Trends In Engraving Materials

Innovative Plastics Incorporated (IPI) of Algonquin, IL, manufactures engraving materials for use with rotary and laser engraving machines, including micro surface and non-micro surface plastics. and has over 125 separate combinations of laserable plastic.
Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in April 2004, Volume 29, No. 10 of The Engravers Journal.
By Jackie Zack

    The engraving materials you use in your business depend, of course, on what your core customers need and what marking methods you use to satisfy their needs. If you sell a lot of engraved signage and name badges, for instance, you probably use a lot of flexible plastic engraving stock. If your main forte is engraved trophies and plaques, you most likely have a good selection of metal materials on your shelves. And if you use other marking methods, like laser engraving or sublimation, then you need materials that work well with these processes.
     As we make our way through 2004, the good news is that you, as an R&I specialist, have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to engraving materials. We are fortunate enough, in this industry, to have many reputable material suppliers that offer quality products at competitive prices and aren’t content to offer only the same old conventional red plastic with a white core or .020" brass sheets (although you can certainly get those products if you need them). Instead, we’re seeing materials evolve right along with customer demands and also as different marking methods become more popular. For example, customers like the look of granite but it’s not always the easiest material to engrave on; now we have a plastic material that looks like granite but engraves with the ease of sign plastic. As laser engraving and sublimation continue to grow, we continue to see more technological developments in the materials developed for these processes. For instance, while laserable plastic was once “pretty good,” now it’s “excellent.”
    In this article, we’ll take a look at the most commonly used engraving materials, as well as what’s new and what’s happening overall in this market. Industry suppliers have also provided a few tips for finding the best supplier for your needs and getting the most out of that supplier-retailer relationship.
Plastic Engraving Materials
has sleek, upscale, modern qualities that make it a very popular choice for awards and gifts. It’s a heat-sensitive plastic sold under brand names such as Lucite and Plexiglas, and has been traditionally available in clear, opaque and translucent colors. As the popularity of acrylic has grown, we’ve seen new product introductions. For example, JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD, sells acrylic sheets printed with colorful marbleized patterns. Acrylic is easy to fabricate by sawing, routing and thermobending, and can be marked using a variety of techniques, including rotary engraving, laser engraving, sandblasting, hot stamping, screen printing and pad printing. The only methods that really don’t work well for marking on acrylic are diamond engraving and sublimation.
is a thermosetting material, meaning that heat and pressure are used to manufacture it and it doesn’t soften or melt when heated. It’s a hard plastic (it can’t be sheared; you need a saw to fabricate it), it’s abrasion resistant, heat resistant, strong, rigid and chemically inert. These unique qualities make it a good choice for industrial applications like machine tags and legend plates.
    A mainstay in the engraving industry for many years, conventional flexible engraving stock is a pliable material typically made up of modified acrylic or ABS. This plastic consists of two separate extruded sheets, a cap and a core, and is often referred to as a “capped” plastic. The cap is about .010" thick and is laminated to a contrasting colored core material. Common thicknesses include 1/32", 1/16", 3/32" and 1/8"; three-ply materials are available in 1/16", 1/8" and 1/4". This material is available in a wide variety of colors and woodgrains with either satin or matte finishes.
         Microsurface flexible engraving
stock is very similar to conventional flexible engraving stock except that it has a very thin cap layer, typically about .003" thick. The manufacturing process involves using heat and pressure to fuse a thin color or pattern to the core material. There is an enormous selection of colors available in microsurface plastics, including metallics, woodgrains, geometric patterns and holographic designs.
     One of the newer options is ultra-thin flexible engraving stock, a material made from two-ply engraving stock with a very thin impact acrylic core and very thin, i.e. .003", cap. The overall thickness of these materials is only about .020"-.030". Even thinner, engravable plastic “films” are also available with a total thickness of about .004"-.008". Some of these products have a self-adhesive backing while others are available with magnetic backings. Ultra-thin engraving stock is available in brass and aluminum look-alikes and a variety of colors in both sheets and rolls. The notable characteristic about all of these materials is that they are extremely flexible and bendable so that they can be put on nearly anything, e.g. curved and tapered surfaces like a flashlight or coffee mug.
