The ultraviolet (UV) inks and coatings market has been a major success story for the printing ink industry, evolving from a technology used primarily because of strengthened environmental laws to a highly-respected technology that is selected by printers because of its productivity and performance characteristics.
Today, the UV ink industry is one of the few growth areas in the industry, driven by printers developing new applications in established segments as well as new technologies such as UV ink jet and hybrid inks. It seems certain that UV will continue to grow in the coming years.
UV in 2003
The UV market fared better than virtually every other segment in the ink industry, although the economy did impact growth.
“The UV ink market continued to expand, although at a slow, steady rate,” said Ed Dedman, market development manager, SICPA North America. “Five to 10 years ago, all the ‘experts’ said that UV would grow by double-digits and take over the market. While this hasn’t happened, UV is still making inroads every year.”
“We have seen an increasing number of printers buying new presses that are outfitted with UV curing capabilities,” said Glenn Webster, Sun Chemical’s marketing manager, UV liquid inks. “The rate of growth for UV has slowed somewhat, but it’s still growing. This slowdown in growth can be attributed to economic circumstances. The growth rate should pick up when the economy revives fully.”
Mr. Webster added that much of UV’s growth is coming in the narrow web (up to 15”) and mid-web (16” to 30”) markets.
“The UV ink market has continued to grow despite the weak economy, but at a slower pace then it has in previous years,” said Brian Templeman, president of Kolorcure. “The strongest market growth has been in litho and flexographic printing. The packaging industry has been pretty strong over the last few years. Printers continue to look for ways to improve quality and efficiencies, and UV solves many of those issues.”
“Total sales of UV inks and coatings have been close to flat for the last year, but there certainly has been no decline,” said Dr. Don P. Duncan, director of research for Wikoff Color Corporation.
Hal Clifton, national sales manager, narrow web for INX International Ink Company, said that the tag and label, folding carton and commercial market segments have offered the most opportunity for growth.
“Several market segments will likely see growth in the use of UV inks,” said Tony Bean, Sun Chemical’s marketing manager, UV paste inks. “Among the areas in which UV use is expected to grow the most are wide-web flexo for non-food-related flexible packaging, as well as flat-sheet plastic, folding carton and pre-formed plastic containers. Interest in the use of hybrid inks also continues to grow.”
Hybrid inks have come a long way since their introduction a few years ago. For example, Mr. Bean described the interest in hybrid inks as “phenomenal,” noting a tremendous number of inquiries at the recent Graph Expo 2003.
“Hybrid inks have become a significant segment in the overall UV market and there is great interest in them,” said John Priesmeyer, product manager, UV for Flint Ink. “The reason for the interest is a perception that hybrid inks are more ‘press friendly,’ not requiring special rollers, blankets and chemistry. This, in turn, has driven greater interest in UV technology in general.”
“The increasing interest in hybrid inks is mainly due to the retrofitting of existing conventional presses with UV lamps,” said Gale Waller, INX International Ink Company’s UV offset product manager, who estimated that the hybrid market is increasing 8 percent to 10 percent annually. “This adds much more flexibility to the press, especially when printers only want to coat a portion of the work. No special blankets, rollers, plates, cleaning or conditioning are required. Cost reduction also plays a big part in hybrid printing, due to in-line coating. With hybrids, there is no more off-line coating or sending jobs out to be coated or second pass through the press, so there are shorter delivery times.”
Economic conditions are impacting further growth.
“UV hybrids in general are a growing area, but some press conversions have been delayed due to market conditions over the last year,” Dr. Duncan said.
Growth Areas for UV
Aside from sheetfed hybrid inks, Dr. Duncan believes that UV will make its most gains in ink jet and flexo.
“One tiny-volume market that is seeing a tremendous growth rate is UV ink jet,” Dr. Duncan said. “In addition to UV hybrids and UV ink jet, the UV flexo market has tremendous up-side potential. Achieving some of this potential means installing fully UV-compatible mid-web presses, and last year was not a big year for new press installations. As printers feel more comfortable adding or upgrading their presses, UV flexo will be a big winner. Printing UV flexo on UV screen solids on clear plastic for labels is also a growth area.”
