UV-curable inks and coatings have long been a standard in the ink and printing industry because of their high quality, low VOC levels and immediate cure, among other benefits. The popularity of UV-curable inks and coatings isn’t going to change anytime soon. In fact, UV curing continues to see growth as newer technologies gain traction with the industry looking for more environmentally friendly solutions with low-energy LED UV curing, migration-optimized UV inks, and EB (electron beam curing.
While these trends are exciting for the growth potential they hold, they are also driving the need for ever more specialized inks and coatings that are correctly formulated to ensure proper curing by these technologies.
Conventional UV lamps cure UV inks through ultraviolet light, but they still generate some heat and require time to get warm and operational. LED UV lights use 60 percent less energy and are basically an ambient cure, which means they generate no heat. Because they are ready instantaneously, processing and curing inks starts immediately. And because they generate no heat, they are ideal for heat-sensitive substrates. This ambient-temperature curing opens the door to new application possibilities for UV curing and radiation curing in general.
LED UV Seeing Significant Growth
As LED has advanced, there have been major improvements in the technology and costs of using it. The potential in LED UV can be seen in its dramatic growth. In 2012, only 13 percent of UV lamps were LED. That number is expected to grow to 35 percent by 2023. Traditional UV has continued to grow, but LED UV is expected to grow much faster. In the graphics area, such as advertising and commercial printing, UV is growing 3 to 4 percent annually. On the packaging side, all UV curable areas are growing—labels, cartons, rigid plastic, corrugated, metal—with UV LED growing even faster than conventional UV because of its many benefits. Energy cured technology is also growing in areas including automotive, wood and electronics, and is increasingly being considered for new end applications such as coil coatings and 3D printing.
LED UV is also a more concentrated wavelength, which makes it more reliable. Longer lasting bulbs equate to more consistency. With conventional UV, lamps can lose efficiency if not changed regularly, which diminishes the degree of cure as the UV emission diminishes. With an LED UV lamp, the bulb stays more consistent and uniform over a longer period of time.
EB Curing Gaining Traction
Much like UV, electron beam (EB) curing offers tremendous potential with similar benefits. EB is growing, but at a slower rate than UV LED, one of the main reasons being the relatively higher set up costs. However, a primary advantage of EB technologies is that EB ink and coatings do not require photo initiators in the formulation to activate curing. Photo initiators are expensive and not always easily available. Eliminating photo initiators also reduces the risk of migration into food. For this reason alone, EB has proven popular for food packaging applications, such as folding carton.
Although startup costs for EB technology remains relatively high, costs are coming down, so EB adoption should gain more momentum in the next few years as more customers value its benefits.
With LED UV and EB curing advances, the need to formulate specialized inks and coatings is only increasing. In the packaging and food area, formulators are working on higher quality pigments and low migration monomers. But across the board, new technologies are driving formulating changes as the industry constantly works to improve formulations for better aesthetics, environmental and regulatory standards, and the ability to cure by these new methods.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution in this new era. Lubrizol continuously works to stay ahead of the curve, innovating ink and coating technologies that improve the price-to-performance balance and enable customers to develop optimized technical solutions.
Contact your Lubrizol account manager to learn more about formulating excellence for today’s printing challenges.