Ranging from 365 to 405 nm, UV LED lamps are all set to replace mercury vapour lamps in UV curing printers. The evolution may gain momentum in 2014 when Europe is rumoured to sort of banning mercury vapour lamps altogether. But this government-sponsored arm forcing is not the most important reason why clever printers who have planned investments in 2013, will opt for a UV LED curing press.
Around this time last year I went over to a village in Zeeland (the Netherlands), where I found a printer who was the first to install a UV LED curing wide format inkjet printer. JMC Signmakers — originally a signage company — had just purchased an EFI VUTEk GS3250LX. It was the first wide format UV LED curing printer (using Phoseon lamps and true greyscale print head technology) in Europe.
JMC Signmakers has customers all across the Netherlands. Already during the interview’s preparation, the JMC Signmakers CEO made it clear the printer was a huge success exactly because of the UV LED technology used. He said that even before the printer got installed, his customers jumped on the idea of “being green” when ordering billboards or glossy displays for their cosmetics shops.
He would also tell me that UV LED curing dramatically expands the range of printing applications, therefore delivering a better return on investment.
A year ago, JMC Signmakers’ comments on the range of expansion was still limited to the general idea that one “can print on more heat-sensitive media”. But when I recently called them back to hear if over the past year their experience had become more specific, I got a surprisingly accurate description of what they are doing. And it’s quite impressive.
For example, they are now printing directly on bubble wrap. Martijn Bolijn, brother of the CEO and CTO of the company explained: “We were asked to print on a piece of bubble wrap that would be stuck around a pillar to be unveiled.” Bubble wrap printing was a complete and utter no-go with mercury lamps because of the heat, but it was no problem for UV LED.
Apparently, the UV LED technology of the GS3250LX also enables JMC Signmakers to print more efficiently (and faster) on static charged polypropylene than the usual UV printer because heat has a negative effect on the static charge of the material.
Furthermore, Bolijn told me they have been able to print on cheaper types of cardboard and paper. These types of media absorb more moisture than high-quality paper media. As a consequence, the heat of mercury lamps would make the cheap media warp. It would curl up so badly, that it would stick to the print heads with all ensuing problems.
Whereas CEO Cees Bolijn found the output quality of the EFI VUTEk GS3250LX to be close to screen print, it has become clear that UV screen printing and even UV flexographic printing are crying for UV LED curing. If you can print on bubble wrap, what’s going to keep you from printing on packaging plastics directly? I’m thinking of pre-packed food preparations for supermarkets here, which would also require working closely with ink formulators to ensure food-safety regulations are met.
Not only does it away with the extra cost of printing on a label, but it also opens new design capabilities — design unchained by the capabilities of the printing device as it were.
Of course, UV LED lamp technology has a broader range than only inkjet or even screen or flexo printing. A significant number of coatings are cured today with UV LED sources. The applications range from flooring and cabinetry to advanced electronics, and tile printing is also on the list.