Enter UV's Brave New World

UV printers offer print service providers a high level of flexibility and versatility, allowing shops the chance to step up their profits. Not only does UV technology let PSPs expand into new markets, but it also can enable them to broaden their offerings to current customers.

“They can use the products for indoor, outdoor, short-term and long-term applications,” says James Cain, director of sales, digital, for Polytype America in Philadelphia, PA. “They can use a wider variety of substrates, such as paper, plastics, wood, metal, and glass. In addition, UV inks have adhesion characteristics that a lot of traditional inks, like solvents, lack.”

Adds Larry D'Amico, vice president of digital imaging for Elmwood Park, NJ's Agfa Graphics, of UV printing: “It's just getting faster and [of] higher quality. We've already shown the ability to replace traditional screen printing, and now with the advancements in quality and speed, we're seeing more opportunity to replace traditional offset and flexo as well.”

The uniqueness of UV printing presents an advantage to PSPs, observes Oriol Gasch, category manager, large-format signage Americas with HP in Boise, ID.

“The fact that you can print on flexible substrates as well as rigid substrates, such as Corruplast and foam cores, acrylics, glass, wood and cardboard, opens up other applications” for any PSP willing to explore these avenues, he says.

Speaking of Applications

Gasch reports opportunities awaiting PSPs in UV printing extend from printing signage to point-of-purchase to packaging to décor. “When you think about the amount of square footage that is subject to being covered by advertising and decoration, this market grows exponentially,” he says. “For example, there are signage applications, such as retail, events and exhibition signage and outdoor signage. Some are on rigid, some on flexible substrates.”

Retailers need décor printing, and restaurateurs need tabletops and floors printed, spurring more innovative PSPs to produce what is being called “digital décor,” he adds.

Then there is packaging. “There are market dynamics in providing shorter runs, where digital now has a fit,” Gasch says. “There are dynamics in the need for customizing, and that's where digital as opposed to offset becomes economic and advisable. You think of pallet wraps in the retail setting, printed on a cardboard or corrugated. The fact that you can customize those by location or by brand makes this an appealing market.”

Free-standing displays, designed to command attention in space away from store shelves, represent still another opportunity for PSPs, he says.

“You see innovative brands customizing free-standing displays on a location basis and a brand basis, in very short turnaround times. That's what makes it very attractive to brand owners. Let's say you have some inventory built up. The fact you can do these free-standing displays in four or five days allows you to move a lot of inventory.”

And while PSPs are investigating and profiting from these markets, they are also realizing a long-time goal of saving money on both labor and materials, Gasch says.

Because they can print directly to the substrate, they avoid the time, expense and potential errors of printing on flexible substrates, then mounting to rigid boards, he adds.

Trends in UV Printing

Among developments trending in the world of UV printing are wider sizes, downward price pressures on printers, new inks, and a demand for higher quality, Cain says.

Flatbed is increasingly moving to wider sizes, a trend that is seeing many machines move from 4x8-foot sizes to 5x10 configurations, he observes. In addition, greater competition in the UV printer space is bringing with it downward pressure on prices, he adds.

New inks represent another trend, both from new ink manufacturers and existing companies. Among those introducing new inks is Agfa Graphics, which is unveiling orange ink for its Titan printers. “We're seeing more demand from PSPs for large consumer companies with corporate colors and spot colors,” D'Amico says.

“There are very specific requirements for matching those colors, and they can be very difficult with CMYK. Orange gives PSPs a better opportunity to match those colors. We first introduced it as an option when the printer was introduced a year ago. Now the product will be commercially introduced at the end of the year.”

One of the biggest trends is the search for better quality and much higher speed, two goals that conflict with one another, Cain says. “What you're seeing is that most UV printers are coming out with smaller ink droplets, meaning you have to put more droplets on the print. If you drop the picoliter, which you're doing with smaller droplets, the printer tends to slow down, because you have more ink being put down on the print. People are looking for higher quality at closer range, but that cannot be achieved along with faster speeds.”

Ten years ago, he adds, the typical grand-format UV printer featured 30-picoliter and above print heads, but the client base has demanded higher quality, Cain notes.

“Therefore, printer manufacturers have gone to printers with smaller drop sizes, down to 10 and some even to 10 picoliters,” he adds.

