What's New in the Acrylic Market? Growth!

Copyright © 2006 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2006, Volume 32, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal
  The Marbleized Octagon from JDS Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, SD, is an example of how acrylic manufacturers have added color and texture to acrylic awards.  

     Acrylic is one of those materials that has a certain mystique about it. Perhaps it is the versatility. This plastic substrate has many, many different uses ranging from aircraft windshields to fish aquariums. Or maybe it’s the physical characteristics. Acrylic looks like, and can be easily confused with, glass, yet it is half the weight and can be up to 30 times stronger. Or better yet, maybe it’s simply the way it looks. Acrylic can be extremely beautiful and elegant particularly when it is cut into interesting shapes and engraved with text and graphics, as in the case of acrylic awards.
     It’s really quite interesting that this one material can be molded, formed, decorated and used in so many different ways. Maybe that’s why it is one of the most popular materials used in the manufacture of everything from soccer participation awards to recognition products for major corporations to gifts and desk accessories.
Acrylic—The Material
     Acrylic is a resin-based thermoplastic known as “polymethylmethacrylate” or PMMA. Because it is a thermoplastic (it softens when heated), it can be heated and formed into many different shapes; when reheated, it can be changed back to its natural shape. Physically, acrylic is one of the most optically clear materials available, even more so than glass. And, as noted earlier, it weighs about half as much as glass. Acrylic is also impact resistant, which is why it is preferred as a glazing material to protect photos, artwork, documents, etc. It is also resistant to sunlight, rain, snow, pollutants and many chemicals, all properties that add to its versatility.
     Most of the awards in this industry are manufactured with cast acrylic. Cell cast acrylic is produced by pouring an acrylic “syrup” between two sheets of tempered glass. A rubber gasket is placed between the sheets of glass and the thickness of the gasket creates the thickness of the poured sheet.
     Continuous cast acrylic is created by pouring partially cured acrylic “syrup” between two polished stainless steel belts. The distance between the belts determines the thickness of the sheets. Continuous cast acrylic is softer than cell cast and, as such, it scratches easier. Both types of acrylic are engravable, although there are some differences in the appropriate cutting tool geometries, speeds and feeds. According to Eric Wald from Acrylic Idea Factory, Norcross, GA, cell cast sheet is generally used to create acrylic awards.
Plastic-Plus Awards, Charlotte, NC, offers the New Channel Mirror Awards with colored mirror bottoms that reflect into the bevel at the top.    

This new item, the Gold Rising Star Award, from American Acrylic Awards & Gifts, Walnut, CA, features blue or maroon print with a piano finished glossy wood stand.

Personalizing Acrylic Awards
     Another great feature of acrylic is the fact that it can be easily, and beautifully, personalized with names, text and graphics. Rotary engraving and laser engraving are the two most prevalent methods used to mark acrylic in the awards industry.
     Rotary engraving remains a popular choice for personalizing and customizing acrylic awards in many award shops, especially those that don’t yet have lasers. “For many years prior to laser engraving, Acrylic Idea Factory was rotary engraving all of our cell cast acrylic award blanks. Using standard plastics cutters, such as cutters used for sign material, acrylic will rotary engrave beautifully!” says Wald.
     Engraving acrylic is fairly straightforward, although you can achieve different looks by modifying your technique. For example, to create a deep “V” groove that creates a dimensional effect, use a plastics cutter with a 90?q included angle. A sharp cutter will cut acrylic cleanly, providing polished engraved grooves. This makes it easy to color fill. On the other hand, here’s one instance where you can put your dull cutters to good use. A dull cutter (not a “damaged” one that’s been dropped on the floor and has a broken tip!) will engrave bright white like a laser does. “If your dull cutter begins to fray plastic engraving stock, that’s when it’s perfect to use on acrylic for the bright white effect,” says Wald.
     Because all cast acrylic varies somewhat in thickness due to the manufacturing process, Wald also recommends using a polished depth nose and a vacuum chip removal system when you rotary engrave. This will help prevent engraving depth variations and “dropped out” letters. Although acrylic is a durable material in many senses, it can scratch easily. For this reason, make sure your depth nose is polished and free from nicks or rough edges that could scratch the acrylic as it rides across the material.
     While rotary engraving is still widely used for personalizing acrylic, laser engraving is really the preferred choice in the industry today due to its ease and exquisite results. “It’s easier than cutting butter with a hot knife!” says Acrylic Idea Factory’s Wald.
     Laser engraving acrylic is an extremely fast process as the acrylic surface vaporizes instantly with the touch of a laser beam, leaving bright white engraved letters and designs. It’s also a foolproof process, requiring no special tools or techniques. Since there’s virtually nothing touching the acrylic surface, there’s no chance of scratching and even though acrylic varies in thickness, the variance usually isn’t enough to cause an engraving depth problem.
     “Acrylic Idea Factory always uses a cast acrylic that engraves bright white when the laser is focused properly. Using high speed and low power, lasered acrylic always looks great,” says Wald.
     Other marking methods can be used to create different, but equally striking looks on acrylic awards. Frequently used techniques include screen printing, pad printing and sandcarving.

