While the economic downturn in the U.S. has impacted practically every company in the ink industry, there are still areas of growth that can be found. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for growth is in the energy curable segment, where double-digit sales gains were the norm during the past few years.
In particular, ultraviolet (UV) and electron beam (EB) inks and curing processes have allowed printers the luxury of being able to increase productivity, reduce or completely eliminate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and add improved characteristics such as better gloss and resistance properties.
Still, perhaps the main barrier preventing more printers from entering the UV and EB segments is the cost of equipment. While prices have come down on the equipment needed to run UV and EB presses, enterprising ink manufacturers have come up with another solution: hybrid inks.
Through the conventional/UV hybrid technology, a printer can use a hybrid ink on a conventional press, at the cost of retrofitting the press.
It is an option than more and more printers are trying out, and ink companies are working hard to meet the increasing demand.
Hybrid inks are ideal for printers who would like to get the benefits of UV printing on a conventional press.
“Hybrid inks offer an interesting opportunity in the marketplace to further the use of UV curable materials,” said Peter Weissman, manager, technical service and applications, graphic arts at UCB Chemicals. “Many small printers have shied away from UV ink for two reasons: the high cost of capital investment and the need to dedicate a press exclusively to UV inks. The hybrids allow printers to run UV inks on the same press as conventional inks. This allows the printer to gain experience and develop a clientele that is interested in UV before committing to a major capital investment.”
“Hybrid systems have a niche market for the conventional litho printer who would like to apply a UV coating over the freshly printed lithographic inks and still achieve a high gloss,” said Joe Cichon, senior vice president of product and manufacturing technology at INX International. “The hybrid inks give printers the ability to wet trap over lithographic inks and achieve a high gloss without the need for special rollers and blankets.”
“The biggest advantage is that it gives printers inline coatability,” Mr. Cichon added. “If you use standard conventional oil-based inks and UV coating, you get serious glossback as the conventional inks dry. If you use 100 percent UV inks, you must have a set of rollers and blankets that are compatible with the UV inks. Typically, 100 percent UV inks are run with interstation curing units for each process color, and a final bank of curing lamps after the coater. Hybrid inks run best in the same curing unit configuration; however, several printers have been able to run with no interstation curing, one final cure before coating, and a bank of UV lamps after the coater.”
“The original technology advantage was that you could inline UV coat without having to run a true UV ink, which would require special rollers and fountain solutions,” said Tony Bean, manager, energy curable inks for Sun Chemical Corporation. “A conventional printer can readily switch from conventional to hybrid ink. By doing that, the printer could become more productive. If he was coating offline, he’s brought it back to a one-step operation. Time is halved, and throughput is doubled.”
“There’s a general interest in hybrids,” said Dr. Don Duncan, director of R&D at Wikoff Color. “Printers are finding more applicability as they try it out. The original interest was to have the ability to UV coat inline rather than send it off site or to buy a double coater. The original premise was to allow coating inline without a water-based primer, but as the underlying oil-based ink dried, the gloss of the UV coating would decrease.
“The hybrids allow printers to print wet trap and secure them with one lamp, which allows printers to save energy by not having the need for lamps at every station,” Dr. Duncan said. “The hybrids provide the high gloss inline while not having to make any mechanical changes on the press. People are interested in hybrids in a lot of markets, including folding carton and commercial printing.”
The potential for the growth of UV hybrid inks is tremendous. “We believe that UV hybrid inks are the wave of the future in commercial sheetfed, folding carton and packaging,” said Harvey Brice, president of Superior Printing Ink, which has been working on hybrid inks for nearly four years. “Our sales have doubled each year, and we plan to expand our UV hybrid division.
“It makes sense for people to have a UV unit on a conventional press, instead of having a press solely dedicated to UV,” said Mr. Brice. “When you commit to a UV press, you can’t run conventional ink. A UV curing system can be retrofitted on a conventional press, and hybrid inks eliminate the need for roller and blanket changes.”
