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A Stretch Of The Imagination

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09 December 2016 - In a move designed to encourage graphic print firms to broaden their interests into 'light industrial' markets, Fujifilm has created an ink and printer package that enables customisation and short-run design in the inherently long-run thermoforming plastics sector. Thermoformers themselves have also spotted the premium value opportunity.

Strategy by design

Marketers have long known that when it comes to growing a business there are three fundamental strategies: try to sell new products to your current customers; sell your current products to new customers or sell new products to new customers. Academics call these approaches respectively: product development, market development and diversification strategies.

Over the last couple of decades, the wide format graphic print industry has seen elements of all three in the wholesale shift from the artistically analogue screen print process to the push-button precision of today’s digital inkjet market. Along the way, traditional printers adopted clean, easy-to-use inkjet technologies and new entrants were attracted by the simplicity and low cost of the digital machines. Screen print waned as inkjet waxed. Better working conditions and environmental concerns demoted solvent-based inks in favour of instantly drying, UV-curing formulations, with UV becoming the industry’s technology of choice.

For suppliers of machines and consumables it’s been a relentless pursuit to maximise the potential of inkjet technologies. The aim is to give buyers what they have asked for or dreamt of – better results (in terms of colours, design, finish, definition, media, speed and cost) – while allowing print businesses to make better returns.

Thermoforming – standardised products with customised designs

Large format printing has been looking beyond traditional graphics production for some time. As a market-leading ink manufacturer and printer distributor, Fujifilm has used its in-house expertise to push out into a number of new markets, with light industrial applications and processes being an attractive lure. One such process is thermoforming – an application about to undergo a creative renaissance

Thermoforming is a manufacturing process in which plastic is heated to a malleable temperature, vacuum pressed into a specific shape in a mould, cooled, then trimmed to create a finished product. Historically designs pre-printed on thermoformed mouldings have used the screen print process. Because of screen’s lengthy and painstaking prepress set up, it’s a process best suited to long runs and standard designs.

Inkjet, by contrast, offers much lower set up costs with faster turnaround times meaning shorter run lengths become much more cost effective and practical. Because inkjet printing is digital from start to finish, all print images are created and sent to print directly from the software. An inkjet printer can print a hundred copies of the same image, or just as easily print a hundred distinct images.

This means each print can be a one-off, customised to a retailer or personalised to individual customers, with unique text, colour coding or brand logos. In short, inkjet technology offers premium value print, something that appeals to thermoformers and printers alike, with new business opportunities for those that step up to the challenge.

Uvijet KV – Mastering Thermomorphology

Regular UV-curing ink, however, has an inherent disadvantage for thermoforming in that it dries to a brittle finish. To overcome this Fujifilm developed an entirely new UV ink range especially for thermoforming, Uvijet KV.

As well as being able to reproduce strong, vibrant, long-lasting colours, Uvijet KV has to be extremely flexible, even after curing. It must heat, deform and then cool without cracking or flaking. Uvijet KV elongates between up to 1000%, comfortably in the right zone for mass production. Tests prove the ink can be moulded with 90° corners without cracking.

Importantly the ink thermoforms at temperatures between 150°C and 200°C – a range wide enough to work with all the main substrates, including polystyrene, PETG, polycarbonate, acrylic, PVC and ABS. Thermoforming is most common with a design on the outside of the substrate and away from the mould. But since inside forming – with the print between the mould and substrate – is also in demand, Uvijet KV has been formulated to cope with both techniques.
Pure ingredients, exacting process

To work perfectly every time, Uvijet KV’s ingredients must be absolutely pure, which entails setting rigorous standards for suppliers even before manufacturing starts. Then the whole process must undergo strict scrutiny and testing at each stage, a more intense regime compared to regular UV ink production. The manufacturing process uses Fujifilm’s proprietary Micro-V dispersion technology, milling pigments down to an ultra-fine, sub-micron scale. This allows the ink to be fully loaded with pigment. While the ink produces strong, vibrant colours like the other UV ink ranges, it has the exceptional post-cure properties needed to be heated, stretched and cooled and still offer the same quality of image as the most straightforward two-dimensional job.

