We’ve been hearing a lot more about the technology called UV-LED printing in the personalization industry as of late. It appears to be an up-and-coming personalization process because of its excellent full-color printing capabilities—capabilities that surpass most other color printing methods we’ve been using.
What type of research should someone do before making the decision to add this technology to their business?
Don Copeland: I think the best research they can do is to look at their own business:
• Are they currently offering full color and farming it out? If so, how much are they spending on the service monthly/yearly?
• If they are not offering the service, do they get requests for full color that they are unable to fulfill? If so, how often?
• Are they losing business to competitors who have already added this type of technology?
Then apply some imagination:
• What NEW products could you produce and offer to existing customers and how much might that be worth?
• Can you increase EVERY SALE by offering a more colorful option?
Michael Perrelli: At a base level, DCS always urges prospective printer owners to ask for custom samples of what the printer can do as well as an outline of the steps and print settings involved in printing the samples. It becomes an easier purchasing decision when you can view the output of the printers on your own products or materials and understand the time that may be required to replicate the desired results.
Keira Lee: Whether you intend to add a UV printer to expand your services or you want to increase your capacity/productivity of what you have now, you need to choose a UV printer that fits your needs. A UV printer has the capability for a wide array of applications, yet it has a few limitations, so it is important for you to know what you can print on. Also, it’s important to understand the specifications of a printer and figure out what kind of printers can match the applications you need to deal with. And, of course, determine the price range you can afford. Finding the right UV printer for you can be a great help to boost your business.
Cathy Garcia: UV-LED printers can cost up to $85,000-$90,000. This will more than likely be the largest expenditure for equipment that a retail business in the R&P industry will make. Be sure to check out all manufacturers of UV-LED technology before making a decision. There are several on the market.
Any retailer investigating this technology needs to understand and hone in on a few areas: 1) The training involved in learning how to operate such a printer; 2) What type of maintenance is involved and the cost of that maintenance; 3) The printer’s capabilities; 4) The printer warranty; 5) How long the manufacturer has been making the printers; and 6) The manufacturers’ service and support capabilities.
Jay Roberts: First off, the prospective buyer should get clear on the specific types of services/products he or she wants to provide. Roland’s UV printers have differing sizes and feature sets and, therefore, can yield different results. Our VersaUV LEC series models are “print-and-cut” devices that are most commonly used for printing and cutting flexible or thinner materials up to 1mm thick. The VersaUV LEJ-640 is a hybrid model that can print on both roll-to-roll media and rigid substrates. Roland’s VersaUV LEF series flatbed printers and the much larger LEJ-640FT flatbed are similar in that they’re designed to print directly onto rigid objects (up to 3.94" and 6" thick, respectively). These two flatbeds yield different volumes, however, because of the differences in their bed sizes and speeds. With this in mind, doing the research is crucial when it comes to choosing not only the right type of printer, but also one that will allow your business to grow as desired. The buyer should select a printer with the size, speed and capabilities that not only match the current needs of the business, but also the growth potential of the operation.
What questions should someone ask when purchasing a UV printer?
Don Copeland: Ask about the print area of the printer, the maximum part thickness it can print, file compatibility with the printer software (RIP) and what is included with the printer. Is training and support included?
Michael Perrelli: “Features” and “benefits” are not the same and research should always be viewed with a “selfish point of view” for lack of a better term. Prospective printer owners need to weed through the “features” of a printer model and equate the “benefits” that best apply to their business. Some customers may value quality over speed or they may place a higher importance on value adding applications (like TEXTUR3D) over Z-height allowance. The answer to those types of questions will not be the same for every company.
Prospective owners should ask questions about the printer model, printing process and technical support with a focus on “How does XYZ affect my business?” or “My business would value XYZ from the manufacturer, is that something that is available to us?”
Keira Lee: You should consider what you want to print so that you can decide which table size fits your need. For example, if you want the ability to engrave on thick items, like a gift box, you’ll need a printer with a capacity to handle deep objects. Also, take printer options into account, such as the ability to print white ink or if a cylindrical unit for printing on round objects is necessary to you. Figure out what features are critical to you, then you will have an idea of what kind of printer you need.
