The UV LED Market in Europe: Ink formulators are facing pressure to develop UV inks that have low photo-initiator content without weakening performance.
However, the fast growth is posing challenges for ink formulators, mainly because of the complexities of innovative technologies, particularly in UV LED, which is the main driver behind the rapidly increasing size of the UV curing sector.
In addition to the difficulties of producing inks which match new curing systems, ink makers are also having to deal with shortages of raw materials.
This is especially the case with photoinitiators and their intermediates, whose supplies in Europe are vulnerable to the disruptions in the Chinese chemicals sector because of plant accidents and stricter enforcement of health, safety and environmental rules by Chinese authorities.
European regulators, led by the Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) responsible for administering the European Union's chemicals legislation, have been raising concerns about the health and environmental dangers of certain photoinitiators. This has put pressure on ink producers to develop UV formulators which have a low photoinitiator content or none at all without weakening the performance of the products.
THE POTENTIAL OF UV LED
The present uncertainties about the current phase of the evolution in Europe of print curing--using both UV and electron beam (EB) processes--is typical of what has been happening in the sector over the last several decades.
Since the first arc lamp was introduced more than 70 years ago, followed by microwaved-powered lamps for the vaporization of mercury to emit UV light, there have been constant doubts about the long-term future of UV technologies. This has undermined the confidence of printers in them so that they have been reluctant to commit themselves fully to UV
A collaborative approach has had to be taken for curing to work effectively with close integration of printing presses, UV lamps units and ink formulations. But often this was not sufficient to overcome worries among printers about inadequate quality, high costs and odors.
When the first UV LED units were launched in the early 2000s, surprisingly there was not a lot of skepticism about the curing potential of the new technology. LED systems work differently from mercury-based equipment: They use solid-state semiconductor light-emitting diodes which convert electrical current into UV radiation.
In terms of performance, LED compared poorly to the conventional mercury-based UV processes, particularly since it covered only 355-415 nanometers of the UV spectrum and provided only low power emissions mainly suitable for spot curing.
But optimists saw encouraging prospects in UV LED, such as its low costs, environmental friendliness, an immediate start-up with an on-off mechanism and capacity for use with temperature-sensitive and thin substrates. LED lights could, with the aid of digital controls, be separated into separate zones so that UV light could be targeted at specific areas of the substrate.
Above all, UV LED was an electronics-based process, which ultimately would give it far more opportunities for innovation than conventional UV systems. LED seemed to be an ideal alternative to the mercury lamps, which under the 2013 international Minamata Convention banning mercury and mercury compounds are due to be phased out from next year.
UV LED is seen as having development possibilities similar to other electronic devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. They can provide a technological platform for big advances in the efficiency, reliability and versatility of curing.
UV LED equipment is already being widely used for sterilization, water treatment, surface decontamination and cleaning. Its spectral range, power and energy have been extended so that it can have a greater curing depth than conventional UV
The expansions in the scope of UV LED applications are triggering the development of new LED technologies, which will in turn help to improve its curing capabilities.
The broadening of the UV LED market has started to attract investment in the segment by international electronics players. Market researchers are forecasting that the sector will grow globally at an average double-digit rate, reaching a multi-billion dollar value by the mid-2020s. Europe is, however, unlikely to retain its position of being the largest regional market for long because of accelerating growth in the Asia Pacific.
LG Innotek, part of the Korean conglomerate LG Corporation, last year announced the launch of the global brand InnoUV, which will provide a logo for the company's UV LED equipment extending from curing to the elimination of bacteria and viruses.
Innotek has been developing technologies expanding the range of UV LED from its current long UVA wavelengths to the more powerful and shorter UVC. Last year the company completed development work on a UVC LED that can virtually destroy any salmonella bacteria in less than 3.5 seconds.
The InnoUV name will be placed on printing and other equipment containing Innotek's UV LED units. InnoUV will be a brand which "customers can trust," according to the company.
Any non-European company seeking to become a strong player in a burgeoning UV LED sector will have to compete in what at the moment is a fragmented market. The entry barrier has been heightened by the close ties being built between press manufacturers, curing system providers and ink producers in Europe in the development and marketing of UV products.
