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UV-LED Inkjet Technology Offers Solutions for Optimal Prototyping

by Roland DGA Corp.

February-March, 2014
The following article contains excerpts from Roland DGA Corp.’s white paper, “How UV-LED Inkjet Technology is Increasing Profits for Flexographic Printers.” Find the paper in its entirety at www.rolanddga.com.

When it comes to earning business in today’s competitive marketplace, having the ability to quickly turn around a realistic package prototype can make all the difference. Until recently, the prototype creation process has been fraught with challenges, including how to easily and cost-effectively achieve something that closely resembles the final product in a short window of time. In addition, prototyping often creates the need for specialized proofing equipment or for stopping the press to run samples, which causes considerable inconvenience, and often costs thousands of dollars in lost production revenue. Today’s advancements in digital UV inkjet printers and printer/cutters offer effective printing solutions to help overcome these challenges for printers, finishers and universities that are teaching the art of package design.

Digital UV inkjet printers are revolutionizing the prepress process
Digital UV inkjets are capable of producing realistic package prototypes in a matter of hours, without the long set-up time, waste and returns often associated with traditional prototyping methods. These machines can print directly onto a variety of different substrates, including the flexible substrates and clear films often used in flexographic printing jobs – including PET, PP and shrink wrap – making it much easier to accurately match colors and provide “proof of concept.” Advanced features make it possible to incorporate unique, eye-catching varnish and embossing effects to add value and appeal. Because realistic prototypes can be created without taking the press offline, a digital UV inkjet printer can save valuable time and money, reducing the associated material and labor costs, and allowing a prospective customer to see a prototype that resembles the finished product in every aspect – right down to the desired packaging material – within hours, rather than days or weeks.

A big part of the prepress process is proofing, which can be expensive. According to Hiroshi Ono, group product manager, Specialty Products at Roland DGA Corp., many label and folding carton manufacturers rely on water-based inkjet proofing devices to curb costs, but these platforms don’t always support the types of films and substrates used to produce flexible packaging, which can cause problems when the job goes to production. UV-LED inkjet printers deliver both the precise color imaging of water-based inkjets and the broad media support needed to effectively simulate on-press results, at a fraction of the time and cost. A UV printer can also enhance and expedite the prepress process when more than one printing facility will be involved in the project. Advanced color management software – including programs from GMG, CGS and EFI – dramatically improves color-matching accuracy and simplifies the entire color verification process, while ensuring consistent results across prepress and production platforms – whether flexographic, rotogravure or lithographic.

From the finishing aspect, package designers and brand managers often want to see a variety of options that differentiate their products from their competitors while capturing the look and feel of finished goods. In addition to printing CMYK, some UV inkjet printers can be equipped with specialty inks, including clear and white ink. The ability to print high opacity white ink especially is important because many flexographic jobs involve printing on metallic, clear films and shrink wrap. Clear coat offers advantages, including an unprecedented high gloss finish on output, special varnishing and embossing effects, scratch and chemical resistance, as well as enhanced outdoor durability. Digital UV inkjet printers that support specialty inks improve and expedite the proofing process, allowing the highest degree of accuracy and assuring the success of the final press run. Other finishing options include die-cutting and scoring. A UV-LED printer with integrated contour cutting not only prints but also performs scoring, kiss-cutting and die-cutting all in one seamless workflow.

Until recently, UV inkjet printing has been limited by its curing technology. Conventional UV lamps reached temperatures as high as 1500°F (800°C), which virtually eliminated the possibility of printing on heat-sensitive material. Today’s UV-LED lamps generate very little heat, allowing them to print on a wide variety of materials, including clear, metallic, colored and shrink films.

Another UV-LED technology benefit is low cost of operation. Ono said the cost of producing a sample on a UV-LED device can be as low as a few cents per sample, compared to the estimated dollar-per-sample cost for the same proof generated on a water-based inkjet. Outsourcing to create proofs can run anywhere from $50 to $500 per sample, and running a press to produce samples in-house would be even more expensive. Plus, UV-LED inkjet proofs can be produced on demand – in one or two hours, if needed – allowing design and production changes to be implemented in real time.

Why universities have adopted UV technology
Outside of the business arena, UV technology has found an enthusiastic audience of aspiring package designers. Across the US, several of the most renowned package design schools have adopted digital UV technology – including the Sonoco Institute of Package Design and Graphics at Clemson University and Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) School of Print Media – which allows them to explore design concepts on the vast range of substrates that flexographic presses support. Having the unique ability to print, score, die cut and emboss actual press substrates to exacting specifications makes an ideal platform for both instructional and research purposes in the university setting.

