LED UV curing is state-of-the-art technology used in a wide range of industrial applications and is rapidly gaining traction for the measurable advantages it delivers, from superior quality and sustainability to improved productivity and worker safety.
With thousands of conventional UV and LED UV systems and more than 10,000IR systems installed around the world, AMS Spectral UV -- a Baldwin Technology Company, manufactures high-powered and versatile LEDUV, conventional UV and IR systems. They’re used by a vast range of industries to cure or dry inks, coatings, finishes, treatments, adhesives and polymers.
AMS SpectralUV was one of the first experienced radiation companies to develop high-powered largeformat LEDUV curing systems suitable for high-quality industrial UV curing. As with its conventional UV systems, the company customizes LED UV to suit wideranging applications that require high-performance, resiliency and reliability. This encompasses everything from highly specific laboratory-grade systems to largescale, high-speed manufacturing lines. The company also manufactures robust IR and hot-air drying systems that can be utilized in converting and other industrial processes.
AMS Spectral UV offers an extensive range of standard technologies, all customizable to specific applications with a number of standout features. The company can provide partial or complete systems tailored to the technical specifications required by the application, including customizable control systems and a range of water-cooling options, to best match the needs of the customer and the process
Manufacturing Outlook editor Martin Thomas sat down with AMS Spectral UV Executive Vice President Hans Ulland and Director of Operations and Key Accounts Michael Derrick to explore the limitless industrial applications for LED UV curing and its many advantages.
Q: Tell us the back story that laid the foundation for the company’s leadership in industrial UVA applications today. Ulland:
I was one of the founders of Air Motion Systems over 20 years ago and we jumped right into the high-powered UV area of the graphic arts market. Then, in 2006, my business partner, Steve Metcalf, was at a drupa trade show [the world’s leading trade show for print technologies]and recognized the potential value of LED as a way of producing UV spectrum and started down that path.
We were very early into the way LED was functioning and we went out and bought some of the very earliest prototypes of chips or dies. We had to actually cut the chips apart by hand with a saw, which was a bit delicate, especially given their cost back then.
We started very early on jumping into this market to see if we could find LEDs that were going to be powerful enough to be able to handle inks and coatings in the graphic arts market. Once we achieved that, it was a springboard moving forward. We got into all high-powered applications that were available with LED.
Q: Ultraviolet light has been used in industrial processes for a long time and the technology for using LED to produce UV is relatively new, only being commercialized in the mid 2000s. What has your experience been as a pioneer in industrial uses of LED UV technology?
Ulland: The demands from industrial businesses early on would be to produce something that’s, say, 76 inches wide and has a specified number of modules and be able to produce many, many different wavelengths. Unfortunately, the commercially available product to produce the material was simply not available at the time.
So we worked with all the different suppliers and we really focused our abilities on becoming a world-class integrator of LED chips to the industrial businesses that were out in the marketplace. People would come to us with a requirement, and we would work with them diligently to see what was possible. We’d search the world over to get the core materials that we needed to manufacture it. And then we’d work closely with them to build the best possible system for their application.
Q: How have things changed since AMS created its first UV LED curing system back in 2009?
Ulland: For one thing, AMS does not have to cut the bases of the chipsets with a handsaw anymore. Another is that with the commercially available materials best in class, AMS made the decision not to manufacture the actual dies themselves.
We do all the work with the design of the dies and the requirements, but there are multiple suppliers in the world that can produce what we need them to, so we can actually specialize in meeting the customer’s needs and not have to spend all of our time building the material to make LEDs work. For us, it’s all about integrating the best that’s available in the marketplace for the customer. And again, what’s commercially available is just incredible.
AMS started with a UVA base of 400 nanometers, which was the ideal, and then went down to 385. We were able to find that we could make commercially available lower wavelengths that met the customer’s requirements a lot more easily.
Q: Michael, tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up here.
