Which UV drying tech is winning the battle for the sheetfed litho market?

By Richard Stuart-Turner, Monday 20 February 2017

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Over the past few years UV curing technology has become a major component in the sheetfed litho sector.

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The instant drying capability makes short runs viable and enables users to work with previously problematic uncoated stocks, which no longer need to sit and dry for days before being finished.

Many litho firms are now snapping up the technology either by investing in new UV-equipped presses or by retrofitting the drying technology onto an existing press.

Three UV options are currently being actively pushed by press manufacturers: conventional UV, LED-UV, and a third option – which Heidelberg calls LE-UV, Komori calls H-UV and KBA calls HR-UV.

Last month, Baldwin acquired UV and LED-UV curing technology provider Air Motion Systems (AMS). Pat Keogh, one of the commercial leaders of Baldwin’s new entity, AMS Spectral UV, says he believes the acquisition will help to drive the conversion of the whole industry to LED-UV.

“We believe that somewhere down the road almost every press will be LED-UV because of all the benefits that come with it.”

Keogh notes that the benefits of LED-UV over the other instant drying alternatives include less energy consumption, no hazardous materials, no mercury or waste and lamps that last well in excess of 20,000 hours.

LED-UV has been particularly popular in Japan, where there is an energy-saving imperative for businesses, as well as in parts of Europe. After a comparatively slow start, this technology is now starting to take off in a big way in the UK too. 

“Out of the last 17 or 18 new press sales that we’ve made, 15 or 16 of them have been LED-UV and Ryobi are seeing similar numbers and percentages worldwide,” says Neil Handforth, sales and marketing director at RMGT’s UK distributor Apex Digital Graphics.

So is LED-UV starting to pull ahead of the alternatives? KBA UK product and marketing manager Craig Bretherton says there are signs that things are heading in this direction.

“The technology is incredibly mature now and if you’re in the H-UV arena you would seriously be looking at LED-UV because of the lower energy consumption, the effect on the substrate and the fact that there’s less maintenance; it’s a far more effective system.

“But we look at every case individually and work out the run lengths, budgets for inks and other various things to come up with an honest conclusion as to what the right technology is for our customers.”

Komori UK director of sheetfed sales Steve Turner says his firm has actually seen more success to date with its H-UV offering, certainly in the UK market, although he points out that Komori has only been marketing LED-UV in the UK since Drupa last summer.

“We offer both H-UV and LED-UV to our customers and know extremely well how the two technologies compare to each other, so just give honest observations. That said, when we sit with customers and explain in great detail how they compare, in the UK they’ve continued to buy H-UV presses.

“H-UV offers far more flexibility. LED-UV offers a good solution for printing CMYK – as does H-UV – but if you want a complete industrial solution where you can work with a complete range of Pantones, coatings and high-added-value special effects then the consumables for that are only available in H-UV.”

Indeed, consumables – or lack thereof – is an area more than any that for now seems to be holding LED-UV back from reaching its full potential.

Packaging printers, for example, are largely sticking with conventional UV technology due to the comparatively narrower choice of spot colours and, crucially, the lack of low-migration LED-UV and LE-UV curable inks available.

“I think this will continue to be the accelerated drying system of choice for packaging printers until there is a low-energy style of UV inks available with food accreditation, and across the entire Pantone range,” says Turner.

Heidelberg press product executive Matt Rockley adds that the inks available for conventional UV presses are far more developed because the technology has been around for longer than the alternatives.

“They’ve had 30 to 40-odd years of development in those inks and lamp technologies to get them where they are today.”

Significantly higher ink costs are seen as one of the main drawbacks of UV drying technology generally, particularly LED-UV, though Handforth says this situation is changing.

“We’ve seen prices come down substantially and it’s getting more competitive. LED-UV inks are relatively expensive compared to conventional inks but they’re getting very close to conventional UV inks.

“Also, you will use something approaching 20% less ink by volume because there’s no absorption into the stock and no dispersion.”

Nevertheless, the higher ink costs could be pricing some commercial printers out of the UV market altogether, at least for the time being.

“You’ve got to be able to produce something at a price and still get a margin and some of that is eroded at the moment through consumables costs,” says Rockley.

Despite the higher ink costs, the UV market is unarguably buzzing right now. And while many are tipping LED-UV as the one to watch, it is perhaps too early to conclude which, if any, of the three UV curing technologies could ultimately become truly dominant because each has its own strengths.

“It’s about choosing what’s right for your company. There’s definitely a market for all three as well as a conventional press with a coater,” concludes Heidelberg Prinect business driver Paul Chamberlain. 

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