It is evident that the “next big thing” in the personalization world is UV printing, but what makes it so great? What can you do with a UV inkjet printer that you can’t do with sublimation or some other color printing method? And finally, is the equipment worth the price?
Before answering this, I should clarify for the benefit of newbie readers what this is. A UV inkjet printer is a lot like the inkjet printers we use to print documents in the office. The main difference is they are designed to print on other substrates besides paper, plus they use a UV light source to cure the inks after they are deposited onto the item/substrate.
I’ve been using a UV printer for a couple of years now and I think I have discovered a fair share of the good and bad points of the process.
First, the bad points: Two come immediately to mind. One is that these printers don’t print on everything. Although some salespeople may make it sound that way, the truth is, there are countless products just begging for UV images but the inks won’t adhere properly. It does print on most things, especially if you use an adhesion promoter. This is usually a liquid that can be applied with a paper towel prior to printing. A couple of printers on the market actually allow you to install the promotor like an ink allowing you to “print” the liquid prior to printing the ink. Although this may sound like a good idea, I question the wisdom since this would require relinquishing one or two nozzles for this purpose. I would much prefer having those nozzles available for white or clear inks.
Note, too, that dishwashers and microwaves are death to most UV printed items. Although a couple of ink companies are said to be working on inks that will withstand the rigors of a dishwasher, current inks that I’ve seen just can’t cut it. This doesn’t eliminate printing on cups and glassware but it does require a warning label at the very least.
Second, as I have pointed out in previous articles on this subject, these printers require a lot of attention compared to most of the other equipment you might have in your shop. Lasers, rotary engravers and sublimation equipment all stand maintenance free when not in use but this is not the case with a UV printer. I have made a rule that I print something every single day, without fail, to keep the heads clear of clogs.
As for the good points, there are many. Using adhesion promoters, you can print on many different substrates, including wood, most plastics, acrylic, metal, leather, plaques, stretched cloth, paper, poster board, ceramic and glass (glass and ceramic probably won’t be dishwasher safe). Some of these materials, along with the materials made specifically for UV printers, will print just fine without an adhesion promoter.
So, should you be considering the purchase of one of the many UV-LED printers currently on the market? And, if so, how do you make money with it?
I have always looked at the purchase of new equipment by asking myself these three questions:
- What are you going to make with it?
- Who are you going to sell it to?
- How are you going to sell it?
Of course, there are many other questions that could be included in this list, such as:
- What is my return on investment (ROI)?
- Do I have the cash flow/line of credit to support the investment?
- Can I operate this device or will I have to hire someone to do it for me?
- What is the learning curve related to the machine and/or its software?
- What kind of floor space (real estate) will it demand?
- What are the cost factors and maintenance time?
Granted, these six questions (and you may think of more) are important but I go back to my original three. If you don’t have viable answers for these, the rest are immaterial.
Of course, whether or not it is time for you to consider buying a UV printer isn’t necessarily a good or bad reflection on your business. It is just a cold, hard fact that some shops are ready for a UV printer and the responsibilities that come with it, and some are not ready—at least not yet. Buying one of these printers prematurely might be even worse than not buying one at all, even if your business is screaming for one. This is, after all, a major investment for most of us and the investment doesn’t end with paying off the printer.
So, let’s try to answer these questions and see if, perhaps, it is time for you to consider buying a UV printer for your shop.
A 3/4" thick piece of acrylic was printed first on the back so it shows through and then the hot air balloon was printed on the front to give it a 3D effect.
The first question is, “What are you going to make with it?” If all you ever hope to print are full-color name badges, you had better have a big market in mind for selling a lot of them. Even if you price the badges at $5 each, you will have to sell about 5,000 of them just to pay for even an inexpensive printer.
So, if you aren’t just going to sell name badges, what else can you sell that is more realistic when we factor in our ROI?
One excellent product for UV printing is ADA signage. Most UV printers will allow printing multiple layers of ink on a substrate. As the ink builds up on itself with each pass, it can actually reach 1/32" thick, which meets the ADA specifications for tactile lettering on ADA signage. These printers can also print the Grade II Braille dots with rounded tops, which is also required by ADA.
