The Ins & Outs of Acrylic Awards

Copyright © 2007 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2007, Volume 32, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal
 
 
     Have you seen what’s available in acrylic awards lately? The selection is incredible. In fact, acrylic awards represent some of the most remarkable award items available in the entire industry. Acrylic is available in a multitude of colors, it can be formed into many interesting shapes and designs and it can come with some beautiful accents.
     Because of their high-end appeal, acrylic awards are especially popular among corporate customers. And as many Recognition & Identification retailers will tell you, landing these kinds of clients, with their large budgets and potential for repeat business, can often lead to a goldmine. Their influence in the form of word-of-mouth advertising is another huge benefit to snagging corporate clientele. If you haven’t yet explored the world of acrylic awards, perhaps it’s time you start.
     “Acrylic is one of my favorite materials to work with,” says John Barnes. “It has the look of crystal, it’s affordable and it’s elegant. There’s no better way to impress people and to recognize them for their achievements than with acrylic awards.” Barnes owns Coast to Coast Laser, a successful laser engraving business in Perris, CA, that specializes in awards and promotional items.
     Barnes says acrylic is a top seller among his customers, which is why he offers such a large selection of acrylic products. He attributes this wide selection of products to his company landing several new clients, including some very large corporate accounts. “They’re really attracted to the impeccable detail and richness of acrylic,” says Barnes. “You can get a three-dimensional look in the engraving, and there are many unique designs and shapes to choose from.”
What’s So Special?
     Why is acrylic, a resin-based thermoplastic known as “polymethylmethacrylate” or PMMA, so popular with customers? One of the exclusive characteristics of this material is that it’s one of the most optically clear materials available, even more so than glass, and it weighs about half as much as glass. Acrylic is resistant to many elements, including sunlight, rain, snow, pollutants and many chemicals. And because it’s a thermoplastic, it can be heated and formed into many different shapes.
     Different kinds of acrylic are used for different applications. In our industry, the standard for award production is “cell-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. Today, acrylic awards are made out of cast material because of its premium optical clarity and because of the frosty white image created from laser engraving.
     The other type of acrylic you may have heard about is extruded acrylic, which is also sometimes called “continuous-cast” acrylic. Manufacturing extruded acrylic involves feeding pellets of resins into an extruder that heats them to a molten mass. This molten plastic is forced through a die to create a molten sheet and then the sheet is fed through rollers to determine the thickness and, in some cases, the surface finish. Extruded acrylic is popularly used for certain applications such as producing display fixtures and sometimes for accents on acrylic awards, such as mirroring. Extruded acrylic is rarely used to manufacture acrylic awards because, unlike cell cast acrylic, it engraves “clear.” It’s also a much softer material, which tends to “gum up” during rotary engraving unless an extremely sharp cutter is used.
 
 
The Arch Series from Tropar features a blue mirror upright and base with a clear convex acrylic front.  
 
A Huge Selection
     A few clicks around the Internet will reveal just how many acrylic award options that are available. You can choose from the always-popular clear acrylic or, for a different look, try something tinted with a color like sapphire (blue), jade (green), red or gold. Mirrored accents are also very popular right now. Manufacturers will laminate or glue mirrored material onto the top, bottom or sides of an acrylic product to create interesting, colorful reflections and accents that add a touch of distinctiveness. Screen printing is another method used to add color to acrylic. This technique can be used to create colorful patterns, such as a black and blue marble, on the back of an award. Acrylic also looks stunning when paired with other materials, such as metal or wood bases, or used with accents.
Barnes says that some of the most popular new designs that he offers include interesting bevels, edge finishes and facets. “Most people like the facets. The way the light shines on it and the way it reflects that light really gets customers excited,” he said. With all of the various colors, facets, bevels and other options available today, Barnes said he rarely sells plain acrylic awards anymore.
Personalization Makes It Special
     Although it can still be done, the days of adhering a brass plate to an acrylic award are pretty rare these days as well (much to the delight of many in the industry). The trend today is to personalize the actual award instead, providing a much cleaner, crisper and more elegant look—a look that customers are willing to spend more money on.
     By most accounts, laser engraving has surpassed all of the other marking methods as the “method of choice” for personalizing acrylic. “Laser engraving is the only cost-effective method that I’ve found for personalizing acrylic,” says Jim Millburn of Zeit Company, Inc., Salt Lake City, UT, a major supplier of stock and custom acrylic awards. “Laser engraving has simplified the process ten-fold,” he said, “because they’re so fast and efficient and they give you so much versatility.”
     Millburn says he believes laser engraving and acrylic awards have been mutually beneficial to each other in the marketplace. “Laser engraving, as a whole, is one of the driving forces behind the growing number of acrylic awards being sold, and I believe that acrylic awards are one of the driving forces behind the growing number of laser engravers being sold. They just complement each other very well,” he says.
     Barnes agrees acrylic and lasers go hand in hand, adding he has two laser engraving machines at his shop (an Epilog 30 watt and an Epilog 75 watt) and plans to purchase a third very soon. “The detail you can get with a laser is great, especially with photographs and logos,” he says. “I have had more customers tell me that they like the look of the engraving on acrylic better than on glass.”
     One of the reasons laser engraving is preferred when it comes to engraving acrylic is that it’s virtually foolproof. Issues like inconsistencies in material thickness, which can be problematic when rotary engraving, are not a concern with laser engraving. As with laser engraving any material, however, you’ll still need to fine-tune the settings on your laser to match the environment and the materials you use. Some retailers report that acrylic from different sources can tend to engrave differently. For the most part, however, laser engraving acrylic awards is a breeze. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Millburn advises people to pay attention to the fine details in every job. If you’re engraving small characters like six or eight point text, a scanned signature or other detailed work, he says you’ll get better results if you slow down the laser speed. If you’re engraving a large order, you can “batch” jobs to speed up the production time. “Many people have two, three, even four lasers now,” says Millburn. If you use one of them to run all of the generic copy and another to engrave individual names, you can save a lot of time.”