“With a minimum investment for lamps, the hybrid inks will be set up sufficiently so the coating will sit on a dry surface, thus eliminating what is termed as dryback or glossback, which can be particularly evident in the heavily inked areas of a conventionally printed sheet,” said Rod Balmer, technical manager, energy curables at Flint Ink. “Typically, you would expect glossback, where the gloss falls off within a 24 hour period after printing. With our Gemini inks, what you see off press is what you get.”
“There is a lot of interest in hybrids. I still think it will be a specialty application. It’s ideal for printers who want to run UV on a conventional press,” said Winfried Gleue, president of Hostmann-Steinberg Printing Inks.
Kustom Group has been involved in hybrid ink research for more than three years. “The Many Options for In-Line UV Coating on a Sheetfed Press,” presented at the National Printing Ink Research Institute’s (NPIRI) 1998 Technical Conference by David Aynessazian, technical director of Kustom Group and reprinted in the January 1999 issue of Ink World, opened up strong debate and analysis.
“There is a renewed interest in hybrid inks that is being driven by the printers,” said Jim Volz, vice president of sales at the Kustom Group.
“We’re uniquely situated as we’re basic in oil-based and UV chemistry, as well as in tandem coaters. We saw that if you could combine these technologies, it would be superior to tandem coating. With a hybrid ink, printers can use one system, instead of printing a job, applying an aqueous coating, letting it dry and sending it out to be coated.” While hybrids offer great opportunities, there are some aspects to be worked out.
“In general, the performance is very good, although I’ve heard there may be an issue of variability of glossback over different colors,” Mr. Weissman said. “However, I am convinced the performance of hybrid inks will only improve.”
“The big mistake is that printers don’t use enough UV lamps,” said Mr. Bean. “When you start piling on ink at higher speeds and run thicker ink films, you need more UV lighting.”
Selecting the right raw materials is an important aspect when formulating a hybrid ink.
“When formulating a hybrid ink, the precise combination of the conventional and UV components is very important,” Mr. Balmer said. “Some conventional and UV formulations are incompatible, so therefore the selection of raw materials is critical, in order to prevent the premature polymerization of the subsequent ink.”
“The key raw material parameters are compatibility with conventional-based pigment flushes and reactivity,” said Mr. Weissman.
The percentage of conventional and UV components is not really essential to the effectiveness of the inks. “It doesn’t really matter what the definition of hybrid is,” Mr. Weissman said. “What’s critical is that it can be run on the same press as conventional inks, and be cured with a limited amount of UV energy while still obtaining high gloss and avoiding glossback.”
Growth in EB Ink Market Slows as Demand
for Equipment Declines
EB inks offer some advantages over its UV counterparts, but it is costly for printers to enter that segment. The price of EB technology still remains a large capital investment, even though it has come down in price in recent years as presses now can be purchased for $200,000. This las led to the possibility that the market for EB inks may not grow significantly in the near future.
“It's going very well for us in EB. They’re not selling presses as fast as they were a few years ago, which will affect sales growth down the road,” said Daryl Collins, vice president, sales and regional operations at Wikoff Color. “It could be that they’ve satisfied the current market need.”
“The use of EB in the web market place for folding cartons is fairly saturated, and there’s not a huge demand for EB equipment, although the prices have come down to $200,000 now,” said Tony Bean, manager, energy curable inks for Sun Chemical Corporation.
There still are areas, however, where EB inks are making strong inroads.
“Our EB business is on a steady growth curve,” said Dr. Don Duncan, director of R&D at Wikoff Color. “Much of it is still going into food packaging, and it’s moving into other cartons as well. I do see more people converting existing presses.”
“The biggest growth in EB is coming in coatings for wide web flexo, and is driven by the decrease in cost in EB equipment,” said Peter Weissman, manager, technical service and applications, graphic arts at UCB Chemicals. “Coefficient of friction (CoF) is a major issue in EB. For example, a printer may wish to avoid products slipping off of skids, such as pet food bags, or maintaining an assembly line of unfolded cartons from slipping back on each other.