ADA signage, or any signage for that matter, is a very lucrative piece of business. Think about all the businesses in your community that need sign-age for a million different reasons. If they offer access to the public and they aren’t a church or government building, the Federal Government requires them to have ADA signage in most locations and there is a very stiff fine if they don’t.
That being said, I have found signage sales to be pretty slow unless you do one of two things. First, you have to get out and talk to business owners. Show them the law and let them know you can make their signage for a reasonable price. Also show them that your signage can incorporate their full-color logo, photographs and designs, something that most other sign makers can’t easily do with conventional ADA sign-making methods.
Second, develop a working relationship with an established sign company—the bigger the better. Here’s the deal: Sign companies get a lot of requests for interior signage but many don’t want to deal with it because they really aren’t set up for it. It’s a nuisance for them but it can be big bucks for you. These companies typically want the big stuff that you probably can’t produce—exterior marquee, lighted or neon signage, for example. By working together, they get to take orders for both the interior jobs and the larger signage, but they don’t have to waste a lot of time making the interior signage—they just pass that task off to you. Granted, you don’t make as much profit as you would selling outright to the client, but you also don’t have to visit the job site, you don’t have to quibble over price and, in most cases, someone else does the design work. This wholesale or fulfillment arrangement can be very lucrative and since very few people have UV printers, you would have a leg up on the competition.
One of the hottest products on the market right now is personalized phone covers. You see them everywhere—in the malls, online, in phone stores, drug stores, discount stores, etc. The profit margins on these simple products can be huge. Consider that a blank phone cover in small quantities costs about $1 and in large quantities, you can find them for as little as 35¢. You can then turn around and sell the personalized version for $20. Some very unscientific research shows that about half of the people who buy personalized phone covers want them printed with just a monogram while the other half want a photograph.
You can underprint images on clear substrates, such as this 1/8" thick clear acrylic sheet, with white ink to make the other colors jump out.
You can also sell custom phone covers in quantity as promotional products for about $5 apiece. Either way, these are great profits—a lot better than those name badges we talked about earlier—but still, it might take 1,500 phone covers to pay for the printer. But if you go after the promotional products market and sell to customers such as schools, colleges and sports fans, you can sell a lot of phone covers in a very short time.
So, how do you sell phone covers as promotional products? Go straight to the schools, colleges and companies and sell direct to them. If you try to sell directly to the end user, you will have to invest in all kinds of licenses and advertising but if you sell to the school, you don’t. The other way to do this is to sell directly to someone who has the license. And by the way, many schools don’t have their logos trademarked, especially high schools, so don’t pass them up.
Personalized golf balls are a real hit with any golfer and although you can’t print a huge logo on a golf ball, you can print a circle about 3/4" in diameter with a company logo, monogram or name. Some major golf ball manufacturers are offering this service using UV printers, but they generally require a large minimum order that is too big for the average golfer to afford. With a UV printer, you can print small orders easily and charge an excellent profit margin. Selling these can be done in many ways: advertise in a golf magazine or sell them through the pro shop at local golf courses.
Acrylic is an excellent substrate for UV printers. Although it is possible to sublimate some specially coated acrylics, these substrates are usually very expensive which means that marking up the end product for an appropriate profit level is almost impossible. Unlike sublimation, and laser engravers for that matter, UV printers can be used to print on any type or color of acrylic. A UV printer can print on both cast and extruded acrylic, and it can also print on both sides to create a really interesting 3D effect. You can even print on the edges if you want to. If you own a laser engraver, you can vector cut custom shapes out of acrylic and then print images of cars, boats or whatever on the cut pieces to create standup figures. This technique can also be used to make great sports trophies that can be sold direct, online or through local sports stores or trophy shops.
Sublimated flip-flops are a popular product for summer fun. Of course, the flip-flops must be coated with or made of a special sublimation-receptive material, but any type of flip-flop should be printable with a UV printer. Of course, you will have to learn how to remove and replace the strap but that is easy using a special tool that is available from most sublimation suppliers. Wedding shops, of all places, love these. Pool stores, clothing stores or online venues all make good outlets for flip-flops.