The new Acrylic Star award from PDU, South El Monte, CA, is a 7" tall award available in Clear and Jade acrylic.

Acrylic Idea Factory, Atlanta, GA, has added Red to their Blue and Gold Diamond Carved Obelisk awards color choices.

A Dazzling New Selection
     Acrylic awards have evolved amazingly over the last decade or so. When the awards first became popular, we saw a nice range of recognition products made of clear acrylic that were cut into a few different shapes; next came new colors like jade and eventually blue. All along, more shapes and new designs have been introduced, including a wider variety of desk plaques and new lines of stand-alone awards that don’t require a separate base. Today, thanks to developments in both creativity and technology, the selection in acrylic awards is enormous and includes different shapes, styles, colors, bases and products, and more are being introduced all the time.
     Acrylic Idea Factory is a leading manufacturer of acrylic awards and other products and, according to Wald, today’s options in acrylic are vaster than ever before. “New acrylic award designs are incorporating a wide variety of methods and manufacturing techniques. You can find everything from regular clear acrylic awards to bright and colorful screen printed designs. Many customers take advantage of our ability to manufacture custom acrylic awards, so we find more and more customers actually designing their own unique awards for their retail clients,” Wald says.
     Among the company’s new product offerings are Channeled Mirror awards. These awards incorporate an innovative design with the company’s popular mirrored bottom. The combination allows for a beautiful reflection of gold, blue or the new red mirror throughout the award. This design is available in several other award styles, as well. The company has also introduced a similar line of awards that feature gold or blue textured bottom coatings. Like the mirrored bases, the color from the textured coating reflects throughout the award.
     Acrylic Idea Factory’s Precision Digital Entrapment awards give you the opportunity to combine two types of media by entrapping photographs or digital prints in high quality acrylic. The process involves a digital photograph that is positioned between a 1/4" thick piece of black acrylic (the back of the award) and a 3/4" piece of beveled clear acrylic. The two pieces are then joined with aluminum fasteners to create a unique, colorful, custom award.
     New colors and new shapes continue to pop up in the marketplace as well. For example, Acrylic Idea Factory has recently introduced their exclusive AIFGold acrylic—a translucent material tinted an attractive gold color. “Many of our awards that are now offered in jade, blue and clear acrylic are also available in AIFGold,” Wald says.
     Also available are “color coated” acrylic awards, such as Acrylic Idea Factory’s new ArtStar award. According to Wald, they have developed a proprietary technique for applying color to awards that is completely different from screen printing, yet creates beautiful results. “We are also currently working on new designs that feature unique cutting and shaping techniques that are not currently available in the awards industry,” Wald says.

The Rising Star Series from Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT, has the new Rising Star Series available in red, green and blue and is made of laserable acrylic.   Tropar Mfg. Co., Inc., Florham Park, NJ, offers this mixed media award from its Octagon Series with a rosewood piano-finish base and post with gold metal accents.

