The energy curable inks and coatings market has been one of the brightest spots for ink manufacturers, as it continues to grow at a strong pace. Driven by the technological advantages of UV and EB – faster speeds and excellent performance characteristics – as well as the environmental advantages of eliminating solvents, energy curing continues to be a success story.
“We have seen strong growth in energy curable inks and coatings,” said Rodney Balmer, director of
Zeller+Gmelin’s new shrink sleeve product line.
“We have seen steady growth in UV litho and UV flexo,” said Dr. Don Duncan, director of research, Wikoff Color. “EB litho is a growing area too. Other signs of growth are that the GATF courses on UV litho for printers have had very good attendance over the last couple of years, and that the graphic arts meetings at RadTech are the best attended and have the most energetic discussions. UV also is an active topic in meetings of groups designing test methods, like ASTM. There are new presses on the market from Drent Goebel that seem to be further energizing interest in UV and EB.”
“UV-cured printing continues to show excellent growth in the graphic arts industry across all applications,” said Steven Lazure, vice president of operations for Zeller+Gmelin. “Zeller+Gmelin exhibits significant growth in flexography, especially the narrow web tag and label and specialty markets. We also have experienced moderate growth in the lithography and dry offset packaging segments.”
According to Gilles Faure, director of marketing – PPL division, and Manuel Rivas, director of technology NAFTA – PPL division at Siegwerk Ink Packaging, the UV ink market has shown growth throughout many regions worldwide and in many packaging segments, even showing growth in areas where the overall printing market is declining.
Mr. Balmer noted that web offset has been a particularly strong growth area, and he and Mr. Duncan pointed to the increasing interests in hybrid UV technology.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest in web offset UV and EB for packaging,” Mr. Balmer said. “Printers are finding that offset’s make-ready times are significantly lower than that of gravure. The high speed of web printing and the fast finish of UV inks are increasing productivity and flexibility, especially on short to mid-length runs. With the new hybrid press configurations, they can incorporate flexo or gravure capabilities which give them even more options and versatility.”
“Much of the UV litho growth has been due to UV hybrids and the desire of printers to run both UV litho and oil-based litho on the same press,” Dr. Duncan said. “This can be done with hybrids.”
Dr. Duncan also noted the growth of UV inkjet as well as EB.
“UV inkjet directly on containers as replacements for labels is an area of some activity and great interest,” Dr. Duncan added. “EB coatings on flexible packaging to replace lamination is a good process for some products.”
Mr. Faure and Mr. Rivas noted that the three largest and most attractive markets for UV inks remain adhesive labels, screen for decoration and offset for packaging. The use of UV varnishes for both inline and offline printing remain appealing options.
Mr. Lazure has seen some excellent opportunities in the flexo market.
“The flexography market clearly has seen the most opportunity with radiation curable applications,” Mr. Lazure said. “Significant improvements continue to be made to ink formulations to meet the expectations of our customers and market requirements. The flexography printers today are required to deliver higher quality products, which necessitates ink formulations that until recently were unachievable.”
Pat Carlisle, president of Joules Angstrom U.V. Printing Inks, noted that food packaging is an excellent area of growth. He added that having a good product in a growing market is great, but service still remains an important consideration.
“The market is strong,” Mr. Carlisle said. “Customers just wanted to be taken care of, regardless of what the product is, and as long as you stick to that you will be successful.”
Drivers for UV
And EB Technology
There are many new applications where energy curing may find new opportunities, including “anything where speed and productivity are important, and that’s just about everything,” as Mr. Balmer noted.
“In the past, curing speed has limited the speed at which presses could run,” he added. “That is no longer. New UV inks now cure fast enough to perform at speeds in excess of 1400 fpm, which is the current maximum for forms presses. This means press manufacturers can raise the bar on press speeds and we should be able to produce inks to keep up.”
“Most printers are requiring product formulations with enhanced rheological and color properties which will allow them to print a wide latitude of jobs, including high speed work to graphically correct commercial grades,” Mr. Lazure said. “As press speeds continue to increase, we as ink manufacturers are challenged to satisfy the need for high speed ink transfer and cure rates while maintaining high quality print characteristics.”
