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The State of UV Inkjet Inks…the momentum is building

The advantage of 'curing' is simple: It allows ink to adhere to a broader range of substrates as compared to other digital printing technologies. On the other hand, there is a bit of a misconception that UV cured ink will stick to just about everything. Get a balanced view of UV curable pros and cons.

By Jennifer LeClaire

There’s been plenty of buzz about the promise of Ultraviolet (UV) curable inks in the past few years. But are these inks really going mainstream?

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  • There’s been plenty of buzz about the promise of Ultraviolet (UV) curable inks in the past few years. It’s not a new concept, but it’s one that is gaining undeniable momentum as more sign makers transition from solvent inks and the environmental issues associated with them.

    UV curable ink is an innovative technology for the grand format arena. As Avery explains it, UV curable inks are cured by a UV lamp, are 100 percent Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)-free and can be printed on rigid and flexible substrates.

    “UV curable printing technology is the fastest growing technology segment associated with large format printing. It is gaining momentum, due to the inherent capability to ‘cure’ the ink with heat and UV light versus a ‘drying’ process,” says Maria Bragg, marketing development manager of 3M Commercial Graphics.

    UV Curable Cures All?
    The benefits are exponential. Beyond their VOC-free status, UV curable inks dry faster, offer shorter production times, and can eliminate some of the troublesome issues associated with cleaning and purging the head to remove insoluble material. Prints are consistent regardless of the substrate and the ink won’t negatively impact adhesion.

    “UV curable ink has a couple of unique characteristics that are catching on,” says Pat Ryan, general manager of Seiko-I Infotech Americas Business Unit. “UV curable has a niche related to printing on rigid surfaces because it saves the transfer process of putting a printed vinyl onto that same rigid piece.”

    The advantage of “curing” is ink will adhere to a broader range of substrates as compared to other digital printing technologies. On the other hand, Bragg says, there is a bit of a misconception that UV-cured ink will stick to just about everything.

    “This is an important consideration as the shop looks at end-user applications, when considering the option of a UV printer,” she warns. There are also other important considerations. Indeed, some of UV curable ink’s benefits also lead to its limitations.

    UV Curable Limitations
    Ryan says the notion that the whole sign printing industry is moving to UV curable inks is overstated. As Bragg mentioned, UV inks can’t print on just anything and everything ­ and the results can be less than ideal if you try.

    “When you use UV inks to print on rigid substrates they can fairly brittle,” Ryan says. “The color gamut is not robust yet. They cant print that fast. When you dry with a UV lamp, the surface isn’t nice and smooth as the light refraction from the surfaces makes the glossiness look less desirable than a vinyl or a paint type of a finish.”

    For all the talk about environmental friendliness, Ryan reminds that UV curable is not the indoor office environment solution for solvents because it has pollutants of its own. Ryan says it will take years of development to get over some of the challenges UV curable inks pose. That said, he does expect most of the challenges will be overcome.

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    Debating the Future
    Raster Printers CEO Rak Kumar is more optimistic about UV curable inks over the long haul. “UV curable inks will continue to become more versatile ­ we may also see water based UV curable inks,” he predicts.

    The balanced view says mainstream status of UV is inevitable, but it may take some time, simply because certain companies hold intellectual property around UV curable inks. That prevents a large number of manufacturers to get into side of this promising ink, according to Michael Flippin, president of Web Consulting, Inc., a global consultancy for the digital printing industry in Boston.

    “In the future there may be quite a significant number of law suits and legal issues surrounding the protection of intellectual property of UV curable inks jet inks,” Flippin says. “Also let’s remember that most of the companies serving the UV curable ink jet ink market are traditional screen or traditional analog printing ink companies who are used to much smaller margins.”

    What Flippin is saying is that even though the inkjet market is small, it’s grossly more profitable than the traditional screen and analog print ink industry. That’s why Xerox digital imaging spokesperson Sandra Mauceli believes there will be much more research and development into UV curable inks over the long-term. In fact, Mauceli believes that UV ink capability will replace solvent-based ink capabilities in the future. It’s just a matter of when, she says.

    “At the moment, the hardware for the UV inks is very expensive but the, the cost is really, certain to come really down,” she says. “It’s going to be more about price than. Aqueous-based products tend to represent a lower cost investment for a printer today.”

    Stay tuned for more on the evolution of UV curable inks.

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