Jay Roberts: The buyer should ask about the printer’s key features, productivity capabilities, overall operating costs, space requirements and reliability/durability. It’s also important to ask about the manufacturer’s warranty in terms of duration, what’s covered and what’s not. Additionally, the buyer should determine the kind of service and support the manufacturer offers.
What are the most sought-after characteristics in a printer?
Don Copeland: Large print areas, a deep print area for pre-constructed items, the ability to print white ink as well as clear/varnish, powerful user-friendly RIP, variable data, sequencing, serialization, barcoding abilities, multi-layer texture printing and an optional cylindrical and conical printing attachment are the main ones.
Michael Perrelli: As the old adage goes, “time is money” so print speed is always a popular discussion point. However, as UV printers continue to gain traction within this industry, prospective owners want to see everything, meaning they want to see the versatility that UV printing can add to their business. Which single-color technology can they replace with a digital full-color process? Or what can they leverage the UV printer for that they aren’t doing now like custom bottles or ADA/Braille applications?
Cathy Garcia: Broadly speaking, people want the ability to print many different substrates, ranging from apparel to hard surface products like acrylic and glass. The ADA/Braille and texture printing feature found on DCS printers is usually one that the customer does not discover until they are introduced to the printer. This is an extremely valuable feature in benefit without added cost. (If the customer wants to print ADA/Braille, they will use a different viscosity of ink that will allow the raised printing feature.)
Jay Roberts: Businesses looking at investing in a UV-LED flatbed printer should consider the type of jobs they want to perform, existing or expected customer demand for UV-printed items, the level of productivity/volume required, operating costs and other variables. Of course, it’s also important for the prospective buyer to shop around for a high-quality, reliable printer that suits his or her budget. The buyer should look for an inkjet that’s not only affordable, reliable and cost-effective (low operating costs), but is also capable of handling the specific applications the business wants to offer. What kind of learning curve can one expect after purchasing a UV printer? Equally important is purchasing a printer from a company that backs up its products and supports its customers.
What would you recommend to the prospective buyer with a limited budget?
Don Copeland: That would really depend on the definition of a “limited budget.” Most of the major brands of UV-LED printers on the market start at around the $30,000 mark and go up from there. If that number is way beyond the budget then the best thing to do is to wait until it is more realistic from a budget standpoint. You may find deals on demonstration or refurbished printers, but they are generally only 10%-15% less than new.
Michael Perrelli: Finance options get better and better every year so it is important to understand the options available that can ultimately lead to increased profitability. Trade shows and large expos are another great way to take advantage of time sensitive savings and discounts. We also would encourage prospective budget-conscious owners to explore factory recertified printers and warranties before looking at third-party sales that may alter or void a specific printer manufacturer’s warranty. There are definitely values to be had out there without sacrificing quality or capabilities.
Keira Lee: With a limited budget, I would suggest choosing a printer that can provide you high return on investment. If you only care about the price but sacrifice the print quality or productivity, you may lose your business opportunity in return. A UV printer with a suitable table size and satisfactory print speed can save you space, optimize your productivity and achieve ROI.
Cathy Garcia: There are a few UV-LED manufacturers that offer “Certified, Used printers.” Usually the printer has been refurbished “like new.” The technology is virtually the same but the savings could be over $10,000.
What kind of learning curve can one expect after purchasing a UV printer?
Don Copeland: Operation of the printer itself is pretty straightforward, especially for an experienced graphics equipment owner/operator. The challenges of UV generally evolve around artwork setup and dealing with unusual shaped items to be printed as well us understanding ink adhesion.
Michael Perrelli: For those customers who are already familiar with other decorating equipment, like laser systems for example, the learning curve can be a little smaller as they already understand the quality settings and art file settings needed to achieve a certain result. Others who are completely new to this type of equipment are best to start small and not attempt to print everything right out of the gate. Start by perfecting the printing process on your core business products to gain an understanding of the technology while still remaining profitable before exploring new applications.
Cathy Garcia: Often there is a hard two-day training period to introduce the new owner to the technology. Expect, however, that it will take some time (in some cases as much as three to four months) before you can start being proficient at it.
