Signs of a Bright Future

By Jenn Hess, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.02.05

UV inks are picking up marketshare as printers learn about the benefits offered by UV technology. Driving demand are improved productivity and better performance characteristics.

Considering the amount of time and money devoted by the ink industry towards further development of UV (ultraviolet) technology, it shouldn’t be a surprise that UV inks have become one of the fastest growing segments in the industry. It wasn’t easy, though, for UV ink manufacturers to finally begin to meet the demands once set for it when the technology was first introduced. Among other things, some fine-tuning and convincing was needed in order to convince printers that UV inks are for real and can really help their businesses.

“I’ve been a preacher of UV and EB (electron beam) technology for more than 30 years, so I felt it was only a matter of time before the industry realized the benefits of UV inks,” said Tony Bean, manager, energy curable inks, Sun Chemical Corporation.

“We have seen a steady growth pattern for UV and EB inks and coatings for the last five years, and last year was a natural extension of the prior four,” said Dr. Don P. Duncan, director of research, Wikoff Color Corporation. “Perhaps we, as an industry, have crossed a threshold, or attained some critical mass, that raises general consumer awareness of the technology and its capabilities. UV/EB is becoming, by virtue of increasing volume, a mainline industry rather than a technological cul-de-sac.”

According to Market Tracking International (MTI London), global growth of UV ink technology is reaching rates of 8 percent per year. The largest market for UV ink is North America, which consumed approximately 15,000 tons in 1999. Other strong markets for UV include Europe (10,000 tons) and Japan (4,000 tons).

“It is a very logical progression of the industry,” said Peter Weissman, manager, technical services and applications for graphic arts, UCB Chemicals. “We expect the growth to continue for several years. In the graphic arts industry, it seems to be the natural progression of a converter or printer to look at UV as an alternative to conventional inks when companies are replacing or expanding current print equipment.”

The extent of the benefits offered by UV technology might ultimately depend on the printing segment, but the major advantages exist throughout the different printing processes.

“There are a number of advantages which come naturally due to the nature of chemistry used in UV technology,” said Brig Nigam, marketing manager, energy curable inks, Sun Chemical Corporation, “such as faster run speeds resulting in improved productivity, quick start-up resulting in less waste, quick turnaround due to instant curing of the ink film and environmentally-safe technology.”

For printers, time is everything. Customers want their orders yesterday, and more free time can mean taking on additional jobs. UV inks eliminate the need for dryers, and the time spent waiting for inks to dry.

“The real truth of UV technology is that it provides people with solutions to problems that they cannot get elsewhere. It offers increased productivity, is more economical and has a lower cost,” said Mr. Bean. “UV technology will also cut down on production time because the ink dries instantly, which will also save manpower. With UV inks, jobs that normally take three to five passes can be done in one pass. With UV technology there is the ability to obtain higher gloss, which is definitely beneficial in applications such as point-of-purchase where gloss promotes quality.”

Growth in UV technology can also be attributed to improved performance versus conventional inks.

According to Fred Zinnbauer, business development manager, Akzo Nobel Inks, key advantages of UV inks include “graphic quality to match litho and gravure; consistent color throughout the press run (often for many days) without adjusting ink chemistry significantly reduces press downtime (no roller cleaning or ink adjustment); reduced waste; higher press speeds; and are suitable for all substrates from paper, film, metallics, etc.”

“The most attractive benefits are immediate curing, very low VOC content, very low emissions, greatly reduced permitting requirements (in some locations), high print quality and high chemical resistance,” said Dr. Duncan. “UV coatings have, in addition, very high gloss. EB inks add the potential for extremely low residual volatile/extractable content, which is very important for food packaging.”

Screen printing is just one segment that has embraced UV. One end use market that ink manufacturers report is almost entirely printed with UV inks is CD applications. It is one of the first markets to reach maturity in regards to UV screen inks. “The audio CD market is one segment that has matured,” said Rick Holmstrom, chief operating officer, Nor-Cote. “More significant growth is expected over the next few years in CD-Rom and DVDs, two off-shoots of the audio CD market.”

“One major advantage of screen printing is that UV inks allow us to really speed up production,” said Harold Johnston, vice president of sales, Nazdar. “It takes so long for solvent-based inks to dry, but now UV inks offer the ability to run in-line multi-colored printing. What had held screen printing back was drying times.”

“Using UV inks will result in an increase in productivity for printers and converters,” said Mr. Weissman. “Overall increase in productivity is one reason that UV technology has seen strong growth rates. If you look at markets where UV dominates, it is because of significant productivity increases. In the screen market, printing tends to be a slow, long process that requires a lot of drying time. There is no way to print on a CD without using UV inks.”

Another reason for growing interest in UV inks is the desire of printers to cut back on the use of solvent-based products. “Printers like to get away from using solvents. UV inks also improve the overall efficiency because there aren’t any ovens or drying racks. It definitely simplifies the process,” said Mr. Holmstrom. “In the long run, the overall cost is less than with solvent-based systems. With solvent-based inks you are paying for VOCs, but with UV inks you get 100 percent solid ink because you are not paying for solvents.”

