It seems that those of us in the personalization business are always looking for the “next BIG thing” in our industry. Years ago, lasers were the “next BIG thing,” then inkjet sublimation made a huge impact on the industry. So what’s next? What magical innovation will come along that, once again, will revolutionize the personalization industry? Could it be UV printers? Truth is, it just might be, and here’s why.
Many years ago, computerized rotary engraving machines revolutionized the industry, then lasers did the same thing, and then some major technological advancements in sublimation came along cementing this process as one of the “next BIG things.” Along the way, several other likely candidates cropped up, but they never quite made it to the “next BIG” level. I remember getting pretty excited about the AcryliPrint process of inexpensively printing full-color images on acrylic. It is still a great process but it never quite caught on for in-house production. Then there was the system that printed inkjet images on glass. Again, a pretty nice product but it never really took off. Finally, there was the Enduring Images system of printing on ceramic using a laser printer and a kiln. I am still holding out for this one to take off, but so far, only a few passionate souls are sticking with me.
UV printing, however, seems to be taking on a life of its own. For several years now, it has all but dominated the trade shows with some really big names taking a marked interest in showing their printers, even though they knew they were out of the price range for 95 percent of the people walking the floor. I see these printers exhibited at big shows and small: Sign shows, personalization shows, awards shows and print shows are all hosting several manufacturers of UV printers that are displaying what seems to be an increasing number of models.
Steve Gluskin, director of marketing for Rowmark’s GoVivid printers, says, “The message we are hearing from trophy and award dealers is that their customers are looking for something new. The ability to add color is a perfect fit to augment what they are currently offering. Even the ability to offer ‘multi-media’ or multiple processes when creating an award is really gaining interest. For example, a laser engraved and a UV-LED printed award adds dimension and color, and, just as importantly, profit margin for the dealer. By adding UV-LED printing, the dealer will differentiate themselves from their competition.”
So what exactly is a UV printer? Well, let’s start with the UV part, as in ultraviolet light. UV light is an invisible (to the eye) form of light found in many light sources, including the sun. UV light has some useful characteristics, in particular the ability to cure many photosensitive materials. In the case of UV printing, a UV light source is used to cure (harden and solidify) the inks laid down by the printer.
UV inkjet printing is different from conventional solvent inkjet printing. Instead of having solvents in the ink that evaporate into the air and absorb into the substrate, UV inks are exposed to UV lights that are built into the printer which quickly cure the ink to turn it from a liquid to a solid. This technology has several advantages, including eliminating environmental and workplace health issues, the ability to print on a wide variety of substrates, high print speeds and a wide range of printing applications ranging from outdoor signage to golf balls.
So why should we be so excited about this developing technology? Truth is, a year or two ago, few people in our industry were very excited about this at all. With price tags in the $20,000-$80,000 range, there weren’t many people who could seriously consider a UV printer as an option in the first place. But as time has passed, the prices have dropped and more competition has come into the market, making both a much wider variety of printers and print options available as well as price points—even to the point that $20,000 can now buy a lot of printer.
Today, the problem isn’t so much price as much as it is confusion and misinformation about what a UV printer can and cannot do, and how much market there is to support one.
For instance, I occasionally print a plaque using my UV printer. The cost is almost negligible and the markup can be substantial, but how many plaques are appropriate for this technology? Remember, sublimation can also be used to create full-color plaques. The same is true with a hundred other products including everything from metal plates to plastic toys. In short, as with most personalization processes, there are things that are best done with a UV printer and things that are best done with other methods. UV printing isn’t a replacement for other processes, but an alternative to do most jobs and the only way to do a few.
I had a job recently that involved printing full-color company logos on clear acrylic. I have no idea how I could have done this with any other process. UV printing was perfect because I could print a solid white image to create an opaque mask on the substrate and then print the full-color logo on top of it. That’s the kind of job UV printers are really good at.
Printing on clear or dark backgrounds can be quite a challenge for most processes and with some, such as sublimation, it’s almost impossible. UV printing is also more forgiving than other methods when it comes to the type of substrates that it works with. Sublimation, for example, nearly always requires a special polyester-coated substrate to work at all. UV printing, on the other hand, can be used to print on a wide variety of substrates of all colors, textures, shapes and sizes. But, just like other processes, it doesn’t work on everything. In fact, there are many substrates that UV inks will not adhere to without first applying a bonding or adhesion agent. Some printers can actually spray an adhesion agent on the substrate through the printer nozzles while with other printers, you need to hand apply it. Either way, there is no guarantee the ink will bond until it is tested.
Adhesion then, in my opinion, becomes the biggest problem in the UV world since every printer manufacturer offers their own inks and adhesion additives, and each is different. This means it is ultimately important that you test both the inks and the printer to make sure they will work on the substrates you want to print prior to making any kind of buying decision or promises to customers.
