Why A Laminator Is Used With The "DirectEtch" Process Over An Iron
A few years back there was a revolutionary redesign change on the standard pouch laminator.
Pouch laminators just mean they use pre-made plastic pouches to insert a photo or a document instead of having large continuous rolls of plastic).
Now, Instead of heater plates positioned after the transport rollers used to seal plastic pouches (like all other pouch laminators), the heaters in this redesign concept have been made into an arc and mounted above and below the two transport rollers. The heat is then radiated into the neoprene coated rollers very evenly as they continuously turn from the high-torque motor drive up to the correct temperature of 275ºF to 300ºF. In effect, GBC's developers created a very inexpensive "hot roll" laminator! Pictured below is GBC's lowest cost 9" model called the H-220 introduced in early 2010. It's the ideal laminator to use for both making instant PCB's as well as making dry-transfer Graphics with our revolutionary product called DecalProFX.
Once we discovered this incredible new design concept, it fit perfectly for our needs for a device to be able to deliver heat and high pressure at the same time-this is an absolute must, which is why the standard run-o-the-mill laminator will not work at all. This design is an absolute "shoe-in" for the ideal fusing device to be able to fully fuse and transfer circuit images.
The only differences now between this newly redesigned pouch laminator and the real "hot roll" laminator pictured here, are the heaters are mounted inside the rollers, they are much wider starting at 27" (vs. 9" on the above unit) and they have a starting price of $2,495. So, let's review the math... $69.95 vs $2,495.
Throughout our site, we refer to any suitable laminator as an
Toner Image Applicator or "TIA" for short.
The GBC "Personal" model we promote just happens to be the least expensive unit on the market that performs perfectly for our needs. (Note: For those who have 220v power requirements this unit is referred to as the "H-65" available in just about all countries.)
Here are a few common question we get a lot regarding laminators...
Q: Can you use other GBC models?
A: Sure, but why would you want to do that unless of course you already have one. The nearest model up from the "Personal" is nearly twice the price! There was a model called the "Creative" but that has been discontinued by GBC in favor for the "Personal" with its dual heat control.
Q: I've Seen This Model On eBay for Much Less. Is it not the same?
A: If it looks the same... it is the same. The H-220 has no match at this time. Finding a unit slightly used is fine. These units have a very long life.
Q: Can I still use my iron?
A: Sure, but you must first "calibrate" your iron and we'd suggest using the "wooden dowel" technique instead of the iron directly, for best results. These techniques are written up under the "TECH SUPPORT section.
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 the fly". An iron can be made to work, but there is a definite learning curve or 'trial 'n error' to get the iron calibrated so be able to get repeatable results MOST of the time. The laminator approach is the only truly serious tool to make the "DirectEtch" a viable alternative to every other board fabrication method out there. For a minimal expense, you can fabricate your own single & double-sided boards with total repeatability. There is no learning curve like that of using an iron. Turn on power, wait for the initial warm up cycle and you're in business.
Not All "Pouch Laminators" Are Created Equal!
Of the 10 major manufacturers of pouch laminators currently on the market, only the GBC brand worked properly and reliably. Additionally, only a few of these brands incorporate the new "hot roller" design technique to be able to deliver heat and pressure at the same time. GBC is hands-down the best externally heated roller manufacturer.
Of their entire lineup, we carry and recommend the least costly unit called the "Personal" model which we refer to as the Toner Image Applicator.
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 in the "DirectEtch" technique, our process revolved around using a house-hold iron to transfer the printed image to the copper surface. There was no better device on the market, plus, everyone had one so there was no added expense. It did, however, it was a far cry from the ideal situation, mainly because we didn't fully understand the dynamics of laser printer or photo-static copier powdered "toners".
Although it was an 'OK' process for the pure hobbyist in that day with a somewhat "hit 'n miss", trial & error method to be able to finally arrive at a usable board, 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. We used to sell a highly modified pouch laminator that had no pressure and very high heat (400ºF) that worked better than an iron but with a price tag of $299, it only attracted the serious user. And even then, perfection was not always guaranteed.
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" to achieve total acceptance by all involved in electronics. We had laser printers that could produce exceptional 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 the temperament of toner. That was the big weak link in the chain.
Our amateur research led us to understand a few very important correlations between three basic properties of toner:
1) HEAT & PRESSURE - makes toner sticky ("fuse")
2) PRESSURE - determines at what temperature toner will "fuse"
3) TEMPERATURE - determines at what point toner will "melt"
All of these sound somewhat unrelated but in fact they are all interconnected. 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 lower the temperature needed to be to get toner to "fuse" permanently to anything. Secondly, the lower the temperature, the greater the spread between the "fusing" (sticky) point of toner and the sheer melting point of toner. That was it! If we can keep away from the melting point, the printed toner image will never get distorted! So, we need a huge amount of pressure with a temperature that was comfortably below the melting point of toner. (Are you still with me?!)
Now the problem was, what do we use 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 how far the "spread" was. The temperature spread was indeed significant. Ok, so standing on the iron at 180# gave me only about 8psi on a standard sized iron. We needed a better technique... a device of some sort 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 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 an old "pouch laminator" and thought let's give it a try. Contrary to our old original "applicator" that used cold rollers, this newer GBC brand laminator used two heated rollers along with pretty good spring tension. It worked, it worked and it continued to work every time... we found the perfect device! What used to take nearly 400ºF on a household iron (very close to the toner's melting point) we have now perfectly fused toner at 270ºF! Perfect, reproducible images. Next was to find an inexpensive laminator. To our surprise, we tested 12 different manufacturer laminators to try to find "the" unit to give the best "bang-for-the-buck". Surprisingly, all so called "hot roll" pouch laminators failed except for the GBC brand so we acquired the least expensive model called the "Personal". The rest is now history.