Questions and Answers About UV Printing
ColDesi’s own Don Copeland joined Terry Combs and Aaron Montgomery at 2 Regular Guys Podcast to talk about UV Printing.
Give us a rundown of what UV Printing is and its benefits to garment and product decorators.
Don: A lot of people don’t understand what UV is about. We think of UV as being digital, but it’s been around for a while. It’s a great method of printing especially when you need things to be quickly set.
Basically, what UV printing is, is inkjet printing with a specialty ink. The UV inks dry via a photochemical/photomechanical process. What happens is you inkjet onto the substrate and the UV light changes the ink – turning them from a liquid to a solid.
It’s not like when we print onto t-shirts or paper where the ink is absorbed in. These inks “exist” and this is also why with UV printing we can play with textures.
Where does it differ from what we’re used to? It’s used in a lot of cases to print onto finished goods, dimensional type of items, things that have depth.
You’ll look at printers on the marketplace in the small to mid-format range. They range from a couple of inches to a standard of about a foot in depth.
Our machines go from 11.8 inches tall and you can get options for up to 18 inches tall. That’s one of the areas where it’s different.
We say UV LED too. The early UV printers and some still on the market used a type of mercury vapor lamp. While they’re very effective, very high curing, they’re very high maintenance. They have a max life of about 2,000 hours of exposure. They’re also very expensive. And they get very hot, so you must let them cool down before starting them back up.
The LED’s they’re either on or off. Run at a very low temperature and use very little energy. Ours are rated at 20,000 hours of illumination. Remember they’re not on continuously, only when the head is scanning.
We use flatbeds. It means we can transfer the items through the machine. Our larger machine has the ability to cure 133lbs. We’ve put an entire truck tire on it and stretched over a tire cover to print on.
What are the advantages to the end user?
Number one it really allows you to stretch your imagination. Back in the early days, everyone who called us to use direct to garment printers also wanted to print on something else.
This allows you to take your creativity outside of standard wearable items. You can take constructed items and decorate them.
Cell phone cases are a perfect example. There’s a huge market for custom cases.
Because it’s instantly set you don’t have a gas out period. When you would print cell phone cases before, with solvent-based solutions, you had to let those solvents gas out.
We think of Direct to Garment printing (DTG) as digital screen printing. This is digital pad printing. But it’s full-color pad printing so to speak. Which really ups the game when it comes to printing on rigid goods.
You can do multi-color pad printing, but I don’t even think you can do four colors. It’s just not practical, especially with short to moderate runs. That’s the areas where UV printing really starts to expand.
I think calling it digital pad printing makes it clears it up in people’s minds and makes a lot of sense. I love the fact that this type of printing is very philosophical – the inks “exist”.
Don: A lot of the stuff we thought we knew about printing – saying if it’s a black box versus a yellow box it costs more. Customers didn’t understand why. Yellow is just yellow, whereas black is a mix of colors.
When you look at it in UV you can see those layers. That’s how we can raise letters up in signage to do textures.
Let’s talk about how this might fit into our regular listener’s business. We have a lot of t-shirt screen printers and direct to garment users. Where does this fit into their business?
Don: We all know the days of identifying ourselves as ‘a screen printer,’ ‘an embroiderer,’ ‘a trophy guy’ are fading. I always use the Walmart analogy. You can go into Walmart, pick up some toilet paper, get some eggs and milk, there’s probably a McDonalds in there. It’s one-stop shopping.
It’s just logical that we would get it all done in one place. You have customers that are coming into you for t-shirts or hats. They have other needs in most cases.
Very rarely if someone is buying shirts that they can’t add something. That’s where the opportunities are for traditional t-shirt guys.
If you go back into the sign industry 15-18 years ago, it was the people who were leading edge who had large formats. Now if you don’t have a large format eco-solvent printer you are not in the sign industry.
More and more screen printers are now bringing in the large format technology to do signage. Back in the day, all you could do was put magnets on cars, now you can wrap a car to make it look like a pizza.
We’re seeing more and more companies being full-service. You’ve already done the graphics work, that’s the thread that goes through all of this. Why not take those graphics and put them out in every direction and method you can?
Sublimate it and put in on coffee mugs. Put it on a mouse pad. Print it on a t-shirt. Print it on a banner. Let’s give them promotional items – thumb drives, pens, signage for their operations.
Everyone you’re dealing with has more to their business and graphic than just the t-shirt you’re printing. Those are the areas that are low hanging fruit.
