The Energy-Curable Market
Despite raw material pricing and supply issues, UV- and EB-curable inks and coatings enjoy growth in the marketplace, while LED-curable technologies offer new opportunities.
By David Savastano
The energy-curable market has offered ink manufacturers some excellent growth opportunities in recent
Sun Chemical’s WetFlex technology was showcased at Comexi’s drupa 2008 booth.
In 2008, LED-curable technologies came to the forefront at drupa, featuring new advantages that offer the potential for growth.
Ken Kisner, senior vice president, chief technology officer of Triangle Digital INX, noted that energy-curable inks and coatings have gained increased market acceptance over the last several years.
“In 2008, UV inkjet inks have made a substantial impact on many markets,” Mr. Kisner said. “Energy-curable products have enabled industries to print on a wide variety of substrates including plastics, wood, glass and many other unique substrates. This technology is creating a quick go-to-market strategy for short run, prototype and specialty markets. Energy curable formulations have created a zero to low VOC alternative tradition formulations, and with the advent of LED light sources offer the industry ozone generating-free solutions.”
“Energy curable inks and coatings in North America continue to experience growth in 2008 as they find their way into more segments due to the technology providing productivity increases, enhanced print quality and excellent environmental performance,” said Michelle Hearn, director of marketing, North American Inks, Sun Chemical. “The benefits gained from these technologies make them an ideal candidate for printing and converting operations that require high performance.”
As a result, ink manufacturers are seeing good growth in the energy-curable market.
“We continue to see double-digit sales growth for energy-curable products over conventional ink,” said John Copeland, Toyo Ink America’s president and COO.
Dr. Don Duncan, director of research at Wikoff Color, said he has seen growth in both energy-curable inks and coatings, although the economic slowdown might put a crimp in the growth. “Some of the growth is due to increasing demand from the introduction of new printing presses requiring energy curable inks,” Dr. Duncan said. “Some is due to taking advantage of normal market opportunities. We expect the coming year to show 0 to 5 percent growth. In a typical economic climate, this would be higher. In the economic uncertainty of today, however, flat sales might be the best we can expect. The opportunities seem to be mostly in folding carton, flexible packaging and labels.”
“We are holding our own,” said Pat Carlisle, Joules Angstrom U.V. Printing Inks president. “The UV market started out OK, and has been kind of stagnant. Some of our customers are doing well, and some are slower. This causes you to create more efficiencies, but you can never compromise quality.”
“In 2008, the European market for energy curable inks and coatings shows growth in Eastern Europe and remains stable in Western Europe,” said John Adkin, European product director, sheetfed and UV, Sun Chemical.
Brij Nigam, vice president of sales and marketing for IdeOn LLC, noted that the past year has been a challenge due to uncertain economic conditions along with rising raw material costs.
“The main challenge has been to minimize the cost impact of raw material price increases driven by high energy costs,” Mr. Nigam said. “During most of 2007 and 2008, the energy-curable ink and coatings market grew slightly but was impeded heavily by increases in raw material pricing, especially the UV coating market due to increases in cost. The market was somewhat flat in volume but increased in dollar amount. Energy-curable ink grew due mainly to in-roads in food packaging market. The increase came from new usage in the flexible packaging market as well as higher growth in the folding carton market.”
“The printers have not seen all the price increases due mainly to very healthy competition,” said Dr. Subh Chatterjee, vice president of operations for IdeOn LLC. “Overall pricing of inks has increased by 15 to 25 percent and UV coating has gone up by 10 to 18 percent in the marketplace. IdeOn has tried our best to think out of the box and utilize raw materials, which minimize the cost impact on both ink and coating formulations. Our focus is mainly on how to take a less functional material, which is lower in cost, and increase its functionality by using the right chemistry mix. In the past, this was not economically feasible but given the current market conditions, these alternatives are practical and we are finding some benefits in these approaches with regards to minimizing the cost increases of finished ink and coating products.”
Energy-curable technologies are enjoying their best growth in packaging, with flexible packaging, food packaging and folding cartons offering excellent opportunities.
“We see growth in high end commercial and the high end portion of folding carton printing,” Mr. Copeland said. “There is increased demand for special visual effects and the use of textures, from smooth and rough to metallic.”
