By Cassandra Balentine
UV printing offers versatility when it comes to the type of materials that can be printed to directly, in addition to a positive environmental impact. At one point it was predicted that UV technology was poised to overtake some alternative ink methods, but the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to have shifted some of these projections.
Earlier this year, Digital Output published a report by Mark Hanley of I.T. Strategies. In it, he says response to pandemic conditions in UV was “hit hard like all others” and returns to 2019 revenue levels by around 2025.
However, in the article Hanley also observes that “UV channels had some better resilience compared to low-end, roll-to-roll (R2R) channels and the existing focus on lower costs of print was also a kind of defense.”
In addition to these reflections on the wide format UV market, Hanley offers up three notable trends in his piece. First is the belief that the low-end UV R2R systems have begun to eat into solvent channels and sales, which he partly credits to allowing the new adopters to get into higher volumes, and partly by allowing some print service providers (PSPs) to have a sense of the wider functionality of UV from familiar vendors.
Second, Hanley notes a big shift in 2021 to high-end R2R systems—away from high-end flatbed systems. “The change may be more apparent than real since most systems can print these days in R2R or flatbed format. But the capability of going R2R is clearly seen as more important presumably as a function of competitive print costs,” states the article.
The third trend is an overlap in UV between high-end flatbed systems, sheet-fed corrugated systems, and super high-end flatbed systems, which “sometimes leverage the kind of single-pass architectures driven forward by the development specifically of the corrugated packaging market,” adds Hanley.
In the report, Hanley says this is even more evident when you look at the new product portfolios of some vendors, which are not reflected so much in historical statistics. “The way we see it the packaging and corrugated sectors are quite separate requiring unrelated systems to address exponentially higher—by site—demand, but it is this sector that has driven technology development in the true flatbed graphics sector where price pressure—partly also from high-end R2R—pushes greater productivity. It is more like a kind of reaction of flatbed to R2R competitive system pressure. But just to complicate it, some of the same people who buy corrugated systems or who come away from the corrugated packaging industry, are people who want to expand their footprint in pure graphics, which in their eyes is a more profitable sector to develop. That could be a kind of internal channel competition to existing pure graphics players. Finally, UV in a large sheet format—which should be a natural technology development following on wide format graphics success—still does not have a serious footprint in graphic arts sectors. Should the wide format graphics sector see its future there? At least it should see it as a potential area of development,” continues Hanley.
Above: During COVID-19, Fujifilm saw an obvious and immediate drop in UV sales, but only over a short period of time.
A few months after this article published, we wanted to see how the market is interpreting the health of UV ink and what trends they are experiencing. We found that while COVID-19 disrupted the UV market, print engine and ink manufacturers believe that it remains a solid segment.
In addition to wide format, labels and packaging—including direct-to-object printing, are a promising area for UV.
However, even traditional markets like signs and banners are still going strong, according to Jim Lambert, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Co. “When I mention traditional digital UV markets, I’m referring to flatbed printers and UV printers that are focused primarily on sign and banner applications. We have seen these markets hold steady with modest growth, but they are not expanding as they did in 2018 to 2019,” he admits. “UV ink technology is starting to be considered for many other applications, specifically a huge push for direct-to-object and direct-to-shape printing.”
Derek Moffett, product manger, Mutoh America, Inc., feels that the UV market will return to 2019 levels earlier than 2025. “Shop owners love the ability to make high-margin prints with various effects, either on a roll or directly to an object,” he shares.
Carmen Eicher, chief of sales and marketing, swissQprint, also notes growth for its UV customers. “Our customers slowed down during the pandemic; however, business has increased exponentially since we are moving past COVID-19. Therefore we can’t say that we saw a decrease specifically in the UV market. Our customers see the big advantages that UV brings—suitability for a large amount of different media, instant post processing, and no volatile organic compounds.”
While some markets—especially those dedicated to events—have not fully recovered from the pandemic, Pedro J. Martinez Muneta, CEO, Afford Inks, sees industrial print booming, along with other areas like label printing that continue to grow. “In 2021 we recovered pre-pandemic levels and during 2022 we watched an increase in our UV ink production, even in spite of the economical uncertainties,” he offers.
He does admit that the growth may not be from new printers or renewals of the existing ones. “When we contact machine manufacturers we get the impression that the machine sales are lower than expected, so we may conclude that the investment may not be going for UV ink systems now, but that they are operating with a lot of work load,” comments Martinez Muneta.
A reduced projection of UV ink market size makes sense to Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporated, due to shrinkage of the overall digital printer market. However, he feels that UV ink is an unthreatened solution for inkjet printing and remains in a dominant position.
Bob Honn, director, marketing support, Canon U.S.A., Inc., admits that the COVID-19 pandemic shifted markets dramatically between 2019 and 2020. “During this period, parts manufacturers overseas and throughout the country experienced severe delays and disruptions.”
Despite challenges, it has not been all doom and gloom. “As a leading supplier of UV printing technology, Canon has continued at a steady pace and experienced an upward trend in sales throughout this period. In fact, placements have increased steadily year over year since 2020 with a small downtick between 2019 and 2020,” adds Honn.
When asked to support whether or not UV is stagnant, growing, or declining, those interviewed for this article looked inwards.
“Sales in our traditional digital UV markets are growing. We are constantly asked to develop new ink sets to print on shaped objects, and this push appears to be from brand owners. The focus is on the packaging market, printing on items currently using a label that you would expect to see on a grocery store shelf,” shares Lambert.
