Print of the Future

Since the introduction—and continued evolution—of UV-curable printer technology, many wide-format print service providers have been able to take advantage of the new business opportunities it’s offered. The technology provides users with a high level of flexibility and versatility with the ability to print on nearly any type of substrate. New niche markets—such as interior design/décor and personalized/customized short run graphics—have developed as the technology continued to evolve.

In this article, Wide-Format Imaging spoke with a number of experts in the UV market to discover how the technology has changed, where growth markets lie, and what the next revolution of the technology will be.

Click here for the PDF versions of the UV-Curable Printer Resource Chart.

  • Claudia Barbiero, large-format segment marketing manager, HP Graphic Solutions Business
  • Curt Brey, Gerber director of digital solutions, Gerber Scientific Products
  • Cory Brock, director of marketing, Gandinnovations
  • David Cich, vice president of sales and marketing, CET Color
  • Tim Greene, director, wide-format & jetting technologies, InfoTrends
  • Heather Kendle, director of marketing, Inca Digital
  • Susie Mendelssohn, International Marketing Coordinator for INX Digital International Co.:
  • Sylvia Muhr, sales director, Europe, WP Digital
  • Randy Paar, display graphics product manager, Océ North America
  • Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki USA Inc.
  • Mike White, wide-format manager, Industrial InkjetSystems, Agfa Graphics, North America
  • Mike Wozny, product manager, EFI VUTEk

1. How has UV technology changed the wide-format market?

Barbiero: More than the technology itself, what has really changed are the needs of the printer’s end user. Marketers, for example, are dealing with shorter product cycle times—they need to speed up the design to execution process for their materials in order to improve the overall time to market. Today, billboards change every two to eight weeks on average, as compared to only once a year in the past. UV-curable technologies have advanced to meet the evolving needs of the market, leading to a new breed of technology that is highly versatile with speeds and productivity features that deliver a broad range of applications to market in record time. The industry-wide push towards technologies that lower the impact of printing on the environment has also led to increased attention on UV technologies, as UV-curable inks produce very low VOCs and require no special ventilation to meet occupational exposure limits.

HP has made significant strides in the UV arena to meet the increased demand and is working to empower our customers with the speed and quality needed to accommodate the new demands of the marketplace. Also, by adding enhanced features to our engines, such as the three-quarter automated loading on the HP Scitex FB7500 Printer, HP customers can diversify their product offering by acquiring new business on different substrates; they can reduce outsourcing and provide a better value.

Brey: UV print technology has dramatically changed the wide-format printing market through direct-to-rigid print capability. This technology eliminates the material costs associated with vinyl and in most cases lamination and the associated labor and risk for error in their application. In some businesses we have seen the material savings alone pay back the investment made in a flatbed UV printer.

Brock: UV technology has totally changed the wide-format market in recent years. It has enabled printers to reach new speeds that were once unheard of. Just a couple of years ago when we started getting into the UV technology, we only had 24 print heads in our roll-to-roll printers and now have managed to double that with 48 heads in most of our machines. The dry time is cut so drastically that we can pack in the output for the same great quality as before but with much more speed. Just some simple modifications on the “stepping” of the UV printers to produce high quality and speed.

Cich: It has allowed service bureaus to turn around jobs faster at less cost. UV printers print directly to rigid substrates, eliminates the need to mount and laminate prints, which also reduces labor and “reprints” due to issues during mounting and lamination. UV technology is like the holy grail of digital printing—with direct print to most substrate, you get a superior end product. You don’t just eliminate mounting and lamination, you eliminate a major source of product failure: de-lamination, bubbles, out gas, etc. It revolutionized the large-format digital printing industry.

Greene: I think the biggest changes are in productivity, by dramatically increasing the speed and overall productivity of wide format digital printers, UV has enable companies in the high-end of the market to participate in wide-format graphics business. At the same time, the instant drying allows companies in lower ends of the business to turn jobs around faster. There is another thing too, and that is that the addition of UV-curable inkjet has enabled many competitors to compete in the market against larger companies that have in essence, “locked up” other conventional wide-format graphics printing technologies.

Kendle: Prior to the introduction of UV technology, roll fed printers were running exclusively with solvent inks. While they work well on some plastics, they are not suitable for long-term outdoor applications nor for all materials. UV technology has provided printers with equipment that is more versatile and able to tackle a wider range of materials. In addition, UV inks do not contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds), so they also have certain advantages environmentally.