“In the packaging market, UV/EB technologies are seeing growth in those segments where the demands on packaging cannot always be met with conventional ink systems,” Ms. Hearn said. “With Sun Chemical technologies, such as WetFlex, a central impression wet-on-wet flexographic printing process, which utilizes UniQure, an electron beam (EB) cured ink system, we are seeing the adoption of EB cured technology into the flexible packaging end-use applications because of the environmental advantages coupled with low migratables. We are also seeing growth in folding cartons and labels.”
“Interest is growing in Europe in both UV and EB curing for flexible package printing,” Mr. Adkin reported. “The drivers for this are environmental concerns, demand for high graphic quality and shorter run lengths. Development of new machines offer offset print quality with variable size repeat lengths as an alternative to existing processes.”
Bhal (BJ) Patel, IdeOn LLC’s vice president of technology and manufacturing, said the outlook for energy curing is very strong due mainly to the technology being a “green” and “sustainable” alternative.
“Since energy curing offers consistent chemistry in the pressroom along with VOC-free properties, it comes out ahead in the marketplace as a leading choice for printers,” Mr. Patel said. “The strongest growth continues to be in two main areas of food packaging – flexible packaging and folding cartons. Both of these areas require high speed printing without any interruption and energy curing technology satisfies this criteria.”
Dr. Mikhail Laksin, vice president of R&D for IdeOn LLC, noted that printers are opening up to using the technology for food packaging, with more and more acceptance of energy-curable chemistry as FDA compliant material as announced by recent developments by RadTech.
“This was a major concern in the past and now seems to be less of a hindrance,” Dr. Laksin said. “In the past year alone, several printers who traditionally stayed away from energy curing technology have called us in to provide in-depth education about energy-curable systems with the intention of utilizing the technology in their operations. The raw material suppliers have also increased research and are presently introducing new products to the marketplace.”
“Energy curable adhesives continue to make in-roads in the label and packaging market,” Mr. Nigam added. “The potential for growth is very real but technical challenges along with less acceptance of energy curable chemistry in the market place has held back the technology. In advance of recent advancements with regards to food packaging and amid the concerns raised for current isocynate-based technology has drastically increased the activity in the development of energy curing adhesive technology.
Dr. Laksin also noted that printing on rigid plastic substrate continues to be very strong and very much dominated by energy-curable technology.
“As more and more promotional as well consumer goods are being packaged in the rigid plastic cases, energy curing has seen rapid increase in its usage,” Dr. Laksin said. “There has been a proliferation of plastic cards in the market place and energy curing technology has significantly benefited from the increased demand. The usage includes credit cards, gift cards, security access and a variety of entrainment venues.”
Dr. Laksin said that the inkjet market is slowly converting to energy-curable UV technology mainly due to ease of usage and quick turnaround of printed material.
“The UV inks cure instantly and printed material could be packaged and shipped or used immediately after printing without generating VOCs,” Dr Laksin said. “In addition to curing instantly, the chemistry also offers high product resistance from scuff and adhesion to a variety of chemical resistance. “The inkjet formulations would require significant improvement in performance before they could be considered for commercial printing of packages but offer a very strong opportunity for future growth."
“We are seeing strong growth in UV curable across all platforms,” Mr. Kisner said. “INX has added more R&D resources for energy curable development than any other market. Our wide array of energy curable inkjet solutions has created great opportunities for all types of packaging, wall covering, tile printing, labeling and specialty applications. We are finding customers need complete solutions that range from electronic design, software design and color consultation service so that INX can enable our customer base to meet market conditions. INX has made a four strategic acqusitions in the last two and a half years to bring our customer base a complete solution.”
The Interest in LED Curing
One of the most interesting opportunities at drupa 2008 came in the introduction of LED-curable technologies, both in sheetfed, where Toyo Ink partnered with Ryobi on its new 585 GX press, and in wide format, as Sun Chemical, Triangle Digital INX and Hexion Specialty Chemicals were among the companies introducing LED-curable products.
Triangle Digital INX showed a prototype inkjet printer that is part of its evolve project. “This 4-color fixed array inkjet printer is printing at 25 meters per minute with full cure to various roll to roll films,” Mr. Kisner said. “We have developed a series of energy-curable products that cure at speeds up to 50 meters per minute with a single LED lamp. The zero-ozone generation, along with extremely low energy consumption, make this green choice of printing techniques extremely interesting for our industry.”