“It really is very logical,” he continues. “The only thing brand owners concentrated on since the start of the pandemic is keeping product on the shelves. With the supply chain issues, shipping costs, and other concerns, they have not looked at changing anything. During this time, the packaging engineers and research and development groups explored new applications for digital printing. We now see an explosion of interest for direct-to-object applications. If you can replace a label on a plastic bottle, you save on time and manufacturing costs and the solution is much more sustainable.”
Matthew Whiting, product manager-commercial, FUJIFILM Corporation, WFIJ System Business headquarters, says during COVID-19, the company saw an obvious and immediate drop in sales, but only over a short period of time. “Sales quickly picked up due to increased signage production. Once more customers came back to work, sales quickly began to match and even surpass pre-COVID-19 levels at Fujifilm.”
“Our customers are very busy across the board and they were able to enter into new markets during the slow down of the pandemic,” comments Eicher.
Moffett points to the Mutoh XpertJet 661UF, which is seeing its highest sales performance since its release in 2020, and greatly outperformed its predecessor. “The ability to print ADA compliant braille signage without the use of photopolymers or raster beads has revolutionized the industry and the demand for this application will always be there,” he shares.
Ken Parsley, product manager, Mutoh, agrees, noting the company has seen sales of its UV printers steadily increase over the past year.
UV in Use
A versatile technology, UV printing is utilized for signs and graphics in wide format roll, flatbed, and hybrid formats. We cannot ignore its potential and adoption in labels and packaging as well.
“UV printers are being sold in many markets throughout the U.S. For R2R devices, a majority of our high-volume accounts target one specific market. Interior décor is one segment that falls into this high-volume bucket. At the same time, due to technological advances in our product portfolio, Canon is able to place UV printers in new markets. Some of these new markets include vehicle graphics, wall décor, and labels,” says Honn.
“Digital printing is thriving in the sign and banner market—both rigid and flexible substrates—as well as textile printing and digital labels, to name a few,” suggests Lambert.
Eicher sees increased business in roll and flatbed printing, within interior and the architectural customization market along with rigid custom, short-run packaging. “Digital printing on metal and especially art reproduction is an upcoming market,” she offers.
Martinez Muneta continues observing the classical use in all types of configurations, be it R2R, hybrid, or flatbed. “We don’t see any trend in the market to any particular direction. We believe all types are valid and depend on the printer work and needs.”
According to Honn, both flatbed and R2R markets are trending upwards of 20 percent year over year from 2021 to 2022. “Many PSPs have purchased multiple UV printers throughout this time frame. All signs indicate production levels and throughput on these devices are increasing based on performance indicators of these units after the sale.”
Specific to flatbed devices, Honn says Canon experienced a steady increase in placements since 2020 by 15 percent year over year.
Kim sees UV flatbed inkjet devices widely applied to the direct-to-object market. “The key points of this market are productivity, adhesion strength, and special effects.” He adds that adhesion strength can be helped by corona treatment or spray pretreatment, but ideally a very reliable jettable primer is required.
Parsley feels that right now small UV flatbeds are selling well because of their amazing capabilities for printing braille signage.
“UV printing is being used heavily in the personalization and awards industry, with its ability to print directly to an object,” agrees Moffett.
Prototyping and short-run packaging also rely on UV printing. Moffett says the Mutoh ValueJet 1638UH2 prints on both rigid and roll materials, making it an ideal choice for someone that wants to do a large variety of work, from yard signs to packaging and wall graphics.
When it comes to special effects, UV can offer specialty colors like varnish, white, and silver, as well as layered printing for a three-dimensional look.
Whiting says reverse printing using UV technology has also seen an increase through the inclusion of white ink layering. “Like new soft signage prints, reverse printing prints can be fitted without the need for professional fitters and can also be used on multiple, different clear media.”
In the R2R space, Whiting predicts UV becoming prominent in soft signage due to the cost that can be stripped by the consumer in terms of ‘easy self installation’ where professional fitters are no longer required as well as providing more vibrant, impactful images when used in conjunction with backlit applications.
Honn notes a steady increase in placements of R2R devices since 2020 by upwards of 29 percent year over year.
“Printing on fabric using UV has also become a more environmentally friendly application compared to dye-sublimation due to the excess heat loss as well as increased energy costs. The same can be said when comparing UV against latex,” says Whiting.
For the R2R market, flexible package and labels will become one of the biggest sections for UV inkjet, suggests Kim.
“At Labelexpo in September, attendees were inundated with digital printers. In fact, there are very few, if any, conventional flexographic press manufacturers that don’t have a digital or hybrid solution today,” offers Lambert. “Previously, digital printing for these applications was supplied or provided by digital service bureaus, but not today. Traditional printers are being driven by market demand, and conventional printers now have an internal digital group that focuses on these type of printing applications.”
“Preventing nozzle clogging in single-pass printing is still an adventure in the industry, but UV inkjet can be flexibly applied to or connected with existing label converting systems and mostly it allows a range of compatible substrates in comparison with other printing solutions,” says Kim.
While the UV segment was hit hard by COVID-19, concerns that it will take a few years to recoup are conservative estimates that many manufacturers of print engines and ink in the space tend to disagree with. We expect UV to hold strong in traditional sign and display markets, while taking on labels, packaging, and textiles in the coming years.
Jan2023, Industrial Print Magazine