Mendelssohn: INX Digital has helped lead this change by offering innovative, cost-effective products that take many things into account, including where these products will lead down the road whether it is two years, five years or even 10 years from now. UV Curable printers will be significant factors in the future and we’ve been planning for them most of this decade. Large corporate clients have been thinking this way for the same amount of time. Given the economic situation, we believe the corporate world will embrace Green technology in the next year of two, so UV technology will continue to affect the wide format market in the future.

Muhr: The market has changed through these new technologies with more possible applications for the wide-format market. Less expensive substrates can be printed. The range of materials to print on became huge. The prints became much brighter in terms of color management. Also for any restrictions to print with solvent, the UV technology has an answer.

Paar: Turnaround time has improved and costs have been reduced. UV technology has enabled shops to begin printing direct to rigid substrates eliminating much of their cost of mounting and trimming previously required to mount roll based prints onto boards.

Urmano: UV has changed the type of print media materials used and has broadened the application base past sign graphics to a number of different application areas.

White: Unlike aqueous, solvent and oil-based inkjet inks, UV-curable inks can be printed onto almost any substrate, both flexible and rigid, coated and uncoated. (These include papers, plastic substrates such as vinyls, polycarbonate and polyesters, as well as textiles, wood, glass, ceramics and more.) UV technology allows operators/users to print onto substrates that were not possible previously. These new abilities have opened many new creative doors for the designer and for manufacturing processes.

Wozny: UV technology has had a significant, positive impact on the WF market. For example, allowing direct to substrate printing. Previous technologies required the printed substrate to be mounted to a rigid board. The benefit of printing direct to board is lower total job costs, shorter turnaround times, and better overall quality resulting in increased growth rates for UV specific applications.

2. What applications/niches offer the greatest growth opportunity for shops? Why?

Barbiero: The best types of applications for UV printers include high-quality POP/POS displays, indoor and outdoor signs, banners, billboards, vehicle graphics, tradeshow graphics, interior decorations, short-run packages, and street furniture. UV-curable ink offers very high productivity, application and media versatility, and a low cost per square foot, providing opportunities for growth and expansion and for UV digital printing to take on more in the field of graphic communications.

The marketing mix for companies is always changing, but in recent times, there has been a marked increase in spending on out-of-home advertising and point of purchase/point of sale displays and signage. As this spending has increased, the demand for applications printed on specialty and recyclable materials, plus the increased focus on environmental impact, have pushed changes in the industry, driving advancements in UV-curable technology.

Not only do UV applications help expand the ways in which marketers reach audiences, but combined with variable-data printing, it provides advertisers with the ability to personalize and localize messages quickly and cost-effectively. With improved speed and quality, printers can provide better, faster and more cost-effective options to their customers and allow them to make an immediate impact their advertising needs as the market changes.

Brey: Traditional UV print technology offers the ability to print directly on a selection of rigid materials. Gerber’s Solara ion cationic UV printers make it possible to print directly on the widest variety of rigid materials in the industry. This application diversity opens numerous opportunities for sign makers and graphics producers to engage new and alternative graphics market segments for their business. These applications may include POP, carpet inlays, backlit, ceramic tile, and many others.

Brock: With UV printing, speed is the best “niche” that shops can capitalize on. Wide-format manufacturers have a printer for just about every speed solution that shops are seeking. Whether shops are seeking high speed or mind blowing speed, the can surely find it. The speed “niche” can really help them complement the rest of their printer line which should also include high quality as well as a lot of versatility.

Cich: Jobs can be run more economically now compared to screen printing, so more bureaus can be competitive with traditional non-digital processes. Other than the traditional applications like POP, signage, tradeshow exhibits, I think it opens up a tremendous amount of specialty applications like tiles, doors, glass, etc. With UV technology, the applications are only limited by your imagination.

Greene: While I think there are applications that will provide growth such as wall coverings, store signage, and vehicle graphics, I think the greatest opportunity lies in developing a more comprehensive approach to meeting customer requirements, partnering with other print service providers to offer the widest range of capabilities and the best service, responding to customer requests for integration with other marketing collateral, installation, management, and measurement services, and even providing design and placement insights to maximize promotional campaigns.

Kendle: With so many digital printers now in the market, there is a need to add value to the proposition. Almost anybody can print the regular short-run work, and the result is that margins are beginning to be squeezed. The applications that seem to be growing in interest most recently are those involving the use of variable data, where the job is very complex. Marketers are using this approach to create more responsive campaigns, and there is genuine value that can be added by the print provider with regionalized messages—in both text and graphics.

