Breaking the Boundaries of Electronics Production Using Autotex S

Ian Board, Company Director at Bex Design Services, and Richard Costar, International Sales Executive at MacDermid Autotype Ltd, look at how the innovative use of screen, digital, film and ink technologies are creating a unique production process for manufacturing high value components.

In today’s challenging economic climate businesses are working increasingly hard to develop new technologies and production methods in order to distinguish themselves from the competition and meet ever complex consumer demands. This is especially true of the design and manufacture of high quality electronics, such as membrane switches and keyboards and fascia panels. These applications now offer as standard a wide range of sophisticated functions, with multiple circuit layers, tactile keys and integrated displays.

In particular, increasing focus has been placed on the aesthetic qualities of these electronic components as the demand for highly stylised parts continues to grow. In order to meet these requirements two leading suppliers have been working in partnership to develop a unique range of specialised metallic style designs for the production of high value membrane keyboard overlays, fascia panels and industrial or display graphics.

Bex Design Services and MacDermid Autotype are pioneering the use of a combination of screen and digital print processes, with the use of flexible mirror inks and a unique high performance hardcoated film that has a stainless steel grained surface texture, Autotex Steel, for producing stainless steel style finishes. In doing so, the two companies have discovered an extremely cost effective method of producing high definition images with metallised finishes on flexible film substrates. It is believed that this is the first time anybody in the UK and possibly beyond has combined these four technologies – screen, digital, ink and film – in this way.

Bex can achieve small and larger volume runs of components, produced at far lower costs than traditional metal overlays. Perhaps more importantly, using Autotex Steel enables Bex to create a low gloss, stainless steel grain textured surface that is impact resistant, will not mark or show fingerprints and that can be reverse printed to protect text and graphics from wear.

This revolutionary method of production capitalises on the high definition capabilities of digital print, to produce multi-coloured fine line text and graphics that are reverse printed onto MacDermid Autotype’s Autotex Steel film. The digital print is then overprinted using conventional screen techniques with the latest flexible mirror inks to complete the stainless steel effect; a final black print is then added to give additional depth to the colour and enhance the overall effect. The films can then be embossed, cut and finished depending on the needs of each application.

Critical to the success of this production technique is the use of Autotex Steel, a polyester based film substrate that offers a remarkable combination of mechanical, chemical and optical properties. The use of this film allowed the two companies to achieve a product that delivers real benefits, both technically and commercially, creating an innovative high quality solution, with excellent definition and colour rendition, which can be produced easily and at an extremely competitive cost.

Indeed, the unique characteristics of the Autotex Steel film make the overall production process quick and simple. For example, the new film is easy to handle and print, combining high levels of colour reproduction and definition with a tough outer surface that offers excellent resistant to abrasions and wide range of chemicals and solvents.

The innovative film is manufactured using a conventional flexible polyester substrate. This is coated with an ink adhesion layer on the second surface and a specially developed hardcoat outer layer, which is chemically bonded and UV cured. The hardcoat layer has a stainless steel grain effect finish which, when the film is printed on the reverse with standard metallic or silver inks, creates the appearance of a brushed stainless steel panel.

Furthermore, the film is easy to reverse print and, unlike competing materials, does not have an inherent colour cast, so printed colours are easy to match. Additionally, the Autotex film will not bow or buckle during UV ink curing and can easily be embossed for use with domed tactile membrane switches or in applications where keys or panel areas need to have raised edges. Embossed areas have an excellent flex modulus, with a typical flex life for domed keys being in excess of five million actuations.

Bex and MacDermid discovered that by using this film based solution represented a number of advantages over conventional stainless steel materials. Unlike stainless steel, Autotex Steel does not show fingerprints, and can easily be printed with clear display windows or contain secret-until-lit graphics, with the film offering excellent colour rendition and light transmission in clear areas. Graphics are reverse printed, so are protected from wear and abrasion by the body of the film substrate and the brushed stainless steel style textured hardcoat layer. This layer has also been formulated to resist a wide variety of common industrial solvents and cleaning fluids, including alcohols, ketones, weak acids and hydrocarbons.

This latest film technology offers product designers and screen printers an efficient and versatile method of developing striking and high quality graphics products with the appearance of stainless steel. Without this film technology it would have been impossible to develop such an effective solution, as the film is particularly easy to handle and process. Just as importantly, it helps control panels provide a long and trouble-free operating life in even the most challenging applications.

As businesses explore ever innovative ways with print, films and inks they are opening up a world of opportunities for the production of high value keyboard, fascia and panel components, which are ideal for instrumentation, industrial equipment and even consumer white goods.


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