I received my mechanical engineering degree at Iowa State University and then I joined AMS over 12 years ago starting as a design engineer. I received my MBA as well and spent the last two years working around developing and integrating LED UV and conventional UV systems into industrial processes and other applications.
Q: Michael, as a resident expert, what are the advantages that industrial UV systems have over traditional mercurybased UV systems?
Derrick: There are still places where conventional UV is used, but LEDs have a much more focused energy spectrum. A conventional UV lamp is kind of like a blunt-force hammer. You’re going to get the wavelength you need, but you’re also going to get a ton of other infrared wavelengths which is basically just heat, and you just waste energy.
With LEDs, you’re just getting that one specific peak energy beam at the exact wavelength you need. In most cases, it’s 365, 385 or 395 nanometers. And that peak energy band allows you then to basically customize the chemistry of whatever you’re curing for it to be very reactive. So when you dial that in, basically.
you can oftentimes replace 10 or so conventional UV lamps with just one LED lamp, which obviously saves money and a great amount of energy.
Some of the other benefits are that there’s no ozone emitted with LED UV. All of our systems are water cooled, mainly because we build higher-power applications and there’s no air extraction or fans required with our LED UV systems.
LED lamps are also all solid-state. There are zero moving parts. So from a maintenance standpoint, the LEDs don’t wear out and need maintenance as often as conventional UV. They don’t have lamps that need to be replaced every 1,000 hours like a conventional UV lamp, so that saves downtime and process time.
They’re also instant on/off versus conventional UV which typically have a warmup period before they run. Then after you shut off the lamps,for a line stoppage for instance, you have to wait for them to cool down before you can start them up again. So a lot of valuable process and running time is wasted with conventional lamps where with LEDs, you just turn it on and off instantly.
Q: Hans, how scalable is an LED solution? Is it possible to take lab or prototype production requirements and scale up to industrial production with LEDs?
Ulland: It is an absolutely fantastic technology to use to really get into all those nooks and crannies that you need to be able to get to. From a scalability standpoint, we can build as wide of a module as needed at incredible levels of both output and dose or as limited as required. An average system for us is at least 60 inches wide. That’s typical, but we also go up to 3 meters wide without any kind of problems.
We also can provide technology for curing of a part or a piece that’s very unusual.
LED is way more scalable and usable from an industrial standpoint than any other source that’s out in the marketplace. Some of our lamp heads allow us to be able to maintain the intensity needed for curing longer distances away, so all the light is not thrown out 100 meters away from the lamp; it’s the same beam the whole way down.
One of our specialties in is high-power UV systems. We can go bigger, more powerful than the other guys, and custom. We’ll work with customers for whatever solution meets their needs from one lamp up to 12 or 16 lamps, or whatever is needed for the process.
For the screen industry, for instance, we needed absolute uniformity to be able to successfully help a customer develop the way that LED is used in the manufacturing process to give them exactly the energy that they needed. In this case, it was not a huge hit of energy, just super consistency across a wide area.
We have all of our standard platforms centered around the same amount of UV dose level, which is a measurement of intensity over time. You can increase your dose basically by just leaving a part underneath the lamp for longer. But we have a product called our XS model, which we lovingly refer to as the “dose monster.” It will actually output four times the dose of our other standard products and we’ve already found some unique uses for it. Just to be able to put that much power down in one kind of package to head into a process is pretty incredible.
Q: Michael, can you give us a sense of the diverse industrial applications that you’ve served with LED?
Michael: UV is used as a curing process to turn anything applied as a liquid to a solid or semi-solid. You can typically formulate liquid with photoinitiators to react with the LED or conventional UV lamps to dry it faster.
One area we’ve started to get involved inis with UV-curable powder coating, which is pretty incredible because instead of using giant gas dryers and ovens and infrared, you can just use a couple of UV lamps to accomplish the same thing. We’ve also developed LED solutions for curing varnish for wood products and different types of coatings on all kinds of materials. We also serve the electronics manufacturing industry with LED, which has been going on for years as one of our first uses for the technology.
