Why a laminator is far preferred over the use of an iron. IMPORTANT READING!
There are two types of laminators... "pouch" and "hot roll".
The term "Pouch laminator" just means a 9" or 12" wide unit with externally heated rollers that accepts pre-made plastic pouches stuffed with a photo or a document that is then encapsulated and trimmed to the give a small sealed border. They range in price from under $100 up to $800.
The other type of laminator uses the very wide rolls of plastic is called a "Hot Roll laminator as shown here. They're big, bulky, use expensive rolls of plastic and basically very expensive in the $2,000 range on up.
Back a bunch of years ago, a revolution happened on "how" to heat these small "pouch" laminators. The old concept was to us a pair of parallel heater plates and two or 4 cold transport rollers to move the pouche between the heater plates. They were never very good at doing this job. Then along came GBC who reinvented the wheel. They threw out the pair of heater plates and put one heater above the top roller and one below to radiate heat onto a pair neoprene coated rollers. The heated transport roller then made contact with the plastic. It was great - no air bubbles in the sealed pouch for once! The answer was to give the pouch heat and pressure at the same time. This in effect is what the expensive "Hot Roll" laminators do, but in a much smaller and simpler "externally heated" manner. It was kind of cheating, but it worked very well and continues to do so. This "heat & pressure" at the same time is also what our process needed.
The only differences now between the newly designed externally heated pouch type laminator and the very expensive large-format "Hot Roll" laminator is that the heater elements for them are mounted INSIDE the rollers like the Fuser section on a laser printer (which mechanically makes it a much more elaborate) and the size of these units with much bigger motors, adjustable temperature and transport speed.
Note that throughout our site, we refer to the "pouch" type laminator as a TONER IMAGE APPLICATOR or "TIA" because for our application, we're not really laminating anything per-se. We just need a device to deliver high HEAT + PRESSURE at the same time and run at a specific speed to achieve perfect transfer results.
So for many years we've always recommended GBC units because they made the best laminators that worked properly for our needs, that is until they decided to change everything in 2013. With their new "Fusion" product line as well as advertising under their other TradeMark name "Swingline" it all stopped working for our products. Whenever GBC puts out a new series, we always test the units to ensure everything continues to work properly. We tested these new "Fusion" low-end units (1000L, 1101L along with an intermediate unit they produced called the "Inspire"). They all failed miserably! So please take note... These new "Swingline" labeled units DO NOT WORK WITH OUR PROCESS! We found the motors in these units all turn way too fast and the heat is too low for proper use with our products.
Now, just to be fair here, we're only talking about their low-end, lesser expensive models. This is not to suggest that their other more expensive models will not work with our process, but we are very price-conscience of laminator costs that work with our products. Sure, maybe their $350 "3100L" unit or their $549 "5000L" unit or even their $798 "5100L" might work just great, but we don't see how we could ever recommend such expensive units for our PCB and Graphics creating techniques, especially since we found the new ideal "TIA" for under $80! More on this in a second.
Pictured above is the GBC H-220, the last of the GBC production units that worked great with our system. Pictured on the right is the new (current) Swingline "Fusion" model 1000/1101 that does not. When the older laminator's production halted and the new "low-cost" replacement units failed to work properly with our process, we had to find a preplacement... and fast!
It was at that same time we discovered a uniquely built, heavy duty "no brand name" Chinese import. We tested and found it to out perform every BRAND name we ever tested prior! Where had this unit been all our lives?! We love it and highly recommend it as the new "go to" unit.
This "best lamintor" is called the "APACHE" model AL13P, available for an amazingly low price of $79 exclusively through AMAZON.COM. It's a killer of a unit and highly recommended!
The unit is simply amazing! Constructed of all-metal and aluminum - no plastic! Heavy duty reverseable (!) motor, adjustable roller pressure and adjustable temperature that goes up to an amazing 379ºF. Laminators with an adjustable temperature control are just not found on laminators costing under $400.
And for our Canadian customers, there is a very similar unit imported directly into Canada through the company ASC365 (.com). They refer to it simply as "Metal Frame 13" Pouch Laminator". Similarly priced to the Apache.
Mechanically, both of these units are identical. The only difference is that the USA model "Apache" has a digital readout as pictured above and the Canadian version uses an analog meter display as shown here on the left.
Both of these units do need a simple modification performed to increase the roller pressure above that of the stock unit. There are just 4 screws on the bottom of the unit that need to be tightened plus we want to remove a "cooling plate" at the back of the unit.
The roller adjustment procedure is outlined HERE. (If you open this page link, just close it when done reading it to return back here.)
Ok, so why use a LAMINATOR over an IRON?
The simple answer is, it's the only cost effective, inexpensive, simple and reliable way to make absolutely perfect, repeatable circuit images, on- demand!
Additionally, if you incorporate our DecalPRO process for making your own real, dry-transfer, rub-on graphics, a laminator MUST be used. An iron will simply not work as you can't deliver enough pressure for that process. But for making PCBs, an iron can be made to work, but it must first be calibrated to be able to get repeatable results MOST of the time.
There are limitations on how fine of a trace you can image when using an iron as it's a bit of an unstable heating platform... but hey, it's cheap!. When your traces start to get down to .012" or less, you have pretty much hit the limit for an iron. Pressure (which can only be your entire body weight) is the main limiting factor for using an iron. Here is the calibration technique.
