Vehicle advertising isn’t a new concept. Before there were cars there were horse-drawn carriages. Traveling salesmen would travel from place to place selling their wares, which were advertised in paint on the sides of their carriages. From dairymen and a million other kinds of delivery services to physicians and carnivals, vehicle advertising has been an effective way to drum up business for centuries.
When the horseless carriage was introduced in the 19th century, the idea was altered to suit motorized vehicles. Yet when 3M engineers created the double-coated cloth tape that was first used a roadway median in 1937, no one could have predicted what its invention would mean for skilled sign painters.
When the roadway median floated away with the spring’s thaw, 3M’s development team decided to take their invention down another path—road signs. With a little tinkering, they created a reflective sheeting for road signs. By 1939, the first reflective highway signs appeared on a Minnesota highway and signage was changed forever.
Fast forward the next few years, when more aggressive adhesives were developed to adhere the reflective sheeting to metals, woods and other surfaces. Vinyl coatings were developed to protect the exposed surface, which eventually led to the development of non-reflective marking films that were the first ever vinyl film to be used for truck decoration and identification.
In the 1940s, cast film was invented. With a few minor adjustments over the years, it’s still the same technology we use today. Film was cast on a release liner, resulting in a non-stretchy, inherently thin and durable film that wasn’t prone to shrinking. Cast film is still the best material to produce high quality graphics with bright, uniform colors.
Non-reflective lettering that used solvent or heat-activated adhesive was introduced in 1953. Still vying for a place in a market dominated by hand painted graphics, early vinyl materials were advertised as more durable and had the appeal of mass quantity production.
The U.S. Air Force was an early adopter of this material, using it to fix the Air Force logo on American World War II military planes
1956 saw some advancements in vinyl film and adhesives, which were used to fabricate even brighter, more attractive signs and emblems. In 1958, even more, color choices were introduced including gold display film, which was initially used to create metallic stripes of Eastern Airlines planes and beer trucks. In 1960, the vinyl film was put to use in-store windows as short-term signage.
From there, technology and manufacturing processes advanced at such a dizzying pace that many advancements were made including films for window stickers, vandal-resistant films and embossed, textured and metallic films. Colors became more and more varied, expanding beyond the standard white, black, insignia red and blue, and yellow. Vehicle graphic designers spurred many of these developments with their desire to match the dazzling colors of cars spilling out of Motown assembly lines.
The early 60s saw higher demand for decorative films, particularly those replicating wood grain. By 1966, the biggest automakers (American Motors, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) were using these films on various models.
In 1983, translucent films were introduced, which allowed technicians to cast 2-mil, wide-format films with uniform backlit color unlike the spray painting and screenprinting, technologies that rarely produced uniform color densities.
In 1965 and ’66, two new adhesives were introduced that greatly expanded the market for vinyl films. The first was a graphic film that featured microscopic glass bubbles within the adhesive, which allowed the film to be repositioned before final adhesion.
The second contained micro-replicated air channels that allowed trapped air to escape, which mean technicians could quickly and easily install perfect graphics without popping air bubbles with needles or knives. This air-egress technology really set the standard for the next generation of vehicle graphics.
In 2007, newer films with micro-replicated air channels offered more channels on a smaller scale, which ensured that the adhesive’s surface completely eliminated imperfections.
Unveiled in 1991, the electrostatic printer was the first successful, large-scale digital printing process that produced materials suitable for outdoor use by applying liquid toners to film. Prior to this invention, service providers used screen printed graphics and had to wrap about 100 trucks to make it profitable. This printer made it possible to make a profit on a single vehicle wrap.
In 2000, piezo-inkjet printers hit the market. This is a slower, direct-printing process that provides better graphic resolution for a durable graphic with excellent color retention.
Digital, electronic, vinyl-film cutters also helped increase the demand for vinyl, triggered significant production boosts and allowed faster, cheaper production. Further advancements in speed, size and detail have followed, deepening their impact on the industry.
Technology is still advancing at a wicked pace and the graphics industry will continue to follow. We’ve already seen advancements made in films meant for more challenging surfaces like compound curves and deep draws as well as those with easy application and removal.
As we’re urged to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, we’ve seen improvements in lead-free inks and heavy metal-free, UV piezo inks.
Vinyl films, adhesive and inks have greatly improved and will continue to do so as manufacturers strive to meet the demands of the industry’s changing needs and expectations—just as they have for nearly 70 years.
Today, vinyl film is used to wrap everything from personal vehicles to local delivery trucks and contractor service vehicles to emergency vehicles and corporate fleets.
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of vehicle wraps or the materials and process we use to design and install them, contact Team Acme today!