Laserable flexible engraving stock is similar to microsurface engraving stock except that it has been specially formulated to resist burning, melting and discoloration, which are common side effects from a laser beam. Laserable plastics are typically acrylic-based and are available in two- and three-ply configurations.
Although unheard of just a few years ago, today you can even buy sublimatable plastic. These “plastics” are reinforced with fiberglass to withstand temperatures up to 400 F. The material is available in white to show off sublimation’s colors; sublimatable ultra-thin films are also available.
     Phenolic, conventional engraving stock, microsurface engraving stock, ultra-thin plastic, laserable plastic and sublimatable plastic can all be rotary engraved, screen printed and pad printed. With the exception of phenolic, these plastics can also be hot stamped. Laser engraving works best with laser engravable plastic, although you can also use a laser to engrave phenolic, microsurface and ultra-thin plastics (results may vary). Only “sublimatable” plastics can be sublimated.
Metal Engraving Materials
     Metal has long been and continues to be a popular engraving material in the engraving industry. It has a variety of uses including trophy plates, plaque plates and signage.
     Although one of the more expensive choices in engraving materials, brass is always an elegant choice. It has a beautiful gold appearance and can be purchased in sheets or blanks with either bright or matte finishes in .020" and .025" thicknesses. Brass manufactured for engraving is usually polished and finished with a clear lacquer or colored enamel coating (various enamel colors are available).
     Another, newer option in brass is a thinner version of the gold-colored material. JDS Industries has introduced a .016" thickness as a less expensive choice when it comes to brass. “That cuts a little bit of the cost out of the brass,” explains JDS’ Scott Sletten. “That’s been real popular.”

Examples of colorful marbleized acrylics mounted on wood plaques from JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD. CerMark is a thermo bonding material where heat and energy from a laser bonds the coating onto a base (bare metal) material. Photo courtesy of LaserBits, Inc., Phoenix, AZ.

     Brass-plated steel is an alternative to brass that has gained popularity in recent years. This material consists of a steel-based product laminated with a coating of brass and, typically, topped with colored enamel such as black. When you engrave or laser brass-plated steel it comes out looking just like solid brass. Brass-plated steel is a much more cost-effective option than brass, costing up to 40% less.
Aluminum has a whitish-silver color and, while not as attractive as brass, is a more economical option, costing about half the price. Aluminum is available in polished and finished sheets or precut blanks. Lacquer-coated aluminum has a clear or color-tinted coating; you can also purchase aluminum that is coated with an opaque enamel. Anodized aluminum has a durable matte coating and is available in various colors.
             Stainless steel
is primarily made up of iron, chromium and carbon and is strong, durable, inert and heat-resistant. Because of these characteristics, this metal is primarily used for special, industrial applications.
     Laserable metal was developed for use with CO2 lasers, since these lasers cannot engrave bare metal but they can cut through the coating on metal. Laser engravable metal consists of a brass, aluminum or steel sheet that has been polished to a bright luster, coated with a clear lacquer and then coated again with a (usually) colored lacquer.
    You can also purchase brass, aluminum and brass-plated steel sheets designed specially for sublimation.
Sublimatable metal features a special, sublimation-receptive coating that is either clear or white (to really show off colorful sublimatable images).
     As mentioned, CO2 lasers can only mark on coated metals, not on the metal itself. And sublimation will only work on metals with a sublimation-receptive coating. Sandblasting and hot stamping are not recommended for use on metal.
Custom Options
     Most suppliers in the industry will handle custom requests when it comes to engraving materials, whether you need a certain color or a special fabricated product. For example, JDS and Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, will put different cap colors on different core colors; and most companies like Plastic-Plus Awards, Charlotte, NC, and JDS offer custom fabrication services.
