UV Printing — Horse of a Different Color
THINK OF a sheetfed offset UV press as a chemistry set for grownups, complete with an ever-shifting set of variables and a hands-on learning curve. The upside of that curve is the license to print an endless range of special effects impossible to achieve with conventional inks and coatings.
And the downside? There isn't one, according to a growing number of practitioners that may have assayed the market with a vague notion of value-added, then stayed once it became apparent what a mastery of UV techniques could mean to their competitive position and their bottom line.
UV printing is not for the faint of heart, and competence comes at a price measured not only in dollars, but also in the discipline needed to stick with a process that sometimes seems to have more in common with snake wrangling than with conventional printing. Even the most experienced and committed practitioners admit to hitting a few speed bumps along the way.
Chief among many compensating advantages, however, is the fact that UV capability is a key differentiator in the overcrowded 40? sheetfed market because it enables printers to win jobs that the competition can't. And that's priceless.
(Note: For purposes of this article, UV printing and coating is used to denote in-line UV printing and coating.)
In UV printing, specially formulated inks are exposed to ultra- violet radiation, which causes them to harden instantly on top of the substrate. The result produces high levels of gloss or dull coating, vivid color and vibrant detail with superior rub resistance and no post-cure dryback--even on soft, uncoated sheets--making UV the technique of choice for applications like luxury cosmetics and chic wine labels.
Assuming they have the right viscosity and density, and will perform well with very little water in the fountain solution, UV inks cure quickly, meaning that products can be finished more rapidly, enabling higher throughput and fast turnaround, even on two-sided jobs. In-line UV printing is notable for the superior results it can achieve on difficult substrates, from uncoated paper and board to foil and especially plastic, including synthetic papers, static cling vinyl and lenticular. The ability to "lay down" layers of opaque white or metallic, and then print over it in a single pass, merely hints at the versatility of the UV process.
Is it expensive? Yes. A UV press costs substantially more than a conventional press. Inks can be twice as expensive. Ditto working with different coatings and chemistry. UV blankets cost about the same as conventional, although they tend to wear out fast under heavy usage. Plastic substrates are more expensive, often $2 or more per sheet. However, practitioners insist the extra cost is worth it in customer satisfaction, repeat business and margins that tend to be higher than with conventional, largely because having UV capability simply excludes a lot of the competition.
Within the constraints of time and budget, in-line UV capability can serve as a launch pad for flights of creative fancy, enabling printers to execute what designers previously could only imagine: unique or complex layered effects that take advantage of gloss, matte, gloss-dull, metallic, pearlescent, textured, micro-encapsulated coatings and more--all of which add value to print jobs without going outside or off-line.
Because good results depend on communication among the designer and printer, as well as press and consumables vendors, UV projects also tend to be collaborative, enabling the printer to advise his customer as specifications for the job are being developed. Involving the printer early is essential to keep expectations realistic and reduce the need for costly rework.
World of Hybrids
For printers that need the flexibility to run both UV and conventional on the same press, the hybrid approach may be the answer since, as noted before, the different blankets, rollers, inks and coatings used in dedicated UV printing tend to be more expensive than conventional. Hybrid technology enables a printer to switch between conventional and UV, often (but not always) utilizing the same blankets and less aggressive hybrid inks formulated to cure like UV inks. It is also said to be easier to maintain ink-water balance with hybrid inks than with the full UV variety.
Depending on how much UV a company runs, a hybrid press also may require switching blankets when alternating between conventional and UV inks, or conditioning the ink rollers to accept UV--steps that can lengthen the typical makeready by an hour or more. New consumables, such as Bottcher Chameleon dual-purpose blankets and rollers, reportedly can be used with both UV and conventional inks. Hybrid technology can also be used for plastic, but a full UV press can probably print on a wider range of substrates.
Color Ink, Sussex, WI, began printing UV when it installed the first of two UV-equipped presses, a six-color KBA Rapida with in-line UV and aqueous coating--on September 12, 2001, the day after the World Trade Center collapsed and just prior to the downturn that propelled the U.S. economy into recession. That press, says company President Tom Murel, "gave us the ability to keep our heads above water and expand our throughput with UV-printed products."
The second press, a six-color Komori LS40 with in-line UV and aqueous coating, was installed in May. "Having this capability gives us national recognition," notes Murel. "It's not just another 40? press."
In the beginning, Color Ink positioned itself to take advantage of an emerging market and began moving toward higher-end products using plastics, including packaging and signage. At the time, he says, "We had customers that wanted to do plastic on a conventional press, but that way is fraught with problems. There's no competition between printing on plastic with UV and printing plastic on a conventional press. UV is the superior technology, hands down."
Murel admits the transition to UV was expensive and the learning curve steep. "But the presses were a benefit to our business as soon as we switched them on." He also draws a distinction between full UV and hybrid UV, the latter of which is Color Ink's choice.
"When someone looks at UV, they have to decide which way to go," he says. "We use a hybrid press, and we stay with the same set of hybrid inks. Putting a UV coater on a conventional press isn't UV printing.