Your existing customers are buying this somewhere. You’ve already spent the sweat equity and marketing money to build the relationship. It’s always easier for me to sell a customer their second machine. All I’ve had to do is take care of them for that period.
You must put money and effort into new customers. This is an add-on that you can start selling immediately to your other customers.
The other side of the coin is that the word gets out and you start marketing this new product. You’re also going to find customers that need your core business – t-shirts, hats, etc.
Those are the applications where it fits in. And getting out of the mindset that “I am screen printer.” You can go broad and say I’m an apparel decorator. Or you’re solutions people.
We’re here to get ideas out to people. That’s what this is about – expanding your reach to your customers and giving them the opportunity to be as creative as they can. Using their logos to grow their business.
Tell us a little bit about some of the markets and market segments this technology is growing in. How’s it replacing some other printing technologies?
Don: I see the most potential in, is easy to get into, and has a ton of business is the Coroplast sign market. Down here in Florida we call them bandit signs.
There are lawn service companies who have signs with stakes in the ground with all their information right on the sign. The process is you take your eco-solvent and print out the sign, which must be gassed out (which is usually an overnight process). Then if you want it to have an extended outdoor life you need to laminate it. Then you must mount it on each side of the Coroplast.
With UV, you’re printing right onto the sign blank, it’s immediately dry, it’s immediately deliverable. Your ink costs are about the same on UV as they are on the eco-solvent per square foot. You don’t have the cost of the vinyl. You don’t have the cost of the laminate. And you don’t have the cost of labor.
That’s just a huge marketplace where you can step up with this piece of equipment. Whether you’re a t-shirt guy, signs, trophies and awards, anybody, and they’re immediately making money and giving the customer a quick turnaround.
I went up to one of the major large-format company’s sites to get an estimate for printing – two-sided 18×24”. It was about $2-3 for vinyl and ink. That sign in our estimate was $0.72 per side.
That was a savings of $1.50 just in materials. You don’t have the labor or the cost of lamination.
There are other opportunities as well. Etsy is crazy. A lot of the stuff up there you’ll see customization.
A lot of it is hand painted/decorated and it can be easily simulated on a UV Printer.
You can print on wood or metal, which can give an antique look to items. That is another area where we’re starting to see growth, especially wood decoration.
One of the more common ones is in the ad specialty marketplace. If you have a small business you don’t want a thousand pens printed, you can get 50 – full-color, no set-up fees.
We have one of our customers we’re working with who has a multipurpose tool of sorts that’s flat and the size of a credit card. He’s making them his business cards.
It’s replacing pad printing and traditional sign printing. I didn’t even touch on how you can do metal signs and outdoor signs as well.
I keep going back to thinking about what you said with the lawn care folks and what you said about putting a sign in the front lawn. What a great idea. How many lawn services are there in town?
Don: People go by and see activity at a house, you look towards the house. We call them 50-50 signs. They’re meant to be seen 50 feet away at 50 miles an hour.
You’re able to give them full color. Big lettering with the name of the company and website or phone number.
Importantly for your customers in the t-shirt industry, they don’t have to learn a whole new application technique. It’s direct to substrate.
The real secret to signage is application technique.
Our city whenever there’s a change to the trash pickup schedule, every one of the neighborhoods has a Coroplast sign up. The other example, when we get hail here in Missouri, there is a mass of storm chaser construction guys that come around. They’re trying to get your roof business. As soon as they get someone signed up their sign goes out on the front yard.
Don: Anything that’s high color, anything that you would put on t-shirts, put it on other objects.
Our machines allow for variable data. Allow us to do barcoding. Allow us to do sequencing.
You can do highly customized, high-color work that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.
One thing we want to cover is a note here I have about white ink. Can you give us a rundown on that?
Don: When we think about rigid goods, we are often thinking about goods that aren’t white. We’re thinking about things in the trophy and awards industry.
With UV printing, most UV printers have 6 color channels. You have your traditional cyan, magenta, and black. You have white and a varnish or clear – which gives you a better build up for textures. The clear can be used for over-coating or highlighting.
You can also do effects. If you have a soda bottle you could do a water droplet effect.
Most things you print on won’t be white, so all of this is huge. You can use the software to create the under base.
You can print on the back of clear objects.
We have a couple of viewer questions:
How hard is it to rehab a well-used 6-year-old printer? We have someone who wants to give it to us. It was properly cleaned and stored but wonder if it’s worth the effort. The printer is still being sold for about $20,000 new. Thinking it may be a tool to use until we see whether a new one can pay for itself. Is it very different to fix and maintain compared to an inkjet?
