Market for Printed Coatings Continues to Expand

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 06.05.09

Demand for printed coatings in Europe is being boosted by the greater use of print finishing processes. More significantly, it is also being driven by a trend for printers to apply their own coatings to film, paper, board and other substrates before printing.

As a result, work traditionally done outside the printers is now beginning to be shifted in-line rather than being done off-line.

With the help of improvements in coatings, printers are able to diversify their businesses and find a new source of revenue. Film, paper and board coaters are finding they are losing jobs downstream to printers while activities done by print finishing specialists are moving back upstream to printing companies.

For ink producers who are already supplying coatings to printers, the trend is an opportunity to expand their own sales as well as to broaden their own technological reach.

“It means we are diversifying more into coatings, but it is also another way of strengthening our partnership with printers by showing them we want to help them gain more business,” explained an executive of one European ink company.

However, the printed coatings market in Europe is becoming highly competitive because of the number of relatively new players outside the ink sector who are entering the business.

It is providing new openings for suppliers specializing in printed coatings who believe they have a competitive edge because of their expertise in the development of a broad range of coatings products.

“It’s an attractive market because at the moment it is still growing, although with the financial crisis we can’t be sure how long that will last,” said Bjoern Kollweier, head of marketing at Actega Terra GmbH, Lehrte, Germany, a coatings and sealants producer that is part of the Altana Group.

“Ink producers are at a disadvantage because a lot of the printed coatings require functional properties which are different than those provided by pigment-based inks,” he added. “We are supplying standard coatings, but much of our demand is for tailor-made coatings for which R&D is needed to achieve the right specifications.”

The magnitude of the competition looming in the coatings market was highlighted by the recent acquisition of the UK-based Hi-Tech Coatings by Heidelberg, the global leader in the manufacture of printing presses.

The takeover was seen as a major expansion of Heidelberg’s consumables operation, which is already a major international supplier of inks. The provision of coatings complements Heidelberg’s manufacture of in-line coating machines both for finishing and pre-printing processes.

Prior to the acquisition, Hi-Tech was already using Heidelberg’s distribution network to sell its coatings in the UK, Eastern Europe and China. The UK-based company, founded 15 years ago, has developed a range of coatings from those with gloss and matt finishes to functional products with barrier and resistance properties.

To Heidelberg, these types of coatings are high performance consumables which its chief executive Bernhard Schreier said “achieve margins that are not tied to economic cycles.”

In response to the competition from suppliers who are not ink producers, ink companies are offering systems which exploit their strengths in both inks and coatings.

“We are providing systems in which our coatings work well together with our inks, in combination with other elements in the system,” explained Rainer Herbst, a marketing manager at Huber Group, Germany. “Systems help strengthen our partnership with customers. They are increasingly wanting to see coatings as a part of ink systems.”

In addition to inks and coatings, Huber’s systems include auxiliaries, fount concentrates and technical back-up so that the company can establish itself as a single-source supplier.

For the sheetfed offset market, it has recently re-engineered a water-based coatings range, sold under the Arcylac brand, with the aim of improving levels of brilliance and gloss as well as speed of drying and resistance.

Gloss quality has been boosted by the greater use of UV curing of coatings, particularly in parts of northern Europe. In addition to applying water-based coatings, printers can use UV curing as an alternative means for achieving high gloss while still complying with environmental legislation on emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

On the other hand, UV curing can be applied for purposes other than the generation of high gloss.

Flint Group has recently introduced under its Inuline brand a water-based varnish which it claims has “extremely high gloss values.” It is combined with a special fast-setting and pigmented ink formulation. But the high gloss is achieved without the mechanical and chemical resistance properties of a UV varnish, according to Flint.

The company has also launched an Inuline UV varnish which is applied directly onto a conventional sheetfed offset ink without the use of a primer. Flint said the combination of the ink and the varnish is designed primarily for use on highly absorbent substrates that require mechanical durability and chemical stability but not necessarily with the high gloss of UV varnish.

While extending the levels of gloss in coatings, their suppliers have also expanded the range and quality of both water-based and UV matt coatings. Foam and streaking have been eliminated from matt coatings. But water-based coatings can still be difficult to handle because of their tendency to gain a polished appearance and also sensitivity to scratching.

A big challenge is to bring matt and gloss surfaces together within a single coating unit. One way of realizing this is through the use of UV spot curing.

The divide between ink and coatings formulations is being narrowed by the incorporation of effect pigments into coatings, such as gold, silver and pearlescent pigments.

“There’s a lot of demand for effect coatings at the moment because of the way that they can strengthen the appearance of the printed product,” said Mr. Kollweier. “Effect pigments in coatings have a clear advantage over those in inks because they can be applied in greater amounts. There is also a lot of flexibility with the size of the pigments.

The inks provide the color background to the effect pigment in the coatings,” he continued. “Effect coatings are not only being applied to packaging but also to products in commercial printing as well.”

The scope of coatings has been broadened into other sensory areas such as touch and smell. Brand owners and retail chains are trying to differentiate their products with multi-sense packaging which has both tactile as well as visual qualities. The surface of the packaging material can be given a soft or velvety feel with the aid of matt coatings.

Microencapsulation of scents in coatings, whose smells are released by scratching or rubbing of the surface, was initially applied to packaging of cosmetics and related products across the world. But it is now a widespread feature in advertising, particularly magazine ads and brochures for products ranging from automobiles, foods and tourist venues.

Schubert International of Germany, a leading specialist in microencapsulation of scents, reports that its coatings are now being printed by most processes including heatset and sheetfed offset, rotogravure, flexo and screen.

Functional Properties

However,the biggest potential for growth in printed coatings in Europe seems to be in the expansion of their functional properties – such as barrier and resistance capabilities, especially in packaging.

In food packaging, coatings have become an important safety tool. Huber has recently launched a system comprising a series of inks and coatings which have been formulated to prevent migration of substances through the packaging into the food. They also stop the transfer of volatile substances to food within the enclosed space of the packaging.

Printers are now being given the opportunity to apply to substrates, particularly films, barrier coatings which block the movement of oxygen, gases and moisture in and out of packaging.

Because of their complexity, the job of applying barrier coatings is normally left to the manufacturers of film, paper and board or specialist finishers. But as barrier materials have become more intricate, there has been a demand for simpler coatings to meet specific needs and to reduce costs as well as to make waste management easier.

In packaging film, a lot of the barrier properties are provided by laminates and co-extruded sheets. Some extruded film can have as many as four to five different polymers in them. Coatings manufacturers have been developing substitutes for laminates and extruded sheets which are effective barriers while also being less expensive.

In Europe, Sun Chemical has launched a range of polymer-based barrier coatings which can be applied by printers and are designed to replace barrier systems such as those based on metallized films, co-extrusions and laminated structures. They can be printed onto packaging film for food products with existing gravure and flexo presses.

One of the company’s latest innovations is an oxygen barrier coating which improves shelf life and waste management while cutting costs through a reduction in packaging weight of up to 30 percent compared with conventional coatings and films.

As a result, printed coatings are giving printers greater freedom in their use and choice of substrates. They can buy less expensive packaging materials, for example, whose qualities can then by upgraded by coatings selected by the printers themselves to meet the specific needs of their customers.

“The use of coating to enhance substrates is helping printers add additional functionalities before the printing process,” said Mr. Kollweier. “This enhancement can be achieved not just with film but also with paper and board. Instead of relying on a polyethylene extruded sheet, for example, to give a section of board barrier properties, they can be provided instead by a printer with the application of a printed coating. The same quality can be realized and at a lower cost.”

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