It is a fact of life that many people, in many industries, believe that energy curing – using UV or EB – is a new technology, or, at best, in its infancy. Neither is true. The technology took its first steps 40 years ago. Today, both systems offer high-technology solutions to curing – drying or bonding – of all kinds of materials, from composite laminates, plastic shoes and bags, smartphone outer casings and inkjet to printing inks. Energy curing is fast, reliable and cost-efficient.
This year, RadTech Europe – the association created by the leading players in the energy curing supply chain – celebrates its 25th anniversary. In my role as President, it is my mission to promote members’ expertise, and encourage an increase in our membership to reflect the broadening markets; to bring a knowledge of the capabilities of our core technology to an even wider audience; and to dispel any remaining myths surrounding it.
Energy Curing: Key Features
Two parallel paths using radiation curing are currently in use: ultraviolet (UV) and electron beam (EB) processing. Their acceptance was driven by the speed at which they can achieve a cure; by their suitability for use with substrates that are heat-sensitive; by their reduced energy usage compared to traditional drying methods; and because of their improved environmental credentials. This combination of benefits has proved a winner. Energy curing can eliminate most of the solvents needed for traditional processes and, for manufacturers of products of all kinds, can ease the route to VOC compliance.
Biggest Volume Market: Industrial Coatings
The greatest volume of usage of energy-curing products is, overall, seen in the industrial coatings market. Here, while the plastics, electronics, optoelectronics and automotive components segments are the fastest-growing segment, energy curing’s core business is in the production chain for laminated household furniture and flat panels, wood flooring, durable outdoor joinery items, and other laminates (including textiles). Another strong and growing segment is in coatings for specific applications such as industrial floors, and automotive and building repair work. Coils, cans and piping, as well as automotive refinishing, are specialist areas that are today also attracting growing interest.
Graphic Arts Markets
Two major graphic arts markets are also key users of energy curing: 1) overprinted varnishes – a long-established application for a fast cure at the end of the print production process that is now enjoying considerable success in product packaging, and 2) drying the printing inks themselves. The full range of printing technologies is today employing energy curing of its inks: the high-volume reel-fed flexographic process; offset lithography, both sheet- and reel-fed; digital print, both on digital offset label presses and in wide- and super-wide-format digital print; and even the highly durable but slow-to-dry thick ink layers of screen printing. Healthy growth in graphic applications is the result of a combination of factors. Packaging innovations such as the shift from rigid to flexible materials; faster high-volume print without reduced print quality; brand owners’ requirements for just-in-time delivery; and the need to reduce overall packaging costs are the key drivers.
Showcase for Market Innovation
RadTech Europe regularly holds industry-focused events, including its annual Conference and Exhibition (this year taking place in Basel, Switzerland, October 15-17), which is open to all, including end users, as a showcase of achievements and an indication of future applications, as well as an outstanding networking platform. A recent conference innovation session highlighted several intriguing markets where there is already activity. Curing of membrane switches and circuit panels; inkjetted solar panels; automotive glass and windshield repairs; contact lenses; rapid product prototyping; medical disposables; dental repair work; and even cosmetic fingernail decoration are among the many ‘new’ markets for energy curing’s proven benefits.
Environment and Sustainability
Environmental concerns are becoming an important focus around the globe, and EU as well as worldwide health and safety legislation are driving product manufacturers to re-evaluate their production processes to make them more sustainable, and to make recycling more viable. The EB and UV curing processes do not contribute any undesirable elements to a product or to packaging – even food packaging. Their potential to reduce energy demand and greenhouse gases, as well as the well-documented reductions in emissions of VOCs and HAPs can contribute significantly to sustainable manufacturing.
A Local/Global Balanced Focus
As globalization becomes a reality, while individual geographical regions and specific product markets require a localized response, the need to create a technological ‘umbrella’ is also today a factor. This is a key focus for RadTech Europe. Consumer health and safety and the needs of brand security, as well as a wider arena for developing knowledge, make it important to create an international interface and knowledge base, both horizontally and vertically, in the industries where we are active. We need to work within the local culture and manufacturing agenda, while applying the broad context of the technology changes happening all around the world. The manufacturers of the products where our curing techniques are used have the same customers as we have, and their needs are just as important as those of our partner component manufacturers. That’s why today, we, as well as our sister RadTech associations in North America, South America, China, Malaysia, Japan and Australia, believe it’s important to interact with other related international and regional associations – for example, our friends in EUPIA, the European printing inks association, and CEFIC – the European chemical industry council.
A Call to Action
The UV/EB curing platform is certainly a dynamic partner for today’s technology base across many manufacturing industries and many geographies. EMEA is today the largest overall market, (particularly the German-speaking countries), and RadTech Europe wants to maintain market growth and knowledge through an extended membership base at all levels of the supply chain, from raw material manufacturer and equipment supplier to end-use manufacturer. This is my call to action. At a time when we are cautiously recovering from a major economic downturn, we can be ready to bring the benefits of UV and EB curing on to an even broader raft of application areas in a marketplace aligned to sustainability and the environment as well as to efficient, cost-effective manufacturing. In this respect, I believe we are offering the perfect cure.
To trace the whole story of energy curing, and the latest markets and applications, log on to the RadTech Europe website, www.radtech-europe.com, which features an in-depth knowledge center. Designed to assist interested parties across the value chain, the RadTech Europe website also outlines, in easily-accessible language, the main industry sectors where the technology is used today.