Product Developments

At this year's SGIA show, Polytype America, a manufacturer and distributor, unveiled two new printers, Cain says. The first is a Polytype America-manufactured printer called the Quantum, a 10-picoliter grand-format unit in 2.5 and 3.5-meter-wide configurations.

“This is what we call a combination printer, which you can use as a pure flatbed, as a roll-to-roll unit, for oversized materials, for heavyweight materials, and materials up to 3.75 inches thick,” Cain says. “And you have the ability to automate the machine for industrial use. It's simple to switch from one application to the next. What's more, since it features 10-picoliter heads, the quality is much higher than traditional UV printers.”

Polytype America is also the North American distributor for a company called SwissQprint, enabling the company to introduce SwissQprint's new Nyala, a 3.2-meter flatbed UV printer. “It's a 14-picoliter, high-quality print head,” Cain says. “You can do oversized five-foot-wide-by-any-length boards on the unit. It does have roll-to-roll capability, and it's easiest to describe by saying it has many other functions to increase productivity for the PSP.”

At HP, the entry-level UV printer is the HP Scitex FB 500, Gasch reports. It is a 64-inch printer to which can be added a roll-to-roll function, extended tables and white ink printing capability. “This is great for package proofs, as well as display and signage printing,” he says. “It has a very efficient workflow, because it has a belt-driven mechanism that allows you to load while printing. There's no need for media masking. That's particularly relevant when you're doing multiple copies. You can load media on the input side, and collect the finished prints on the output side. And you do that while it's printing, for uninterrupted workflow.”

This is an excellent solution for PSPs who want to start out small and add capabilities like roll-to-roll printing, a second set of tables or white ink as profits grow. “Because they are all attachable and detachable, you have a footprint advantage,” Gasch adds. “You don't have to have a permanently large footprint. For people starting out, that's a very suitable solution. It reflects the unlimited possibilities from even this entry level machine.”

The FB 700, a slightly bigger, 98-inch printer with the same capabilities described above, is particularly apropos for PSPs with higher volume and need to produce greater numbers of copies, Gasch says. At the top of the line, the FB 7600 responds to the trends for shorter runs and smaller numbers of copies. It allows PSPs to turn out jobs of 200 to 500 copies in “a reasonable amount of time, and cost effectively,” he reports.

The installed base is also benefiting from technology advancements, he adds. “For instance, we introduced a new ink, Scitex FB 225, used on the FB 7600. That improves adhesion in plastic-based substrates. It is the first UV ink that is GreenGuard certified. That's a certification more institutions are requesting of their prints. We've also produced a white ink that allows PSPs to do white on their current machines and not have to buy new equipment.”

Innovation in UV printing is also coming from Oce North America, a Canon Group Company. “UV printers continue to push the envelope, delivering higher print quality, greater productivity and lower prices,” says Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager with Oce North America. “We continually introduce improvements in image quality, application versatility and ease-of-use.”

The line-up of Océ Arizona Series includes five models, all designed as true flatbed systems. They can print on a wide variety of rigid substrates up to two inches thick.

Each uses a vacuum system to hold media stationary on a flat surface, assuring accurate registration even on multiple imaging passes. Full bleeds can be printed, saving time and labor costs in finishing.

All Océ Arizona Series printers include Océ VariaDot imaging technology for high-quality output. The technology does not require “light” colors to achieve high image quality and thus uses less than half the ink of many competitive systems. The Roll Media Option gives users the ability to print onto flexible media, including vinyl, self-adhesive vinyl, scrim banner, paper and blue-backed paper without compromising the rigid printing workflow.

Not to be outdone, Agfa Graphics has launched this year the Leopard, a product that fits the :M-Press family. “It fits those production needs from 50 to 100 four-by-eight sheets an hour,” D'Amico says. “That's perfect for those who need that production speed and range.”

What's Ahead?

A number of improvements in ink are certain to arrive in the years ahead, allowing for printing on more and more substrates and with greater adhesion and ink flexibility, Gasch says. He also foresees improvements in productivity, and that productivity gains will come from better integration with input and finishing devices.

Adds Cain, who earlier noted the greater competition in UV printers: “You see a lot more technology advancement when you have more players in the space.”