Printin’ Ain’t Easy

As we’ve discussed multiple times ‘round these parts, 3D printing really and truly is The Next Big Thing. It’s now fairly easy to create just about anything you can imagine—even my doofus brother-in-law figured out how to do it. While it’s possible to 3D print with a variety of materials, plastics are the easiest to work with, the most readily available, and, therefore, the most common.

3D printing is popular amongst hobbyists and manufacturing companies, who create both one-offs and high volume commercial products. But, when trying to brand their 3D printed products, many manufacturers have found that the plastics used in the process are difficult to print on with ink. Fortunately, there’s technology for that.

Just imagine these weird tentacle things IN COLOR!

Just imagine these weird tentacle things IN COLOR!

Rethink Your Inks

Printing ink on plastic is far different than printing on paper—the key difference is what’s known as their “dyne level,” which refers to surface energy and affects how the material accepts ink. All types of paper are made from the same basic “ingredients,” which means that most of them have the same dyne level, and therefore the same inks will work on most every type of paper. With plastics, the chemical makeup can vary wildly, and dyne levels are all over the place.

In order to find the right ink for printing on a plastic surface, the printer must adjust for the material’s dyne level. And to find the plastic’s dyne level, printers, somewhat ironically, use special dyne test inks. Also used to test for surface cleanliness, dyne test inks are specially formulated to react with the plastic, either applying evenly or beading up on the surface.

By applying different test inks until they get the reaction they’re looking for, printers can more easily find the right ink with which to print. The dyne test ink and the corresponding printing ink will be chemically very similar, and will produce the same results on the plastic. A crucial difference between the two is that the dyne test ink won’t stain or dye the material—that’s what the printer ink is for.


Flippin’ ink technology, though, right?!

Photo credit: Therese Wium Jakobsen via / CC BY-NC-SA

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