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Preparing Pad Printing

Most products have some sort of branding on them; a company logo, instructions for use, etc. Often this is over a curved surface. The typical method for doing this is a process called pad printing. There are three major parts in pad printing; the pad, the cliche, and the nest. The nest is a frame that holds the part. It has alignment features so that every piece you put into the nest sits in exactly the same place. This is how you get continuity of printing in the same place on every part. The cliche is the design that is to be printed. It is made of a flat piece of metal that is engraved with the artwork. For every piece a squeegee wipes ink across the metal, which sticks in the engraved artwork and nowhere else. Then the pad, which is this soft spongy thing with a smooth surface, presses down onto the cliche, moves over to the nest, and presses down on the piece. The ink that is now on the pad prefers to stick to the plastic, so when it is pressed down, the pad has just transferred the art from the cliche to the part. This happens over and over again. The pad can be used for lots of projects, but the cliche and nest are custom for the part.

In getting ready to take BlueTipz to market, we also had to design the art going on the piece, and we had to get it right.  First the design was done in modeling software:

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This design was then exported into DXF format (which retained the dimensions). From there, we took the DXF and turned it into an SVG and cleaned up a little (the DXF output from the modeling software wasn’t great and only gave us outlines, not filled shapes).

The pad printer company wanted a PDF file, so we saved the SVG into PDF at high resolution. Then we tested it by printing it in actual size on a printer, and taping it to a 3D printed prototype of the part. You can see that the prototype matches the rendering pretty closely.

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Fantastic! But we have a trade show next week, and we won’t have parts in time. We needed something that looked good and accurately represented the product.

We took the 3D printed parts and made a couple more. Then we spray painted them blue, the color of the final product. The next step was tricky. We put masking tape over the whole part, then used a laser cutter and engraved the artwork onto the part. The engraving burned away the masking tape without burning through the plastic, so it essentially etched a stencil right in place.

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Then a blast of orange spray paint, and some excruciating waiting for it to dry.

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After waiting for the paint to dry, it was a matter of removing the tape, which came off easily, and then using a sharp blade to remove some features like the inside of the B and P and O.

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This was the final result. There are all kinds of problems with it for the nitpicky, but this isn’t our production-quality product. This is a prototype intended to look good for the trade show and verify that our pad printing artwork is good. We’d never sell something like this, but we now have something we can show off with a reasonable amount of pride, and we know the artwork is good, and we can improve the process in the future.