“A number of different companies are working on controlled CoF coatings,” Mr. Weissman said. “Creating a specific CoF and maintaining it over the manufacturing cycle, such as an unfolded carton traveling up or down an assembly line, or the finished product’s life expectancy, such as pet food bags, which you don’t want to have fall off the skid to stick together, is essential.”
Cost remains an issue, and Dr. Duncan said that the cost comparison between EB and UV inks vary depending upon applications.
“EB inks are a little more expensive in food packaging, where there is a need for highly purified raw materials which will leave less residual impurities for low odor and taste taint,” Dr. Duncan said. “However, EB can be less expensive in other applications, as photoinitiators in UV ink are expensive.”
For EB ink manufacturers, the next few years should help determine the overall potential of EB technology.
To meet the demand for hybrid inks, a number of ink companies have increased their product line.
Superior Printing Ink offers two varieties of its Inter-Cure system: Inter-Cure HE, or high energy, for presses with interstation UV units; and Inter-Cure LE, or low energy, for presses with a unit before and after the coating station.
INX offers UniCure, which Mr. Cichon said offers wider compatibility with blankets and coatings than competitive hybrid systems. Hostmann-Steinberg is offering its new Hosta-Cure Hybrid Inks Y 25083.
Metallic ink companies are also interested in the hybrid ink market. MD-Both is offering its SuperFusion hybrid inks.
“There’s a market that is growing,” said Nick Rink, product manager for graphic arts at MD-Both Industries. “There’s a lot of excitement on the packaging side.”
Flint Ink has entered the market with its Gemini hybrid ink system.
“The Gemini ink system is a hybrid ink that allows printers to run UV technology at a much lower installation cost,” said Kathy Marx, vice president and strategic planning at Flint Ink. “It requires no interstation curing, only the use of a single curing unit at the end of a press. The gloss is outstanding, and we are getting a lot of interest in it.”
“The Gemini ink system has been primarily developed for use by conventional ink printers who already have an in-line coating device,” said Mr. Balmer. “It allows these printers to step up their quality and production a notch, and, for little capital expense – the addition of one or two precoater lamps, produce results only otherwise achievable from UV inks.
“Even with UV in-line coating, conventional inks typically have very poor gloss. In contrast, hybrid inks provide excellent gloss when in-line coated,” said Mr. Balmer. “Even some traditional UV printers prefer to use Gemini, and have completely transitioned over to this product, due to its
wider window of operation in terms of ink water balance and transfer.
“Conventional oil-based 100 percent solids inks don’t dry very quickly on certain non-porous substrates, thus reducing productivity,” Mr. Balmer said. “They require printing in minimum stack sizes, with excessive amounts of spray powder, and have to be left to dry for at least 24 to 48 hours before processing. Gemini hybrid inks have proved very successful fit for these applications.
“The hybrid system also helps speed turnaround. If you’re printing conventional inks and then coating, the ink remains wet under the varnish,” Mr. Balmer said. “Gemini is dry and can thus be secondarily processed or finished immediately.
“One of the other main advantages is the ink’s compatibility with rollers,” Mr. Balmer said. “We work closely with roller companies to test our products in order that we achieve minimal degrees of shrinkage and swell.
“A major advantage is that you can use conventional and less aggressive eco-washes to remove Gemini from blankets and rollers,” said Mr. Balmer.
Mr. Balmer said that Flint Ink came into the hybrid ink market a year ago
when the company believed it had the right product in Gemini. “We came in
when we felt we had the right product,” Mr. Balmer said. “We did our homework, rather than releasing a work in progress.”
Mr. Bean said that Sun Chemical’s Hy-Bryte line offers numerous advantages for printers.
“The inline Hy-Bryte technology eliminates a lot of problems, such as application of water-based primer to conventional inks, and the UV coating to the water-based primer,” Mr. Bean said.