“I expect continued steady gains in the flexo market, especially in narrow- and mid-web applications,” said Mr. Dedman. “Additionally, I look for advancing UV use in the digital printing market as that technology becomes more prevalent.”
Perhaps the area that has drawn the most attention has been UV ink jet, primarily for wide format applications. A number of ink companies are working on inks for applications such as billboards and other outdoor signage.
“UV digital printing is coming on strong,” said John Law, general manager of SunJet, a division of Sun Chemical, which has recently released two pigmented UV ink jet systems in its Crystal series. These inks are designed for large-format display graphics on rigid and flexible media. They offer high flexibility, film hardness and scratch resistance, as well as proven jetting reliability.
“UV ink jet is a small and specialized market where conversation precedes actual use,” Mr. Priesmeyer said. “There is interest and products are available, but the full potential of this market will likely not be known for many years.”
“Digital printing has a huge potential in both graphic arts and industrial applications,” Mr. Templeman said. “We have a development project in the lab. However, the printhead and equipment manufacturers have made it difficult for smaller independent ink companies like us to bring products to the market place.”
Mr. Priesmeyer believes UV’s value will drive its growth into new areas.
“Printers are looking for opportunities in new markets to augment the loss of traditional print business such as annual reports,” Mr. Priesmeyer said. “This will be primarily in the sheetfed market segments of general commercial work and specialty printing as well as web printers seeking to avoid VOC emissions. In packaging, both UV flexo and UV offset will continue to make gains as printers seek to improve productivity and help package buyers to differentiate their brands.”
UV’s instant curing offers printers great advantages in productivity, and even more gains in productivity are being sought. Mr. Priesmeyer said that printers are most interested in productivity and durability.
“The increased cost of UV inks can only be justified by improved productivity and efficiency or by the need for additional performance benefits not easily achieved by other processes,” Mr. Priesmeyer said. “Examples would be the instant dry advantage of UV in sheetfed applications and the laser imprintable, abrasion resistant and chemical resistant finish in other applications.”
“Printers are most looking for properties that differentiate themselves from the competition, such as the demand for more and high quality surface finishing,” said Ms. Waller, who believes printing/curing on synthetics offers great potential for UV. “Printers are also seeking increased productivity and lower costs.”
Mr. Bean said printers using UV are looking for better quality printing with productivity levels that equal or improve on conventional printing.
“The goal has always been to make UV products perform more like conventional inks and coatings,” Mr. Bean said. “Improvements in chemistry and curing technology have greatly narrowed that distinction. On-press performance is nearly equal, and printed results using energy-cured inks can be outstanding.”
Dr. Duncan noted that fast cure, high gloss, rub and chemical resistance have long been the key properties for UV, but UV helps on the inventory side as well.
“There’s a low work-in-process inventory,” Dr. Duncan said. “Fast cure gives printers the ability to print and stack and ship immediately without concern about ink drying issues. The ‘ship-off-the-press’ nature of UV inks and coatings means that less space and money are tied up waiting for inks to dry.”
As always, cost remains an issue. “It's pretty well accepted that UV inks offer several advantages to the printer – adhesion, durability, chemical and product resistance, etc.,” Mr. Dedman said. “Now the biggest improvement printers are looking for is lower cost for these products.”
Future for UV
UV inks and coatings have enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years, and with UV ink jet and hybrid technologies leading the way, more opportunities await.
“The general trend for the last 15 years has been an average 10 percent annual growth in UV,” Mr. Priesmeyer said. “With the continual advancement of UV technology, improvements in inks and coatings as well as introduction of new raw materials, combined with lower costs and productivity benefits for the printing industry, the market for UV curable inks and coatings are certain to maintain solid growth for years to come.”
Still, there remain barriers to further growth which ink companies are working on, whether it is cost for inks and coatings or even new presses, or other technologies such as electron beam (EB) or ink jet.
“The costs of UV curable inks and coatings remain high compared to other products,” Mr. Priesmeyer said. “In addition, press performance of UV inks has not yet caught up with those of oil-based systems, and coatings continue to be too aggressive from the health and safety standpoint. We must continue to strive to improve press performance, cost and safety to keep the UV technology market growing at its historical pace.”
“With water-based flexo inks running and performing as well as they do at a lower cost, and with increased use of digital printing in traditional UV-rich market segments, UV inks will have to continue to outperform these products in order to maintain growth,” Mr. Dedman said.