What types of applications are people in the R&P industry using UV-LED printers for?
Don Copeland: Clear acrylic blanks can now be printed in full color and combined with other embellishment techniques like laser engraving and front and back printing to create both color and dimension. Aluminum, brass, stainless steel, marble, granite, tile and wood are examples of materials they are printing. Items like cell phone cases, name badges, directional signage, corrugated plastic signage, ad specialties of all kinds, customized displays, backlit signage, art canvases, stainless steel and powder coated tumblers and bottles, coasters—the list goes on and on!
Michael Perrelli: Folks within the R&P industry really stress and leverage the technology for the versatility aspect. We have some customers who have expanded their capabilities to include ADA/Braille signage and bottle printing while others use it for custom golf balls, awards and phone cases. If you were to gather 10 or so companies who own a UV printer, you would be able to count off at least 20 or 30 different application or product decoration processes among them.
Keira Lee: The versatility of a UV printer makes it a must-have for personalization professionals. One popular application is the ability to print images that are actually raised. By printing multiple layers of ink, the printer can produce a realistic embossed effect, which is commonly used for custom name cards, logos and even ADA signs. Texture printing also can be used to produce art prints, like oil paintings and replicas. Other interesting applications are printing on furniture, like a wooden chair, and ceramic tile for home décor.
Cathy Garcia: This technology has allowed a recognition retailer to offer a significantly broader range of full-color products. Plus, once you have one of these printers, many people find that customers will start bringing in different types of products (often not related to recognition) that they want to have full-color personalized.
Jay Roberts: The rapidly growing customization/personalization trend is affecting all types of markets and buyers. Having the ability to customize or personalize everything from awards, plaques and trophies to cell phone covers, water bottles and luggage has opened a new world of opportunities. It all stems from the buyer’s natural desire to “create” objects that reflect his or her own individual look and style.
We feel that the key to increasing profits and attracting more customers is promoting and providing customization and personalization. Today’s UV-LED printers, such as Roland’s VersaUV models, have made it easier and more effective to incorporate popular gloss/matte/embossing techniques and create these types of products. The idea behind all of this is quite simple—transform basic objects into unique, customized product offerings with greater perceived value to boost sales and profits without mass production.
What changes have occurred in UV-LED printing technology in recent years?
Don Copeland: Larger “small” machines have hit the market (earlier small machines were often limited to a 10" x 24" print area or smaller) boasting sizes from 18" x 24" up to nearly 45" x 30". Inks have improved as has the availability of UV-ready items like some acrylics and even outdoor signage materials. Software RIPs are now more specifically targeted at small-mid format UV printers instead of just being modified versions of large format RIPs.
Michael Perrelli: The list of application capabilities and the materials in which UV printing performs well on continue to grow. New inks, new software and new models with bigger printable areas and height clearances continue to enter the market at a steady rate. Additionally, we continue to see the average printer package price decrease when compared to a few short years ago.
Keira Lee: Advances in print head development have resulted in better color gamut, higher quality and more refined details without sacrificing print speed. Also, different ink formulations that are designed for different materials are now available, such as stretchable ink for flexible materials and scratch resistant ink for rigid objects. The other area is the availability of the cylindrical attachment and roll-to-roll system for a flatbed printer, which allows a small flatbed to print on cylindrical objects and roll media.
Cathy Garcia: DCS has taken a significant lead in terms of ADA/Braille (which they have a patent for) and apparel printing, including developing the ink technology to print on apparel (T-shirts, etc.), and they are still the only manufacturer that does.
Jay Roberts: Having the ability to incorporate gloss and white specialty inks to create amazing, stylized effects has increased the demand for UV printing technology, especially for product customization/personalization applications. These inks allow users to add stunning textural and dimensional designs to a wide range of substrates and objects, including gifts, awards and other recognition items.
What does the future of UV printing look like?
Don Copeland: The future of UV printing is very bright. Much like the future of large format printing looked very bright to the sign industry with the introduction of affordable eco-solvent printers with good outdoor durability and the ability to print and cut, so UV printing looks very bright for multiple industries—recognition and personalization, signage, ad specialties, even traditional paper printers are adopting this technology to extend their reach. In addition, a whole marketplace of manufacturers are looking to UV printing to replace traditional pad and screen printing used on the items they manufacture.
