Despite Growth, UV Ink Still Tries To Shake Specialty Label
By Sean Milmo, European Editor
UV inks are maintaining their fast growth rate in Europe, although the rate of the increase varies between printing sectors and between countries.
Their sales are estimated to be rising currently at around 5 to 10 percent annually – at least double that of the total ink market in Europe. In fact, after digital printing inks, they are one of Europe’s most rapidly growing ink sectors.
A large part of the increase is being driven by strong demand in Germany, which is by far Europe’s largest printing ink market. Until recently, German printers had been reluctant to move to UV products, mainly because of safety concerns. But now they are switching to them in large numbers, pushing up sales at a double-digit pace.
Nonetheless, to keep up their current growth rate, UV ink and coatings need to have a wider appeal among printers across Europe.
Without a broader base, it may be vulnerable to the threat of alternatives. Newly developed hybrid products, which combine the features of conventional and UV technologies, are already on the European market. They are predicted to take sales away from UV inks.
Ten Percent of Market
UV inks now have an overall share of around 10 percent of the European liquid inks market, according to a recent report on UV coatings by Frost & Sullivan, a Cleveland, OH-based market research firm.
But by sector it ranges from less than 1 percent in flexographic printing to 25 percent for screen printing. The fastest penetration is in markets in which it has a low share, such as flexo, where Frost & Sullivan predicts its sales will rise by 50 percent over the next six years.
It also believes that in the coating market as a whole in Europe, including paint, the printing sector is the second biggest consumer of UV curable products behind furniture and construction.
The main forces propelling its growth in printing ink have been the speed of the UV process for multi-color printing, particularly in comparison to solvent-based ink, and the superiority of its print quality in some processes.
UV ink has also become an attractive option for printers in the wake of stricter regulations at the European Union and national levels on emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some prefer to use UV technology rather than invest in abatement equipment or switch to low-solvent or other solvent-free inks.
Nonetheless, there are signs that the growth in UV sales in the printing sector is faltering in countries where they have become well established. In the U.K. and France, where the UV ink sector is now relatively mature, growth rates have slipped back to the level of the ink market as a whole.
The competitiveness of UV products has not been helped by the recent rise in raw material costs, which has undermined attempts to lower UV prices. They can still be double or more of those of conventional ink.
Ultimately, price differentials are not the decisive factor holding back the advance of UV ink. They are still perceived by the vast majority of printers as specialty products.
“Unless their image changes, they could be permanently confined to being specialty inks,” said a product manager at one European ink maker.
Among many printers in Europe, UV is regarded as a technology for a limited range of applications. In addition to the safety concerns, it is also considered to be highly expensive, both in terms of capital and running costs
In the flexo sector, for example, improvements in water-based inks have closed the gap with UV products in printing quality and drying speeds. Makers of UV ink have tackled these drawbacks by producing detailed data on the cost-effectiveness of their products. At the same time, they have been striving to allay safety fears by eliminating substances regarded as dangerous, such as skin irritants.
Much has been done to cut down odors from UV products. “Compared with five to seven years ago, the level of smell from UV inks has been considerable reduced, “ said Juergen Baro, technical manager for UV inks at BASF AG in Germany. “There will always be some odors from UV inks, but no more than with other ink processes.”
But UV inks’ problems with smell have been a handicap in the food market in Europe, where they can only be applied to the outside of packaging. Regulatory authorities will still not allow them be in direct contact with food because of concerns about fumes and migratory substances. Consequently, plastic food labels with UV inks, for example, tend to be laminated with a film approved for direct food contact.
Safety worries have been a major setback to efforts by suppliers of UV cationic-curing systems to push up their proportion of UV sales in Europe.
With a share of less than 10 percent, they have been hoping that the superior performance of cationic systems would help to grab sales from the rival acrylate free-radical UV inks.