Among the leading UV LED hardware suppliers are 1ST Metz Group, Hoenle AG and Phoseon Technology
1ST Metz and Hoenle are UV specialists who are increasingly focused on UV LED and widening their scope beyond printing. Hoenle serves the electronics, microelectronics, precision engineering and optical industries supplying the printing, automotive, aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors.
Besides supplying the graphics and packaging sectors with curing systems for inks, coatings and adhesives, 1ST Metz provides curing products to the automotive, electronics, plastics and wood sectors.
INK MANUFACTURERS MOVE INTO UV LED
A large proportion of ink companies now develop and produce their own UV inks, including UV LED, while some collaborate closely with manufacturers of presses and UV units.
Heidelberg, which produces presses and ink, expanded in April 2019 a cooperation deal with 1ST Metz for the retrofitting of LED curing systems on Heidelberg's sheetfed offset Speed-master series. It was a reinforcement of a 20-year relationship between the two companies.
The deal included 1ST Metz's provision of services in support of Heidelberg's Speedmaster customers in LED systems, which will include seminars and technical training.
Siegwerk has an alliance with Komori Europe for the development of inks for the Japanese press manufacturer's proprietary UV LED system. The inks are being marketed in Europe, Middle East and Africa under the K-Supply label.
"We cooperatively developed a brand new, revolutionary high sensitivity UV ink exclusively for Komori's energy-saving H-UV/ LED curing system offering best-in-class print results," said Bruno Delanoe, Siegwerk's EMEA regional sales manager.
In comparison with conventional UV curing, the amount of CO2 emissions from Komori's low-energy H-UV/LED system is approximately one quarter.
"Teaming up with Siegwerk proved to be essential in Komori's endeavor to strengthen and broaden the K-Supply brand and product range," said Peter Minis, Komori Europe's marketing manager/This partnership enables us to fully exploit all possibilities of our H-UV/LED technology,"
Much of the impetus behind the growth in UV LED is coming from closer cooperation between players in the print curing supply chain.
At 1ST Metz's biannual UV Days event at Nuertingen, Germany, in May where the company displays its own UV advances amid exhibition stands of 40 sector suppliers, the priority being given to more collaboration in UV LED innovations was evident.
Details of an innovative, premium candy carton box presented at the event showed that approximately a dozen companies had participated in its design, inks, coating and foil supplies and printing. These included Metsa Board's substrates, Heidelberg's press, Weilburger Graphics' UV and matt coatings, Merck KGaA's effect pigments, Kurz's hot stamping foil and Zeller+Gmelin's flexo inks.
A significant feature of the box: Weilburger's UV coatings didn't contain "classical" low-molecular-weight photoinitiators. Instead, the UV radiation was based on a self-crosslinking process in the coating's polymers.
Weilburger claims to be one of the first in the printing sector to be able to market a U V coating free of low molecular weight photoinitiators after extensive testing by its customers. But the company stressed that the UV innovation had still to prove its viability as a replacement to conventional UV print coatings with low molecular weight photoinitiators.
Arno Durr, Weilburger's sales director, warned that it is "still too young to be able to estimate all advantages and disadvantages compared to established UV systems." He also cautioned that it would be more expensive than conventional UV products.
Nonetheless, Weilburger is not the only one. Other inks and coatings companies are working on UV products that have low photoinitiators contents or are free of them altogether.
ECHA has classified certain photoinitiators as being dangerous to health and the environment so that under EU rules they have to be labeled as being hazardous.
Furthermore, many photoinitiators or their intermediates are produced in Asia, particularly China, so with long supply lines, they are subject to shortages causing sharp fluctuations in their prices.
The likely trend is toward photoinitiator-free UV systems, particularly with UV LED, which is gaining an environmentally benign image. This will be an extra burden on ink and coatings producers as they try to keep up with fast-moving LED technologies as well as dealing with raw material scarcities and stricter safety regulations.
European Editor Sean Milmo is an Essex, UK-based writer specializing in coverage of the chemical industry.
BY SEAN MILMO, European Editor
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|Title Annotation:||european report|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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