The UV printing market is growing rapidly and there’s no surprise why: UV offers high-quality prints with reduced energy costs, fast drying times and a superior sustainability profile. And when you add the advantages of flexibility and the ability to print on a diverse range of materials that can be run through these presses, you have a compelling argument for why more wide-format printers are starting to take a hard look at the technology.
Technology alone, however, doesn’t generate demand. The increasing demands of customers are the true driving force behind the push for UV in recent years. The rapid shrinking of run lengths - sometimes to just a single piece - decreased turnaround times, and a desire for unusual or unique substrates have all led wide-format print providers to rethink how they print.
“Fast-paced and high-mix, low-volume demand have been the leading trends that push users to embrace digital UV printing technology to replace more traditional printing methods,” explains Keira Lee, senior marketing specialist at GCC.
Opening Up New Possibilities
UV - specifically UV presses with LED drying capabilities - fills a wide range of needs. LED curing, also known as “cold curing,” doesn’t use heat, which means delicate or thin substrates that warp and deform easily can now be used at speed on the press. For printers running the technology, it opens the door to saying “yes” to a variety of odd, unusual or flat-out weird requests that walk through the door.
“Since LED curing produces very little heat, working with heat-sensitive media without deformation or shrinkage is something you can offer your customers,” explains Kaz Kudo, associate marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
That ability has led to jobs that were traditionally printed on gravure or offset presses - and done in very large runs - to start shifting to the digital realm. Wallpaper is one of those applications, with retail locations and brands looking for unique wallcoverings that can be changed as often as needed to keep the space looking and feeling fresh and in sync with the current season or promotional materials.
“We’re seeing a lot of customers doing wall décor,” says John Kaufman, senior specialist, marketing, Large Format Solutions, Canon Solutions America. “It’s a very popular application right now, and customers are looking for something outside of what they’ve traditionally gotten from latex. UV is more durable than latex, and because it’s cold-cured the material won’t distort.”
But it’s not just thinner, heat-sensitive media that is helping to set UV printing apart from other technologies. As printers are getting more comfortable with experimentation, they are starting to push not just the inks, but the varnish and other options on a UV press to greater and greater heights.
“I think what I’ve seen is more unique things done with the white and varnish that are UV as well,” notes Mark Rugen, director of product marketing and education at Mutoh America. For example, he said there are some “wine bottle labels that have a texture to them. I’ve also seen a lot of artwork being done now building up the varnish and white ink, so it almost looks like it’s painted by hand.”
Printers can create unique pieces that stand out using layered printing, which is something many of the modern UV presses are capable of in a single pass. Previously, these effects often took multiple passes and a great deal of time to create. The ability to create these designs at production speeds can be a game-changer for shops willing to push UV presses to the limits.
“With the capability of layered printing, each printer can deliver dynamic backlit graphics, or graphics that are transformed with different light sources, which are certain to command high margins,” says Scott Champeau, general manager at Mimaki USA. “UV-curable inks also offer greater opacity with less ink consumption than other ink formulations. [A] high-opacity white ink combined with five-layered printing enables specialized applications, such as ‘push/pull’ door signs.”
Thinner, more unusual media and unique applications of varnish and ink might be the trends driving UV wide-format today, but there is still plenty of room for technological advancements.
Bill Brouhle, inkjet demonstration manager for Agfa, sees inks as the next logical source of innovation. He notes that the presses are already pushing the limits, so it stands to reason that the inks will be the next phase of development focus.
“I think you’ll end up seeing inks taking the next leap forward,” he notes. “Especially around the flexibility of the ink, or the durability of the ink. I think they’ll make some breakthroughs that will bring new applications and the potential for new materials.”
One of the markets that will likely benefit from increased flexibility and durability in UV inks is the packaging industry. According to the SGIA-sponsored research “Convergence in the Print Industry: Understanding Growth Opportunities and Competition,” printers in nearly every segment of the industry are taking a hard look at packaging as a strong growth area. Flexible and corrugated packaging, in particular, are both segments that many wide-format printers could segue into - and as the UV inks continue to improve, they provide an entry into that potentially lucrative market.
“We have a growing influx of corrugated packaging work produced with LED on our new Nozomi digital press platform,” says Ken Hanulec, EFI’s vice president, marketing, Inkjet Solutions. “That has been a tremendous success, with installations occurring or in the works for many of the world’s leading corrugated packaging providers.”
The software driving UV technology is another area to watch. The controllers are getting more sophisticated, allowing operators to produce more precise images hundreds of times without a single variation. But more importantly, they can also produce hundreds of one-off, personalized images at high speeds and quality.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers for Roland DGA Corp., sees the future of software taking that one step further. “We do see an impact of some software coming down the pipeline,” he notes. “We have a retail-like or event software product that allows customers to upload and design their own custom product on the fly. That is something that will extend the personalization market.”
As an example, he notes that an event could have a kiosk, where attendees can upload their own artwork, photographs or designs. That information is sent to the printer, who is creating 10 or 20 up running the press at full speed, but creating very personal products that are then mailed or delivered to the end-user directly.
It could be a lucrative service to offer at a large event, allowing people to choose from several templates, personalize them, give their billing information and then have the product arrive at their doorstep. It could be offered as a special service by a brand promoting a retail location, for example, or by a festival sponsor looking to increase its connection with visitors. The end result is that with software innovations, UV presses become a powerful tool to help brands and consumers connect.
The Human Factor
Another driving force in the UV space is how easy the presses are to operate, and how productive they are during any given shift. As speeds increase, substrates are more delicate, software is more precise and inks are more durable, so operators are going to need the right training and tools to keep all of those proverbial balls in the air.
“I’m not sure machines that can do thousands of boards an hour and cost millions of dollars are a fit for the bulk of the market,” explains Larry D’Amico, director of sales, Large Format, Durst Image Technology US. “In the next 12 to 18 months I see more speed, but I also see innovations that address the labor costs. Automation and workflow will help printers produce work with fewer touches and ultimately lights out production. As price pressures continue to increase, reducing the labor cost will be an ongoing priority.”
Automation, in particular, is a buzzword driving trends across most of the print industry, but for UV presses it will be a key element in the future. Every successful print shop is always looking for ways to automate, because time is money, and the more times the shop has to touch a job or a piece of equipment, the more the margins sink.
“This is becoming more important as we are beginning to see some commoditization among applications in the market,” Kaufman of Canon Solutions America notes. “So, having automation or ‘smart printers’ allows customers to reduce costs and increase profits.”
UV is a valuable and viable technology for the wide-format marketplace and with new and exciting developments emerging through vigorous research and end-user requests, the possibilities will continue to be endless and bountiful as time rolls on.
In fact, it comes down to the imagination and creativity of the designers and printers, more than the capabilities of the presses and inks. Events like SGIA Expo - taking place Oct. 18-20 in Las Vegas - are a great source of inspiration that shops can adapt and use for their own custom projects.
Vendors tend to push the limits in an effort to showcase their technology, showing substrates, forms and ideas that stretch what print can do. And it is a good opportunity to network with other printers using UV technologies, learning and sharing tips that help drive even more creative applications.
Whether a shop already has a UV press and is looking for new ways to expand services, or the shop is looking for alternatives to solvent or latex inks for the types of projects they are running, UV is a powerful technology that will only continue to improve, opening up even more possibilities.
“Basically, UV and LED printing are being used for just about everything in the digital print and traditional signage space,” Hanulec of EFI says. “They are very versatile technologies and we have ways to adjust how the inks cure to address an even broader range of applications.”