 
The Western Award from Zeit Company stands 12" tall with a wooden base for an elegant look. These 3D-curvature sculpture awards from American Acrylic Awards come in a marble-like imprint wall or table display.
 
     Byron Dreher from Acrylic Idea Factory, which is reported to be the world’s largest manufacturer of acrylic awards, says that in addition to the fact that acrylic engraves very easily and very quickly, it’s also not necessary to engrave very deeply to make a logo or design look good on acrylic. One tip he offers for achieving a cleaner engraved image is to focus your lens about 1/8" closer to the acrylic, making it look a little out of focus. The reason for this, Dreher says, is that the laser burns with such accuracy that when in focus, you can see the actual end points of each engraved line, which can make the image look a little fuzzy. When you place the lens a little out of focus, the end points blend together so the image appears straighter. “That’s just one simple trick to make your logos look a little crisper,” adds Dreher.
     Barnes said he gets his best laser engraving results by lowering the resolution when working with acrylic. “Normally, most people would engrave plaques and acrylic awards at 600 dpi, but if you bring it down to 400 dpi, I’ve found that I get better results,” he says. When working with photos, which Barnes said he does quite often, he drops the dpi even lower, to 300, for best results.
     Of course, there are more options for personalizing acrylic awards than laser engraving. If your order is large enough, for example, screen printing can be a more cost-effective and colorful option. Some manufacturers, including Zeit and Acrylic Idea Factory, will do the screen printing for you, which can save both time and money. “Some people may not have the time or desire to laser 500 awards so they might be willing to pay someone else to add a one- or two-color screen print,” says Millburn.
     For example, Millburn says, “If I’ve got 500 awards that are 6" x 8" and it’s going to cost between $6-$8 each to laser engrave a design and name on them, I would consider putting a two-color screen print on them for under $2 each and then go back and personalize them with my laser.” Most software programs used with laser engraving machines have batch capabilities that allow you to easily add in names and other custom information on multiple pieces in the same job setup.
     Acrylic can also be rotary engraved easily and with excellent results. It’s just not as popular as it once was now that more businesses are purchasing laser engraving machines. “There are still some people who rotary engrave acrylic—some by choice and some because they don’t have a laser,” says Millburn. One of the advantages to rotary engraving acrylic is that it can cut deeper into the material, giving the product more of a dimensional look than you get with a laser.

 
This business card from Acrylic idea factory is made with clear acrylic and full-color custom printing using the AcriliPrint system. The Freedom Paperweight from Acrylic Idea Factory features clear acrylic with a red, white and blue patriotic design.

 
   Because all cast acrylic varies somewhat in thickness due to the different manufacturing processes, it is necessary to use a polished vacuum depth nose when rotary engraving acrylic. This will help prevent engraving depth variations and “dropped out” letters. Although acrylic is a durable material in many regards, it can scratch easily. For this reason, make sure the depth nose is polished and free from nicks or rough edges that could scratch the acrylic as it rides across the material. You can experiment with leaving the protective masking on the acrylic when you rotary engrave, as long as you’re aware that it does tend to ball up as the depth nose rides across the surface.
    