Michael Perrelli: UV printing will continue to gain in popularity as it already has a strong presence within this industry. Software, process steps, ink formulations and general product evolution will continue to expand the versatility and range of applications that UV printers provide. There is a place for the technology in a wide range of businesses. Whether it is one-off custom jobs or the full scale production of a single product, UV printing is a solution to the need.
Keira Lee: Enhance productivity is always the crucial point that cannot be overlooked. Automated operation, both in software workflow and the mechanical process, will continue to be optimized to achieve higher productivity and lower costs.
Cathy Garcia: The technology will become more affordable as the market matures. The retailers’ customers will become familiar with the features of this type of printing and will begin to ask for products made with this technology.
Jay Roberts: The public’s increasing desire to personalize just about everything is translating into nearly unlimited opportunities for on-demand printing onto an ever-widening range of items. I recently visited one of our customers who has five LEF-20 printers used exclusively for printing on jewelry. What makes these UV printers different is that they create products virtually ready for shipment as soon as the printer stops. We watched as the customer picked up the product from the printer and then immediately put it into the mailing box. Other than inserting the invoice or purchase order, it was ready to ship.
FROM THE RETAILERS…
We contacted a few retail business owners who are successfully using UV-LED printing in their businesses and asked them a few questions about the equipment, what they are using it for and what advice they would offer to other retailers thinking about getting into UV printing. Here’s what they had to say.
What made you decide to purchase a UV printer?
Amanda Gianotti, President, Allogram, Inc., Timonium and Odenton, MD: We wanted to print full-color, quality prints on glass and acrylic, and UV-LED is the best and most practical way to do these things.
Bob Hagel, Eagle’s Mark Awards & Signs, Murrieta, CA: I wanted to offer color as I felt color would be big in the future (this was 15 years ago) and extend my product offerings. I did some research and took a day-long class on sublimation but I felt that process was too labor intensive and didn’t offer me the substrate capabilities I wanted. UV printing is by far the best color technology yet. It’s ink efficient, fast and produces a very durable, detailed and quality print. I now own my third full-color printer, and with each one I saw the technology progress.
Mark Case, President, Finer Line, Inc., Itasca, IL: The ability to print logos on badges that look like they are screen printed or pad printed was a major factor for us. It saves us from having to outsource screen printing and pad printing services which can be time-consuming and expensive.
J. Stephen Spence, Recognition Concepts, Huntington, WV: I really feel this technology will prove to be the next big thing. The ability to print on almost anything brings a lot of new opportunities and new products. Of course, for many products, a prep liquid is required to make the ink stick properly but that hasn’t been a problem for me.
How involved was the learning curve?
Bob Hagel: The printer learning curve is moderate. Full color is very different and much more complex than dealing with black and white graphics for lasering and sand etching. Learning the complex and comprehensive UV printing software program, which has become my third major graphics program (the others are CorelDRAW and Corel PHOTO-PAINT), was a longer learning curve than learning to use the printer itself. Then there is learning maintenance and some repair (parts replacement) that has its own set of complexities.
Mark Case: It took a good month to learn it and we are still learning things three years later.
J. Stephen Spence: I found the learning curve to be pretty involved. The control panel, which has since been updated to make it a lot simpler, made it difficult for me to understand and use. The basics of focusing, etc., were no problem.
What’s involved in maintaining your printer(s)?
Bob Hagel: A full-color printer requires weekly maintenance to avoid costly repairs. It only takes about 5 to 10 minutes but it is crucial to create a good maintenance routine. Part replacement is much more complex as it is very infrequent and a lot of relearning takes place each time a print head or capping station is replaced.
Mark Case: To keep your investment running correctly, daily cleaning is an absolute must.
J. Stephen Spence: I found the maintenance for my DCS printer to be high. Leaving it for days or weeks at a time without using it is death on the heads. Even with no clogging issues, the manufacturer recommends replacing the heads every six months. My system uses the standard Epson cartridges which have to be refilled when they are empty which is a fairly time-consuming process. The later designs use a bulk ink supply system that eliminates all this. Even with the new system, the printer should be used almost daily, even if it is just printing a nozzle check. I find myself calling DCS on a fairly regular basis for support and I have found them to do a very good job of providing that support which usually has to do with the control panel in one form or another.