Mr. Faure and Mr. Rivas added that trends toward shorter runs, combination printing and just-in-time inventories and manufacturing are factors driving the demand for energy curable products.
What properties are printers most looking for from UV? Dr. Duncan pointed to great adhesion, fast cure, excellent chemical/moisture resistance and high quality printing, while Mr. Balmer noted the fast turnaround on a wider range of substrates, including non-porous.
“High gloss and low taint and odor properties are also important considerations. The fast cure provides opportunities to expand in-line finishing, which further speeds the process,” Mr. Balmer added.
Mr. Faure and Mr. Rivas said that besides the initial environmental advantages, the three major benefits that printers and end-users are experiencing with UV technology are instant drying for immediate post treatment, high gloss and chemical resistances for high quality packaging, and versatility.
Around the World
Energy curing growth has been international. Mr. Faure and Mr. Rivas said that developing countries are jumping on this technology, which shows that energy curable technology has gained maturity and has become an excellent alternative from a cost standpoint.
“Energy curing technology continues to make gains in the graphic arts industry as well as many other industrial applications throughout the world,” Mr. Lazure said. “In the past year, because of the high demand for our ink products and technology, we have expanded our company network to include new facilities in France, China and Canada.”
“Energy curing has been widely used in Europe for a long time, particularly in the UK,” Mr. Balmer noted. “Use is likely to increase as environmental issues take on more importance throughout the world.”
Mr. Balmer pointed to the use of UV coldset in Latin America as an example of UV offering unique competitive advantages for printers.
“It’s been interesting to see that our UV products for coldset printing are gaining wide acceptance in Latin America, where there may be a regional paper that is printed two or three times a week,” Mr. Balmer said. “In the past, the remainder of the time was down time for the press, but with Arrowlith UV inks, the printers can take on work that previously could not be printed on a press of this type (coated papers) and thus compete with heatset and keep their presses operating.”
To meet the needs of the marketplace, there are a variety of new technologies available. For example, Siegwerk’s Sicura ink system covers all major applications, with customizable product series, available under the same name, quality and with the same support all over the world.
Zeller+Gmelin has also been active on the R&D front.
“In 2006 Zeller+Gmelin Corporation has introduced new product lines in
several markets,” Mr. Lazure said. “Our new Turbo series lithography ink allows printers to experience a higher level of ink performance that previously was not attainable. We have also introduced several new series of flexography products for specific market segments. What distinguishes these products is largely related to color density and press performance traits. They also exhibit enhanced cure speeds and excellent adhesion to difficult substrates.”
Raw Material Pricing
Energy curable inks tend to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, and they have faced higher prices for raw materials. Mr. Faure and Mr. Rivas said that raw materials used to formulate inks and varnishes have been impacted by the increase of oil prices. Likewise all side costs that are part of the final price of an ink like transportation, steel and regulation are causing increases in prices regardless of the technology.
“During the past several years the suppliers of energy curable resins had raised prices on their products worldwide,” Mr. Lazure noted. “During 2006 we experienced stability in our raw material costs and have even seen the prices decline in some areas. Because of the current environment relative to the price of these products, we have been able to utilize higher performance raw materials without passing the increase on to our customers.”
Even as higher raw material and operational costs impact the price of UV and EB inks and coatings, demand ultimately has not slackened due to their value to the printing process.
“Printers seem to be willing to pay for the energy curable inks because they see the gains from improved productivity,” Mr. Balmer said.
“Certainly it is more complicated for some chemical companies to make energy curable monomers and oligomers than it is to make rosin resins, water-based acrylic polymers or solvent-based polyamides,” Dr. Duncan said. “But energy curable inks are not penetrating commodity printing applications like newspapers and other publication processes for reasons beyond just cost; for example, press speed can be a limitation. The current generation of energy curable inks will not run and cure at 2000-3000 feet per minute. However, where there is a performance-based need, like adhesion, sharp printing, rub/scuff resistance or chemical/moisture resistance, energy curable inks are the low-cost option.”