The 2024 Energy-Curable Ink Report

As interest grows in new UV LED and Dual-Cure UV inks, leading energy-curable ink manufacturers are optimistic about the future of the technology.


The energy-curable market – ultraviolet (UV), UV LED and electron beam (EB) curing – has been a strong market for a long time, as performance and environmental benefits have driven sales growth in numerous applications.

While energy-curing technology is used in a wide range of markets, inks and graphic arts has been one of the largest segments.

“From packaging to signage, labels, and commercial printing, UV cured inks offer unparalleled benefits in terms of efficiency, quality, and environmental sustainability,” said Jayashri Bhadane, Transparency Market Research Inc. Bhadane estimates the market will reach $4.9 billion in sales by the end of 2031, at a CAGR of 9.2% annually.

Leading energy-curable ink manufacturers are equally optimistic. Derrick Hemmings, product manager, screen, energy curable flexo, LED North America, Sun Chemical, said that while the energy curable sector continues to grow, certain existing technologies have become less utilized, such as traditional UV and conventional sheetfed inks in offset applications.

Hideyuki Hinataya, GM of the Overseas Ink Sales Division for T&K Toka, which is primarily in the energy curable ink segment, noted that sales of energy-curing inks are increasing compared to conventional oil-based inks.

Zeller+Gmelin also is an energy-curable specialist; Tim Smith of Zeller+Gmelin’s Product Management Team noted that due to their environmental, efficiency, and performance benefits, the printing industry is increasingly adopting energy-curing inks, such as UV and LED technologies.

“These inks emit lower volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than solvent inks, aligning with stricter environmental regulations and sustainability goals,” Smith pointed out. “They offer instant curing and reduced energy consumption, thereby enhancing productivity.

“Also, their superior adhesion, durability, and chemical resistance make them suitable for various applications, including CPG packaging and labels,” added Smith. “Despite higher initial costs, the long-term operational efficiencies and quality improvements they bring justify the investment. Zeller+Gmelin has embraced this trend toward energy-curing inks that reflect the industry’s commitment to innovation, sustainability, and meeting the evolving demands of customers and regulatory bodies.”

Anna Niewiadomska, global marketing manager for narrow web, Flint Group, said that the interest in and sales volume growth of energy-curable inks has made great strides over the past 20 years, making it the dominant print process in the narrow web sector.

“Drivers for this growth include improved print quality and characteristics, increased productivity, and reduced energy and waste, especially with the onset of UV LED,” noted Niewiadomska. “Furthermore, energy-curable inks can meet – and often exceed – the quality of letterpress and offset and deliver enhanced print characteristics on a wider range of substrates than water-based flexo.”

Niewiadomska added that as energy costs increase and sustainability demands continue to take center stage, the adoption of energy-curable UV LED and dual-curing inks is growing,

“Interestingly, we see increased interest not only from narrow web printers but also from wide and mid-web flexo printers looking to save money on energy and reduce their carbon footprints,” Niewiadomska continued.

“We continue to see market interest in energy curing inks and coatings across a wide range of applications and substrates,” Bret Lessard, product line manager for INX International Ink Co., reported. “The faster production speeds and reduced environmental impact afforded by these inks are strongly aligned with our customers’ focus.”

Fabian Köhn, global head of narrow web product management at Siegwerk, said that while the sales of energy curing inks in the US and Europe are currently stagnating, Siegwerk is seeing a very dynamic market with a growing UV segment in Asia.

“New flexo presses are now predominantly equipped with LED lamps, and in offset printing many customers are already investing in UV or LED curing due to the higher efficiency compared to conventional offset printing machines,” Köhn observed.
The Rise of UV LED
There are three main technologies under the energy-curable umbrella. UV and UV LED are the largest, with EB much smaller. The interesting competition is between UV and UV LED, which is newer and is growing far more rapidly.

“There is a growing commitment from printers to incorporate UV LED on new and retrofitted equipment,” said Jonathan Graunke, VP of UV/EB technology and assistant R&D director for INX International Ink Co. “The use of end-of-press UV is still prevalent to balance cost/performance outputs, especially with coatings.”

Köhn pointed out that as in previous years, UV LED is growing faster than traditional UV, especially in Europe, where high energy costs act as a catalyst for the LED technology.