What types of products do you use the printer for?
Bob Hagel: Name badges, nameplates, inserts for trophies and plaques, cell phone cases, business gifts, photo prints on urns, plaques and many other products, and full-color logo and graphics printing on plaque plates,.
Mark Case: We will print anything. Even things supplied to us. We print ball markers, pop sockets, badges, speakers, canvas, signs, plaque plates, acrylics, etc. The list is never ending.
J. Stephen Spence: I will often print white on black acrylic for various projects, golf balls, ADA signage, metal signs and plastic products that I need full color on and can’t be sublimated. Phone covers are a great application when the texture print is added to the mix. I can also print on wood and even glass, although the glass can be tricky and isn’t dishwasher safe. Mason jar mugs are popular for weddings and parties.
What niche markets are filled by UV-LED printing?
Amanda Gianotti: My niche is awards, if that is considered a niche. Beyond that, any niche that requires a full-color, quality print can be served by UV printing.
Bob Hagel: Full-color printing on urns is a small niche market that few can compete in. There are all kinds of niche market opportunities, including golf balls for tournaments, ADA sign-age, desk products, miniature signage for Christmas and train board displays, cell phone covers and many, many more.
Mark Case: I wouldn’t say there is a niche market, but you’re able to do things with this technology that have traditionally only been done with screen printing or pad printing. The ability to do photo quality prints is a huge benefit, especially when the item is not sublimatable.
J. Stephen Spence: ADA signage is probably the biggest but printing names and logos on golf balls has a huge potential. Phone covers are really nice with the texture feature added so backgrounds like that of a football actually feel like a football or school mascots can be made to have a 3D feel to them. Same with logos. My printer doesn’t print fabric (wrong ink) but with the right ink, the printer will work like a DTG printer and do it a lot cheaper since the white ink usually only requires a single pass and the ink is so much cheaper than most DTG machines.
Likewise, these printers, which deliver an accurate color pallet, can be used to satisfy architects and interior decorators with signage and other items such as switch covers, etc., to match the décor of a building’s interior. This opens a very specific niche market engravers have tried for decades to capture.
Yet another niche market is printing control panels. Many companies that build heavy equipment or electronics manufacture control panels, usually from metal, and have no way to print the face of the panel directly. UV printing can be applied to these panels to make them look like a professionally manufactured panel with the added advantage of using a full-color design. These are often one-off panels for custom jobs or prototypes.
How does UV-LED printing complement the other types of personalization services you offer?
Amanda Gianotti: The number one advantage is that UV printing allows us to use color on products that cannot be sublimated.
Bob Hagel: I can print a full-color textured print (raised print) that is truly amazing. Laser engraving (flat style print), sand etching (deep print style) and full color printing (raised print style) together provide three different looks which covers most customers’ needs and desired “looks.” Full color is the fastest growing “look” desired by my customer base.
Mark Case: We now can add color to plaques, acrylic and crystal. This opens up a lot of possibilities and opportunities.
J. Stephen Spence: I don’t really do this much because adding additional methods adds greatly to the labor costs and waste factor but it opens the ability to place full color on things that can’t be sublimated or allows products like wood to be both laser engraved and printed with color. We used to have to screen print logos on name badges and then we could engrave the names as needed. UV allows us to do the same thing but is much less expensive and in both large and small quantities (screen printing requires large quantities to be cost effective). We can also use as many colors as we want (screen printing limits the number of colors that can be used) and even print photographs which screen printing can’t do.
How long did it or will it take your investment in the equipment to start earning you a profit?
Amanda Gianotti: We do a lot of printing. The printer was profitable within a few months.
Bob Hagel: A UV printer price is very similar to an equivalent laser. It takes about a year to recover costs and make a profit (of course, the time frame varies based on prices and your volume).
Mark Case: For us, the payoff came in about 18 months.
