The global market for energy-curable inks and coatings in the graphic arts remained relatively strong during the recession, and has continued to move forward during 2011. This growth has been driven by a wide range of factors, including the interest in instant curing and improved performance characteristics, as well as environmental benefits.
Ultraviolet (UV) and electron beam (EB) curing are particularly strong on the packaging ink and digital ink segments, with UV flexo and UV inkjet inks remaining good markets.
Anthony Renzi, director, product management of liquid inks, North American Inks, Sun Chemical, noted that the packaging market was the best area for growth for UV inks.
“We saw some slight growth in the UV/EB market in 2011 compared to 2010,” said Mr. Renzi. “UV inks for commercial sheetfed was up marginally, with most growth coming from the packaging market, especially UV flexo, narrow web, tag and label and folding carton.”
Jonathan Graunke, vice president – energy curable technologies for INX International Ink Co., also reported that the packaging market continues to be a stronghold worldwide for UV.
“INX experienced excellent growth in 2010 and the energy curable market for inks and coatings remains strong, especially in the packaging segment,” said Mr. Graunke. “International sales growth is also steady, with solid results continuing in the UV flexo market.”
“The first half of the year started off promising, but the second half has been flat,” said Pat Carlisle, president of Joules Angstrom U.V. Printing Inks. “UV is a good solid market, but everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen with the economy.”
John Copeland, president and COO of Toyo Ink America, LLC, said that printers are showing more interest in the benefits of the technology. “We’ve seen continued growth in high-performance energy-curing inks and coatings,” said Mr. Copeland. “It has emerged to the forefront of printing technology as printers become more aware of the advantages of this technology, such as increased production speed, lower cost and waste, and enhanced visual appeal.”
George Sickinger, president and CEO, Color Resolutions International, said that UV ink and coatings sales have been increasing for the past five years, and 2011 is right on track for more gains.
“Our UV ink and coating business has been growing for each of the last five years and 2011 has been no exception,” said Mr. Sickinger. “UV flexo is a major market for us and we see continued growth.”
Daryl Collins, vice president of sales and regional operations for Wikoff Color, said new press sales bode well for the energy curing market. “Wikoff has experienced growth in UV and EB inks and coatings in spite of the economy, and we are excited to see some activity in press sales for UV and EB after a long dead zone, since new press installations are the first step toward real growth,” said Mr. Collins.
Peter Baird, marketing manager, Print Media Europe at Flint Group, reported that energy curing ink and coatings sales are also gaining in Europe. “The UV curing market is slowly growing in Europe, where we have seen slight gains in commercial sheetfed, packaging and label applications,” said Mr. Baird. “We have also witnessed stability in coating volumes across Europe in 2011 when compared to 2010.”
Peter Hilpert, BU head sheetfed/UV, labels for Siegwerk, added that UV inks are enjoying growth worldwide. “The UV market is still growing,” Mr. Hilpert said. “The main growth regions are still China, followed by Russia and India.”
Growth Areas for Energy Curing
Ink industry leaders noted that packaging continues to be the best area for UV and EB. Mr. Renzi noted that Sun Chemical is seeing the most growth in the UV flexo printing segment, and added that the packaging market segment, in general, showed growth. Mr. Collins reported that labels and folding cartons have had the most activity.
“Packaging continues to be the strongest performer,” Mr. Graunke said. “You name it, from folding cartons to food packaging and plastic labels, it is doing extremely well and exceeding all expectations.”
The CSAT label printer with Phoseon UV LED curing products.
“We mainly supply the sheetfed offset and narrow web market,” Mr. Hilpert noted. “In Asia, we see increasing demand. In Europe there is a strong move towards low migration. Especially for food packaging, we offer a lot of expertise and guidance for our customers in this respect.”
“The majority of the growth has been in UV sheetfed and UV flexo products,” Mr. Copeland said. “Driving this growth is the increasing demand for product differentiation in today’s highly competitive market. Due to the strong visual impact of these inks and coatings, they are growing in use in commercial print and package markets.”
Mr. Sickinger said that shrink sleeves are proving to be a good opportunity for UV inks.
“More and more narrow web printers are dedicating presses to UV inks and coatings, and the high-end corrugated and folding carton printers are using increasingly more UV coatings,” Mr. Sickinger said. “A particular growth area for both UV and water-based inks has been in the production of shrink sleeves, and our UV ShrinkCure system has been a definite growth area.”
Tyler Newsom, technical product manager, Print Media North America at Flint Group, also noted that business forms and newspapers have become areas of interest for UV.