“Here, printers are primarily investing in LED technology to replace old UV lamps or even entire printing presses,” Köhn added. “However, we are also seeing continued strong momentum towards LED curing in markets like India, Southeast Asia and Latin America, while China and the US already show a high market penetration of LED.”
Hinataya said that UV LED printing has seen more growth. “The reasons for this are speculated to be the rising cost of electricity and the switch from mercury lamps to LED lamps,” added Hinataya.

Jonathan Harkins of Zeller+Gmelin’s Product Management Team reported that UV LED technology is outpacing the growth of traditional UV curing in the printing industry.
“This growth is driven by UV LED’s advantages, including lower energy consumption, longer lifespan of LEDs, reduced heat output, and the ability to cure a more comprehensive range of substrates without damaging heat-sensitive materials,” added Harkins.

“These benefits align with the industry’s increasing focus on sustainability and efficiency,” said Harkins. “Consequently, printers increasingly invest in equipment incorporating LED curing technology. This shift is evident in the market’s rapid adoption of UV LED systems across many of Zeller+Gmelin’s various printing markets, including flexographic, dry offset, and litho-printing technologies. The trend reflects a broader industry movement towards more environmentally friendly and cost-effective printing solutions, with UV LED technology at the forefront.”

Hemmings said that UV LED continues to grow significantly as the market shifts to meet greater sustainability needs.

“The lower energy usage, lower maintenance cost, ability to lightweight substrates, and ability to run heat-sensitive materials are all key drivers of UV LED ink usage,” Hemmings noted. “Both converters and brand owners are requesting more UV LED solutions, and most press manufacturers are now producing presses that can be easily converted to UV LED to meet demand.”

Niewiadomska said that UV LED curing has grown significantly over the last three years due to various factors, including increased energy costs, demands for reduced carbon footprints, and reduced waste.

“Additionally, we see a more comprehensive range of UV LED lamps on the market, providing printers and converters with a broader range of lamp options,” Niewiadomska noted. “Narrow web converters worldwide see that UV LED is a proven and viable technology and understand the full benefits that UV LED brings – lower cost to print, less waste, no ozone generation, zero use of Hg lamps, and higher productivity. Importantly, most narrow web converters investing in new UV flexo presses can either go with UV LED or to a lamp system that can be quickly and economically upgraded to UV LED as needed.”

Dual-Cure Inks
There has been increasing interest in dual-cure or hybrid UV technology, inks that can be cured using either conventional or UV LED lighting.

“It is well known,” said Graunke, “that most inks that cure with LED will also cure with UV and additive UV(H-UV) type systems.”

Siegwerk’s Köhn said that in general, inks that can be cured with LED lamps can also be cured with standard Hg arc lamps. However, the costs of LED inks are substantially higher than the costs of UV inks.

“For this reason, there are still dedicated UV inks on the market,” Köhn added. “Therefore, if you want to offer a true dual-cure system, you need to choose a formulation that balances cost and performance.

“Our company already started to supply dual-cure ink around six to seven years before under the brand name ‘UV CORE’,” Hinataya said. “The selection of photoinitiator is important for dual-cured ink. We could select the most suitable raw materials and develop an ink that fit the market.”

Erik Jacob of Zeller+Gmelin’s Product Management Team noted that there is a growing interest in dual-cure inks. This interest stems from the flexibility and versatility these inks offer to printers.

“Dual-cure inks enable printers to leverage the benefits of LED curing, such as energy efficiency and reduced heat exposure, while maintaining compatibility with existing traditional UV curing systems,” said Jacob. “This compatibility is particularly appealing for printers transitioning to LED technology gradually or those operating a mix of old and new equipment.”

Jacob added that as a result, Zeller+Gmelin and other ink companies are developing inks that can perform under both curing mechanisms without compromising quality or durability, catering to the market’s demand for more adaptable and sustainable printing solutions.

“This trend highlights the industry’s ongoing efforts to innovate and provide printers with more versatile, environmentally friendly options,” Jacob said.

“Converters shifting to LED curing require inks that can be cured both traditionally and by LED, but this is not a technical challenge, as, in our experience, all LED inks cure well under mercury lamps,” Hemmings said. “This inherent feature of LED inks enables customers to seamlessly transition from traditional UV to LED inks.”
Niewiadomska said that Flint Group is seeing continued interest in dual curing technology.

