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Hybrid inks: emerging or enduring technology?

Aug 30, 2001 12:00 AM


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Inline finishing and high gloss make hybrid inks attractive

While hybrid inks will add a lot of excitement to the printing industry, when the dust settles, will the product simply be an emerging technology, or one that endures?

Twenty years in the making, hybrid systems are promoted by ink manufacturers as the hottest technology since UV. While they have only been on the market for a few years — and while suppliers' opinions on them do vary — most believe hybrids have a bright future.

“Hybrid inks are all about gloss — and gloss is king,” declares Steve D'Angelo, director of Flint Ink's (Ann Arbor, MI) Packaging Div. Flint Ink offers Gemini hybrid inks. “By enabling lithographic printers to achieve UV-gloss values with minimal investment, hybrid inks open many new markets,” notes D'Angelo.

Gale Waller, UV/EB product manager at INX International (Elk Grove Village, IL), manufacturer of the UNIcure line of hybrid inks, opines that hybrids will eventually make conventional UV-curing obsolete. “Several printers are using the ink and are having great success with it.”

Hybrid inks are a combination of conventional materials with enough UV-curing materials to set or cure well with a UV lamp at the end of the press prior to UV coating, explains Tony Bean, marketing manager for energy-curable inks, Sun Chemical (Fort Lee, NJ), manufacturer of Hy-Bryte hybrid inks. When combined with hybrid coatings and cured properly, the gloss obtained off the end of the press will remain uniform and high, he says. Also, compared to typical UV technology, in which dot gain, trapping and print contrast are often inferior to conventional inks', hybrid inks perform similarly, if not identically, to conventional inks.

BENEFITS OF INLINE UV COATING

According to Steve Simpson, senior vice president and CTO of Superior Printing Ink (New York City), manufacturer of Inter-Cure hybrid ink, there are four basic UV application methods: Apply oil-based inks with inline, water-based primer and inline UV coating (which requires a press with twin coaters); apply oil-based inks with offline UV coating; apply UV inks with inline coating; or apply hybrid inks with UV coating. “The first two applications add an extra processing step because the sheets must be taken offline to apply the UV coating,” notes Simpson. “Hybrid inks save those steps.” (In addition to suppliers previously mentioned, Cleveland-based Braden Ink Co. also offers hybrid inks.)

As Bean explains, hybrid inks enable inline UV coating.

“Because the hybrid ink dries virtually instantaneously, it can be coated inline on the press, eliminating labor costs of a second pass-through for offline coating,” Bean says. He adds that hybrid inks also speed the production process by eliminating the drying and curing time required for conventional inks, which means printed products can be shipped more quickly. Hybrids can also be used with conventional rollers, reducing press downtime for makeready.

HIGH GLOSS IN LESS TIME

Hybrid inks provide the benefits of UV coating without using additional water-based primer, Simpson notes. Water-based primer prevents glossback, which occurs due to the incompatibility of UV coatings and conventional inks. Since hybrid inks accept a UV coating inline, the need for conventional offline coatings and water-based primers is eliminated, resulting in print quality that is closer to a conventional litho ink.

Reduced glossback is a major plus, especially on applications with heavier ink coverages. Bean claims conventional offset inks can lose more than 30 points of gloss in the drying process. Hybrids lose only a few points, retaining most of the gloss enhancement.

Printers that are currently using UV technology won't have to invest in new curing or printing equipment — just new inks. Conventional (non-UV) printers will have to invest in UV lamps. “Several lamps may be needed on the press to handle heavy-coverage applications, and that requires a capital outlay,” says Bean.

Another drawback: Hybrid inks cost more than conventional offset inks, with prices comparable to standard UV inks. As Bean points out, however, analysis shows higher ink prices are counterbalanced by other factors. These include the labor savings related to inline coating and reduced handling, higher productivity due to immediate drying and shipping, and the elimination of spray powders and related maintenance.

Compared to UV inks, printers using hybrids report considerably reduced waste and better lithographic performance due to the wide operating window of the ink, Bean states. “One printer says his profitability is up 18 percent from the previous year because he can do high-gloss coating inline instead of having to outsource it,” the exec relates. “More printers are turning to hybrid ink because it's a value-added product that increases profitability.”

PROCEED WITH CAUTION

But hybrid buyers, beware! Before making the transition, it's important for printers to investigate the technology and truly understand what's involved — and whether the hybrid process is suitable for their individual printing/finishing needs.