Putting It All Together
     Today there are many choices among acrylic award styles and colors as well as assembly options. Perhaps you and your customers like the look—and ease—of a stand-alone award that doesn’t require a separate base—it’s ready to go. Or maybe you have a customer who prefers a more elegant look, say a clear or jade acrylic plaque mounted on a piano finish wood base. Whatever your preference, there are plenty of styles in each category from which to choose.
     “In recent years, everyone has been designing more products that can stand alone, where no gluing is necessary. Still, many customers prefer designs that incorporate an award with a base. As far as availability, we offer a wide variety of exciting awards that can stand alone, as well as awards that can be assembled by gluing or snapped into our Pop-In bases,” says Wald.
     Acrylic awards with bases do require some assembly on your part, depending on the design of the award. Some styles are designed to quickly and easily snap together; you simply snap the top part into a base. Others require gluing the top and base pieces together (see EJ March 06, The Laser Shop: Creating a Two-Part Acrylic Award). Gluing generally involves aligning the two pieces and dispensing the glue along the back edge with a syringe-like applicator. You then tilt the top part of the award up, working out any air bubbles as you do so. Note that the type of glue or adhesive you use depends on the materials you are joining together.
     “Even though it sounds quite simple, most award dealers will tell you that gluing acrylic awards can be quite a task. After testing various gluing methods over 40 years ago, Acrylic Idea Factory discovered that gluing doesn’t have to be a difficult task. When using our unique gluing technique you can achieve near-perfect glue marks that are virtually bubble-free. We recommend that both surfaces to be glued be clean and dust-free and always work in a well-ventilated area,” says Wald. Acrylic Idea Factory offers a “How To Glue Acrylic Awards” pamphlet to customers and they have also taught many hands-on seminars throughout the years.

Zeit Company, Inc., Salt Lake City, UT, presents the designer “STAR” award; this unusual star design is made with a combination of polished jade acrylic and rustic metal.   The Carillon Stand-Up award from Victory, Division of Planter, Inc., Chicago, IL, is a combination of engravable acrylic with a metal casting.

A Growing Market
     Acrylic is one of the fastest growing areas of the industry right now. We’re seeing new colors, new designs and new shapes in the finished products and the selection available today is incredible. The biggest thing happening in the market right now? Growth!
     “The acrylic awards market keeps growing at a very rapid pace,” explains Wald. “Technology allows us to manufacture more interesting and exciting designs to satisfy the demand for acrylic awards. You should expect to see more and more creativity involved in designing new acrylic awards such as mixing acrylic with other substrates like wood or resin.”
     When it comes to selling acrylic products out of your showroom, one of the biggest advantages is its mass appeal. Acrylic awards are available in all price ranges, from the very expensive (high end corporate awards, golf tournament awards, entertainment industry awards) to the affordable (youth participation awards, promotional giveaways). With acrylic awards, you can target virtually every award customer that comes through your door. “That pretty much covers the entire range of the awards industry. In short, retail customers can purchase an affordable acrylic award for kids’ sports awards ceremonies as well as expensive acrylic awards for corporate business banquets,” says Wald.
     As for the future of the acrylic market? Expect to see more colors, more styles and more designs. “Throughout the year we constantly listen to our clients and their suggestions as to what kinds of awards they would like to see. Our dedicated and professional design team is currently working on new designs that will be introduced this coming year and the next,” says Wald.
     In short, an award shop really can’t go wrong selling acrylic products. Acrylic is a beautiful material with many appealing qualities, including clarity and strength. It can be molded and formed into many interesting shapes, which makes it an ideal choice for awards. It also engraves extremely well, especially with a laser. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to introduce your customers to the wonders of acrylic awards. If you already offer acrylic products, then it’s time, once again, to take a look around and see the many new products that have been introduced. In either case, you—and your customers—will be glad you did.