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An Overview of UV Direct Printing: The Benefits & More

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UV direct printing has become a popular process in sign fabrication, particularly for ADA-compliant displays. This process has several advantages, including the ability to add second-surface graphics and logos to signage with ease. Fabricators can even use specialty printers to create grade 2 braille! As long as a sign shop has the necessary equipment, they can produce attractive, durable signs with such features for their clients. And those clients will no doubt be pleased with the results.

At Erie Custom Signs, we use UV printers from such industry leaders as Direct Color Systems (DCS) and MUTOH. So, we can attest to the great benefits this method offers. But we also know that other sign professionals may not be convinced. That’s why we wanted to take this opportunity to explain the following:

Ultimately, this brief overview of UV direct printing will shed some light on why it’s become such a popular choice among sign fabricators—and why you should consider using it to your advantage. 

What Is UV Direct Printing?

UV direct printing (aka direct-to-substrate printing or UV flatbed printing) is a type of digital printing that uses ultraviolet (UV) light to cure specialty ink directly on a material surface, or substrate, quickly. As a result, this commercial printing process delivers higher-quality images and text than most other printing methods.

The latest version of UV printing uses a combination of UV and 3D printing. Basically, it’s layered printing. Multiple layers of ink build on one another to add design texture or raised graphics and characters. 

How Does UV Direct Printing Work?

As noted above, UV light plays a major role in how UV direct printing works. For starters, this process requires UV-LED ink. This type of ink remains in liquid form until exposed to UV light. 

A sign fabricator needs a direct-to-substrate UV printer to utilize this technique. This piece of equipment operates by creating a chemical reaction caused by intense UV light. The printhead contains a UV light source on each end. As the ink is distributed on the material substrate via jet, the UV light source follows the ink, instantly curing it and causing it to stick to the substrate.

If a flat substrate is used, the printing possibilities are virtually endless. The use of the UV direct printing technique results in instant hardness and an unrivaled finished feeling.

The latest iteration of this method works the same way. However, it doesn’t stop at one layer of ink. Instead, it does multiple passes to create a layered 3D effect. 

How Did It Originate?

Something you may find interesting is that such UV light applications were originally developed for drying gel nail polish quickly. However, other industries realized the potential of such technology and quickly adapted it for their own purposes, such as sign fabrication and other printing applications.

What Tools and Materials Do You Need for UV Direct Printing?

As with any type of sign fabrication, several tools and materials are needed to perform UV direct printing. However, they differ from those used in traditional printing. The most crucial pieces are as follows:

Close-up of sign substrate going through flatbed printer under UV light.

As mentioned previously, a direct-to-substrate UV printer is required to produce signs using this method. There are several printers on the market that fit the bill. But with any type of equipment, they vary in price and quality. Those looking to invest in such equipment should be prepared to spend more on a high-quality direct-to-substrate UV printer. If the right brand and model are chosen, the result will be crisp, easily legible text and vibrant images on nearly any material imaginable.

Plus, a good printer will produce signage quickly and efficiently, allowing sign shops to fulfill large orders with impressive turnaround rates.

Note: As it stands, only DCS and MUTOH (through a partnership with the former) have the patented technology to create ADA-compliant braille signage fully. Select printers from these brands employ the latest iteration of UV direct printing to produce grade 2 braille and 1/32” raised characters. 

Of course, ink is also needed to print the text, images, and other elements on the material substrate. Those who purchase a direct-to-substrate UV printer need to be careful in selecting the correct ink for their equipment. In addition to getting UV-LED ink made for these printers, it’s important to choose the right type for the substrate. For example, some formulations are more elastic than others and should be used to print on flexible materials. 

Additionally, sign fabricators must consider the capabilities of their equipment in terms of ink. It’s worth noting that some flatbed printers on the market are unable to print with white ink, which can prove problematic if a client places a signage order requesting white text or graphics. (That’s why Erie Custom Signs relies on DCS and MUTOH printers, as both allow for white ink printing.)

One of the significant benefits of UV direct printing is that nearly any material can be used to produce signage. Acrylic, laminate, aluminum, PVC—all these materials and more can have text and images printed on them using this printing method.