“It boils down to the printer’s ability to get high gloss without glossback on a conventional roller press,” Mr. Bean said. “People are finding that Hy-Bryte comes off the press dry. The ink dries instantly, so there’s no setoff.”
“Hybrid inks help printers make more money,” Mr. Bean said. “They don’t have to dedicate a press or spend hours changing between UV and conventional inks. Hy-Bryte inks are dry off the press so immediate processing is possible. There is not any need for a primer to tie the UV coating to the ink. Jobs are UV coated in one pass and out the door. This leads to less waste due to less handling.
“It’s been two and a half years in development,” Mr. Bean noted about hybrid inks. “In my 30-plus years in the ink industry, it’s the first time I ever mixed two good technologies and got another good technology.”
What’s New in UV
Meanwhile, outside of hybrid inks, a number of ink companies are working on new applications for UV products as the market grows.
“One of the areas we have been most successful at Wikoff is UV flexo, which is growing at a faster rate,” Dr. Duncan said. “UV flexo inks are running at much higher performance than even a few years ago. We think it’s still on the leading edge of its growth curve.”
“We’re still seeing strong growth in UV,” said Daryl Collins, vice president, sales and regional operations at Wikoff Color. “People are still buying UV flexo presses, while they’re not buying the more expensive EB presses. Labels and cartons are still fast growing areas for UV. Sheetfed UV hybrid inks are a good option for someone who is running a conventional press and wants to have the ability of running UV coatings.”
“Our business is holding strong, and we’ve been growing,” said Pat Carlisle, president of Joules Angstrom U.V. Printing Inks, which specializes in UV litho inks. “The forms and direct mail industries are doing very well, and there have been a lot of inquiries from the sheetfed side regarding UV on synthetic substrates, which seems to be a growing area. The improvements in UV technology have advanced web printers to produce sheetfed quality products. This diversifies the products they as printers can offer and produce.”
“We’ve introduced a new line of litho inks,” said Damon Geer, director of sales and branch facilities in North America for Zeller+Gmelin. “One UV ink does not fit all the markets. Originally we were in forms and direct mail in the litho side. Now you’re seeing commercial webs using UV, and sheetfed printers running UV on paper and plastic substrates. It necessitates us expanding into those markets.”
“We have started to run UV and EB water-washable waterless inks, which eliminates fountain solutions, and eliminates the need for solvent washups to clean the press,” Mr. Bean said.
As is the case everywhere, the UV screen market has also been volatile, as some segments experience growth while others are declining.
“Some areas are up, while other areas are down,” said Dave Cordell, national sales manager at Nor-Cote International, a UV screen ink specialist. “The areas we are putting the most focus on in terms of conversions are the nameplate and graphic overlay segments.”
“UV is the future,” said Gary Barnes, international marketing manager – packaging segment at Sericol. “Traditional graphic screen has moved from solvent-based to UV, and all of our focus in narrow web is on UV. It’s market driven due to the efficiencies and qualities you can achieve with UV systems. It’s fast drying, and in some cases, has lower energy costs. UV also provides better gloss and resistance properties.”
As the UV ink market continues to grow, more printers are examining the value of adding UV capabilities to their printing line. Hybrid inks may provide a crucial step in that direction.
“I think we’ll see a shift for printers from conventional inks to hybrid inks, and then to UV,” said Mr. Weissman.
Overall, the reaction of printers to hybrid inks has been very positive. “Our customers love hybrid inks” Mr. Brice said. “It allows printers more flexibility. You don’t have to worry about drying times, and the sheet can immediately be processed. It’s a flow-through system.”
“The bottom line is that it is a matter of productivity and profitability,” Mr. Bean said. “If the ink won’t speed up production and provide better profitabilty, then why do it?”
If hybrid inks can indeed improve production and help printers make more money, the outlook for the UV ink industry should be very bright.