Along with having to learn about adhesion with UV inks, it is also important that a potential buyer learn about the various properties of the inks. Some companies offer multiple inks to be considered but most try to offer a “one size fits all” recipe that may or may not work for you. At one time, I presumed that an ink cured with UV light would then be UV safe and thus I printed a job for exterior use. Unfortunately, I was wrong and the signs faded into nothingness within months. Lesson learned? Well, some printer manufacturers claim their inks are UV safe and although I would certainly not doubt their word, it would make me cautious—once burned and all that.
One of the most popular features of UV printers recently has been the introduction of cylindrical devices for printing items like water bottles. I believe that cylindrical devices are offered as an option for every printer with enough throat to accommodate one. This brings at least two questions into the light: One, how user-friendly is the software for setting up a cylindrical job and, two, do I need another specialized ink? Although metal water bottles can be successfully printed with most UV inks, there is a different story with plastic bottles that can be squeezed. These require a flexible ink, so some of the printer manufacturers now offer an ink that stretches up to 200 percent.
The flexible ink option opens up other applications, such as printing banners. Magnetic signs are another possibility and some manufacturers have built their printers so there are no paramagnetic (steel) parts that would interfere with printing a magnetic material.
With the multitude of inks available, a major decision you need to make is choosing the best ink for your applications. Inks can’t easily be changed so once an ink is selected you are pretty much stuck with it for the duration. Ink changes are possible if you thoroughly clean the printer, but this can be time-consuming and is not recommended for job-to-job use.
Inks are usually specific to the manufacturer, and so are the print heads and rails (the bars the heads and UV light run on). Some companies manufacture their own print heads and rails, while many others use assemblies from other inkjet manufacturers, such as Ricoh and Epson. Depending on the print head, the printer may be capable of varying the size of the ink dot from as little as a couple of picoliters to as much as 20 picoliters. By varying the dot size, the printers are better able to manipulate ink density, which results in sharper images and colors that smoothly change from one shade to another. Variable-dot printing is controlled by firmware from within the printer and its software.
All UV printers come with some kind of RIP (Raster Image Processor) software to drive and control these firmware options. Usually, the RIP software is developed by the manufacturer for a specific printer and has various functions, such as translating images from your computer into raster images for the printer and enhancing color consistency. Although you may not be able to talk and understand RIPs in any great detail, you can see the results in the printed image, such as vivid reds, bright white and the ability to smoothly transition from one color to another. When you are considering purchasing a printer, it’s very important to look closely, compare results and ask questions when you see something that doesn’t look right. If it doesn’t look right at the demo, it won’t look right when you get it home!
So where is the money in UV printers? What kinds of products produce enough return to make them worth the $20,000 to $80,000 or more investment attached to these devices? It couldn’t possibly be the ability to make one-up products as is the case with sublimation. Clearly, UV is for the bulk production shop. Although 1,000 water bottles could be personalized as they are printed, the true contribution of the UV printer is printing lots of products with the same imprint—what we will call production.
One of the great things about UV digital printing is the ability to print detailed full-color images. Photo courtesy of Mimaki USA.
One new $80,000 printer reports it can print 225,000 flash drives in a 40-hour period. That’s a lot of flash drives and that’s where these printers shine. Obviously, most of us have no need to print so many flash drives in a week, but that is why there are smaller machines. The key is finding a printer that is just the right balance between what you can afford and what you can justify with demand.
There are tons of bells and whistles on these printers. Some are super important to some users and not to others, while other options are absolutely vital to only a few. Figuring out which features are important to you and which are not is no easy task, and unless you can just buy blind and find a printer with every feature out there, it means a wise buyer is going to do some serious research before plunking down a pile of cash.
You can start by eliminating those printers that are just way out of range price-wise and those that, for one reason or another, are unsuited for your applications. Then you can move on to study the printers that have potential. It can be helpful to do head-to-head comparisons of printers you are considering purchasing using a chart like the one accompanying this article. This means traveling to a couple of trade shows and/or arranging on-site demos. This, of course, slows down the buying experience, but that is actually a good thing. Getting excited about buying a printer and making a decision too quickly is much like new car fever—it will probably bring on buyer’s regrets later.
Here is some terminology you should know before considering the purchase of any UV printer. First, note that this article focuses specifically on UV flatbed printers. In the truest form, a flatbed printer usually has a fixed print head and the flat table holding the substrate moves under the print head during printing. Supposedly, this design reduces the possibility of the substrate moving during printing. However, most desktop flatbed printers are of a hybrid construction where both the table and the print heads move in one fashion or another.
UV printers in this industry are technically UV LED printers. They use an array of LED lamps to generate UV light that almost instantly cures the ink exposed to it. This is highly advantageous because multiple layers of ink can be laid down and cured, which builds up the ink and creates a 3D effect on the substrate. This relief printing is how ADA tactile letters and Grade II Braille are created using some of these printers, as well as textured effects, such as the dimples on a printed image of a basketball, and raised images. Some printers have the ability to print clear or white ink at the same time as the CMYK colors, all in a single pass, which can greatly enhance the printer’s speed. Bi-directional printing is another feature that gives increased printing speeds.