“We’ve seen energy curable usage grow in many areas you’d expect – commercial printers wanting to speed processing times, newspaper printers who see UV inks as a way to compete in new markets, and printers who require certain functionality – or example, printing on plastic substrates,” said Mr. Newsom. “Traditional business forms printers continue to transition to UV technology to compete in direct mail markets to replace lost revenue from the declining business forms market.”
The EB market has also grown in recent years, notably in food packaging, according to Rick Sanders, sales and marketing manager for Energy Sciences.
“Converters are seeking ways to provide improved product while reducing cost,” said Mr. Sanders. “EB helps them achieve that goal by using EB-cured overprint varnishes to replace laminations in some packaging applications. EB offers high gloss coatings that mimic a layer of film to replace laminations and reduce cost.
“The food flexible packaging market has been consistently strong,” Mr. Sanders added. “With the continued desire around the world to improve air quality and reduce carbon footprint, EB helps meet that challenge very effectively.”
UV LED technology has made significant inroads into the digital printing market, where it has as much as one-third of the energy-curable market, and as new ink formulations are developed and the efficiency of diodes continues to improve, the technology is moving into new segments.
“It is no longer a question of if LEDs will take over,” said Chad Taggard, director of marketing for Phoseon. “LED is becoming a mainstream technology. At drupa 2012, I’d expect well over 30 different exhibitors will have our technology on their presses. Now it is a matter of when LEDs will take over.”
Mr. Taggard said that the benefits of LED curing can be broken down into three main areas.
“We simplify the advantages of UV LED into three categories: economic, advanced capabilities and environmental,” Mr. Taggard said. “This includes being able to print on heat-sensitive substrates at speeds up to 150 meters/minute, to do deep curing focused on a single wavelength and to use smaller machines without having to vent or have an ozone elimination system. You can also control the curing intensity, sort of like having a dimmer switch. LED systems are also less expensive to run, due to the fact that there is no need for warm-up/cool-down time.”
Peter Saunders, sales and marketing manager, SunJet, noted that the digital printing field was the first to embrace LED technology.
“LED curing technology has been successfully deployed in two areas of digital printing,” said Mr. Saunders. “The first is in wide format printing, where a few companies have launched printer products. The second is in narrow web single pass printing, where the size and power of the currently available LED lamps make them useful in control of drop spread between color stations.
“In wide format printing, the lower weight of LED lamps is of interest, as this reduces the carriage weight that needs to be moved or shuttled over the media helping with drop placement accuracy and other motion related considerations,” Mr. Saunders added. “In single pass full cure applications, LED lamps are of interest in printing heat sensitive films as the light sources do not emit heat energy thus broadening the range of media which can be handled. We see the use of LED curing technology growing as output continues to become more powerful.”
Mr. Taggard believes that screen is the next area for UV LED to make its mark, followed by flexo.
“The next big market is screen, and the slowest moving market is flexo,” Mr. Taggard said. “In the label market, I counted 10 of the largest label press manufacturers featuring UV LED on their machines. We have now come up with the higher power that flexo printers require, as our LED units need to support the higher operation speeds of flexographic machines.”
“There’s a lot of interest in LED,” said Dr. Don Duncan, director of R&D at Wikoff Color. “LED curing technology is well established in UV inkjet printing, and is still being actively studied for UV litho and UV flexo printing.
“There are very few commercial implementations of LED curing for litho and flexo, and current ink consumption for these areas is very small,” Dr. Duncan continued. “The primary issue seems to be that the fairly long curing wavelength of UV LED units, together with their relatively low power output and the diffuse, unfocused nature of the emitted LED energy, will only allow curing at fairly low printing speeds. This is fine for inkjet, but litho and flexo presses usually run many times faster. This will continue to be a niche application until LED curing units that allow faster press speeds are developed.”
Partnerships have been critical to the UV LED field, as ink and equipment manufacturers work together with raw material suppliers to develop their optimum formulations.
“We are tracking 15 to 20 ink companies that have developed UV LED inks,” Mr. Taggard noted.
“Without high-quality inks, we are dead in the water. We have close relationships with ink companies, performing co-development with them. Some have developed a specific ink for UV LED, while others have created a single UV ink that works on both LED as well as arc lamps. The whole supply chain is up and running.”