     Keep in mind, though, that all suppliers stress the fact that while custom materials and fabrication are always an option, they can be costly unless ordered in large quantities. “We will definitely do custom quotes on fabricated parts,” explains Zeda Blau, Horizons Inc., Cleveland, OH. “But like everything else, quantity equals economy of scale. So if you’re calling to get a custom quote on ten parts, we can do them, it’s just going to cost a great deal of money.”
What’s “In” Now?
     As far as traditional substrates go, the current engraving materials market is seeing some new twists on some favorite standbys, such as JDS’ marbleized acrylic, mentioned earlier, and new color combinations in conventional and microsurface plastic engraving stocks.
     Rowmark has recently introduced a new line of conventional plastic engraving stock called Granites Deluxe. This product was designed as an alternative to solid surface materials. The plastic is a 1/8" thick, two-ply acrylic product that looks like real granite, but offers the engraving ease of plastic engraving stock. When engraved, the underlying core color of the material shows through, unlike solid surface material, which typically requires a secondary paint-filling step in order to provide contrast between the engraved areas and the material color. Granites Deluxe is an acrylic based material, making it a good choice for sign-making applications, and is available in 15 different color combinations. “It’s more of a high-end material,” explains Jim Fichter, BF Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH, a company that is currently distributing the line. “It’s not something you would want to put in a grocery store or supermarket. It’s more for the higher-end hotels, office buildings and things like that.” Catering even further to the architectural signage market, Rowmark has also introduced a line of conventional plastic in earthtone colors, which, according to Fichter, appears to be a current trend in architectural signage.
     While we continue to see new versions of our favorite engravable materials, industry experts unanimously agree that the real growth right now is in sublimatable and laserable materials.

Matte finished, colored stainless steel engraving metals in standard 12" x 24" sheet stock from Identification Plates, Inc., Mesquite, TX. The dramatic color and graphics of sublimation can be combined with engraving to produce uniquely creative and attractive signage. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN.

Laser Engraving Continues to Grow and Grow
     Innovative Plastics Incorporated (IPI) of Algonquin, IL, manufactures one of the broadest lines of laserable plastics in the industry. According to IPI’s president, Don D’Antonio, “We started developing laser engravable plastics about three years ahead of the rest of the pack, and laserables represent our main focus over the past few years. We now offer 125 separate combinations of laserable plastic.”
Plastic-Plus Awards is a full-line IPI distributor with about 300 different plastic engraving material products, including 125 different laserable plastics in various thicknesses and many new colors. “Lasers are fast, they are easy, the detail is very precise,” says Plastic-Plus’ Michael Hicks. “Very detailed logos can be engraved very quickly.”
     As a result of the continuing rise in popularity of lasers as a major marking method, suppliers have made changes in their inventory to cater to customers with lasers as well as customers who rotary engrave (and, of course, those who offer both services).
     "The current direction and trends are really towards laserable products,” states JDS’ Scott Sletten. “As lasers become more and more popular, I’m seeing more and more laserable plastics sold all the time. It used to be that retailers had only one kind of plastic and that was engravable plastic. But now that the laserable (plastic) has come out, I think that a lot more people are carrying only laserable material that they can either laser or engrave, depending on what their needs are.”
     Rich Zydonik, Rowmark, Inc., Findlay, OH, agrees that there’s still a demand for rotary engravable plastics, but there is significant development in laserable products taking place. “The core products that we have offered for years are still there. Seventy-percent of engravers worldwide still use rotary methods. However, new products have to take lasering into account,” Zydonik says. “Over the past several years, there has been a shift towards laserable products. As a result of these trends, we try to provide products that are both laserable and rotary engravable.”
     Jim Fichter of BF Plastics says that laserables are a big part of what’s happening right now. “Definitely that’s been the fastest growing of all the different types of materials. As more and more lasers are sold . . . sales of that material are following,” he says. “All the old rotary engraving materials are still going strong. It (the laser) has just added a new dimension to the availability of the products.”