Ceramic, porcelain, marble, granite and stone tiles make great gifts and murals. You can UV print tiles available from your local home improvement store. Although most will require using an adhesion promoter, the inks bond very well. Printed tiles are not suitable to walk on but they can be used to create wall murals. Single tiles printed with someone’s favorite photo can be used as a nice gift item. Sell these to contractors, kitchen cabinet suppliers, tile contractors or home décor centers.
Coasters also make a great gift item and there are all kinds of them available for almost nothing. Leather, stone, ceramic, wood, metal, plastic and glass coasters are available and all should accept UV inks, especially if you use an adhesion promoter. Print photographs, monograms, initials, logos, military emblems or just about anything you can think of on these functional items. The waterproof nature of the ink lends them well for use as a coaster. Glass coasters will probably have to be printed on the underside since glass is one of the more difficult substrates to get ink to stick to, especially when water is involved. Consider selling these through wedding photographers, gift shops or online.
Printing barcodes or 2D codes is a snap with these printers. Their high resolution and sharp detail makes them perfect for this application. Of course, with most inks, these codes would not be recommended for exterior or high heat applications but would still be suitable for many military/government applications as well as for marking all kinds of products for identification purposes. Schools, military installations, sub-contractors and manufacturers could all be potential customers.
If a cylindrical attachment is available for your printer, there is a long list of additional products you can add to your inventory. Glassware, water bottles, tumblers, travel mugs and other cylindrical objects such as candleholders, wine bottles and vases can all be printed, as long as they don’t have a handle. The items being printed must be perfectly cylindrical for most printers but at least one company has figured out how to print tapered glassware. No one has figured out how to print coffee cups yet. Handles create serious problems but give it some time and I’m sure someone will eventually come up with a way to do it.
Something new! Perhaps you’ve noticed how similar UV-LED printers are to the many direct-to-garment (DTG) printers available today. DTG printers don’t use UV inks because, for the most part, UV inks aren’t flexible and inks used on shirts need to stretch. Direct Color Systems is now ready to introduce a new ink that is flexible and a special table that allows their printers to double as DTG printers. This opens up an entire new market for UV printer owners. The only restriction is that you must have a printer model that is big enough to allow the 3" tall shirt adapter to pass through the tunnel. The new inks, called “F4 inks,” can be used on a wide variety of products, not just shirts. Best news of all is those who have a cartridge version of their printers can change from the F1 standard inks to the F4 inks and back again by just flushing the system. This wastes only a small amount of ink and takes about ten minutes to accomplish.
Finally, we must come back to the Number One question which is, “Is it worth the price?” UV printers, more accurately called UV-LED printers (the UV portion of the printer is provided by an LED light source), range in price from about $10,000 to well over $100,000 (for the really large models). That’s a lot of money and that doesn’t include the maintenance costs which can be substantial. The end user must buy ink, periodically replace the heads and perform regular preventive maintenance on these printers.
This wayfinding sign was printed on plastic using a UV printer from Mimaki USA. Photo courtesy of Park Place Signs.
If you buy a printer that’s too small for what you really need, you have wasted your money. Likewise, if you buy more printer than you need, you have probably wasted a pot of cash. And of course, printers come in a variety of shapes and sizes—and prices. (For more information about what’s available in UV-LED printers, refer to EJ’s detailed “Buyer’s Guide: UV-LED Flatbed Printers” which appeared in the Nov. 2017 issue and is also available online on our website.)
One thing that is a must is recognizing the size and weight of these printers. Although there are a few desktop printers that truly are desktop models, most models are huge as printers go. A printer with a 10" x 24" print area, for instance, weighs in at several hundred pounds and takes a tabletop 30" deep by 6' long to hold it. A larger printer can weigh more than 500 pounds and requires double doors or a garage door just to get it in the building! Buy the wrong model and you might end up remodeling your shop.
Is it worth the investment? No one can say but you. What do you hope to make with it? How much can you charge for the product? How many items will it take to pay for your printer? Is that feasible? If it is, you are ready to plunk down the cash. If not, hold off until your business plan merits the investment or you find an additional product that can justify the purchase.
UV printing is here to stay. It is still young and it is still fairly expensive but the prices are coming down and the number of printable items is going up. Inks continue to improve as do the printer’s creature features. There will be a day when most personalization businesses will have one because the marketplace will drive the demand. Those who get in early will have time to build their UV business before the onslaught. Should you be one of them?