“A Dual Cure system enables converters to use the same ink on their UV LED and conventional UV curing press, which reduces inventory and complexity,” Niewiadomska added. “Flint Group is ahead of the curve on UV LED curing technology, including dual cure technology. The company has been pioneering high-performance UV LED and Dual Cure inks for over a decade, long before the technology made it as accessible and widely used as it is today.”

De-inking and Recycling
With the growing interest in sustainability, ink manufacturers have had to address concerns over UV and EB inks in terms of de-inking and recycling
“There are some but they are mostly minimal,” said Graunke. “We know UV/EB products can meet specific material recycling needs.

“For example, INX has scored a 99/100 with INGEDE for paper de-inking,” Graunke observed. “Radtech Europe commissioned a FOGRA study that determined UV offset inks are de-inkable on paper. The substrate plays a major role in the recycling properties of the paper, so care should be taken in making blanket recycling claims of certifications.

“INX does have solutions for the recycling of plastics where the inks are designed to purposely remain on the substrate,” added Graunke. “This way, the printed article can be separated from the main body plastic during the recycling process without contaminating the caustic wash solution. We also have de-inkable solutions allowing the print plastic to become part of the recycling stream by removing the ink. This is common for shrink films to recover PET plastics.”

Köhn noted that for plastic applications, there are concerns, particularly from recyclers, about possible contamination of the wash water and the recyclate.

“The industry has already launched several projects to prove that the de-inking of UV inks can be well controlled and that the final recyclate and the wash water are not contaminated by ink components,” Köhn observed.

“Regarding the wash water, the use of UV inks even has some advantages over other ink technologies.,” added Köhn. “For example, the cured film detaches in larger particles, which can be filtered out of the wash water more easily.

Köhn pointed out that when it comes to paper applications, de-inking and recycling are already an established process.

“There are already UV offset systems that have been certified by INGEDE as easily de-inkable from paper, so that printers can continue to benefit from the advantages of UV ink technology without compromising recyclability,” said Köhn.

Hinataya reported that development is progressing in terms of de-inking and recyclability of printed matter.

“For paper, the distribution of ink that meets INGEDE de-inking standards is increasing, and de-inking has become technically possible, but the challenge is to build infrastructure to enhance the recycling of resources,” added Hinataya.

“Some energy curable inks de-ink well, thereby improving recyclability,” said Hemmings. “The end-use and substrate type are important factors in determining recycling performance as well. Sun Chemical’s SolarWave CRCL UV-LED curable inks meet the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ (APR) requirements for washability and retention and do not require the use of primers.”

Niewiadomska noted that Flint Group has launched its Evolution range of primers and varnishes to address the need for a circular economy in packaging.
“Evolution Deinking Primer enables the de-inking of sleeve materials during washing, ensuring shrink sleeve labels can be recycled along with the bottle, increasing the yield of the recycled materials and reducing the time and costs associated with the label removal process,” said Niewiadomska.

“Evolution Varnish is applied to labels after colors are printed, protecting the ink by preventing bleeding and abrading while on the shelf, then downstream through the recycling process,” she added. “The varnish ensures a clean separation of a label from its packaging, enabling the packaging substrate to be recycled into high-quality, high-value materials. The varnish does not impact ink color, image quality or code readability.

“The Evolution range addresses recycling challenges directly and, in turn, plays a part in securing a robust future for the packaging sector,” Niewiadomska concluded. “Evolution Varnish and Deinking Primer make any product on which they are used much more likely to travel entirely through the recycling chain.”

Harkins observed that even with indirect contact, there are concerns regarding the use of UV inks with food and beverage packaging as well as their impact on recycling processes. The primary issue revolves around the potential migration of photoinitiators and other substances from the inks into food or beverages, which could pose health risks.

“De-inking has been a high priority for printers with a focus on the environment,” added Harkins. “Zeller+Gmelin has developed a groundbreaking technology that will allow the energy-cured ink to lift off in the recycling process, allowing for cleaner plastic to be recycled back into consumer products. This technology is called EarthPrint.”

Harkins said that regarding recycling, the challenge lies in the inks’ compatibility with recycling processes, as some UV inks can hinder the recyclability of paper and plastic substrates by affecting the quality of recycled material.

“To address these concerns, Zeller+Gmelin has been focusing on developing inks with lower migration properties improving compatibility with recycling processes, and compliance with regulations to ensure consumer safety and environmental sustainability,” Harkins noted.

Post time: Jun-27-2024