New Cures for Uncommon Substrates

Why the demand for unusual substrates and the growth of LED curing are related trends.

Today, I had the privilege of interviewing the VP of operations of a company active in the wide-format digital printing market. It’s always very interesting to hear what the people who own and run these businesses are thinking and what challenges they face. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the interview was his opinions on the technology his company has invested in and why. He says, "We bought on technology; we really didn't care much about the other stuff." At the same time, he was able to confirm many of the other trends that we’re seeing in wide-format printing, two of which—the growing popularity of LED technology and the need to print a wider range of substrates—are more related than they may appear.


He recognizes that the market for conventional wide-format products has become highly price-competitive, so his investments have been directed at equipment that provides some differentiated capabilities, or at least the ability to produce these "everyday" prints as cost-effectively as possible. Selling wide-format graphics, such as banners and real estate signs, on price alone is a difficult strategy. Unlike a few short years ago, there are now several online providers who have done a nice job of "productizing" these signs and graphics.


This is why many wide-format print-service providers are looking more closely at UV technology. We saw very nice growth in the UV-curable segment of wide-format digital printing in 2014, a trend that has been going on for several years. Shipments of UV-curable inkjet printers were up 8 percent in 2014 versus 2013, and we at IDC project that LED curing will fuel even more growth of UV inkjet printers over the next few years as PSPs realize the advantages of this technology.


LED-curing printers produce less heat, which makes it possible to run a much wider variety of substrates through the printer. One manufacturer reports that users of its LED-curing wide-format printers produce an average of 30 percent more on these machines than on similar mercury-arc curing devices. The potential range of substrates is huge in terms of growing the top line, which is what is really driving a lot of the investment in new wide-format printing systems, but LED provides operational efficiencies as well in terms of lower energy costs. We've interviewed companies that are running wide format UV-curable inkjet printers that have calculated that they are paying thousands of dollars per month just to power printers that use traditional mercury-arc curing. Wide-format LED curing systems are capable of running much more efficiently, which can immediately put hundreds of dollars back on the bottom line.


One argument against LED curing is that LEDs are more expensive to buy than bulbs used on traditional mercury-arc printers. This may be true, but there is still a mix of sub-$100,000 printers that use LED curing from suppliers including Agfa, EFI, Mimaki, and Roland, so the price of the equipment isn't prohibitive. On the other hand, users are reporting that the LED lamps essentially never need to be replaced, unlike the bulbs used in mercury-arc curing, which typically last hundreds of hours. Moreover, mercury-arc bulbs can lose some of their effectiveness over time, which results in inconsistent curing, ink adhesion, and color control. We've also been told that additional efficiencies can be achieved since LEDs don't require the warm-up time required by mercury-arc curing lamps.

 

This does not mean LED curing printers is the best option for everyone. Traditional UV curing is a well-established technology incorporated in a lot of popular printers from suppliers like CET Color and Canon-Oce (to name just a few), and serviced by a lot of ink manufacturers offering products for conventional curing systems. The expense of LEDs is another consideration. Even now, there still aren’t any printers with very high output speeds that are 100% LED. I’ve also been told that it’s not possible to retrofit the thousands of UV-curing curable printers already in the field with LED. The bottom line is that we at IDC don’t believe we’ll see the end of traditional UV curing technology for quite some time.


The other trend we’re hearing a lot about from PSPs is the desire to print onto a wider range of substrates to accommodate the ever-changing mix of products that customers are buying. In this business, with buyers who want their brands and messages to stand out, it makes sense that the media mix is always in flux.


On the rigid substrate side, there has been a big move to thinner, lighter-weight sign products that are still durable. The challenge with using these products, many of which have been imported from Asia, is that many of them need to be surface treated before they can be printed directly. This adds a production step, although from a cost and time standpoint, surface treating would still be preferable to printing onto a flexible media and mounting it to a rigid sheet. In flexible media, we're seeing the combination of greater ink flexibility and elasticity, along with the increasing demand for fabrics on the buyer side, leading to more demand for UV printers for fabric printing. At this point, most of this demand is for soft-signage applications, but over the next few years, IDC expects UV-curing engines to play a greater role in fabric printing for the décor market as well.
 

The advances in curing technology mean that printers have the opportunity now to invest technology that offers efficient, effective ways to print on a growing range of substrates – and new ways to benefit the bottom line.

 

Tim Greene is research director for IDC (International Data Corporation), a global provider of marketing intelligence, advisory services, and events for a variety of markets including information technology. He is responsible for developing forecasts for wide-format digital printing, package printing, digital signage, and related market sectors. Greene, who holds a bachelor’s degree in management from Northeastern University, has been a digital-printing analyst for 15 years. He can be reached at tgreene@idc.com.

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