UV-LED printed phone case

Applications for UV-LED Printing

Paul Green works for OmniPrint International, distributor of the FreeJet line of direct-to-garment printers. He is also an industry seminar and webinar speaker and contributing writer. He has been in the printing industry for the last 10 years. After hours, Green is also an established fine artist and painter, and his work can be seen in group art shows around California.

Note: This article appears in the December 2017 issue of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!

Although UV-LED printing is still one of the newer printing technologies around today, its versatility has made it an instant must-have for a magnitude of different decorators. In the past, the ability to print on substrates like metals and hard plastics has been limited and an arduous process. Because UV printers have become more affordable, many promotional product businesses are no longer sub-contracting and instead print in house. Let’s take a look at some of the many applications UV printing can provide you.

Understanding the Limitations

Before we get into the wide array of applications, it is important to understand exactly what you can print on. Because UV-LED printers are flatbed printers, they do have a few limitations. Also, depending on the printer you use, you need to understand its own specific features. This is all important to understand before you purchase a printer for yourself.

Dimensions: The first thing is understanding the printer’s maximum print area in order to know how large of a product will fit. Depending on the product you are printing on, you may find ways to make a larger substrate work. It is not uncommon to actually remove components to achieve the desired print. For example, if you are given sunglasses to print on, the print itself is only on the arms of the sunglasses. Remove the arms and print on them by themselves. If at all possible, see if you can get just the part itself that needs to be printed on. The main point here is finding a way to make things happen. Some products may require some head scratching in order to get a print onto them.

As printers, we generally think about print dimensions in width and length; UV has the added dimension of height. This is an important thing to also understand about a UV printer’s specifications. In most cases, UV printers have anywhere from 3 to 7 inches of height clearance. Finding a printer with the most height clearance in your price range allows for a more diverse range of printing options.

Also keep in mind is the surface you will print on. UV printers are limited to a mostly flat surface. Depending on the printer and its software, you should be able to get away with a few degrees on the edges. For example, a golf ball will have about 1 square inch of print area—anything past that will cause the print head to be too far away from the surface, causing a blurry print. Some manufactures offer a special rotary device that allows you to rotate the product during printing. This allows you to print all the way around things like cans and bottles. In general, a flat surface is the best circumstance.

Bonding: Before you start printing on any new product, you should always complete a print test. Once completed, a scratch test should be done to confirm how durable the print is. UV ink should stick to most surfaces and not scratch or rub off. From time to time, you may come across a metal or plastic that does not allow the ink to bond well. In this case, an adhesion promoter for metal or plastic can be used to help create a stronger bond to the surface.

Colors and Effects: UV-LED printers do have a few ways that they can be configured when it comes to inks. Once again, this depends on what each manufacturer offers. The standard setup for UV printers is Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black, and White. This allows printing on light and dark products. It is common now for many printers to also include a clear or varnish channel. This helps enhance the overall color and adds a protective layer. Printers may also have the option to use a dual CMYK setup if you do not require white ink. This configuration allows for a faster print speed and works well for high production needs.

Currently, metallic and neon colors are not available. This goes for many printers because you would need to completely flush out all your inks to print in metallic/neon. Once done, you would need to flush and then refill again with all your standard inks. It would take a really large order to make this worth it, and you would be stuck with it. But who knows what the future provides.

Popular (and Numerous) Applications

Here are some of the many applications you can provide with UV-LED printers:

Promotional Products: UV printers have become the go-to machine for promotional products. Long gone are the days of having to pad print one color and one item at a time. The range of promotional products is massive, but to make things easy, there are many printing packages available. Many manufactures sell a specific product with a matching jig for that specific printer. Pens, for instance, are popular, and you can buy a jig that holds the maximum amount that can be printed at once. Each product jig comes with a file to place all the images to be printed on each item. For example, this allows you to print 36 pens at a time, each one with the same or different designs. The most common product and jig combinations are: pens, golf balls, bottle openers, USB memory sticks, stress balls, dog tags, keychains, mint tins, and more.

Plastic: When it comes to UV printing, plastic is the most common material. The hottest item right now is cell phone cases. You can custom-print any kind of design, and a case for nearly every phone is available in a blank. Depending on the printer manufacturer, a jig may also be available to maximize your production. The great thing about phone cases is they only cost a few dollars to make and sell in the $20-$30 range when custom made. That really goes for just about anything you can fit in your printer that people use. Golf tees are popular along with golf ball markers. On the more custom side of things, printers run things like sunglass arms with the company name on the side. It is not all about individual needs; it can be just as popular to complete a product logo for a major brand. Things that are not so common can be made more production friendly by purchasing a custom-made jig. Some manufactures will make a jig for you to hold as many parts as possible.

Metal: Metal is also an easy material to print on but should always be tested to see if an adhesion promoter needs to be used. Custom cigarette lighters are huge, and many brands and jigs are available. Dog tags are the most popular metal items and are on just about every promotional products list. Metal opens up major branding possibilities. Think about how many custom metal parts are made for motorcycles and cars alone that could fit in your printer. Things like remote control cars, planes, and drones have thousands of custom aftermarket parts that need a brand logo.

Wood: Wood seems to have that personal touch, and home-based signs and plaques can be printed on in full-color. A full-color family photo can be added to for that personal touch. Wooden boxes are one of the easiest things to print on. Cigar boxes and custom craft boxes are a popular UV-printed product. Printers that offer a clear varnish coat give any wooden print an added level of excellence.

Bags and Jackets: A hard-to-print material is polypropylene and some vinyl materials used for bags and wind breaker jackets. UV ink is solvent based and should not be used if in direct contact with skin. In many states, you now need to pay for a bag when you purchase things like groceries. This has made having your own bag a lot more common. UV printing works great on these bags because they are a manmade material. Printing with water-based inks will not work and has always caused a lack of printing for these materials. Windbreaker-style jackets are also not a problem for UV.

Glass and Clear Plastics: Custom printing on glass can be done but can be partially limited due to the need of a flat surface. Some popular printing has been done on the bottom of things like shot glasses. Clear plastic is great because you print on the back side of it—a customizable coaster, for example. A stained-glass look can also be created when printing on clear products.

Art Prints: Printing a canvas creation with most other printers is going to take a few steps and changes to how you print. With UV printers, you can print directly over a canvas that is mounted. Because you have a lot more tolerance in height, you are not limited to small canvas or canvas sheets. Adding a varnish coat at the end really helps to pop the color and add a high amount of protection.

Round Object Printing: A few companies offer what is called a roller. This is a component that attaches to your printer and allows the item to rotate during printing. This opens the door to print on water and coffee container cups. You can print all the way around the item. Bottle and can label designs can now be done for custom small-run beverages. Golf balls, ping pong balls, baseballs, and softballs are not limited to a smaller print area.

3D and Braille: When you print with a UV printer, the ink is cured solid at almost the same time it touches down on the surface. The more you print the design over again, the thicker it becomes, creating dimension and texture. An example would be printing a design with text in it. The background design is printed once but the logo is printed three times. This makes the logo itself stand up much higher than the background. Because the print itself can be raised, it also provides the ability to add Braille lettering to many surfaces. Some software has a built-in feature that creates the size and shape for printing Braille.

UV-LED printing opens the door up for us as printers. In the past, working with so many limitations has caused either a major headache to make things work or could just not be done. The amount of applications are almost endless, and people are doing new things on an almost daily basis. If you are looking to expand your abilities or product range, then UV-LED may be what you need. 

Note: This article appears in the December 2017 issue of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!