"We chose hybrid over full UV for reasons of cost and quality. In our view, a full UV system meant more expensive ink rollers, blankets, etc. On the quality side, we felt that full UV presses don't produce as sharp a dot as hybrid and conventional. With a hybrid press, we maintain the level of quality our customers expect, while offering them more design and stock choices." That said, Murel adds, "We have full interstation UV when we need it."
UV printing represents 35 percent to 40 percent of Color Ink's $34 million in annual sales--a steadily growing percentage, according to Murel. The company prints software boxes, uncoated direct mail, styrene signage and synthetic papers for advertising agencies, retailers, software developers and healthcare entities. Among the options Color Ink already offers its customers is laying down a thicker layer of UV coating with a special plate that gives the coating a textured look.
"Designers like this option because they can create a pattern for the coating, and the pattern is not registered to any particular image on the printed sheet," says Murel. "It gives them another layer of creativity they didn't have before."
Although a UV press typically costs substantially more than a conventional one, it's less expensive to operate a UV press than it used to be, he contends, thanks to UV's instant curing properties and a high level of automation that keeps makereadies to a minimum. One thing that can't be rushed is operator training. "Your press operators have to be very skilled at handling substrates and UV inks. We were fortunate in that we asked for volunteers, and a couple of our pressmen stepped up to the plate."
Today, with a portfolio of successful high-quality jobs to brag about--as well as some less successful experiments to learn from--Color Ink looks forward to new opportunities to advance its UV expertise.
Results Are Worth It
Cedar Graphics, Hiawatha, IA, is a general commercial printer with a growing specialty in UV. The company had no prior UV experience when it installed a six-color KBA Rapida 105 press with UV coater and full interdeck UV 18 months ago. What the company did have top of mind was differentiation.
"It's not that our customers weren't expressing interest, but our decision to go with a UV press was based on our perception of an emerging market and growth on the UV side in light of an intensely competitive commercial market," explains Pressroom Manager Scott Burnett. Although the company's bread-and-butter is commercial sheetfed and "digital on-demand" printing, UV jobs account for a growing proportion of its annual sales.
In the 18 months it has been printing in-line UV, the company has added gift and phone cards, repositionable vinyl wall graphics, high-gloss book covers and posters to the menu of the services it offers advertising, design and corporate clients. "We're starting to do some spot UV and special effects, like reticulating dull varnish under gloss and textures for contrast, without having to go to special plates or CAD machines for cutting," Burnett says. "It's a major step for us--a totally different way of printing."
Cedar Graphics uses hybrid ink for UV printing on regular paper and full UV for everything synthetic, and has run UV jobs on everything from paper to vinyl, polystyrene, foil and clear plastic, up to 24 pt. Changing from hybrid to UV is not a big deal, he affirms, but switching from conventional to hybrid or UV is more complicated. "You have to put in the lamps, switch blankets and condition the rollers for UV ink. We can get it done in an hour-and-a-half, tops."
Cedar Graphics relied primarily on its ink, roller and blanket vendors, as well as its KBA press demonstrators, to help its staff learn about UV printing. "You can spend the money up front for a consultant and get there quicker, but we really learned through our Six Sigma initiative, trial-and-error and from our vendors," Burnett says.
"There's a learning curve associated with different ink-water balance, roller prep and lamp placement. But the results are worth the extra time. We were able to get it done with great help from our vendors, and by keeping spec sheets and good notes," a habit now ingrained at Cedar Graphics. "We keep samples of everything. We do a spec sheet on every job, including how many lamps we use and where they are placed." A bonus of this attention to detail is that Cedar Graphics is often able to correct faulty job specifications before a customer incurs the time and expense of rework.
Waukegan, IL-based Lake County Press added an eight-color Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102 UV in 2005 to develop a differentiated product offering for the company's high-end packaging business. The press runs in standard mode using conventional inks and aqueous coating, or UV mode using full UV inks and UV coating. It also features an 11-foot extended Heidelberg Dry-Star infrared/UV dryer unit.
"Designers and ad agencies like the look and feel of uncoated papers, which perform well when subjected to UV processes," notes Peter Douglas, senior vice president of marketing. "We learned that we could solidify our relationships with our customers by showing them samples of what we could do with UV technology."
The company's "show me" strategy seems to be working: UV jobs accounted for roughly 10 percent of Lake County's sales over the past 12 months, a figure that is growing by leaps and bounds, according to Douglas. The company is so pleased with its progress that it will install a Speedmaster XL 105 UV--its second XL press--in early 2008.
For the time being, Lake County flexes its UV muscle on high-end design pieces and packaging projects (cosmetics, liquor, POP, etc.) that combine vibrant color and superior ink holdout on substrates from uncoated paper to SPF board to plastics.
Lake County's original intention was to run UV and conventional interchangeably on the CD 102, but the company quickly found it was doing so much UV to meet growing demand that it wound up dedicating the CD 102 exclusively to UV projects. Douglas acknowledges that the learning process was a long one, "but once we got going, the experience was very positive. Our people really have the aptitude to print UV. We expect our UV work to triple in volume once the new XL 105 UV is installed next year."