Different applications for the technology come up every day that are new to us as customers reach out and we work together.
Q: Hans, tell us more about how you work with customers to customize LED solutions to their needs.
Ulland: The way we work is a little bit different than many of the other LED technology providers. We don’t just supply a standard10- inch-wide unit that gets delivered to your door and you try it out in your lab.
We work with companies starting in the lab process from the very beginning of what they’re talking about doing, and then we really get involved with them when it moves into the proofof-concept phase. That’s where we start building out prototype production equipment that meets their requirements. You name it, we’ve done it. And then that proof-of-concept is what transitions into a fully automated industrial application.
We’ve been told many times that our equipment feels real heavy duty. There are no little plastic pieces to break off and cause a problem in an industrial application, because almost everything we build turns into a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week production piece of equipment.
Q: The trends of LED UV becoming more power efficient, more compact and flexible have really been apparent over the last few years of development. Hans, where do you think LED UV technology will be in five to 10 years, as we move out into the future? And what surprising products or applications do you think will be available?
Ulland: There’s a lot of dreaming involved. The first thing that’s important to note is everyone involved daily in the world wants to see UV-C become more effective immediately. UV-C is what kills biologicals – viruses, etc. -- which is important with what’s going on right now. What’s commercially available generally isn’t strong enough for us to use to knock out COVID-19, but that is on its way. So the ability to get into that disinfection stage is a really, really big deal for LED. Just imagine, you could have a cover for your door handle and it just zaps it every time somebody uses it. That’s the kind of thing coming.
Those lower wavelengths in the low B and C category are on their way. They will get there, and we probably get 100 phone calls a month or so asking if we have it. We don’t yet, but we will and believe me you’ll read about it when we do. There’s huge money funneled into that development of UV-C and that’ll come hopefully shortly.
The rest of the LED world is basically about reimagining everybody’s chemistry so that they can get away from these kind of full-spectrum-use chemistries and move into something that’s much more specific in the spectrum.
If you have the opportunity, for example, to cure exactly at 375 and that’s the single best absorption rate for your product, you’ll be able to use that with LED, where in the past you were only grabbing part of it with traditional UV. We actually see regular UV disappearing over the next five to 10 years because it’s a great product, but it has a lot of nightmares associated with it, both from both usability and environmental standpoints.
When you see things in the news about disinfecting, and using UV light, that UV band is usually coming from conventional UV right now. There are also industrial processes that need those lower wavelengths and there are LED dies that can produce it, but they’re still a small fraction, 1% or less, of where the standard UV A 385, 394 or 395 nanometer dies are
It’s not really viable to make a product that only lasts100 hours and has a fraction of the output. So until LED catches up in those wavelengths eventually, we will still be used as a great technology for curing the areas we reach now
As LED technology gets better and stronger and more cost effective and the chemistry associated with it becomes more efficient, we’ll have the opportunity to say goodbye to tremendous amounts of industrial volatile organic chemical(VOC) usage.
A good example might be something like powder coating that puts VOCs into the atmosphere on a regular basis. Those can go away because VOCs are not a required part of the LED curing process for any of these industrial applications. And that will be good for the environment, and especially for the health of all the workers around it.
Q: Michael, any final thoughts?
Derrick: Cost has been a huge driver of LEDs getting pushed further and further into industrial processes. When we started off, they were incredibly expensive with some of the things we were doing just to make a powerful lamp.
We’re seeing now that we’re working with customers on their requirements and requoting similar systems that we quoted just two years ago and seeing massive reductions in cost due to the LED die technology catching up and coming down in price.
And some of these lower wavelengths, like 365 especially, are really starting to become more cost effective nowadays. You can almost purchase LED for the same price or less than conventional systems, which is really going to keep pushing that technology forward into the market.
We’re focused on helping discover emerging industrial applications and what’s going to be required from an LED standpoint