Although 2003 has been a challenging year for the ink market as a whole, with recovery coming slowly, the UV/EB cure market has fared rather well during 2003. The outlook for 2004 remains positive.
(Photo courtesy of Sartomer.)
“The UV cure market as a whole fared very well during 2003, growing at a rate of approximately 4 percent to 5 percent,” said James Goodrich, graphic arts specialist, Sartomer Company. “This was due in large part to increased demand during the fourth quarter, and our expectations are high for additional growth during 2004.”
“2003 was a challenging year for the domestic specialty chemicals industry overall, at least early in the year,” said John Braddock, technical marketing manager, UV/EB curing chemicals, Akzo Nobel Resins. “The energy curable market will likely end the year with 6 percent to 8 percent growth, substantially below the double digit growth rates typically seen for this business through year 2000, but far better than 2002. The improved economy starting from the second quarter has greatly improved the overall market. While Akzo Nobel energy curable resins has done well in 2003, we expect 2004 to be an even better year. Of course, much of this predicated on a continuing strong U.S. economy, a stable world economy and readily available raw materials.”
“Like most companies, we experienced market performance that was up and down throughout the year,” said Bill Bayer, North American business manager, graphic arts for radcure products, Surface Specialties UCB. “In the fourth quarter, however, the slow recovery gained steam and we finished the year up 4 percent. The recovery has been sustained so far in 2004. We are forecasting a market growth of 4 percent to 6 percent for 2004.”
Pigment manufacturers also have seen similar growth in the UV marketplace. “Although the pigment industry is still struggling globally, we had a solid year in 2003 and expect an improved market in 2004,” said Maurice Carruthers, vice president and general manager, merchant ink business unit of Sun Chemical’s Colors Group. “We see the radiation curing market growing at a rate substantially higher than the printing ink market in general.”
“The UV market has been doing very well for us over the past year,” said Andrew Grabacki, vice president of sales at General Press Colors. “What we hear from our customers and direction our business is going, double digit growth will continue.”
“The industry continued with high growth, above the ink industry average, though with slower overall growth than the previous year, and we expect industry growth to continue through 2004,” said Christopher Bridge, regional marketing manager-Americas, imaging and inks business line, coating effects segment at Ciba. “Ciba, as a major supplier to this industry of photoinitiators, but also pigments and other additives, grew in line with this.”
Driving this growth are a number of new technologies being developed in the UV ink market. UV flexo inks have experienced growth, as well as UV hybrid inks.
“We’re watching a lot of trends develop in the ink market, mostly in the technology arena,” said Mr. Goodrich. “For example, UV flexo inks have been growing lately as the benefits of UV technology are recognized by more of the flexible packaging industry.
“In addition, UV hybrid inks have seen growth from printers who like the quick turnaround of the UV inks, but don’t want to retrofit their press or just prefer the press performance of their oil-based inks,” continued Mr. Goodrich. “And UV inks have recently gained attention among formulators thanks to the development of systems for printing wide format graphics and other equipment advances. On the raw materials side, the most visible trend has been the development of low-irritancy UV-cure monomers and oligomers. Other advances include raw materials that exhibit fast cure speeds, pigment dispersion capabilities and increased adhesion to a wide variety of substrates.”
“We see a drive towards UV/EB litho inks with better printability, continued strong growth in flexo inks and a very strong interest in UV ink jet ink development,” said Mr. Braddock. “Hybrid inks are also continuing with very strong interest. It appears as if costs are becoming far more important in UV/EB cure with very strong interest by many companies toward lower cost systems and cost reductions. In the past, performance was perhaps a more important driver.”
“It appears that most of the print markets are recovering nicely, and most especially flexo,” said Mr. Bayer. “We are expecting a continued recovery in graphics.”
According to Mr. Carruthers, consolidation of printing ink manufacturers is continuing and there now appears to be an acceleration of consolidation among printers in the U.S “There also seems to be a move on the part of European ink makers to be a part of the U.S. industry; the recent acquisition of CCI by Siegwerk is an example of this,” he noted.
There are a number of growth areas in the UV market as the industry begins to recognize the benefits of radiation cure technology. With the development of low odor systems, food packaging has been one area that has experienced a major drive towards EB cure.
Chuck Jones, marketing manager, printing industries for Clariant Corporation, said there is potential for UV/EB in labels for CD/DVDs and packaging where there is a barrier between the product and the packaging, such as cereal boxes and frozen food packaging.
“In packaging applications, UV cure flexo inks have been growing as the industry recognizes more and more benefits of radiation cure technology,” said Mr. Goodrich. “In particular, we’re starting to see significant use in mid- and wide-web flexo.”
“Food packaging is a very strong growth area, and a major driver towards EB cure. Lower odor and lower cost systems are allowing for EB to penetrate into markets not traditionally known for energy cure applications,” said Mr. Braddock.
According to Mr. Bridge, there is continued activity to move formulations forward into flexo inks for packaging, including indirect food contact applications, which requires new developments in all components. “The development of UV curing ink jet inks also continued with a high interest level,” Mr. Bridge added. “The lowering cost of the formulations also allows expansion into more printing jobs which have been served by conventional inks in the past.”
“We see a good deal of interest in laminating adhesives and inks for film substrates,” said Mr. Bayer.
“The narrow web label market appears to be growing the fastest in the energy curing area,” said Mr. Carruthers.