All UV printers use CMYK ink sets and today most also use white and clear. A few also offer the option of light cyan and light magenta (Lc, Lm). Today’s UV printers have a multiple-channel print head for dispensing ink, typically consisting of six or eight channels. For instance, an eight-channel print head is usually set up so there is one channel each for CMYK plus two channels for clear and two channels for white inks. In the case of a printer using Lc and Lm, two of the eight channels would be configured to dispense this ink (e.g. white and/or clear ink channels).
Again, this is a choice you will need to make, but most users can easily do without the Lc and Lm, and just rely on the CMYK to produce a stunning image. White is, of course, the difficult color. Because white ink needs to be opaque, it is typically very thick which presents issues with clogging the print heads fairly quickly. To compensate for this, most printers include some type of circulation (agitation) system. This is very important. Some printers circulate only the white and/or clear inks while others circulate (or agitate) all the ink colors. Regardless, a word from the experienced is to print something daily with your printer if possible. These printers are made to be used often and long idle periods can bring about some painful lessons. Mimaki printers include a feature called a “nozzle recovery system” to monitor nozzles and, according to the manufacturer, automatically identify and recover clogged print heads. I have no personal experience with this feature, but it sounds like a great one.
In the comparison chart, I have included the size and weight of each printer. These machines are huge as printers go and they are heavy. Some will not pass through a single 36" wide door and some are so heavy that wooden floors will have to be reinforced prior to installing the printer, so be aware of this.
Upon asking one UV printer distributor what advice he would give to newbies, he said that it is important to understand that these printers require considerably more attention and maintenance than sublimation printers or laser engravers. They are highly technical and require an operator who can deal with their idiosyncrasies. Just bringing in a UV printer and letting anyone and everyone operate it is a disaster waiting to happen. Likewise, consider preventive maintenance. Many of these printers have a year or two warranty but after that, you will be on the hook for print heads and other replacement parts which can be many.
Ink has already been mentioned but it is worthy of another note. Some companies offer only one type of ink so it is important that you understand the capabilities of that ink. Will it stretch? Will it stick to glass (even with an adhesion promotor)? Is it fade resistant for exterior use? What kind of color pallet is available? Other companies offer multiple inks that deal with each of these issues but, as mentioned, you can’t just swap inks whenever you want to.
Typically, you must select a single multipurpose ink for each printer so you need to decide exactly what type of substrate you want to print on before you lay down the cash. True, you can switch inks if you need to, but this is a costly and involved cleaning process so make the right decision in the beginning.
Printing speed is also worthy of note. The numbers might mislead anyone looking strictly at the charts and comparing speed. Print speed can be measured in many ways, and most printer manufacturers publish the speed numbers in a way that makes them look the best (nothing wrong with that). The problem is, those numbers don’t compare “apples to apples” since the numbers might vary wildly when comparing draft mode (720 x 720 dpi) with production mode (1440 x 1440 dpi or higher). Speed also varies when white is added as a base or clear is added as an overcoat. Other factors also play into this mix so “seeing is believing”—another good reason to go meet the printer in person before making a decision.
The throat of a printer, or the height of the item it can accommodate and still print on, goes a long way in determining the price. The smaller the throat, the less the printer is likely to cost so, once again, try to determine what you are going to print. If all you plan to print is flat acrylic for instance, you might get by with a 2" thick throat capacity, although keep in mind that would prevent you from ever printing on anything cylindrical since the smallest of any printer for that is about 4". On the other hand, paying for a printer that can handle 15" substrates for no reason would be a waste of money. The same is true with substrate weight capacity. One printer included in the chart is capable of handling up to 220 lbs., but most can handle only a few pounds. Of course, forcing a printer to work with substrates near or beyond its rated capacity is sure to shorten the life of the printer.
Many of the bells and whistles associated with UV flatbed printers are like sound systems in cars—it basically comes down to personal preference. Digital readouts, remote control panels, one basic design or another, even the color of the cabinet may be pure preference but they still play into the buying formula and are, therefore, important.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, is service and support. I have already mentioned that these printers require some tender loving care. They can be somewhat finicky and they definitely require ongoing maintenance. This means your ability to contact someone for help when things don’t go the way they should is imperative! This isn’t something that can be placed on a chart. It has to be learned the hard way. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out which companies or distributors give good service and which ones don’t. Customers are usually more than happy to “spill the beans” about any company that isn’t living up to its promises. Just ask your sales representative for the phone numbers of several of their customers who are willing to be references. Quick responses to calls of help, quick shipment of repair parts and supplies and, of course, friendly, supportive service are invaluable for your UV experience to be a pleasant one.
The age of digital printing is here and is definitely upon us. Technology in this market continues to develop. It’s really incredible what you can do with this equipment. If you haven’t considered digital inkjet printing for your business, perhaps you should. It could mean one more step in the direction of diversification. Even if you’re not ready to take the digital printing plunge, check it out. Who knows? It could be a profitable part of your future.