Acrylic Idea Factory has recently unveiled another personalization option for acrylic called AcryliPrint. This innovative new printing process is not screen printing or sublimation, but rather the company’s own (patent-pending) technique for producing full-color images, logos, photos, landscapes and other multicolor designs on clear acrylic blanks. AcryliPrint involves digitally printing full-color images onto AIF’s proprietary substrate materials and then applying this to the reverse side of a clear acrylic blank using a special bonding technique.
    
According to Dreher, printing color images on acrylic with other processes, such as screen printing, can produce visible halftone dots and imperfections that detract from the quality of the piece. AcryliPrint, on the other hand, is capable of adding some 16 million different colors to acrylic with excellent results. The company offers this process on a variety of awards, plaques, nameplates and paperweights, as well as most of its existing awards.
Marketing Strategies
    
With all of their beauty and elegance, it would seem that acrylic awards could literally sell themselves. But don’t underestimate the power of a little (or a lot) of marketing savvy. Here are some tips to get you started making acrylic award sales.
What & How
    
Taking extra time to make an award special, even just a little tweaking here and there, can make a huge difference in how an award is perceived. “When you think about someone getting an award, a little extra effort adds that ‘You didn’t get this out of a catalog, you had this made for me’ appeal,” Millburn says. Laser engraved photographs are very popular on acrylic right now because they can add the ultimate in personal appeal. Software designed for just this purpose, such as PhotoGrav, can help you generate photographs for laser engraving quickly, easily and with great results.
    
“There’s always the graphic arts part of creating an award,” Millburn says, adding that something as simple as using different fonts in an award layout can really add to the appeal. “If the bulk of the lettering is Times Roman and the recipient’s name is Times Roman, it doesn’t do a lot to jump out at you. Oftentimes just changing the font or the font size can draw a little bit more attention to the award in the eyes of the person receiving the recognition, and that’s really what it’s all about,” he says. “I happen to think it’s worth spending a little extra time to make that person’s name stand out.”
    
Of course, Millburn warns to always, always, always check, double-check and recheck the spelling of each name and the message as a whole before engraving. “I hate to see someone scrap the award because of a spelling error,” Millburn says. “It’s worth proofing and double-proofing.”
    
Another easy way to catch the eye of the beholder is to use a variety of different layouts when displaying product samples. This allows customers to visualize more than one possibility and see for themselves the appealing nature and versatility of acrylic awards. For example, Millburn says, “Even just five or so years ago, everybody engraved right down the center on the back of an award. I can take a 4" x 6" rectangle and make it look so awesome by engraving both the front and back and adding some kind of graphic creativity.”
    
Millburn said it really adds dimension to an award when you engrave a logo on the back and the text on the front. “You can even position the lettering over the logo to give it an especially interesting dimension,” he says. Millburn said he recommends browsing through several manufacturers’ catalogs for new and creative ways to engrave products. For instance, he said Zeit Company’s catalog is geared toward showing customers just how spectacular a product can look with a little bit (or a lot) of creativity.


 
The Harmony Acrylic Awards from PDU are offered in three sizes and two finishes of clear and jade. The MBTR Award is a new acrylic product released by Zeit Company in 2007.

Custom Can Be Awesome
    
Offering customers the option of designing a custom award is an opportunity that many retailers overlook. “Acrylic is very versatile. It’s really easy to make design modifications,” says Millburn. “Retailers often pigeonhole themselves into selling only one version of a product. If they would only take the time to call manufacturers and ask, ‘Can you make this design change?’ I think they’d be pleasantly surprised at just how easy it is to give the customer what they want rather than only what they see.”
    
Barnes said he has had phenomenal success working with his supplier to create custom award pieces for clients. “I’ve had many custom designs created through my supplier,” he said. “I just send them a drawing and they have a CNC router that cuts it out.” The ability to offer customers something more unique has won Barnes some very lucrative accounts. One such job involved designing a custom award for a Trauma Intervention Prevention program in southwestern California. Instead of using a traditional plaque, Barnes said he designed the award in the shape of a badge, similar to that of a sheriff, firefighter or highway patrol badge. His supplier cut the 20" x 17" pieces out of acrylic and then he engraved the details with his laser.
    