“Conversion of existing presses and buying new presses will continue to be a cost concern for printers until economic conditions improve,” Dr. Duncan said. “Printing, as an industry, has been hit harder in the last few years than many industries. Printers are, in fact, suffering a depression – not just a recession. Until this turns, capital investment will be slower than in prior years.”
Both Mr. Webster and Mr. Bean said that UV will always be under pressure for improved performance and productivity. EB curing also might have some impact on UV, as the capital costs and size of the curing units drop, EB becomes more attractive to printers who are using or considering UV.
Overall, UV’s advantages should continue to propel the segment’s growth in the coming years.
“It’s difficult to predict the growth of the UV market because so much depends on economic conditions,” Mr. Bean said. “However, we believe it’s likely this market segment will continue to grow faster than much of the printing ink market.”
“UV is a low VOC, environmentally friendly technology that delivers a superior printed product,” said Dr. Duncan. “It’s near the ideal for a ‘tastes great/less filling’ combination.”
Raw Material Improvements are Sought for Formulations
New raw materials will be critical in developing improved UV formulations. For example, Mr. Clifton spoke of the need for clean monomers, oligomers and photo initiators for food packaging.
“From a formulation perspective, the industry need effective, curable long-wavelength photoinitiators and more development of new monomers and oligomers for graphic arts,” Dr. Duncan said.
“With tightening budgets, there may be less investments made by the major raw material suppliers to offer us formulators new products to be used to develop and introduce new and innovative products into the marketplace,” Mr. Templeman said.
New Products Help Drive UV’s Gains
There have been a number of new products introduced into the UV ink market, with hybrid inks are a particular area for development.
Mr. Bean said that Sun Chemical continues to refine Hy-Bryte Max. At Graph Expo, Sun Chemical released the third generation of Hy-Bryte inks. He pointed out that Hy-Bryte hybrid inks, first introduced three years ago, combine with UV coatings to form a high-performance system that uses UV energy curing to produce outstanding results for sheetfed and web offset printing. He said the new Hy-Bryte system delivers even faster curing and less gloss-back for better print productivity.
INX International Ink Company has developed a number of new products. In particular, its VersaCure Hybrid inks allow hybrid printers to eliminate the need for special roller conditioning. VersaCure also works with sheetfed fountain solution, and has been shown to clean up with conventional press washes. Exceptional adhesion to a wide variety of synthetic substrates, as well as excellent lamination bond strengths, make VersaCure the product of choice for printers looking to expand their press capabilities and lower costs. INX VersaCure inks are designed to be VOC free, and they utilize environmentally friendly vegetable oil -ased products.
Kolorcure also has developed a hybrid offset ink line that offers excellent adhesion to many plastic substrates including styrene, PVC, and treated polyethylene. Lightfast pigments for outdoor graphics are also available.
Other new UV ink systems have been introduced.
Wikoff Color has launched its Photo-Flex line of UV flexo inks, which are a very strong series of UV flexo inks with excellent flow. Both the standard version and the set with fade-resistant pigments are designed for use with up to 1200 line aniloxes and have been extremely successful in the marketplace.
Flint Ink introduced its Matrixcure Web specifically formulated for the needs of the forms and direct mail print market, where press performance on a variety of high speed web presses is critical. Its new Duracure product line is a premium UV ink system for use on a variety of plastic substrates in applications where durability and lightfastness are required such as phone cards, POP displays, signs, labels, and tags.
Sun Chemical has launched its SunCure Max D, a high-strength, high-density flexo ink system designed to print excellent process colors and vignettes with fine-line aniloxes; SunCure High Opacity flexo white for use as a base coat for clear films and pressure sensitive labels, which have been found to rival screen whites as a base coat in many applications; and SunPlast Plus, a UV ink system for printing on cups at higher speeds and with better adhesion.
Mr. Webster said that Sun Chemical’s WetFlex process and UniQure inks, introduced in 2002, will help both UV- and EB-cured products in flexible packaging make significant gains in the coming years. This process allows wet trapping of energy-cured inks on a common impression drum (CID) press without the use of interstation drying. This technology is in the start-up mode for its first commercial application, he said.