James Rubenstein of Leathertone, Inc., Woonsocket, RI, agrees that laserables are today’s growth area. “Our Laser Grav line now has over 30 standard colors, including metallics, and we’re seeing that our distributors are increasing their inventory of this material. Our MetalFlex line which is a laserable metallic material is also gaining popularity as a substitute for brass for trophy and award use.”
     Mike Fruciano, LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ, says that since the emergence of laser engraving in our industry, existing core engraving materials have been improved immensely for laser engraving purposes. “I’d say in the last three years there’s been a huge evolution of the existing products. This would be products like lacquer-coated brass plates, engraving plastic, sign plastic, things of that nature,” Fruciano says. “And what’s happened is that the manufacturers have really started to fine tune those formulations for laser engraving. So, the net result is that the productivity for the shop owner goes way up because cleanup is less, the quality is so much better, they have a much broader range of power settings to work with so it’s very easy to get first-run results with these improved engraving materials. And that’s typical of materials that have been around for a number of years. They just continue to get better and better, and now they’re excellent.”
     Fruciano goes on to say that there’s been tremendous developments in new laser engraving materials as well. One of the major improvements that he’s seen is in the area of “thermobonding,” the process where the heat energy from a laser bonds a special coating onto a base material. Where previously CO2 lasers could only engrave through coated metals, this process allows you to apply a thermobonding material to bare metal and engrave through it to leave an image.
     The original product for that was a material called Cermark, which works with metal. Now there are many other materials that are starting to evolve, even the metal material has gotten considerably better,” Fruciano says, adding that there are some new products out now and some that will be introduced later this year. The thermobonding products that are currently available can be sprayed or brushed on; there is also a thermobonding “tape” on the market that you apply to a material, engrave with a laser and then wash off to reveal the image. “Now there are materials for tiles, too, that are excellent,” he says. “we’re going to see more of these kinds of materials become available for both metal and ceramics.”
     Rowmark has expanded its laserable materials selection with ColorCast, a brand new line just unveiled at the Las Vegas ARA show in March. This new line consists of a cast acrylic sheet material that is harder and clearer than extruded acrylics, allowing you to perform fine, detailed rotary or laser engraving. According to the company, ColorCast acrylic can be used indoors or out because it is UV stable and weather resistant. Rowmark says that this new material is great for applications such as point-of-purchase displays, outdoor signage and trophy components.
     IPI has introduced several new laserable materials. Our “Laser Shop” group of materials encompasses five separate groups of materials, including the Laser II line, “Laser Thins”, “Gold Coats” and “Heavy Metals.” One of the newest products is IPI’s Laser Ultra Thins. It’s four mils thick, UV stable and has a self-adhesive back. It’s so thin, it’s very, very flexible” says IPI’s Don D’Antonio. The company has also introduced several new colors in its The Laserables-Heavy Metal brand, a line of impact acrylic featuring a metallic foil cap that looks like metal, but when laser or rotary engraved at a depth of .003", reveals a contrasting core underneath. New colors include several shades of gold along with interesting colors like “Tahitian Bronze.” D’Antonio says that having a selection of varying shades of gold, even if they only vary slightly, is great for customers who are looking for an exact color, e.g. discriminating corporate clients.

     Laser engravable metal is an area where major innovations are taking place. “I think the laser engravers have changed the metal industry,” says Plastic-Plus’ Michael Hicks. “What a plaque plate is today and what it used to be is a lot different . . . For years, all we had was standard .020" brass and .020" aluminum.” Today, he says, Plastic-Plus Awards has doubled its metal inventory, carrying standard aluminum and brass and laserable aluminum and brass. “And now they’ve come out with brass steel, which is kind of like a hybrid of aluminum and brass.” In addition to offering various types of metal, Hicks says that they continue to stock more colors as they are introduced.