Cationic curing, which occurs when hydrogen ions are released from the ink layer, gives UV inks better adhesion to substrates like plastics. With a polymer such as polyamide it is virtually indispensable. Cationic inks also have lower viscosity, making them easier to handle than acrylate products.
Their biggest benefit is that unlike free radical inks, the curing process continues until completion, even after the ink or varnish has left the UV drier.
Cationic inks have also been regarded as being more suitable for wide-web printing of packaging materials, which has been a niche difficult for UV ink suppliers to penetrate.
Backers of cationic systems have said that they suffered so little from the problems of odor and contaminants that they should be regarded as the best UV inks for food packaging.
However, research revealed two years ago that photoinitiators used in cationic systems could leave traces of benzene, regarded as a carcinogenic, in the inks on packaging and other UV substrates.
Since then, ink makers in Europe, particularly those with customers serving large consumer product companies, have decided to exclude cationic-curing inks and coatings from their UV portfolio.
In Germany, ink producers have decided voluntarily not to market cationic UV inks in the country. Companies like BASF no longer sell them anywhere in Europe.
Chemical producers have been endeavoring to develop photoinitiators free of benzene derivatives for cationic curing, but these have either been very expensive or have had problems during testing.
Despite the absence of cationic-curing products, UV inks have been able to make rapid inroads into the German packaging sector, including those parts of it with polymer substrates.
In label printing by flexo, letterpress or offset, UV ink is now used by approximately two-thirds of German printers. They have also become popular among German business forms printers.
“With reel-to-reel printing of business forms, UV has a distinct advantage over conventional inks because the instantaneous drying allows the printing to be done three times faster,” said Mr. Baro.
Nevertheless, UV ink suppliers still have to struggle with the effects of a long-established hostility to their products despite the major advances made in increasing their safety.
“They still have a bad reputation in Germany, not only because they are considered unsafe but also because they are seen as difficult to handle,” said Hans-Peter Seyer, head of conventional inks at Gebr. Schmidt Druckfarben, Germany, which makes UV inks. “It is the printing workers rather than the print shop owners who don’t like them.”
Also in Germany and most other European countries, UV ink makers face an unwillingness among many printers, especially the smaller ones, to invest in UV presses and drying equipment.
To bridge the divide between the desire among printers to provide the UV ink qualities such as high gloss finishes and their wariness about capital investments, hybrid inks have been introduced in Europe in the past year.
Sun Chemical was the first to enter the new market with its Hy-Bryte system, which achieves the same level of high gloss as UV inks but only with the need for a single UV drier. Unlike UV coatings applied to conventional inks, it does not require a primer either.
“It has been doing very well in Europe,” said Fabrice Bourgeois, general manager, energy curable products at Sun Chemical Europe. “It gives commercial printers the flexibility to be able to do jobs in line requiring high gloss while using a conventional ink and without having to have a UV press.”
Sun believes that Hy-Bryte could be a competitor to UV inks. “It could either take a bit of business away from UV or a little bit from water-based coatings,” Mr. Bourgeois said.
A number of other inks makers in Europe are developing or testing hybrid inks, which they are not rushing to bring to the market.
“There are certain technical problems – like a drop in gloss with thick layers of ink – which we want to solve first,” said Mr. Seyer, who is responsible for the development of a new hybrid ink at Gebr. Schmidt.
BASF, which has a hybrid ink on the market in the U.S., is not even considering introducing it in Europe at the moment. “There is a big interest in hybrid inks in Europe, but we are finding there are few printers willing to invest in the equipment necessary to use them,” said Mr. Baro. “Even a single UV drier can be relatively costly for many printers, especially if they have to retrofit it into an old press.”
Frost & Sullivan is predicting that UV inks sales will continue to grow 7 to 8 percent annually in Europe over the next few years. But clearly the level of future growth will depend not only on the ability of UV ink makers to open up new markets, but also to overcome the unwillingness of many European printers to financially commit themselves to new technologies.