“We continue to work with the LED lamp suppliers as their technology evolves to overcome some of the inherent challenges, mainly maintaining sufficient energy over distance to start the photo polymerization reaction in the UV material,” Mr. Graunke said. “We are comfortable with our ink chemistry, and continue to look for new materials to improve further.”
Mr. Sickinger said that CRI is seeing some gains slowly being made in the field of LED curing.
“The rapid start, lower power demand and lower heat output are driving the growth of LED installations,” Mr. Sickinger noted. “However, the narrow band emission profiles require formulation adjustments and more research is needed to optimize photoinitiators for this technology.”
“We still believe that LED is one of the future technologies,” Mr. Hilpert said. “On the customers’ side, the awareness regarding sustainability has increased significantly. This includes renewable raw materials and our vegetable-based inks, CO2 emissions, our Low Migration solutions and also energy saving drying technologies. In the next 10 years, our customers will have an increased demand in less energy consuming technologies. LED may be one of the solutions. Therefore we still work on improving the performance of our LED ink system together with UV lamp suppliers and their newest technologies.”
Key Advantages of Energy Curing
For printers, the use of energy-curable inks and coatings offers numerous benefits. First, there are the financial advantages of energy curing, including the ability to instantly cure products and ability to provide higher coverage per pound.
“More and more of our customers are increasingly turning to UV solutions, and the main reason is because UV inks help cost savings even further,” Mr. Renzi said. “The inks are easy to use, dry instantly when cured, and provide significant throughput savings, which are derived from a higher coverage per pound, thus reducing ink usage, requiring fewer stops and wash ups, and increasing productivity. UV inks may typically cost more than solvent-based inks, but they can ultimately save customers by as much as 30 percent depending on the market and printers they use.”
“Instant curing without migration problems, high gloss and production speed up to 18,000 copies/hour are relevant arguments,” Mr. Hilpert said. “On top of that, you don’t need to invest in recovering systems, you can print paper and film with the same system and the prepress is quite simple.”
The environmental benefits are also noteworthy, as UV and EB cured inks and coatings require much less energy to cure their products than solvent- or water-based inks and coatings, and also have virtually no volatile organic compounds (VOC).
“UV inks also give our customers another way to be eco-efficient, and deliver economically competitive goods and services that satisfy their customers’ needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing their ecological impact and resource intensity throughout the life-cycle,” Mr. Renzi said. “The UV inks allow customers to conserve energy in their printing process and use products that are manufactured with little to no volatile organic compounds (VOCs).”
“The hottest topic driving UV/EB printing now is low migration for food packaging,” said Dr. Duncan.
“Both technologies can give very low migration numbers. The best results from EB are better than the best results from UV. The other issues at play are the same as in years past: substrate adhesion, reduced waste, reduced print cost, low air emissions and improved print quality.
“UV/EB printing is often the green/sustainable solution due to the very low VOC content, the low energy to dry/cure, the reduced waste, the 100% solids nature of the inks and the fast print-to-ship times,” Dr. Duncan added. “This environmentally friendly feature of UV/EB technology is gradually becoming better understood and thus becoming a larger factor in printing technology selection.”
UV and EB can also help create special effects that differentiate printed products.
“Energy curable technology processes the printed material immediately,” Mr. Copeland said. “The faster the material dries, the quicker it ships out to the customer. Another advantage of UV is its capability to create textured, special effects and finishes, all of which can greatly enhance the graphic impact of print. Be it a dull, matte, satin, soft touch or high-gloss finish, energy-curing coatings offer strong visual appeal and tremendous flexibility in applications. EB-cured coatings also provide high-gloss and no to low odor emissions, which are desirable properties to food packaging producers.”
New Energy Curable Ink Technologies
As UV and EB inks continue to find new applications, ink manufacturers are being asked to develop new inks for these products. One area of particular interest is food packaging.
“We continue to develop improved inks and coatings with low odor and low migration characteristics for food packaging,” Mr. Sickinger said.
“Besides the trend to low migration, we expect a much higher interest in sustainable ink systems,” Mr. Hilpert said. “This is also one of the reasons why for the first time we have shown our new series SICURA ECO at the Labelexpo in Brussels. It is a UV flexo ink system based on more then 50% renewable resources. This system performed under normal production speed without any problems.”
Flint Group launched new products for the news ink and sheetfed ink markets.
“We continue to forge new newspaper advertising opportunities on coated stocks with Flint Group’s Arrowlith UV inks,” said Norm Harbin, business director, news ink, Print Media North America for Flint Group. “Once available in only small containers, the inks can now be delivered from 379 gallon totes – a significant convenience for newspaper printers who require higher volumes.”