     One of the most exciting laserable materials to hit the market is a new and unique product called AlumaMARK from Horizons Incorporated, Cleveland, OH. You might be familiar with this company from their MetalPhoto imaging process (images are photographically embedded into photosensitive anodized aluminum sheets) and their reputation for inventing new ways to image. The company’s new flagship product is a CO2 laserable aluminum sheet material that has been chemically formulated to turn image areas black when laser engraved. AlumaMARK is available in satin and matte silver and satin gold in various sheet sizes and .005" and .020" thicknesses, with or without adhesive. It will also be available in precut blanks (Horizons was working on a blanks program when this article went to press) and several different colors.
     “The difference in our material and everybody else’s material is that everybody else engraves,” explains Horizons’ Zeda Blau. “They use their laser to cut into the material. Most materials have a core and a top coat, and they engrave through that top coat to reveal the core,” she says. “It (AlumaMARK) is a coated product, but the coating isn’t manufactured. So what you get is not really an etch at all. It’s fairly smooth to the touch . . . it’s really what they call a color transformation.” With the correct settings, the lasered image turns black and the metal background remains silver or gold. Blau says that AlumaMARK has a variety of applications, including plaques, trophies, signs and badges as well as some industrial applications such as ID plates, nameplates and bar code labels.
     Michael Hicks says that Plastic-Plus is excited about distributing AlumaMARK in 2004. “The interest is extremely high because everybody has always wanted a metal product that turns black when you laser it,” he says. “When you laser engrave plastics, you do get black underneath but there’s just something about metal . . . it has a different look to it.” This new product will also save engravers time, he says. “Most times to get black on gold you have to do a lot of oxidization with a liquid oxidizer. It’s very time-consuming.”
     IPI’s Don D’Antonio sums up the industry’s increasing selection of laserable materials by stating, “The market is now driving new product development. Our customers tell us they are looking for new market avenues, so we pursue these trends. For example, our customers are now demanding a durable hardcoat surface, extreme UV resistance and new sales concepts. Our “Night Lights” material, for instance, glows in the dark and our “Reflectors” series reflects light in a manner similar to a bicycle reflector.”
Sublimation Is Hot, Hot, Hot!
     “Anything to do with sublimation is very, very popular right now,” says Scott Sletten, JDS Industries. Sublimation is sizzling right now because it’s different, it’s easy, it’s colorful and it’s affordable. In recent years, Universal Woods, a major pioneer in the development of sublimatable materials, has introduced new and better sublimatable plastic, metal and prefabricated blanks. The company makes ongoing efforts to introduce new sublimatable products practically every day.
Margaret Johnson, Johnson Plastics, feels that mechanical engraving has more or less reached its plateau and sublimation is really an area that is “happening” right now. In fact, Johnson Plastics recently acquired Xpres Corporation, a sublimation equipment and accessory supplier. “We see a definite trend towards sublimation and all the options it has to offer,” she says, adding that many of these products work double-duty because they can also be lasered or rotary engraved.
     Plastic-Plus Awards carries a full line of Unisub sublimatable metal and is also working on developing its own line. Hicks says that laser engraving is extremely popular right now, but sublimation is also a very hot area of the industry. “The offset (of laser engraving) is the high equipment cost and so that’s where sublimation comes into the mix because it is economical, you can add color to the product and you can get into it fairly economically . . . instead of $20,000, you may be able to get a whole system with a press and everything for $3,000-$5,000. So you’re talking about a big difference in the cost they’re outlaying in the beginning.” But there’s a tradeoff there, too, he says, explaining that sublimation is a more cumbersome process than laser engraving. “There’s an offset there. And it really depends on what end result you need. I think they are both growing.”
What’s Out?
