dots per second. It is 36" x 36" x 48" high, is not vibration sensitive under normal circumstances and uses standard line voltage (110-volt). According to the manufacturer, anyone who can operate a personal computer can run the Dimensional Arts machine. Higher resolution dot-matrix machines, more suitable for security printing, are available for an additional cost.

The Dimensional Arts’ package also can be purchased with an electroforming station and an embossing machine. However, technical expertise in creating shims and running the embossing machine is necessary. A graphic finisher may be better off creating its own images with the dot matrix machine and utilizing a hologram foil manufacturer to create the shims and emboss the image. This still allows the finisher to have control over the design of the image, potentially saving a great deal of time, and origination costs.

Other manufacturers also supply the aforementioned equipment separately, or as a package, although prices may differ significantly. Check manufacturer’s catalogs or specialized holography industry directories like The Holography MarketPlace (Ross Books, Berkeley, CA).

For companies that want to utilize the attributes of dot-matrix holograms, and don’t want to invest in creating holograms themselves, it is worth mentioning that a number of hologram manufacturers and holographic materials suppliers now offer dot matrix hologram production services using Dimensional Arts’ machines and/or other proprietary equipment and processes. The latest technological advances are resulting in faster origination times, more complex images, and larger holograms.

One such company, International Holographic Paper (Chalfont, Pennsylvania), just produced what they claim to be the world’s largest 2D hologram; a 40”x 90” (7 ½ foot) sports car banner using its new iSCAN® system. According to company president Brian Monaghan, “In the past, the money and time required to produce a custom hologram was not always affordable. It could take a month to shoot a 12” x 12” hologram master with considerable costs involved in production. With iSCAN®, for example, we will shoot 1000 pixels a second to make one master shim up to 30”x 40” inches in a matter of hours, at a cost of approximately $500. That shim is embossed into a paper substrate and metalized for approximately a dollar or two a sheet, in press-ready sheets”. After the hologram is replicated onto paper, a water-based coating is applied to the metalized paper to give the inks a surface to adhere to. “This technological breakthrough will foster a giant increase in the use of holographic papers in the printing, packaging, P.O.P., publishing and other industries as IHP’s holographic paper is easily converted and printed,” stated Monaghan.

Producing your own image holograms may seem complicated. However, as stated earlier in this article, there is a potential market for low-end security and promotional applications that may be open to graphic finishers and other graphic arts companies. If you believe holograms might be a future growth area for your business, it is worth exploring your options further.

InsideFinishing would like to thank Ken Harris of Dimensional Arts (505-527-9183) or www.holo.com, and Karen Monaghan of IHP (416-259-7309) for their assistance with this article.