When it comes to promoting UV LED curing, suppliers in the industry tend to focus on the long list of desirable product features and benefits as well as direct comparisons with conventional mercury lamps that position UV LED technology as the superior option. The argument for UV LED curing is so attractive and so well documented that it has fostered a notable increase in the number of system and formulation vendors seeking a share of the pie. The increasingly competitive supplier environment has also driven significant annual improvements in UV LED system performance and reliability. The collective result of this activity is that most narrow-web converters are now familiar with UV LED curing and view it positively; however, the flexo industry en masse remains apprehensive about making the switch.
Factors slowing adoption are two-fold. First, the unknown risk associated with making and navigating technological change can appear to outweigh the promoted list of benefits and product features. While unknown risks are sometimes real, they can also be a matter of false perception and misinformation. In either case, emotional fear associated with unknown risk weighs on converters facing a binary purchasing decision between UV LED and mercury arc lamps, and user bias always favors the incumbent technology. Second, the true value of UV LED technology varies by application and installation and is very difficult to grasp prior to direct personal use. Adoption is easily deterred without a clear and quantifiable impact on both the bottom line and overall process. Suppliers are essentially asking converters to take a leap of faith based solely on strong talking points made by UV LED evangelists. The unintended outcome is that most converters opt for safety by staying with conventional mercury systems and buying time by casually exploring how UV LED systems might impact their manufacturing processes at some point in the future. Factors delaying adoption are rooted in the human belief that the devil you know is likely better than the devil you don’t.
So how does an industry advance technologically when the supply chain is largely promoting UV LED curing benefits and products to narrow-web converters reluctant to give up mercury arc lamps? It’s by suppliers acknowledging that the fears flexo converters hold with respect to UV LED curing are real and then working collectively on application development and education to demonstrate and quantify value while minimizing risk. Only when the benefits of change are clearly shown to outweigh the risks of change will a significant portion of the narrow web industry migrate to UV LED technology.
For greater adoption to occur, it is also necessary for converters to acknowledge that new technology is never a direct and seamless replacement for mature technology. There are always trade-offs as well as a learning curve that must be navigated during any migration period. Those who have already adopted UV LED curing are already ahead of those who haven’t in terms of understanding what is possible, navigating the transition, and realizing the operational advantages. Despite any challenges they may have encountered in switching, most converters currently using UV LED are very much on board and have no intention of going back to mercury lamps. They are learning when and where UV LED is most effective and are in an optimal position to influence the types of formulations and systems being further developed.
For converters who haven’t yet embraced UV LED curing, their single biggest fear is that they won’t be able to run a portion of their jobs on a UV LED press. Complicating this further is the fact that they are totally unsure which jobs that includes. This is in direct conflict with the existing confidence level converters have for the range of products that can be run with mercury arc lamps today. In a matter of speaking, jobs that can be run with mercury arc lamps are the devil converters already know. What can and cannot be run with UV LED are the devil converters simply don’t yet know. In order to increase adoption, the onus is on UV LED suppliers to develop and demonstrate the range of jobs that are possible with UV LED curing as well as the operating windows under which jobs can be successfully run. In doing so, converter confidence will grow, and the market shift to UV LED will accelerate.
I’m a huge advocate of UV LED curing technology. The list of formulations that can be cured with UV LED lamp heads is long, and there are numerous ink, coating, and adhesive applications where UV LED curing is the best solution today. Nevertheless, there is still development work that remains particularly in the area of functional coatings. In addition, not all formulations and not all UV LED systems operate on parity, and as with all new technology, it’s difficult for potential users to comprehend the differences. This sometimes results in mis-matched LED systems, formulations, and press conditions that struggle to produce quality product and only serve to frustrate converters and reinforce the risk of change.
For those of you heading to Label Expo Brussels this week, my advice is to be honest with UV LED curing suppliers about your fears. Challenge suppliers to provide you with the facts about what has been formulated for UV LED flexo and what is still in development. It is also essential that you be willing to consider how UV LED can benefit your operations even if the technology doesn’t fulfill all your production needs today. There are workarounds that can be incorporated into jobs, and the short list of missing UV LED formulations will be available soon.
Some concluding thoughts borrowed from an article entitled Five Strategies for Managing the Fear of Change by Robert Tanner (https://managementisajourney.com/five-strategies-for-managing-the-fear-of-change/) are that it's very difficult to credibly sell change based on benefits alone. All change carries some degree of risk, and UV LED suppliers simply aren’t addressing risk. To help converters overcome their fear of change, it is necessary for suppliers to demonstrate how and when the benefits of adopting UV LED technology outweigh the risks. As long as industry suppliers are solely focused on selling UV LED products, features, and benefits to converters who are hesitant to embrace UV LED technology until systems and formulations produce all the jobs that mercury arc lamps do today, the road to majority adoption will be long and slow. Fear of change comes from a rational place. When people fear change, often it’s because they question whether where you want to take them is better than where they are now. Telling converters about the superiority of UV LED is simply not enough. We must show them through greater industry collaboration. Together we can prove the value of the technology, accelerate the transition, and collectively realize the long list of sustainability, economic, and performance benefits UV LED technology offers the narrow-web label market.