J. Stephen Spence: In my case, it will take a very long time because my focus is on other things but in a normal installation, a smaller DCS printer would cost about $20,000. A profit margin of about $400 per month should pay it off in about six years. A profit margin of $500 per month should make it pay for itself in about five years. The cost of the printers, which ranges from about $20,000 to $60,000 or more, is only one part of the cost factor. The other two cost factors are ink and print heads. I pay about $900 for a complete set of inks which the manufacturer recommends replacing every six months. I pay about $400 for a new print head which the manufacturer recommends replacing every six months. This adds $2,600 per year in operation costs. The more I use the machine, and therefore make more money, the less it costs me to operate it since a set of inks in normal use will go a long, long way and the print heads, provided they aren’t abused, should last six months regardless of weather they are used occasionally or worked constantly. Since I don’t actually use my machine that much, I can’t personally verify these numbers but I think they are reasonably accurate.
What are the advantages of owning a UV printer?
Amanda Gianotti: Being able to offer color on more products is a major one. We are no longer limited to sublimation or vinyl for color. Also, the print quality is excellent.
Bob Hagel: There are still very few UV printers owned by awards businesses in the Los Angeles region. I can offer full-color products, but along with that a major advantage is that I can offer quality full-color printing that other competitors do not offer. For instance, my full-color name badges not only have a high-quality detailed look, but they are very durable which makes them great for wineries, restaurants, hotels and other uses where acidic foods and chemicals can damage them. High-quality and very durable prints command a higher price than lasered products. UV inks are also much more efficient than solvent-based inks which really helps to reduce ink costs. UV inks also provide a fuller, richer coverage. Soluble inks, on the other hand, are translucent, so color often appears “off” from the artwork, which is especially problematic for logos. UV inks provide truer colors and white can be printed under the color inks providing a “color pop” and truer colors on non-white substrates. Finally, UV printing is very efficient and produces very little waste.
Mark Case: The ability to print full-color images on just about any item without screen setups or plate charges is a huge plus. It makes doing prototypes and “one-offs” easy.
J. Stephen Spence: In a retail operation, there are constantly people coming in with weird stuff wanting it engraved or marked with a logo or some text, picture, etc. Many of these items just can’t be engraved without long setup times, if at all, and they usually can’t be sublimated so the only thing we can offer the customer is a sticker, metal plate, etc., that sticks onto the item. With UV, almost anything you can get in the printer can be printed.
What are the disadvantages of owning a UV printer?
Bob Hagel: A UV printer must be used fairly often, such a several times a week, to keep inks flowing freely through the print head. Offering full-color personalized products, regardless of the technology you are using, has its own long learning curve, problems and complexities. It’s not for every shop or shop owner. Replacement parts and inks are costly. You also must be dedicated to maintaining your printer or you will likely replace expensive parts much more frequently than needed, making profits more difficult to obtain.
Mark Case: The learning curve and maintenance are the two biggest disadvantages. It can be costly if you don’t maintain your equipment.
J. Stephen Spence: Inks are an expensive investment if they aren’t consumed in about six months. Also, I recommend printing “something” almost every day to keep the ink flowing in the heads.
What advice would you give to a prospective purchaser?
Amanda Gianotti: If the personalization industry is your career and not a hobby, then purchase a UV printer. It will give most professionals an edge on the competition.
Bob Hagel: Do your homework before making a purchase. Do you have a clean place for the printer? You can’t operate it near sand etching equipment, for example. Will you maintain it? Are you ready for the full-color world? What niche markets do you have in mind? Do you already have customers asking for full color? Survey your customers for need, demand, price, volume and specific products. Those who have good experience with sublimation are the best candidates to buy a UV printer. They have a better understanding of the full-color challenges.
Mark Case: Don’t buy the machine with the intent of finding a market for it. If you want to get a quick return on your investment, look at what you’re already doing and see how it can make your life easier and cut costs. We were outsourcing screen printing and pad printing. Now we can do most color jobs in-house, thus increasing our profits.
J. Stephen Spence: Do your homework. Determine if you will be able to use it enough to justify the cost and attention required to keep it working well. I always try to ask three questions: What am I going to make with it? To whom am I going to sell it? And how?
What does the future of UV printing look like for your business?
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