Without ultra-pure ingredients, the ink would be susceptible to flaking and cracking, leaving the moulded part with surface defects. Uvijet KV is a demanding ink to make, but the results are worth it.

Protected by patents

To develop the Uvijet KV formulation, Fujifilm had to reinvent the conventional properties of UV ink. The endeavour involved a worldwide effort stretching from the development and manufacturing plant in Broadstairs in the UK to Fujifilm’s Advanced Marking Research Laboratories (AMRL) in Japan.

One of the challenges in the development process was to learn how to measure and control precisely the elastic modulus of the ink. This is the amount of force needed to make it elongate. Another critical calculation was the glass transition temperature, the point at which already cured ink can be deformed then reset after thermoforming.

In all other respects, Uvijet KV has to perform identically to any other inkjet formulation so, for example, the viscosity must be correct to work well with greyscale print heads and jet with absolute precision. Along the way, Fujifilm made a number of scientific breakthroughs, some of which are now protected by patents.

The success of the project stems from a number of advantages the company enjoys: a profound knowledge of the science of ink; an understanding of print applications dating from the earliest screen ink days and precise control over the manufacturing process in a newly expanded, award-winning plant in Broadstairs.

Acuity Advance Select - thermoforming print partner

Uvijet KV was purpose-designed for the Acuity Select and Select HS range of printers. The Acuity
machines form part of the most successful high definition, mid-range wide format printer platform in the world, with over 4000 units installed.

Near-photographic images, pinpoint accuracy

The Acuity Advance Select features a flatbed measuring 1.25 by 2.5m (double for the X2 version), capable of printing 32sqm per hour (60sqm for the HS version) using four, six or eight colour channels. In terms of output, Acuity is a workhorse, requiring on average less than an hour’s maintenance per week.

Owners typically use their Acuity for precision jobs including lenticular jobs and fine quality output for buyers involved in, for example, fashion, cosmetics and luxury goods. The Acuity produces backlit graphics with the vividness and saturation previously only possible with photographic imaging.

The Acuity’s print heads use variable drop technology. Each drop of ink is formed individually to a size between six and 42 picolitres, offering a print quality visually equivalent to 1440dpi. Compared to standard fixed-drop-size inkjet printers, the results are sharp, precise images with smooth transitions and quarter tones, and clear text as small as three- or four-point reversed. A multi-zoned vacuum table ensures accurate registration on multiple passes. Apart from the Uvijet KV ink itself, the Acuity printers used for thermoforming print are absolutely unmodified. They use exactly the same print modes as for standard graphic display output.

Seizing the premium value opportunity

The use of inkjet printing in thermoforming is in its early stages, but that is likely to change quickly. Already several Acuity and Uvijet KV packages have been installed. One of the early adopters has been Tismo Products BV in the Netherlands. Managing Director, Mr Jeroen Maessen commented: 'I have been particularly impressed by the print quality that we have been able to achieve with the Acuity Advance Select 4006 and the thermoforming properties of Uvijet KV. We have plans to bring these benefits to market in a new concept based around the personalisation characteristics of a digital solution.'

Those that spot the potential are likely to be either thermoformers frustrated by their inability to carry out short production runs or customise their output for individual buyers, or graphics printers with experience in print customisation.

As with most innovations, the early bird gets the worm. While buyers need to be confident enough to invest in a dedicated printer for thermoforming ink, the market, so far, is wide open. Early adopters using their creativity to produce inspiring results will stimulate demand and open up a new market. To foresee thermoforming using digital inkjet technologies as an exciting business opportunity is not too big a stretch of the imagination.

This article appears in the latest Sign Africa Journal.