Industry-wide Growth
UV growth is not limited to just a few markets. Segments of both screen printing and flexography represent some of the brightest spots for UV inks.

“UV inks have made the greatest penetration in screen printing. There are certain segments such as CD printing that are 100 percent UV,” said Mr. Weissman.

Many niche markets also hold a lot of potential for UV technology.

“About 65 percent of the POP and decal markets are printed UV, which has enhanced performance and increased production speeds,” said Mr. Johnston. “The container market is another segment that has also gone UV. It is basic to in-line productivity, and we have seen the sales of solvent-based products decline in this market.”

“The label industry continues to see double-digit growth,” said Mr. Zinnbauer. “However, new markets that may well exceed label’s annual growth rate are folding cartons, aseptic packaging, flexible packaging, in mold labels and shrink and wrap sleeves.”

“Tag and label printing and nameplate and membrane switches are two other segments that have begun to move from solvent-based to UV inks,” said Mr. Holmstrom. “There are also dramatic opportunities for in-mold decorating applications. People have been asking for a UV solution for these applications.”

Flexography, one of the fastest growing markets in the industry, also represents one of the fastest growing segments for UV inks (see charts, p. 28).

“Although UV technology is most commonly utilized in offset printing, flexographic printing offers the most growth potential for this new technology,” said Mr. Nigam.

“The fastest growing area in graphic arts for UV technology is in UV flexo,” said Dr. Duncan. “More and more printers are moving toward UV flexo for labels, commercial printing and even folding cartons. This is an area with enormous potential.”

“The newest segment to look at using UV inks is the commercial printing market,” said Mr. Weissman. “In the U.S., almost all sheetfed lithographic printing done in this market uses conventional inks.”

Growth Drivers
Even if ink manufacturers were to develop state-of-the-art, cost-efficient and extraordinary UV products, ink represents only one aspect of UV printing. As the different market suppliers to UV printers continue to work together, interest will continue to grow.

“There have been many factors contributing to the growth of UV technology,” said Mr. Zinnbauer. “In my opinion the single most significant factor has been the cooperation and dedication to all parties in the technology. The manufacturers of inks, plates, anilox rolls, presses, substrates and the converters themselves have been critical. There has been a tremendous ‘can do’ atmosphere that has now resulted in very high quality and consistency.”

“This has been a team effort among several technologies that had to come together at the same time for UV/EB to be this successful,” said Dr. Duncan. “Included here are new technology UV lamps and EB units, new presses designed with UV/EB in mind, new low-toxicity curable raw materials from the chemical companies, new super-efficient photoinitiators, new high performance inks, optimized roller/blanket rubbers and improved press chemicals and fountain solutions. These are issues that go to capability.”

Improvements in the raw materials available to ink manufacturers will also spur UV growth. “Better lithographic acrylated vehicles with low skin irritating potential are available,” said Dr. Paul Gupta, technical manager, radiation cure products, Flint Ink. “Moreover, we have a wider choice of reactive monomers/oligomers and photoinitiators. Falling photoinitiator prices are also helping the growth. Finally, better formulating skills are also making a significant contribution to the overall success of the radiation curable products.”

Environmental issues were one of the first drivers used by UV ink manufacturers to bring attention to UV inks. But this doesn’t appear to be the case anymore as printers find out just how much their businesses can benefit from UV inks.

“Initially, environmental regulations were the major driving force behind the growth, but now market pressure due to quick turnover demands by end-users is the real driver for increased acceptance of UV/EB technology,” said Mr. Nigam. “As more and more printers use the technology, they are starting to better utilize the benefits of the technology. While environmental benefits are still an advantage to using UV inks, they are not the main reason for looking at UV inks. The additional economic benefits of improved productivity, ability to UV coat in-line, quicker job turnaround, and less waste are just a few of the key drivers generating interest in looking at and using UV inks.”

Environmental reasons, however, continue to be one of the benefits that UV technology offers over conventional inks.

“With environmental regulations, people look at the current laws and how they comply both now and in the future,” said Mr. Weissman. “UV offers a way of complying with future restrictions because it leapfrogs current regulations.”

“The low-VOC, low-emissions nature of UV/EB inks and coatings is a strong motivator for future growth,” said Dr. Duncan. “In some areas, new UV/EB press installations do not require the permitting that conventional presses do. Also, locations that are maxed out on their environmental emissions cannot add capacity that increases emissions. UV/EB is a great choice there.”

Room for Improvement
UV technology may have come a long way in a short amount of time, but opportunities for further growth will continue as ink companies expand R&D efforts in this market. Issues such as odor and improved substrate adhesion are just two areas where manufacturers feel more work is needed.

“Perceived per poundage cost compared to conventional systems continues to be a major confusion in the marketplace,” said Mr. Nigam. “UV/EB technology has non-evaporating components, therefore yielding higher printing mileage, whereas conventional inks contain volatile organic compounds which evaporate during the drying process. This results in lower printing mileage by conventional technology. The UV/EB technology also provides gains in productivity and lower energy consumption. One has to look at the total advantage of the technology, not just per pound cost.