     While sublimatable and laserable materials dominate the industry right now in terms of new product availability, are there any engraving materials that have declined in use? Suppliers agree that materials like stainless steel and phenolic aren’t used much in this industry, partly because these substrates have specialized applications that fall outside the realm of the standard award and gift markets. “Phenolic is a product that was really used 30-40 years ago and you don’t find much of it anymore,” says Sletten. “It’s an old, real hard material. It’s also very difficult to work with, so most people have completely gotten away from phenolic. You do see it still specified in government contracts, things like that.”
     As lasers have become more and more popular, some conventional plastic engraving stocks have become less so. Traditional “capped” plastics require engraving at .012" or more; not a problem for a rotary engraver, but lasers have difficulty penetrating the thick cap. The thick cap also prohibits engraving intricate details, a major highlight of the laser engraving process. Plus, as noted, many suppliers and retailers opt for materials that can be both rotary and laser engraved.
     As architectural design trends come and go certain looks and styles of engraving materials tend to decline in popularity. For example, Zydonik says, “Products that have a woodgrain to them have lost favor and have been replaced by more architecturally interesting colors.”



Examples of AlumaMark, the metal product that turns black when laser engraved without a time-consuming liquid oxidizer. Photo courtesy of Plastic-Plus, Charlotte, NC. Heavy Weights from Rowmark, Inc., Findlay, OH, is made of a heavy-gauge, three-ply polymer sheet designed to withstand the harshest elements, making it a great choice for exterior applications, like marinas and playgrounds.

What’s Coming?
So what’s on the engraving materials horizon? Manufacturers indicate that one of their primary goals has been and still is to make work easier for engravers by introducing new materials that work better than their predecessors. “Like everything else in the marketplace, they want to be able to do things quickly,” says Horizons’ Zeda Blau. “And if you can deliver a product that is meeting all of their needs so that they don’t have to go through many, many interim steps, you’re probably ahead of the game. I think we speak to that with being able to laser black rather than having to do a second step of actually color filling.”
     LaserBits’ Mike Fruciano forecasts additional improvements in laser engravable products and more variety in the very near future. He says that, in addition to new and different color combinations, technologically advanced materials like AlumaMARK and other laser-sensitive substrates will continue to evolve. And, as technological advancements are made, the image quality will be far better than we could have imagined.
     Rowmark’s Rich Zydonik says he sees other trends coming to light in the coming year, such as plastics with higher UV ratings, new materials that have more rubber and flexibility and screen printed and painted plastic. In response to some of these trends, Rowmark has introduced a new line of plastic engraving stock called the Heavyweights. This new plastic is a heavy-gauge, three-ply polymer sheet designed to withstand the harshest elements, making it a great choice for exterior applications, even in demanding environments like marinas and playgrounds.
Looking For A Great Supplier
     Fortunately, this industry has several very good, reputable suppliers whose sole purpose is to serve you the best way that they can. So, what should you look for when it comes to purchasing engraving materials?
     Zeda Blau from Horizons Incorporated says that with some products, especially the newer ones, finding a company that can provide good technical assistance is important. As the AlumaMARK product has been refined, manufacturing-wise, industry acceptance has grown by leaps and bounds, in part because of education. “This past year, sales were vastly better than the year before. We are adding more distributors and more people have learned about the product. But I think the crucial thing is educating people on the use of the product,” says Blau. “In other words, this is not one more sublimatable substrate. This is a whole new technology. And so a whole new technology requires education and it requires a lot of information out there in the marketplace and it requires a lot of technical assistance on our part, which we are very well-equipped to do because most of our products are technologically different from most other products on the market.
     Rich Zydonik says that there are several important qualities that you should look for when seeking out a good engraving materials supplier. “Obviously, quality of product,” he states. “But beyond that, consistency, where color, gauge and finish are repeatable from lot to lot. A strong warranty program, should you encounter a problem, is important as well. Strong technical support, product availability and continuous supply, and innovation of new materials and colors are also crucial.”

Gravoply Ultra, a versatile 2 -ply material perfect for rotary and laser engraving can be used indoors and out. Photo courtesy of Gravograph-New Hermes, Duluth, GA.