Mendelssohn: Our Milano UV Curable hybrid printer is a cost-effective solution with plenty of upside. For a printer who needs to keep costs low given today’s business climate, this is the perfect printer since it’s affordable and won’t sacrifice quality because of the price. The Triangle branded BIL acrylate-based UV curable inks we introduced last summer are intended for jetting high consistency on the HP/Nur XP3500 in billboard mode. We’ve had a very good response since they deliver exceptionally high pigment density and a wide color gamut.

Muhr: From our point of view, we do see many glass printing applications, also wood will grow. Any special application with any very special substrate is printable on our products.

Paar: The flatbeds (particularly the stationary flatbed) have enabled shops to print directly to unique materials such as lenticular lenses. They can also now print to odd-shaped items like pre-manufactured parts much like a screen printer can do. This opens up entirely new business opportunities from variable data short-run items to high-margin products.

Urmano: UV printing now uses both rigid and flexible inks. White and clear inks have also enhanced the application base to now include switch overlays, membrane switch graphics, labels and labeling, fast proofing and prototyping, dials, and gauges. The industrial printing market is not limited to just enhance the visible attributes of a product, but can be used for printing on glass and mirrors, dark and clear acrylics, and thin films.

White: Digital printing is fast becoming the “go to method” for short-run and variable-data applications with the industry. And UV wide-format inkjet applications such as tradeshow displays, billboards, signs, posters, banners and vehicle graphics are helping sign shops and commercial printers expand their product offerings and develop new profit streams. UV printing will continue to grow due to the reduced production and labor costs as well as the flexibility of substrates associated with UV technology. We are also seeing growth for large-format printing within interior design, home décor and fashion especially with regards to store décor. Technology has provided a more cost effective way to produce wall paper, floor tiles and now even the panels on ceiling fans can be customized all due to large-format printing capability.

Wozny: POP is the UV application that the market most often targets. Since UV prints on a wide range of substrates and the premier printer manufacturers are incorporating the ability to produce a wide range of applications on their presses, the market is realizing double digital growth in segments success as industrial, wall covering, etc.

3. What growth do you foresee in this market?

Barbiero: I see the greatest growth opportunity in the graphics market in products that have the ability to increase productivity while reducing the impact of printing on the environment. UV-curable inks are an example of a technology that will continue to see growth, since they produce dry, ready-to-use prints, print on a wide variety of substrates and emit low levels of VOCs. When used in printers such as the HP Scitex FB7500 and XP5300 printers, UV-curable inks accelerate overall efficiency and productivity and allow PSPs to deliver high-quality applications with the quick turnaround time their customers demand.

Brey: We continue to see the market evolve and its adoption of UV print technology expand. Cost reduction in production continues to be a target area for signage and graphics producers who are looking to establish themselves as market leaders coming out of this recession.

Historically, recovery from a challenging recession will always bring about changes that are unexpected. Often the latest technologies will see a boost of activity as credit capital becomes available for system upgrades and new system purchases.

Brock: I see more growth in the UV market but see it coming from both the flatbed and roll-to-roll printers. Inks and materials are still being improved drastically for the UV market every day. I thought that new rigid substrates for UV flatbed printing would have exhausted after the recent flatbed “boom” but I keep seeing more and more products being introduced that I know our customers would love to print on. Behind every good printer is a quality ink and substrate to complement it and I have only seen positive products in the recent years that leads me to believe that more growth is on the way.

Cich: I foresee tremendous growth for UV printing. It does not release VOC’s into the environment, giving it a “green” advantage over solvent, and its quality is improving to where it is competing with aqueous IJ for quality. The growth will be exponential.

Greene: We expect wide-format UV to grow at a rate of almost 20 percent per year.

Kendle: UV technology is now in use not only for wide format printers at a variety of print speeds, but for label printers, transactional printers and some industrial applications. The technology seems to be very well entrenched, and the ink technology appears applicable for an extremely diverse range of print projects. As the speed and quality continue to increase, applications will move more into the offset print arena, which is currently under pressure from reductions in run length and struggling to deliver a cost- effective solution at these lower quantities.

Mendelssohn: I think growth will center on resolution quality and speed. UV curable inks have many attributes to offer and they don’t require a laminate or coating to keep outdoor durability. The higher speed devices have been and will continue to grab people’s attention, simply because time is money and everyone is looking for extra work.

Muhr: From our point of view we do see two different growths in the market. The niche market is going to grow more slowly than the exchanges of printers which will be changed from solvent to UV technology. The R2R market will grow faster.

Paar: UV flatbeds have been the must-have products over the past few years. Now, roll-based UV printers are gaining popularity. Coupled with advances in ink formulations such as flexible UV inks, the opportunity to take some of the vehicle graphic work away from solvent based systems represents additional opportunity for UV printing going forward.