However, sign shops also need to factor in the cost of such materials if they opt to advertise their new printing option.

Most sign shops already have a design program they use to create the layout for their signage. For UV direct printing purposes, it’s important to ensure the program is compatible with the direct-to-substrate UV printer as well.

If so, feeding the design into the printer becomes a quick and easy process, speeding up fabrication even more and allowing sign shops to meet their project deadlines without issue.

What Are the Benefits of UV Direct Printing?

UV direct printing offers various benefits to both sign fabricators and clients, which is why it has grown in popularity over the years.

The following list highlights just some of the advantages of this method:

  1. Quick drying time

Because the ink dries so quickly on the substrate, the interaction of the chemicals with the substrate is greatly reduced. This means you can use a much wider variety of substrates beyond traditional materials. For example, you can print on more heat-sensitive substrates.

  1. Sharpness and vivid color

The sharpness and color saturation are improved with this printing method because there is very little chance of ink dots spreading across the substrate (they dry too quickly). The ink doesn’t absorb into the substrate, either—it stays hardened on its outer surface instead. So, fabricators can print more vibrant, detailed graphics and layered, textured elements.

  1. Increased speed and productivity

As mentioned earlier, the ink-curing process is much faster with UV direct printing. However, it’s also worth noting that the printer itself allows for speedy production times. Because of this, fabricators can produce larger quantities of signs in the same period.

  1. Lower cost

Disregarding the cost of purchasing the equipment required for UV direct printing, the use of this method is actually less expensive than others. Since the technique involves printing directly on the material substrate, additional materials such as top laminate or glass coverings aren’t required. This saves fabricators more money in the long run.

  1. Variety of finish options

Another advantage of UV direct printing is the variety of finish options available with it. Depending on the look a client wants for their signage, you can create prints with either matte or high-gloss finishes or anywhere in between.

  1. Lower energy consumption

The LEDs in UV-LED printers consume much less energy than the bulbs found in other printers. Further, many models come with variable control LED lights that have an instant on/off feature. By utilizing this printing method, fabricators can increase energy savings.    

  1. Less harm to the environment

As more and more sign shops discover the benefits of becoming environmentally friendly, it should be noted that the curing process involved with UV direct printing is less harmful than some other methods. When signage is fabricated using this technique, fewer VOCs are produced, along with less odor and heat.

  1. Additive process vs. subtractive

As touched on previously, the latest iteration of UV direct printing is basically a combination of UV and 3D printing. It involves an additive process vs. a subtractive one. You add ink on top rather than removing material. This means you can create textured elements, including ADA-compliant raised characters and braille, using a single machine if you choose a DCS or MUTOH printer with that patented technology.

Is UV Direct Printing Durable?

In short, yes. This method allows for greater durability and scratch resistance overall.

Signs printed using a direct-to-substrate UV printer are easier to handle, transport, and install without risking any damage to the print job itself. Further, signs appear “like new” for longer, not displaying the same wear and tear that occurs with other techniques. Even ADA signs placed in high-traffic areas are more resistant to fading.

Additionally, ADA-compliant braille signs made with a specialty printer are less likely to have raised characters or braille fall off. As these elements are made from layered ink versus an inserted material, they’re bonded to the substrate better.

How Does UV Direct Printing Compare to Vinyl Printing?

Without the ability to print text and graphics on the material itself, the alternative is to print on vinyl and then apply it to the material. But when you compare the two, it’s clear which one comes out on top. For the purposes of sign fabrication, UV direct printing is a better option than vinyl printing overall.  

Here’s why…


UV direct printing is an excellent way to produce signage, especially ADA signs that clients want to last without frequent repair or replacement. Sign fabricators who are tired of printing text and images on vinyl decals or labels will likely find this method a much better option for everyone involved.

However, given the equipment, tools, and training needed to perform UV direct printing, sign shops that don’t already possess such capabilities should consider outsourcing to a third party to ensure quality without having to make such a large investment. Erie Custom Signs, for example, has invested in top-of-the-line printers with patented technology to create ADA-compliant braille signs. 

Reach out to Erie Custom Signs today to get a quote on your client’s project!

Filed Under: Design and Customization

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