     Michael Hicks says that you need to look for a wholesale supplier who can meet most of your needs. “It depends on which market you’re after, but much of the customer base that we sell to is an awards dealer and if you’re an awards dealer you would want a supplier that could supply you with all of the laserable items you need, all of the sublimatable items you need as well as all of the award components that you need,” he says. Hicks adds that retailers sometimes don’t look closely enough at what they are paying for in freight, which can really eat into your gross margin. By consolidating some of that freight, he explains, you can sometimes save substantial amounts of money in freight costs, not to mention saving the time of contacting multiple suppliers.
Another important consideration is the location of your supplier. “Meaning, how fast can they get the materials,” says Scott Sletten. “Most people generally want to buy from somebody that’s either next-day or second-day from them. That way they don’t have to wait a week to get the material. You have to look at reliability of the supplier and what kind of inventory the supplier carries.” Sletten also says that suppliers with multiple warehouses are usually very beneficial. “Let’s say you need 29 sheets of a pine green and white plastic and we’ve got 10 sheets in the warehouse near you. Well, we have 9 warehouses nationwide so I can probably just ship it in from another warehouse, rather than you having to make several phone calls.”
     Jim Fichter from BF Plastics says that your supplier’s stock is a big factor. “The most important thing is a supplier that has the materials in stock–a large stocking distributor,” he says. “In our situation, the most important factor is to have the product on the shelf so that when people need it, we can ship it immediately, and that means everything. Of course, that also means a large selection. You’ve got to have everything; you can’t just stock the basics.”
Getting the Most fromYour Suppliers
Once you find a good engraving materials supplier, the next step is to develop a good relationship with them. There are several things you can do to make sure you use what your suppliers have to offer in the best way possible.
     Margaret Johnson stresses the importance of communication with your supplier. “Customers need to talk to us more about specific projects that they are undergoing,” she says. “Sometimes they get these great projects but it seems like they’re afraid to share it in case someone else might get in on the act. But, suppliers sometimes have suggestions, such as alternate materials or ways to cut costs or things like that . . . there are sometimes ways that we can help them if we know specifically what they are trying to do. For example, they’ll call up and ask for a very unusual product; if we don’t have it, we’ll ask what they are trying to accomplish. If they don’t tell us, we can’t really help them. There might be an alternative product that we have that would solve their problem.”
     Scott Sletten agrees with the concept of communication. “One of the biggest things is communication. If you need something special, make sure that you let them know what you need.”
     Rich Zydonik says that getting the most from your supplier can mean communicating on several different levels. For example, he says it’s important to become familiar with the products and technical specifications that the supplier offers and to ask for recommendations for particular applications. Also, “Order in sufficient quantities to take advantage of quantity discounts and respect supplier lead times. If you are a large user, work with the supplier to maintain stock of commonly used items,” he says.
     Michael Hicks points out that if you are experiencing problems with a material, be sure to rule out the technical aspects of engraving first. “You’ll hear people complain now and then about the plastics, but these lasers are so different. Every laser tube is different from the next.”
     Hicks encourages retailers to take advantage of all of your supplier’s resources. “They (customers) actually use us as their warehouse. We stock over 6,500 products, whether its awards or engraving products, at seven facilities,” he says. (Plastic-Plus Awards recently opened its 7th warehouse in Virgina). “And so rather than them stocking all those products, they can call me anytime before 5 o’clock and we ship their order that day and they have it the next day, in most cases. So it allows you to offer so much more without really having to invest in the inventory.”
     It’s interesting to see the changes that are happening in the industry when it comes to engraving materials, especially in light of hot marking methods like laser engraving and sublimation. It’s clear from talking to suppliers that they really have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in this industry in terms of what you want, what you need and what will be happening in the future. Chances are, if you are looking for a certain engraving material for a certain application, it’s out there. Take advantage of what your suppliers have to offer and you will be well on your way to a more profitable, and enjoyable, business.