The Sonoco Institute of Package Design and Graphics at Clemson University in Clemson, SC, strives to answer questions such as “What makes packaging appealing to consumers?” and “Why do certain colors, textures and graphics generate interest while others get passed over?” Each year, more than 200 students study the art of packaging design in the Institute’s state-of-the-art facilities, which include a cutting-edge prototyping lab.

“Our students are interested in developing real packaging for real applications,” said Dr. R. Andrew Hurley, assistant professor. The lab’s equipment includes a Roland VersaUV LEJ-640 64-inch UV inkjet printer. Originally, an LEC-330 was being used for the program, but the Institute recently replaced that model with an LEJ-640 to be able to print on thicker stocks, such as corrugated boards. “It was liberating knowing that our designs would come out perfectly on the final manufacturing material without having to print on roll stock, cut, glue and score, only to then find a smear or air bubbles. With the VersaUV, we’re able to save time, money and materials, and design according to our specifications, not to the limitations of our equipment,” Hurley said.

Sonoco Institute’s students have run projects on plastic bagging material, thermoformable substrates, corrugated cardboard and several types of paperboard. According to Hurley, students leverage the VersaUV’s capabilities to run multiple iterations to determine what will work best for their projects, and the results are “stunning.” Using the CYMK plus white and clear inks, students can reverse print with a basecoat of white ink, produce full-color images, and finish each project with unique patterns, textures and varnishing effects using layers of clear ink. “Elaborate textures and effects like these would be very expensive to simulate on other equipment,” Hurley noted.

Serving as more than just an educational opportunity for students, Sonoco Institute’s faculty and staff have trained employees from more than 600 corporations in the art of digital design. In addition, corporations can utilize the Institute’s comprehensive packaging design and testing process to develop specific prototypes and then test them next to competitors’ products in the Institute’s fully stocked grocery store. Shoppers who visit the store are given a list of products to purchase and are asked to wear eye-tracking glasses, which record the movement of their eyes – via inward- and outward-facing cameras – as shoppers make their selections. The glasses provide a window into the cognitive process that helps influence purchases.

Digital UV technology is equally important for Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Media Sciences in Rochester, NY. The school is known for leveraging its state-of-the-art facilities to prepare graduates for careers in printing and publishing. Students test the latest in printing technology from a variety of manufacturers. RIT also has incorporated a Roland VersaUV LEC-330, and its advanced 30-inch UV inkjet printer/cutter has helped to fill an important need in the school’s curriculum and research.

“It’s an incredibly valuable tool for teaching flexographic application concepts, including packaging prototypes,” said Erich Lehman, premedia facilities coordinator. “Students enjoy experimenting with the wide variety of substrates that can be run on the LEC, and since it prints white ink we are not limited to using opaque substrates,” Lehman said. He added that the clear ink has been an incredibly popular means to add texture and interest to student projects.

Students have used the technology to turn out some really innovative work, producing packaging designs that have earned top honors in the American Packaging Corp./Kraft Product Design Challenge. During the four-week challenge, students from the industrial and graphic design departments worked with packaging science students to create new packaging for familiar brands, such as Planters Peanuts, Wheat Thins and Oreos. The teams’ formal presentations were judged by representatives from the sponsoring companies.

Professor Alex Lobos of RIT’s School of Industrial Design noted that the ability to produce actual prototypes rather than appearance models made a critical difference for the students and judges. “The packages were created as designed – with nothing lost in translation, and students were able to have a much deeper discussion about design and material choices since they were printing on the final production substrate,” Lobos said. Lehman added, “Printers like the VersaUV represent an important facet of the industry’s future. It’s really exciting to have the technology available and to see what the students are able to do with it.”

Digital UV-LED large format inkjets are ushering in a new era of package prototyping production. More and more package designers, printers and converters are adding UV inkjets to their prepress operations as they learn how quickly and inexpensively these devices deliver prototypes that look exactly like the finished product – using virtually any substrate, including flexible packaging, clear films and shrink wrap. This technology translates into competitive advantages, including but not limited to providing enhanced services to existing customers, attracting new business and maximizing efficiency.

Roland DGA Corp. serves North and South America as the marketing, sales and distribution arm for Roland DG Corp. Founded in 1981 and listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Roland DG of Hamamatsu, Japan is a worldwide leader in the sign, graphic arts, vehicle graphics, engraving, ADA signage, direct part marking, rapid prototyping, 3D modeling, and dental CAD/CAM industries. Roland DG is affiliated with Roland Corp., renowned in the music industry for developing MIDI technology and for producing digital music equipment including drums, keyboard synthesizers, recording equipment and other related technologies.