Don: Six years is a long time. The inks are different, they’ve matured in the last few years. They’re not as obnoxious as water-based.
With UV if it was flushed out, there’s more opportunity. The challenge with UV is, even though they’re not solvent they’re not water-based either. They don’t set up as bad as water-based ones. They’re not as obnoxious on the rubber and plastic as an eco-solvent would be. But they still have a lifetime and the print heads, dampers, cap heads, wiper blades you use are not traditional water-based.
Their print head prices are roughly triple. Dampers are about the same. Lines are a little bit more expensive. Capping stations are about 30-40% more expensive.
If you’re getting a machine that’s been hibernated, you’re probably going to have to replace all those things. That’s the trade-off.
Also, getting the software to drive it. If it’s still a current model, you’ll probably be able to get some follow through with that.
It really comes down to the price. If they’re giving it to you for $2,000, that’s a good gamble. You’re probably going to throw $4-5,000 at it for all the plumbing, to update the software, and buy the inks. Inks typically have a shelf life of a year.
The price for inks is anywhere from $200-500/liter.
You’re likely going to be $5,000 into the project to find out if it works.
If it doesn’t print, you have to start with the head. By the time you work yourself back, you may find it’s the motherboard. At that point, you have to make end-of-life decisions about the machine.
Here’s always my advice to people who are entering into a different segment of the market: never start with a used piece of equipment until you know what you’re buying. Once you’ve run a press for a couple years, then you know what you’re getting into and what you’re buying. If you start with a used piece of equipment then you don’t know what the standard is. It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill when you buy used. I’m all about buying used equipment, once you know what you’re playing with. On the front end, there are so many things that can go wrong and you don’t know what you’re dealing with.
Don: In a lot of cases people will get into the marketplace with used equipment only. Because that’s all they can afford. That’s just a recipe for disaster because it means they don’t have a slush fund to fix the inevitable issues they’re going to be resident with a used machine.
It would be a situation of spending all your money with no insurance policy. I tell people on a regular basis, you’re better to just keep saving your pennies until you can afford something. Even if it’s a refurbished piece of equipment from a viable entity.
Then you at least have the support and training you need. Especially as this is a new marketplace. It is a completely different learning curve than any other printer.
Are there any drawbacks to UV Printers? We’ve talked a lot about the advantages, what might the drawbacks be?
Don: The drawbacks would generally be associated with expectations. They’re not small machines, for the most part.
For some folks, the drawbacks might be that you have a learning curve about something that’s foreign to you. And I don’t mean printing on an object. I mean understanding adhesion.
That has been the biggest learning curve for me over the last year and a half we’ve been doing this. How come it prints to this plastic or this metal and not this one or that one?
It prints well to everything, the question is, does it stick? Is it scratch resistant? Is it chip resistant? Is it waterproof?
The downside is you are going to have a learning curve on the items. Which can be expensive. Yeti cups aren’t cheap. Practicing on yeti cups becomes expensive.
There is some odor associated. You’re going to be playing with things that are a little bit more toxic than you’re used to.
Not so much in the inks, but in the adhesion promoters. Some people do their treating away from the machine, or they have to put in a ventilation system.
They’re not as versatile as some people want them to be. They are probably the most versatile machine that I’ve been around. In the sense that you can throw more stuff at me than I can print than any other type of printer process.
I think that the downside to them is that sometimes people want to take them to the extreme edges. And don’t focus on the core businesses.
It’s the same as with Direct to Garment. People wanted to print on canvases. Which can be cool, but don’t buy the printer based on that. Buy the printer based on what it’s meant to do.
They’re also not cheap. They range from the low to mid 20’s up into the six-figure range. With the average machine being mid 30’s to mid-40’s.
That’s a real investment. For some people that would be a negative – it’s a serious investment.
But we also find it’s not unusual to make $120 – 150/ hour for your output effort on the machine. On top of whatever your markup is on the item.
You must inform people of the good and the bad so that they can have a successful business. What are some of the biggest niche markets and segments that UV printers are serving?
Don: We’ve gone through the 2018 sales of the machines, done our pie charts, etc. Our most common market, though it’s not a majority, is people who are in the ad specialty space. They’re printing logos.
Secondarily, anybody who is doing laser decoration. We’ve seen a lot of people who have been doing etching. Especially onto metal, for example, tumblers. That’s a huge market and opportunity.