The "TIA" laminator approach is ideal and outperforms the iron and the use of a "T-Shirt" press (shown on the right) hands down. For a minimal overall expense for the PCB "Fab-In-A-Box" ($89.95 for the kit) and the Apache AL13P laminator ($79 through Amazon.com) you will have a true "on-demand" PCB fabrication capability with amazing repeatability. You could easily do your own "mini" mass-production of boards saving a ton over "send out" for boards. Your cost with our process will be recouped over the cost of sending your boards out to be made in the first 1-2 boards (without exorbitant fees for "rush jobs") and to say nothing about the SPEED to have your own boards ready to stuff and solder in under 10 minutes. Isn't that worth a bunch of bucks right there?
Here's the technical low-down of how toner works and why the laminator became the applicator of choice for our process.
Since the "early days" back in 1992 when we first entered the market with our "DirectEtch" transfer paper technique, our process revolved around using a household iron to transfer the printed image to the copper surface. There was nothing better, it was inexpensive and everyone had one lying around the house.
It all worked "ok" but it was a far cry from a great situation, mainly because we didn't fully understand the dynamics of how to manipulate powdered toners and at that point in time, laser printers were only 300dpi so that really put a roof over how complex a PCB layout could be. It was a learning curve for us in this brand new market. Yeah, it would work to make a board but to a variable degree for sure. At that time, it was purely a "hobby market" interest ... it just had to mature over time. The more serious hobbyists, Midnight Engineers, educators and real time engineers in R&D labs just couldn't take the process seriously. Something had to be done to turn it all around. As time went on, it did mature into what we have today. Our transfer paper got better, laser printers went from 300 to 1,200dpi (!) we introduced the GreenTRF film to seal the toner from "etch through" along with using 1/2oz copper boards for near zero-undercutting... it just took time to mature into a very high resolution instant PCB process for even SMT requirements, but still limited to double-sided boards.
The DirectEtch process was pure simplicity - we knew we had a winner but it was the finicky toner that was the "long pole in the tent" as they say to be able to achieve total acceptance by all users groups. We had laser printers that could produce good PCB images, we had the transfer paper that would release the toner with zero friction, but we couldn't quite get a handle on controlling tempermental toner.
Our research led us to understand a few very important properties of toner and direct correlations between Time, Pressure & Heat; the three properties to control how "toner" reacts.
Ranked by importance, we have...
1) PRESSURE - most important and inversly proportional to heat
2) HEAT - to take toner to a "fusing" (or sticky state) without distortion of the printed images
3) TIME - determines at what point toner is exposed to the two above
Ok, so how do we put these rules into play? The answer was pretty obvious in hindsight. We first discovered there was a direct correlation between pressure and temperature. The greater the pressure, the less heat needed to get the toner image to "fuse" (or stick) permanently to anything. There is a temperature spread that has to be within a "window". Too much temperature at any pressure will cause toner to melt (going past "fusing" temp and loose shape, not unlike standing on a peanut 'n jelly sandwich. If we can keep away from the melting point, the printed toner image will never distort, but this illusive melting point varied with pressure! So, the answer was to deliver a huge amount of pressure (hundreds of PSI) and then ramp up the temperature until we reached "fusing" temperature where the toner is sticky but won't distort under pressure. These two variables also had to be controlled over a period of time for it all to occur properly.
The next problem was how to induce high pressure?
We started with the iron. Instead of pushing down with arm pressure, we put it on the floor and stood directly on it. Each test was done with slightly higher temperature until we had a perfect transfer. On many tests the transfer was perfect but we kept ramping up the temperature until we hit the "melting" point of the toner so that we could tell just how far the "temperature spread" was. Ok, so standing on the iron at 180# body weight gave us only about 8psi on a standard sized iron due to the size of the iron's base platten. That's very little PSI! Plus we needed a better technique because standing on an iron is not a very professional approach to adopt. This would obviously be laughed at by the serious electronics tech.
The answer was to use the pouch laminator... to expose fewer square inches to be able to easily increase pressure slightly to result in a huge PSI when extrapolated over a distance. Thinking about this, I happed to look up on a shelf and saw a recentlyl purchased "pouch laminator" that used heated rollers and gave it a try. It worked! We found the perfect device! With it's single 'contact point' between two rollers, we could now deliver hundreds of PSI with a low enough temperature to prevent any image distortion. Next was to discover which ones were inexpensive and worked well. To our surprise, after testing 12 different manufacturer laminators, they all failed for one reason or the other, except for ones made by GBC. So, for many years, GBC was the only brand laminator that worked with our process... that is until they changed their design in 2013. After scrambling to find a replacement, we discovered an obscure Chinese made unit with great availability that we tested and fell in love with. So now (as of 2014) the ideal laminator is the APACHE AL13P available direct through AMAZON.COM (or in Canada, the ASC365 unit).
For our European international customers though, we're stuck right now for best laminator recommendation - but we're working on it to and hope to find a similarly great unit soon! The supply of GBC "H-65" and "H-220" units is drying up. We suggest checking your countries eBay and other sources for a good, possibly used one of these two units. Email us with what you find!