“Printers need to know what they're getting in to, with all the aspects of hybrid inks,” Simpson cautions. “They need to sit down with ink manufacturers, coating equipment vendors and lamp suppliers to find out what benefits the use of hybrid ink might bring to their operations, or if it's even suitable for their type of work.”

Printers should also determine if their presses have the appropriate rollers and blankets, and if their pressroom consumables — such as fountain solutions — are compatible with hybrid inks. “You can make sure that the whole process gets off to a good start, by having everything set up properly from the beginning,” Simpson concludes.

Bean agrees that any printer considering the use of hybrid ink technology and UV curing should do his or her homework before making a purchase. In addition to the suppliers previously mentioned, he recommends consulting with fountain solution and roller suppliers as well. “Bring everyone involved in the technology to the table, to help put together a package that will work from the start.”

By partnering with suppliers, printers gain a wealth of knowledge. And, the more knowledge printers have going into this new technology, the better they'll be in the long run, adds Waller at INX.

Printers should also consider the supplier's ability to provide service and support.

“If capable applications personnel are available, the printer will enjoy success,” says Flint Ink's D'Angelo. “When teaming with suppliers, look for availability of personnel and depth of character.” Is the company dependable? Will technical support be there when needed? These are questions printers should ask their potential supplier.

According to D'Angelo, another important criterion when considering a hybrid ink system is the relationship between the inks and the coatings: “Because the performance of the materials being applied are contingent on each other, a printer should always try to use products from the same source.”

AN ENDURING TECHNOLOGY?

Manufacturers agree that hybrid inks can add profit to a printer's business — especially if that printer is already using UV.

“Printers using hybrids are noticing improved print performance over traditional UV systems,” says D'Angelo. “Printers that weren't previously UV-capable are thrilled that they can now produce UV-coated product on their existing litho presses, by just adding a few UV lamps.

“This is a significant development in the marketplace: If a printer had to UV-coat off line, or send the work out to be done, it could add one to two weeks to the delivery of the job. With hybrid inks, printing and coating is done in line, and orders can be delivered immediately.”

While hybrid inks will add a lot of excitement to the printing industry, when the dust settles, will the product simply be an emerging technology, or one that endures?

Bean believes the total impact of the technology remains to been seen, but he forecasts continued growth for hybrid products, because they allow printers to UV-coat in line, without the problems previously associated with the process.

“Hybrid inks allow printers to produce finished products that would have required two or more passes to duplicate with conventional inks and offline coating,” he concludes. “These attributes have been long-sought by printers, so the technology is finding wide acceptance within the industry.”

Will the acceptance of hybrid technology be wide enough to replace standard UV, the reigning king of gloss? Printers and their ink suppliers are anxiously waiting to see.

Hybrid ink for plastics

Hybrid technology is showing promise in the application of ink on paper. When the medium is plastic, hybrid inks still offer the same — if not more — advantages.

“UV-curing causes inks to sit up on top of the sheet and dry instantly,” explains Tony Bean, marketing manager for energy-curable inks at Sun Chemical (Fort Lee, NJ), manufacturer of Hy-Bryte hybrid inks. “This creates a brighter, stronger image on offset stock. Some hybrids also have good adhesion to many plastics.” When combined with UV curing, this attribute reportedly eliminates the drying problems on impervious substrates, which, according to Bean, is a major concern of oxidation drying.

Due to the dot sharpness and improved litho performance of hybrid inks, the technology is being used on narrow-web presses (in addition to sheetfed) for packaging and direct-mail applications, notes Bean.

Steve Simpson, senior vice president and CTO at Superior Printing Ink (New York City), manufacturer of Inter-Cure hybrid ink, says hybrid formulations are increasingly being used for such specialty niches as folding cartons and cosmetic packaging, which require the high-quality gloss and resistance properties of UV coating.

As plastic applications grow, so does the need for hybrid inks and coatings designed for use on plastic substrates. Gale Waller, UV/EB product manager at ink vendor INX International (Elk Grove Village, IL), manufacturer of UNIcure inks, contends that with so many new raw materials, there will be even more avenues for ink manufacturers to consider in the future.

“With a more user-friendly ink-water balance, which is not usually associated with UV, hybrid inks offer excellent gloss dry-back qualities, as well as dot reproduction and litho qualities that are more comparable to conventional inks,” Waller says. She portends that benefits such as these will be incorporated into future hybrid inks and coatings formulated specifically for plastics.