It’s now color etching. You’re giving them full-color onto tumblers and water bottles.
Our third largest segment is companies that are manufacturers. They’re producing a product that they want to do mass customization on.
For example, the company that does the tire covers. We have a company that does components for Harleys. A company that does maple syrup bottles.
A lot of companies are putting their safety warnings inside via UV because it’s not a label you can peel off. That’s an interesting niche. It’s an opportunity for folks who are doing apparel for these manufacturing companies, who are looking for ways to customize certain components.
You can come in an offer customization.
You think about electrical companies and the plates that have all of the switches for your breakers. You take that sheet out and permanently print onto it.
Someone from the military come to us. They’re doing assault vehicles and they’re printing stuff onto the outside on the vehicles.
We’re starting to see more in-house customization. Which is cool because what that does is if the big boys are doing that in-house, the smaller players are now going to be scrambling to try and find out how they can hang with them, customization-wise.
They can’t afford the expenses of a machine (high-level), but they can come to you with 12 or 24 pieces a month and have you do embellishment for them as well.
Tell us about what you see in the future for the technology. Where is this heading? What changes are coming our way?
Don: I think the changes in the technology, more and more are going to be in the ink side. There’s not a ton of stuff we’re seeing right now in the hardware.
It’s just like when you look at the large format for the sign industry. There haven’t been any radical changes. It might be a little bit faster.
However, I think we’re going to see some changes in the ink technology. Probably one of the biggest challenges we face is the trade-off between rigid printing and flexible printing.
If you have something that flexes a lot, think of binders or leather goods, there is a trade-off between flexibility and rigid printing. Most of the items that people want printed on are rigid.
However, there are applications where you need flexibility. It’s different ink sets.
I know several of the ink companies I’m interfacing with are trying to work on this hybrid solution. One that is flexible yet performs well on some of the more difficult types of plastics.
Whereas now if you use flexible you’re going to have marginal performance. When you use flexible it tends to almost have a slimy feel for 12-24 hours as it finishes drying out.
I think that the next major step we’re going to see in the market is chemistry. The good news is that the chemistry is going to be plug and play. It’s not going to change the hardware.
We’re working on some things that will help us in the non-flat technology. What I mean by that are the rotary things.
That’s a huge growth market I think you’re going to see over the next few years. More and better solutions for cylindrical or conical shaped items. To give you better performance.
If you go back three years ago, you had Yeti and a couple of wannabes. Now, in the room I’m in, I’m looking at 5-6 manufacturers of tumblers.
We’re seeing sexier contours which are more challenging for being able to do embellishment. We’re going to see more and better processes for handling these types of items.
A story one of our customers heard: A person was printing on some highly reflective metal. The metal caused some ink to cure at the ink head. Can this happen?
Don: It’s true at some level. It’s going to create more maintenance. If you’re doing reflective items or glass, you just need to do cleaning at about double the rate of a normal machine.
When you’re printing on stainless you just must be smart. The lights should be angled slightly outward and not reflected toward the head. That should help to some degree.
It’s not going to be so much of an issue on items that are completely flat, as opposed to items that have some curvature.
You will see the folks that are doing items with some level of reflectiveness – whether it’s metallic or glass – do just have to be more diligent.
If you’re doing your maintenance at the end of each day, it’s not necessarily going to decrees the life of your print head or the machine. It’s just going to increase your time cleaning.
Where can people go to learn more or ask you questions?
Don: Our home website is ColDesi.com. Just click on the Compress UV link. We also have our dedicated site: CompressUVPrinter.com.
If they want to reach me directly, they can email me: [email protected]
My toll-free number is 877-793-3278 ext. 1006
Don: Let’s talk about 5 things that you can do as add-ons for your current customers.
1. Temporary Promotional Signs
You may be doing signs for Relay for Life or different types of events. One marketplace is the Coroplast signage.
If you’re doing the golf towels with a DTG printer you can do the sponsor signs.
You can also do open house signs for realtors.
2. Promotional Items
In that same vein, customized golf balls for a tournament. Giveaways for top level sponsors.
Pens, USB drives to give away to their customers.
3. Permanent Outdoor Signs
You’re doing t-shirts for a local bar. You see a lot of restaurants with reserved parking for their To-Go customers. They only need 2 or 3 of them.
Acrylic awards where you can do back print. Stuff that your clients are buying already.
5. Retail Items
A client like a restaurant or a bar – especially if it’s in a resort area. You can do high dollar things like tumblers, bottle openers, coasters, etc.