Bridging the gap between digital & offset printing

Spotting an opportunity: the benefits of digital spot UV in the UK

11th Jan 2013

The use of digital spot UV in the UK has lagged far behind the development of technology itself. So, why have British printing companies been so slow on the uptake and is this situation likely to change?


Until recently, there was one area of print that had remained resolutely non-digital. While the digital revolution has transformed so many aspects of print, creating visual appeal and tactile impact with spot UV varnishing was previously left to the world of analogue. Sure, there were plenty of digital flood coaters suitable for short-run applications, and a handful of bespoke options, such as Kodak’s NexGlosser specifically for its NexPress, but the options were limited when it came to being able to produce spot varnish digitally.


But, as was perhaps inevitable with a finishing process so popular for creating shelf impact and a luxury feel on a whole raft of products, most notably book covers and packaging, digital is now getting involved. The raft of new machines being released offer the advantages typical of digital processes: doing away with the physical stencil needed in conventional coating, be that a plate, a blanket or a silk screen; and minimal makeready times and wastage when switching from job to job.

But, despite these benefits, the UK is being surprisingly slow in embracing digital coating, in comparison with other countries.

Take the case of Derbyshire’s Autobond, for example. The company has shipped its SUV inkjet coating machine to a dozen customers across the globe, with installations from continental Europe to Australia, contributing to a situation where the firm is currently working to a 22- week lead time on all its products.

And yet the sole UK installation of the device remains the very first user: Sense Creative in Darlington. "I don’t know why, but people are really up for it in Nigeria, but not in the UK," muses Autobond managing director John Gilmore.

French manufacturer MGI is experiencing a similar trend with its JETvarnish system, kit that, as the name implies, can produce ‘normal’ spot coating as well as a high-build effect of up to 100 micron (or even 200 micron using two passes). The manufacturer has more than 130 installs of its JETvarnish system worldwide, and a queue of customers is awaiting delivery of the latest version, the JETvarnish 3D, with 25 set to be shipped by the end of February.

Trade nation
Gilmore feels that slow take-up in this country may be due to trade finishing, despite recent closures, featuring more strongly in the UK print industry than in other countries’. "Perhaps it’s because companies in the UK are so well-served by trade finishers," he says.

The question becomes, then, why trade finishers aren’t jumping at the chance to potentially run spot UV finishing more cost-effectively and speedily than currently.

The answer, from those trade finishers who have cast an interested but also highly scrutinising eye over digital spot UV, is that these advantages aren’t yet in place.

Firstly, inkjet coating machines don’t come cheap, and represent at least a six-figure investment – perhaps as much as £240,000. And the special inkjet varnishes used are much more expensive than conventional varnishes. So having the right business model is going to be crucial.

Peter Boax, managing director at Fine Film in Tiverton, describes the concept as "brilliant", but not right for his business at present due to digital lending itself of course to short-run work. "You’ve got to be putting a serious amount of work through it for that sort of outlay, maybe it would work if you had the sort of set-up where the machine was being used all the time."

Jon Olley, managing director at Coatings Direct, agrees that these machines, due to material costs and their speed, are only economical for short-run jobs. He agrees that this is not, at the moment, the kind of job that most often crops up. "The major disadvantages from my point-of-view are the slower running speeds and the high cost of the varnish – this is similar to printing in a way, where usually litho printing on longer run work is still more cost-effective than digital printing," he says. "We regularly get spot UV runs of above 20,000. 20,000 sheets will take us around six hours including makeready on our SPS high-speed screen cylinder. To produce this type of order digitally would take almost twice this amount of time."

Unlike Boax, however, Olley does feel he might eventually have enough short-run work coming in alongside the long-run jobs, to justify investment in a digital machine to complement, not replace, his analogue kit: "One small machine would possibly be a good investment for us to produce proofing and short-run work."

Both he and Boax do still have reservations, however, about whether the technology is yet developed and sophisticated enough to meet their demands. "For us, the quality and registration has to be spot on," says Boax. "I have customers where the UV needs to look like glass with pinpoint registration. I’d never say never, but inkjet UV is not for me yet."

Olley, meanwhile, is impressed with the quality of the results he has seen so far, along with digital coating’s ability to vary the depth of coating with ease. What concerns him is the lifetime and replacement costs of the inkjet heads used. "It has not yet been proven how long they will last on a digital varnishing machine before they need changing. A single printhead costs around £5,000 and six of these are required on a standard B2 portrait machine," he notes.

Head strong
To these technical reservations, the kit vendors do have convincing reassurances, however. Autobond says the Xaar heads used on its SUV have been around for three or four years, with no failures yet, while MGI installs different heads depending on the application, and Abergel says that all of them have performed well thus far: "The heads have performed above expectation since 2008. We have never had to change a head that was not due to operator error. There is no set lifetime as long as the customer uses our specifically designed varnish and performs the daily maintenance procedures."

And advocates of digital coating would respond to trade finishers Boax and Olley’s reservations about the business-case for adopting this technology, by suggesting that, while short-run spot UV may have not quite taken off in the UK yet, it is about to.

"Generally, there’s a domino effect, with first-mover advantage followed very quickly by others," says Abergel, reporting that the firm expects to install three systems in the UK in the first quarter of this year.

Sense Creative’s managing director Tim Thompson certainly feels that demand for short-run UV is on the increase, and is very pleased that his company got in there first to really capitalise on this growing trend.

"We love getting involved with new things," he says. "We put the Autobond SUV in at around the same time as we got back into digital. We wanted to differentiate ourselves and that’s where the spot UV came in."

Sense has been able to promote and generate interest in this application by offering spot UV as an incentive for customers using the company’s e-commerce platform, That Print Thing. "People who sign up for That Print Thing get free spot UV on their business cards – it’s like an upgrade," says Thompson.

"It’s a great little process, it works really well for us," he adds, praising how quickly the SUV inkjet can move from one job to the next: "We’ll load up the sheets in the hopper and if job one is 20 sheets, while that is running, we can call up the bitmap for the next job and then move straight onto it. There is no makeready so we can run the machine without stopping, just flashing through the jobs."

So while a printer’s first instinct might be to leave spot UV to the trade finishers, it might be just as lucrative for them to invest here.

And digital coating won’t necessarily be confined to digitally printed products. Market leader MGI reports that 95% of its existing installations are at offset printers, and Gilmore says Autobond’s core customers are also litho printers. So, although Sense currently only uses its digital coater for digitally printed work, it looks, if the example of other countries is anything to go by, that UK litho printers could also soon be considering digital spot UV.

And UK printers may feel more inclined to adopt digital coating due to a steadily expanding range of kit to choose from. Joining Autobond and MGI’s offering now is the Spotmatic, from Czech Republic manufacturer Komfi, a machine which is on its way but, says sales manager at UK distributor Friedheim International Stuart Bamford, has gone back to the drawing board on a couple of things following user feedback post-Drupa. ("We are optimistic about the potential once it’s market-ready," he says.)

So, to say the UK is firmly against the idea of digital spot UV coating, would perhaps be hasty. Certainly trade finishers will have to think carefully about the case for splashing out on such an expensive piece of kit when short-run spot UV seems only on the cusp of taking off. And printers may well feel similarly, and that their local trade finisher has got all of their spot UV needs covered anyway.

But both digital and litho printers wanting to give themselves the edge over the competition may well start bringing short-run spot UV in-house. With a swathe of fresh installations and new models coming to market this year, there is certainly cause to watch this space, or rather spot.

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