“The second major issue is odor. UV/EB technology is a different chemistry and has its unique odor, which is different from conventional ink systems,” continued Mr. Nigam. “One would not expect apples to smell like oranges. In the last 10 years newer ink systems in UV/EB technology have focused on reducing the amount of odor drastically.”

Although UV ink manufacturers have greatly improved on substrate adhesion, there are still some materials where UV doesn’t offer the same performance properties that conventional inks can. “One area that we have to work on is developing a broader process window for UV inks,” said Mr. Bean. “But the UV process window is growing.”

“Functionality is one area where improvements still need to be made with UV technology,” said Mr. Holmstrom. “There are some substrates where solvent-based inks still work better. Solvent-based applications are used for printing on glass because the same satisfactory results cannot be achieved with UV inks.”

“We have had a hard time developing inks to print on every kind of substrate that solvent-based inks are able to,” said Mr. Johnston. “There are some unique post-print properties that we haven’t been able to achieve with UV inks, such as microwave and dishwasher safe, and high-heat resistance. We continue to sell a solvent-based epoxy that adheres to substrates that UV cannot. But we are doing things with UV that we were not able to do five years ago.”

Dr. Duncan said there are several opportunities for improvement. “One is the odor of both wet and cured UV inks. Wet EB inks have a similar odor, but have essentially no odor after curing,” explained Dr. Duncan. “Another area is cost – the curable raw materials and the photoinitiators used in UV inks are more expensive than materials used in conventional inks. Chemical companies that manufacture these materials need to find ways to reduce these costs. A third area is on-press handling, especially for lithographic inks. UV litho inks have a narrower operational window than conventional litho inks, especially regarding fountain solution interaction. A fourth area is safety. Wet UV/EB inks still are skin irritants, although they are tremendously easier to handle than they were 20 years ago. Still, there is room for improvement.”

“If we as a supplier want to continue our solid growth, we must seek out hurdles to overcome to lead the way,” said Mr. Zinnbauer. “Some areas for improvement I can think of are more consistent raw materials from our suppliers (not all the same); ongoing education aimed at the end-users (from top managers down to press room operators – co-supplier teams are now doing this more and more and will to continue); and we still have an issue with direct food contact, which is a difficult issue.”

Sorting Facts from Fiction
If UV inks offer so many benefits to printers, why then are many people still reluctant to make the switch to UV technology? In many cases, they just don’t know enough about UV to prove wrong misconceptions floating around the industry or realize just how beneficial UV inks can be to both their businesses and their customers.

“We are still focusing on educating printers about UV technology,” said Mr. Bean. “There are a lot of misconceptions and urban legends about UV inks, such as health and safety issues.”

“The single biggest factor that is affecting the growth of UV inks and UV technology is the knowledge within the industry of UV’s capabilities,” said Mr. Weissman. “For a number of years there was a lot of misinformation about UV. Safety and handling issues are now much better understood, and the cost has decreased dramatically over the past three years.”

Particularly in regards to safety issues, ink manufacturers need to stomp out rumors that have scared both printers and the ink industry away from UV technology. “There is a perception that the product is hazardous,” said Dr. Gupta. “The users need more educational help to understand what are the real issues and how to handle the product safely and without fear.”

Ink manufacturers have realized that until something is done about the rumors and misconceptions being spread throughout both the ink and printing industries, growth rates will not reach the levels they could if people knew the facts. To help initiate this process, ink manufacturers and suppliers are presenting seminars at both ink and printing trade shows in order to “bring people up to speed on the basics of UV technology,” said Mr. Weissman.

“There is still a big demand for basic UV training seminars,” said Mr. Holmstrom. “There is also an interest in color-theory.” Guy Harris, Nor-Cote’s technical director, recently presented a basic UV seminar at the GPI (Graphic and Product Identification) conference.

Mr. Weissman will chair a short course titled “Introduction to UV Inks and Coatings” on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at the NPIRI conference, Callaway Gardens, GA. “This course is intended for chemists and technicians that have ink experience but not UV ink experience,” said Mr. Weissman.

Presentations during this short course will include “Basic UV/EB Chemistry,” Dr. JoAnn Arceneaux, UCB Chemicals Corp.; “Photoinitiators for Ultraviolet Curing of Inks and Overprint Varnishes,” Dr. Eugene Sitzmann, Ciba Specialties; “Pigments for UV Cured Inks,” Walt Taplin, Ciba Pigments; and “Basic Formulations of UV Inks and Coatings,” Mr. Weissman.

“Courses like these are much needed in the industry,” said Mr. Weissman. “There is a concern about the lack of trained chemists in UV ink and coatings markets. Too much moving indicates a shortage of qualified personnel. We are looking at ways to help train the industry about UV inks and coatings.”

Demand for UV inks might be strong right now, but UV ink manufacturers feel it will only get stronger as the chemistry and benefits are explained to would-be users.

“Demand requires something else, and that has been customer education,” said Dr. Duncan. “This has been done very well by groups such as RadTech, but also the word-of-mouth success stories that spread have had a major impact.”

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