UV innovation

GEW, set to enter the wider web and sheetfed markets at drupa with its Iso-Cure system, has come from humble beginnings to establish itself as a leading supplier of UV curing systems. James Quirk reports.

When industry expert Mike Fairley visited GEW’s booth at Labelexpo Europe in 1991, his verdict was unequivocal – there are too many UV curing system suppliers in the market, he told managing director Malcolm Rae, and success, therefore, would be a major challenge.

Fairley’s concern was valid: at that time, a plethora of companies were supplying equipment for sheetfed UV curing presses and migrating their technology to smaller systems for the narrow web market. GEW, however, was able to survive – indeed flourish – by bringing genuine UV curing innovation to the narrow web sector.

Today, the company is a leading UV curing systems supplier in the narrow web industry, with an impressive portfolio of products and presence around the world. And the migration of systems in the early 1990s from sheetfed to narrow web is now being reversed as GEW displays its Iso-Cure system, specifically aimed at the wider web and sheetfed markets, at drupa 2008.

The Iso-Cure, which will be on display at the show on a GSD 7-color carton press, is UV a curing lamp head designed for processing a wide variety of substrates on printing and converting lines up to two meters wide. It features GEW’s energy saving e-brick electronic power supply and a built-in heat exchange system that reduces exhaust air temperatures to a minimum. Heat transfer to the substrate during stoppages is eliminated by water-cooled extruded aluminum reflector support assemblies; and the outer casing of the lamp head, also water-cooled, reduces heat transfer to the press to zero.

The Iso-Cure is one of a flurry of new products that GEW has developed in the past 18 months, including AirFilm, which allows heat management without the use of water-cooled rollers; SEEcure, an on-line monitoring system that measures output within the UV lamp head; QuantiCure, a chemical test kit that gives UV cure measurements at the substrate; and the e-System series of UV curing lines, including the e-System mini and e-System Inert.

The timing is no coincidence: GEW’s e-Brick electronic power supply, launched at Labelexpo Europe in 2005 after two years of development, is now used to power all the company’s UV lamp heads. GEW has now discontinued transformer and choke powered UV systems in favor of this more energy efficient power supply, which uses square-wave technology to drive more UV from the lamp while consuming less input power than a conventionally powered system.

‘Power electronics are notoriously difficult to get right,’ says GEW’s managing director Malcolm Rae. ‘The decision was taken in full knowledge of that difficulty; it’s not for the faint hearted. But we have studied every aspect of the system and spent four years perfecting the technology. It is important to explain in simple terms the advantages of this equipment. It is a very technical subject, but it is technology that is used day in, day out, and we have made it user friendly.’

Indeed, the success of the e-Brick-powered e-System series has been such that GEW released impressive figures in April this year estimating the reduction in both costs and CO2 emissions that its customers had experienced. ‘Since the launch of the e-System range, we calculate that, collectively, printers running with e-Brick have reduced CO2 emissions by 12,100 tonnes, based on the UK average of CO2 produced per kW hour generated,’ says Rae. ‘In addition, related cost savings of curing with e-System products amount to a staggering £2.5 million. We can only imagine the impact of this as a contribution in reducing the carbon footprint of the printing industry.’ GEW has benefited from increased concern over carbon emissions in recent years, and has now sold over 1,000 e-brick systems around the world.

Early days
Based in a 45,000 square foot facility in Redhill, UK, since 1999, the company now has a manufacturing, sales, service and support facility in Ohio, USA, as well as sales and support offices in Germany, India and Australia. Indeed, GEW has come a long way since Malcolm Rae and wife Gillian founded the company in 1991.

The development of UV flexo in the narrow web industry in the early 1990s led Rae, a mechanical engineer, to see the potential in supplying small curing systems specifically designed for the sector. The couple set up an office in the spare room of their residential home in Reigate, Surrey, and took turns in using the one computer. Testing was carried out in the basement.

Innovation began with the first order: hard earned savings were used to purchase two extrusion dies to produce a simple product from aluminum, at a time when curing equipment was largely manufactured from steel. The company’s first sale – to AB Graphic, still a customer today – came in August of 1991. By 1992, with the company still being run from the spare bedroom, GEW had taken on a premises and begun exporting. In 1999, the company won the Queen’s Award for Export after doubling export sales figures for three years running.

‘We changed the way UV systems were being built,’ says Rae, ‘Many other companies now follow a similar design to us. It was a fast evolution from basement to our current site in just eight years. We were in the right place at the right time: we have experienced the growth that the label industry has experienced. But it is not only luck – it is a combination of lots of things.

‘How we engineer our products, for example, sets us apart from our competitors. Engineering is about making for 50 pence what anybody can make for a pound. Year on year, you have to make your products cheaper. We have made UV systems into a commodity. When we started, they were regarded as something special; now they are everywhere.’ Products can be turned around in a week, and – rare for a UK company – are often cheaper than European and even Asian competitors.

Design also plays an important part. ‘OEMs, the press manufacturers, have helped the evolution of the product design,’ says Rae. Five years ago, GEW began to use 3D computer aided design, which, according to Gillian Rae, ‘has enabled greater efficiency and insight’.

Technical support – a crucial part of the company’s ethos – is offered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Trained personnel are available on every continent and the company’s website has a dedicated and extensive service section. ‘If someone buys our equipment,’ says Rae, ‘we look after it.’

Rae believes GEW to be the classic start-up business. Forty percent of the staff has been at the company for five years or more, with many there for over a decade. The company employs over 80 people at its Redhill site and a further 20 around the world. ‘The quality of staff is crucial,’ says Rae.

‘Managing change and managing growth are the biggest challenges, especially as a manufacturer,’ concludes Rae. ‘Business has become risk-averse and mistakes get punished. It is important to keep focused and continue to innovate.’

This philosophy of innovation has allowed GEW to come a long way since 1991 – and, not least, to defy Mike Fairley’s predictions. ‘I am delighted that through their dedication Malcolm and Gillian have overcome the major challenges that I foresaw back in 1991,’ says Fairley, ‘and that the company has now become one of the leading UV systems suppliers. I certainly believe it is well deserved.’