“That was probably one of the best jobs my supplier has ever done for me,” said Barnes. “It was awesome.” So awesome, in fact, that he decided to have the same award produced on a smaller scale (12" x 8") to recognize law enforcement officials and firefighters for special achievements. Barnes said he’s had many custom awards created for clients over the years in all kinds of shapes, from palm trees to company logos, adding these simple ideas can have a huge impact when it comes to luring potential customers.
Displays, Samples & Literature
    
Dreher says it’s important for award retailers to have sales literature, such as brochures and catalogs, on hand for customers to look at. It’s a good way to give customers a glimpse into the types of products and services you have to offer. Acrylic Idea Factory offers this service to retailers, providing custom brochures that can include a company logo, information about the company and the products and services it offers as well as photos of products with or without pricing. “It’s something you can put out on your counter and customers can actually take it home with them,” says Dreher.
    
Barnes said he uses catalogs from several different suppliers to show customers the wide selection of products he can offer them. “Most suppliers will give you extra catalogs for this purpose,” he says. Barnes said he also relies on his company website (www.CoastToCoastLaser.com), which is very user-friendly, to display his products and provide information to prospective clients. If a customer finds something they like they can either call the store to place an order or submit an order directly from the website.

 
The BMST Investment Series Award from Zeit Company combines a rustic metal frame with a 1/2" thick jade acrylic insert.   The Venetian Award from R.S. Owens features a unique reflective shape and design on a satin nickel base.

     In addition to printed and online marketing materials, real-life samples are a must when it comes to selling acrylic awards. Acrylic Idea Factory offers sample kits for its products just for this purpose. “Having real samples goes way beyond looking at something in a catalog,” says Dreher. “When people can actually see the product and touch it, it really helps to make the sale.” These kits are inexpensive and they come preengraved and ready for display, he said, adding AIF also carries a special sample kit for its new AcryliPrint products.
     It’s true that samples make great marketing tools, but don’t stop there. The presentation of those samples can literally make or break a sale. Most experts recommend displaying acrylic on glass shelving or in glass display cases with plenty of light against a dark background. Barnes says he uses this technique in his showroom and it really adds a touch of class to acrylic awards. “I have a large display of acrylic. They’re all in glass cases with glass doors and there’s a lot of light to show off all the pieces,” he says, adding the glass doors are an especially important touch because it keeps people from touching the items and leaving fingerprints and it protects them from gathering dust.
     This brings up the point of cleanliness. If you have acrylic awards on display in your showroom that are dusty, dirty or smudged, the only attention they will receive will likely be in a negative form. A well-made acrylic award that is clean and cut with concise bevels can look like crystal in the right setting, said Millburn. On the other hand, when acrylic gets dirty, it can be a disaster for potential sales. He said he often sees this occur at trade shows when products sit out in the open for several days at a time. “If they don’t get cleaned every few hours they can get really dirty and distract from the natural appeal of the material,” he says. “Once acrylic gets fingerprints and dust on it, it loses the ability to let light shine through those edges, one of its most appealing characteristics.”
 
 
The Cathedral Acrylic Award from JDS Industries features a clear acrylic blank set in a rosewood piano finish frame.   Rising Star Awards now available through Marco Awards, South Windsor, CT.

Good Old Word-of-Mouth
     If you land a customer and give them your all — quality merchandise and impeccable service — chances are you’ll receive something much more valuable than the check that comes from the sale. It could lead to what nearly every retailer considers an invaluable marketing tool — positive word-of-mouth advertising. Barnes gives an excellent example of how profitable this word-of-mouth advertising can be. He said most of his business had stemmed from local customers. One day, however, he happened to meet a man from Georgia who placed an order with him. Because of that one customer spreading the word to his friends and neighbors about the great product and service he received, Barnes said his company generated more sales from the state of Georgia that year than it did from his home state of California. Now, Barnes said, he has clients all across the country.
     One major client that Barnes said he acquired through word-of-mouth is a car racing club. “I showed them a sample product nine years ago and they’ve been happy ever since,” he said. Barnes said they send him the artwork for each design, along with the text they want, and he creates the awards for their races. They have a race every month for eight months out of the year, and they require 300 awards for each race, said Barnes, which adds up to 2,400 units a year for this one customer.
     Barnes said one of his more famous customers is Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, which he also landed through the word-of-mouth network. The major film company needed 50 custom awards that would be given out in various countries. “They called me, I made a sample award and then met with them to show them my work. I got the job, just like that,” he said. “They didn’t have a limited budget, necessarily, and they wanted something that looked very classy. Once they saw the acrylic they loved it.”
     And that, in essence, sums up the state of acrylic awards in today’s R & I industry. Acrylic is very “in” — nearly everyone likes it. New designs, new looks, the ease of personalizing, the ability to offer exactly what customers want — it all adds up to big sales for retailers. If you haven’t already added acrylic to your line of products, it might be time to consider doing so.
 
    

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