Marrs Printing, City of Industry, CA, latched onto UV printing eight years ago, just as its packaging and folding carton business began to grow. That business now represents between 60 percent and 70 percent of its overall job mix, and a significant portion involves high-end UV and foil embossing for clients in the cosmetics and healthcare industries. Until it acquired a six-color MAN Roland 700 2/4 perfector with full interstation UV earlier this year, however, the company had been jobbing out its UV work.
"Demand had grown to where we no longer were comfortable outsourcing our UV work," says company President Walt Marrs. "Bringing it in-house enables us to maintain better control over our scheduling and the quality of the work." Marrs prints short-to-medium run lengths on substrates from conventional paper to foil to 30-pt. board or plastic, PVC, polypropylene and APET. While the company utilizes mixed-mode, conventional/UV blankets for all of its work, it uses no hybrid inks whatsoever. Marrs also tries to schedule its UV work back-to-back to minimize the loss of time, due to more frequent changeovers.
As for the UV learning curve, it's ongoing, reports Marrs. "We have to recalibrate our plate- setter to accommodate the different curves for UV, and cut plate curves back to allow for UV dot gain. On-press, we use a different fountain solution, different washup solution, different blankets. Blankets often can be reused, but the ink-water balance is critical; you don't have much latitude."
Look Before You Leap
Can any Tom, Dick or Harriet set up a UV press and begin printing money? Not quite. In fact, while the printers with whom we spoke were united in their enthusiasm for the UV process, they also mentioned a variety of special considerations involved in the decision to "go UV." Forewarned is forearmed:
o PREPRESS. Good communication between the prepress department and the pressroom is essential. Not only must screening curves be adjusted to account for the additional dot gain that occurs with UV inks, but jobs also must be proofed on the actual substrates on which they will be printed.
o ON-PRESS. UV presses typically operate within much tighter tolerances with respect to ink-water balance and exposure to UV radiation. Press blankets can become embossed, shortening their useful lives. Roller settings must be precise. Heat that is a byproduct of exposing substrates to ultraviolet energy is a continual source of concern. Too-high temperatures will produce distortion in paper and plastic that can cause a job to go off-register.
To avoid these problems, practitioners suggest acquiring a press that is capable of putting all of the colors down at once. And that's not all. Undercure a job, and it won't dry properly. Overcure it, and the substrate becomes brittle. Some plastic substrates can become discolored when exposed to excessive heat. If the surface tension of a plastic substrate is lower than the surface tension of the ink, the ink won't stick.
o POSTPRESS. To ensure postpress equipment can handle the substrates, printers should work with their ink suppliers to make sure UV coatings are soft and flexible.
o PHYSICAL PLANT. Because UV lamps pull lots of electricity, it's important for printers to make sure they can supply enough power to run them, and that their budget can sustain the corresponding bump. It may be necessary to purchase a dedicated power source. It also doesn't hurt to make sure existing floor pads can bear the added weight of these long, heavy presses, which also should be raised to handle thicker substrates.
UV inks produce no VOCs, which is good for the environment; UV lamps, on the other hand, generate tremendous heat and require extra ventilation to the outside. And, because most UV presses require lamps to be placed at the delivery end of the press, as well as between the printing units, longitudinal space requirements may require knocking down a wall or two.
On balance, however--and balance is the operative word here--printers who have taken the plunge agree that the advantages of UV printing and coating outweigh whatever technical difficulties attend the effort.
If the move to UV printing sometimes feels like a leap of faith, it should not feel like a blind leap into space. The printers we spoke with come across as enthusiastic, inventive, committed--even fearless--but never foolhardy. They understand that sheetfed offset printing today is less about high volume and more about complex work with added value, and they have eagerly embraced this new opportunity to provide their customers with printed products that snap, crackle and pop their way to differentiation.
If UV technology has narrowed the gap between what designers can design and what printers can print, and the economics continue to adjust, it won't be long before this "emerging market" goes mainstream in a big way. PI
Just Go for It
The printers interviewed for this story also had these words of advice and encouragement for colleagues contemplating a foray into UV printing.
o TOM MUREL, Color Ink: "Train your customers to get you into the loop as early as possible. Become a partner and a resource to your clients. Do the research. Determine whether you're going to run conventional, hybrid or UV. Make sure you have the market."
o SCOTT BURNETT, Cedar Graphics: "You can't take a conventional pressman, put him on a UV press and expect great results. You need to have your ducks in a row, especially with plastic. Do your homework on inks, who makes what and how the various formulations will work with your fountain solution. Ease into UV, especially on plastic. Make sure you're good at hybrid printing on regular stock first. Make sure your vendors are compatible, then make them work for you."
o PETER DOUGLAS, Lake County Press: "It's a question of working with your customers and your suppliers to get to the next level. Commit to the process and everything it entails. If you have the right market, as we do, you'll find agencies and designers are always throwing you challenges that you're better equipped to meet with UV on the menu."
o WALT MARRS, Marrs Printing: "If you know the basics of good printing and have good skills, the leap is not as large as you might imagine. And the margins are higher, if you price it properly."