“Our scientists have been busy this year, bringing a variety of innovations to market,” said Doug Labertew, vice president, sheetfed, Flint Group Print Media North America. “In one example, we enhanced the value we bring to sheetfed customers by pairing energy curable inks with optimal pressroom chemistry—all manufactured by Flint Group. Our recently launched fountain solution, Varn Supreme 8168, is a good example of that, as it was formulated to be synergistic with Arrowstar UV inks.”
Sun Chemical also launched products for the offset field. SunCure Starluxe, the high performance UV offset product line sold in the European market for several years, is now available in North America. This ink system offers reliable and robust press performance on a range of papers, plastics and metalized substrates at print quality that meets the requirements of the most demanding brand managers and brand owners.
SunBeam Accel is an EB curing ink system formulated to run on web offset presses. Designed for food packaging applications, this system exhibits low odor characteristics and good migration testing results when properly cured.
SunCure Carton inks are formulated to run on high-speed web offset and sheetfed presses. These inks were designed for good adhesion to a variety of paper and board substrates - making them accommodating to ever changing job requirements.
For commercial and package print applications, Toyo Ink introduced a new line of multi-function UV coatings with high-performance and low-VOC properties this past year. UV PowerFlex Liqui Foil is a flexographic, UV-curable, high-sheen silver coating that is used to simulate foil applications on paper and film substrates. Liqui Foil prints much cleaner with more gloss than is obtainable with standard silver inks.
UV Eco Soy process series of offset inks are formulated for excellent printability and high mileage on a variety of paper substrates. They are perfect for high-speed printing settings because they cure rapidly, allowing for fast turnaround.
Raw Material Pricing and Supply
Volatility of cost and availability of key raw materials has been a huge challenge for ink manufacturers. Feedstocks that are important building blocks for inks have been impacted by shortages and the development of alternate markets.
For example, acrylic acid is a major component for energy curable inks and coatings, and it has seen pricing and supply pressures. Propylene is the key feedstock for acrylic acid, and propylene prices have risen dramatically. Add to that the importance of acrylic acid to superabsorbent diapers, a major growth market worldwide, and one can see the difficulty that ink companies are having.
Acrylic acid is only one area; pigments (carbon black and titanium dioxide), resins and additives are all fluctuating in pricing.
“In the first half of 2011, we saw a continuation of many of the same raw materials supply issues and shortages that featured so prominently in 2010,” Mr. Renzi said. “Among the many products under varying degrees of pressure during that time included rosin resins, carbon black, some specialty pigments, energy cure resins, acrylic resins, titanium dioxide, and some additive resins. While we expect to see improvement in the availability of resins and solvents, we still expect to see continuing pressure on carbon black, titanium dioxide, nitrocellulose, vegetable oils and certain pigments.
“The reason for the sustained supply and pricing concerns culminates from a number of factors, including feedstock issues, higher demands and tautness in supply resulting from cost and working capital actions, and has led to elevated fixed costs on raw material goods and an increase in the price of energy curable inks and coatings,” Mr. Renzi added.
“The shortage of materials that has led to substantial price increases cannot be absorbed,” Mr. Graunke said.
“We had a tough raw materials price increase combined with limited availability,” Mr. Hilpert said. “Our R&D teams had to focus on alternatives. Today we see fewer problems in getting the materials, and also price-wise, we see some less pressure at some materials.”
Higher prices have impacted some printers, who occasionally switch away from UV and EB due to higher prices.
“Supply and pricing continue to be critical issues,” Mr. Copeland said. “Shortages for raw materials, whether they are legitimate or not, have curbed production of energy-curing products, putting further pressure on pricing. As UV products tend to be higher, cost-wise, than conventional sheetfed, it’s gotten to a point where printers are reverting back to using conventional inks for some print jobs.”
“Some of the more specialty components of UV formulations have been in short supply and lead times can be longer than our customers will accept,” Mr. Sickinger said. “Price is a continuing issue in this economic climate.”
Mr. Carlisle noted that it is impossible to ask printers, who are facing their own pricing pressures, to take on all of the higher costs. “We can’t pass on all of the price increases to our customers,” Mr. Carlisle said.
“We do not think the raw material cost increases have favored one technology over the other,” Mr. Collins noted. “If anything, lately the conventional offset and flexo ink materials have outpaced energy cure in raw material price increases. The benefits of energy cure inks and coatings for fast, complete cure and resistance properties are still compelling.”