According to Mr. Grabacki, both UV and EB are doing well as a result of lower prices for the necessary equipment. “Pricing has been down on printing equipment for both UV and EB,” he said. “The cost of EB curing units has fallen dramatically over the past year. As for packaging inks, we are somewhat removed from that industry. However, from what we have heard on how that part of the industry is growing, we have been working on formulating a UV flexo flush.”
The UV/EB ink market will have to face a number of challenges, notably foreign competition creating pricing pressures and developing UV inks that meet the high demands of their customers.
“One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is the development of raw materials that meet formulators’ technology-specific needs,” said Mr. Goodrich. “For example, in UV gravure applications, formulators need products with high pigment loadings, very low viscosities and fast cure rates. This is a difficult combination of properties to achieve. And in UV ink jet, they need products that enable them to achieve a low viscosity ink that is fast curing and exhibits good final film properties.
“Regardless of their particular applications, ink formulators are always looking for faster curing monomers and oligomers, vehicles that mimic the press performance of conventional paste inks and materials that can adhere to almost any substrate,” Mr. Goodrich added.
“Specifically for UV, it is the continued need to develop all inks with better printability, flexo inks with faster cure rate for wide web applications and products with better adhesion to difficult substrates like plastics and metals,” said Mr. Braddock. “We have instituted major short- and long-term research projects to address all of these needs.”
Mr. Grabacki said that as a flush manufacturer, dry color and foreign competition are the main challenges facing the industry. “Dry color is specifically coming in from Asia and India at extremely low prices which is causing some ink makers to take a step back in time and manufacture their inks directly from dry color again. Also, some suppliers are bringing in flush or dispersion from Asia and India at a very low cost which is driving pricing down and makes it difficult for domestic suppliers to compete.”
According to Mr. Bayer, expanding the use of the technology into some of the “more difficult” end-use applications is another challenge facing the UV/EB market.
“An example is the initiative that is being undertaken by RadTech to expand the use into the food packaging area. Acceptance in food packaging offers a very large growth opportunity for the radiation cure industry,” Mr. Bayer said.
“Also, the regulatory environment in Europe is changing rapidly and will place considerable pressure on the entire chemical industry with new testing and disclosure requirements,” added Mr. Bayer. “This threatens the movement of new products into the marketplace and could slow growth. With regard to the pigment industry, the challenges will certainly include increasing demands on the technology, the need to develop products for the new high growth areas and the necessity to deal with the global over-capacity situation.”
“The continuing technical challenge is to develop formulations for inks for indirect contact food packaging,” said Mr. Bridge. “At the same time we have to maintain a proper balanced approach to product safety issues, based on real data and risk analysis. In order to support the move towards better products for indirect food contact, we are making great efforts in our laboratories, and one of the first outcomes is the recent launch of Ciba Irgastab UV 10, which reduces immediately the product safety issues inherent in most of the current stabilizers used in EB and UV formulations.”
Focus on Value and Quality
UV and EB ink manufacturers are rising to these challenges by developing quality inks and focusing on value and quality instead of solely on the lowest prices.
“It’s not about just buying on price in order to compete,” said Mr. Grabacki. “It’s more about buying more intelligently. What is going to work best for General Press Colors at what price? What saves 50 cents up front may cost us $1 to get it to the customer, and what’s worse is that it may even cost our customer his customer. We are becoming a little more selective in choosing our customers. Fortunately, many of them are looking at value and quality instead of price.”
“Our goal is to develop ‘tailor-made’ raw materials that meet their application- and process-specific needs, and help take their formulations to the next level in performance,” said Mr. Goodrich.
Penetrating the food packaging market is an important priority to the UV industry. “We are active in the RadTech Food Pack initiative and have additional programs in-house to develop and supply material designed for this application,” said Mr. Bayer. “From a regulatory standpoint, we have a number of programs underway that will provide materials to the industry that meet the new stringent regulations that are being proposed. It is our intention to make these materials available globally.”
Manufacturers of UV and EB cure inks have been focusing their R&D efforts on developing higher performance products for a number of applications.
“We continue to develop new, higher performance products with improved pigment wetting for litho, flexo and ink jet applications,” said Mr. Braddock. “Also, adhesion continues to be a major area of development for us in the graphic arts arena.”
Sartomer is currently developing oligomers for numerous UV ink systems that exhibit several key performance benefits over traditional UV oligomers. “We’re also working on novel vehicles for UV liquid inks,” Mr. Goodrich added.
“After the improvements to our UV line, we are looking into UV flexo,” Mr. Grabacki said.
Surface Specialties UCB is focusing its attention on developing products for laminating and adhesives, as well as a number of new ViaFlex materials for red and yellow inks and ViaScreen products for thermoformables and inmold decoration.
“In the energy curable ink area, we are working to expand the palette of color available for the application,” said Mr. Carruthers.
“Clariant continues to test our new pigments for suitability in both flexo and offset systems,” said Mr. Jones. “In addition, we are introducing our additive and wax line and Savinyl dyes for UV systems.”
“We have a large active program to identify new photoinitiators which have no/low odor, together with low migration,” said Mr. Bridge. “We also want to find effective in-can stabilizers for inks which have reduced safety issues.”
Mr. Bridge said that Ciba has also developed a new class of UV absorbers that can be successfully used in UV curing overprint varnishes to allow longer life of the printed film before degradation. “The first of these will be formally launched shortly, as Ciba Tinuvin 460,” he said.