Urmano: It is difficult to project the growth of this market when we are basically redefining our end user base.

White: Industry forecasters indicate that UV-curable technology will continue to gain market share worldwide. UV inks are versatile, extending beyond CMYK to other colors that widen the palette for graphic communication professionals, allowing them to match custom colors and reproduce vibrant, eye-catching designs.

The benefits of this ink and its related inkjet technology are vast and include:

  • The ingredients used in most UV-curable inks have low toxicity for safe handling, low irritants and, because they are polymerized, low odor
  • They are formulated using high quality pigments, ensuring high fade resistance for long-term outdoor applications
  • The inks are very stable, allowing for fast curing and easy handling
  • They allow for higher printing speeds
  • They have excellent jetting performance and good adhesion on a wide variety of substrates
  • They have excellent light transmission, good color consistency and less ink consumption per square meter
  • Most are designed for easy loading, with no risk of mixing colors
  • Shelf life, depending on the specific ink, ranges from 12 to 18 months

We suspect finishing equipment will also grow and expand at a similar rate as UV Inks.

Wozny: Over the next three to five years, EFI expects that market to grow double digits.

4. What do you think will be the next evolution of UV technology?

Barbiero: In the UV space, the main vectors for innovation will be to enable a better match between the inks and the application, such as increased flexibility and a wider color gamut.

Brey: Manufacturers and integrators of UV print technologies continue to work on faster and more feature rich versions of their UV product lines. The challenge for the prospective buyer is to position themselves to capitalize on today’s latest technology without the risk of that their printers will become obsolete as technologies continue to advance. This can be accomplished through investment in a UV printing platform that can be upgraded by the manufacturer over time.

Brock: I am sure that as customers’ needs and demands change, UV technology will develop to accommodate those desires with better and faster products. We will see more and more speed come from the UV technology in the wide-format printer, that’s for sure. Gandinnovations has really been focusing on going “green” in the past couple of years with not only our printers but the ink we make and the substrates we recommend our customers use. Hopefully the industry will continue to make progress in this manner as well. As long as print shops can use it…it can and will be made for their needs.

Cich: Two things really. I see the inks becoming even more pliable, allowing for use in all fleet graphic applications with warranties. Second, as the print heads become wider, and UV prints drying instantly, the speeds of future generation of printers will be more robust.

Greene: I think the next major improvements will be in the inks themselves to allow UV to be used for more stretched and formed applications. This is where solvent has its advantage now. I know there are already a lot of improvements being made in this capability, but I think the expansion of this capability will increase the addressable market for UV-curable inkjet printers.

Kendle: We are starting to see UV sources based on light emitting diodes (LEDs) appear in commercially available printers. This trend is likely to continue, particularly where LEDs are used to “pin” (partially cure) the inks. However, medium pressure mercury arc lamps will remain the dominant technology in the medium term owing to their high power output and relatively low cost.

There will be further improvements in acrylic-based UV curable inks with regard to adhesion and flexibility, as chemists develop better ink formulations based on newer monomers and oligomers. This means even longer lasting inks for demanding applications and even more vivid and demanding graphics.

Mendelssohn: I think the next wave will build off the BIL UV inks we introduced earlier this year. They are fast-curing, designed for high speed production, formulated VOC-free and perfect to meet the demand for 30 and 60-day, 30-sheet billboard postings. Combine those factors with the potential cost savings of up to 25 percent or more, and the market will be demanding more of these types of products.

Muhr: All machines are going to have new head technologies, machines are becoming faster with those new head technologies. The market will be splintered between new technologies for

Screen printing systems and machine in a so-called office environment.

Paar: Besides the usual faster, higher resolution, lower price trend in the large format arena, what might be the biggest development may not even be in large format at all. Considering advances in things like lower power LED curing systems it’s possible that office or even home desktop UV printers may be in our future.

Urmano: Smaller and less expensive and easier to use products will widen the appeal and the end user base.

White: New developments with UV curable inks that are specifically designed to react to the radiation of UV LEDs are remarkable. LED technology uses dramatically less power than conventional UV lamps and they last much longer before replacement is necessary. Also encouraging is the space needed to install UV LEDS is much more efficient and they emit less infrared which makes them applicable for heat sensitive substrates. These new developments mean even more new opportunities with UV inkjet.

Wozny: The technology that offers greater cure rates, while emitting less heat, at lower costs will be the next technology to evolve. Some people think that it will be LED. It’s not clear if it will be the winner or not but it will be exciting to be part of it.