“We have introduced some LED-curable inks for this brand-new and extremely small business area,” Dr. Duncan said. “LEDs have many advantages over typical mercury-containing UV curing bulbs, but the much lower energy output and longer wavelengths of LEDs will make them a niche area until the engineers and physicists figure out how to juice them up.”
Aviv Haruta, general manager, corporate communications department for Toyo Ink Manufacturing Co., Ltd, said we can expect LED technologies to contribute in a big way to reducing environmental burdens.
"Initial investment costs for LED lamps relative to conventional ones, however, are projected to be high," Mr. Haruta added. "With the current condition of the market, it is difficult to foresee any considerable expansions or increases in new investment."
Toyo Ink’s FD LED Series of LED-UV curable offset inks were introduced at this year's drupa. Compared to conventional lamps, LED curable systems consume 75 percent less electricity, offer a lifespan roughly 12 times as long and do not contain any infrared minimizing the amount of heat generated. Furthermore, LEDs can be turned on and off instantly, thereby eliminating the need for warm up and cool down periods, as with conventional lamps, and further boosts operational efficiency and energy savings.
SunJet, the inkjet ink division of Sun Chemical, has supported the industry developments in LED UV lamp technology for several years. It was one of the first ink companies to recognize the potential benefits to customers of ink, which have the ability to part cure or “pin” with UV LED lamp exposure in scanning head systems.
As lamp technology has advanced and higher power lamps have been demonstrated, SunJet has managed to produce graphics inks, which fully cure with LED UV exposure. During drupa, SunJet announced the development of Crystal UFE – LED, a new and novel ink chemistry specifically designed for curing under exposure to UV light from LED sources.
SunJet’s CRYSTAL UFE – LED inks are designed for use in single pass and scanning wide format applications which raise the achievable line speed by more than three times. The line speed of up to 100m/min. is a typical speed achieved with two 4W LEDs, when curing a 6 - 12 micron thick layer. In laboratory tests, line speeds in single pass applications have exceeded the 100m or 300ft per minute with cure speeds obtained on both 395 and 365nm LED sources. Adhesion to PVC, hard plastics and metals with these inks has been achieved.
In addition to this improvement SunJet has discovered a route in formulation which allows the increased response to LED UV output to be applied to a full range of SunJet ink families. This means that popular ink sets such as SunJet’s flexible inks can be used with the new LED lamp technology if correctly integrated.
“LED lamp technology is important because it can reduce the complexity of integrating UV curing lamps, can reduce the environmental and health and safety concerns in some applications and also allow use of UV curing technology on heat sensitive substrates,” said Peter Saunders, sales and marketing manager, SunJet. “SunJet’s ink chemists have been able to increase cure speed significantly and apply the speed increases to other SunJet ink families—an important requirement for our customers if LED curing is to become a reality. Increased line speed on this scale really widens the scope of LED curing as a method of drying inkjet films. We see application in coding and marking, digital label production, wide format graphics and in variable data printing on plastic smart cards.”
“The LED technology is an ideal low energy and low temperature UV curing technology which has been of interest to printing ink and press manufacturers,” said Dr. Chatterjee. “The main advantages are that it requires very little space to fit in due to the small design of LEDs, generates very little heat and could be operated at low energy levels, resulting in low energy cost. Overall the concept is simple and if the technology is commercialized, it could offer a great boost to the expansion of the energy curable market.
“All these natural advantages are presently offset by the technology’s inability to deliver cured ink film at commercially acceptable speeds,” Dr. Chatterjee added. “The other challenge this technology faces is coming up with right chemistry to adhere to a wide variety of substrates. The ink and coating formulations continue to face challenges of curing at narrow band of UV spectrum delivered by LED light. The LED light’s power needs to increase in terms of its intensity in order for it to be commercially effective.
“The other way to overcome the LED’s curing deficiencies is to develop faster curing ink and coating chemistry,” Mr. Chatterjee continued. “So ink companies along with raw material suppliers would need to come up with faster curing technologies which are presently not available in the market place. All in all this is a very exciting development and needs quite a bit of innovation to bring this to commercial stage. If the right kind of advancement both in chemistry and equipment could be made, then we may get to see some serious inroads of LED technology in commercial market. It has a lot of upside potential and will require a concerted push over next few years to move it forward.”