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The State of Ink

Exploring the Present and Future of Large Format Ink Technology

By DO Staff

Matching inks and substrates to customer needs, with an eye toward maximizing profitability, is a goal for all digital printers. Throughout the trade, there is constant discussion on ink types, usage, and developments.

In January 2006, Digital Output surveyed 12,000 readers in regards to their large format ink needs and preferences. This audience is made up of consumers whose decisions ultimately drive the market. Their knowledge and views provide us with a deeper understanding of the motivations behind their ink choices.

The survey results unmistakably reveal that pigment and dye are the leading technologies, with solvent, eco-solvent, and UV all gaining speed. Out of the 230 respondents, 37 percent most frequently use pigment inks and nearly 24 percent dye. In regards to whether readers utilize OEM or third party inks, OEM-only usage is ranked 64 percent, while third party stands at 11 percent. Approximately 20 percent of respondents reported using both OEM and third party inks.

To aid you in your ongoing pursuit of quality output, we’ve asked suppliers within the industry to update us on trends, specifically their firm’s large format ink products. Hear directly from them in reference to how they differentiate themselves and their products. They also consult the OEM and third party controversy, a debate ultimately decided by the marketplace.

Craig T. Reid, director of new business development
DuPont Color Communication
There is an old saying—"You can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been." This especially goes for DuPont inkjet ink technology, where core colorant science developed over the past many years leads to some of the newest innovations that are needed to help propel the inkjet industry forward.

In some markets, such as aqueous-based ink office and home markets, DuPont mostly takes a behind-the-scenes OEM supplier approach for a number of well-known brands. In industrial and specialty applications such as digital textile, digital proofing, and industrial wide format graphics, DuPont takes more of a systems approach. Managing the key components that make up a professional inkjet system is the best way to produce the highest quality, application-specific solutions for customers. Having the highest quality ink is only as good as the combination of the printheads, electronics, printer, and color management that the system can produce.

What does the future look like for inkjet ink? It looks very strong, however, to get to the desired faster production speeds and improved compatibility with an even wider selection of substrates, new ink innovations will be required along with new print module technologies. Further development is already under way for next generation aqueous and UV-curable inkjet technologies, some of which will likely replace much of the current solvent applications. Other curing method inks are also being developed to potentially better serve the high-speed digital printing requirements, such as packaging.

Mark Radogna, group product manager, Professional Graphics
The most important thing a creative professional can ask when evaluating a digital print is, "Does the print look and feel like a true piece of world-class photography?" Photographers are visual people and don’t want the technology and mechanics of a printer—the ink and media—to get in the way of their photographic vision.

Paired with Epson’s latest professional wide format printers, Epson’s UltraChrome K3 ink technology has advanced the industry to a point in which creating sellable, exhibit-quality prints is a reality. Issues such as metamerism and bronzing that had previously held back the industry have been virtually eliminated. Furthermore, only pigment-based inks provide the degree of longevity professional photographers require in order to be called archival.

The digital professional photography market has grown dramatically and continues to expand due, in large part, to surges in digital SLR camera sales. We also believe that a variety of digital image technologies, including our printers, new inks, and media, have played a reciprocal role in fueling the camera boom. We think the next major growth phase in the market will stem from a growing number of hobbyists and advanced amateur photographers who are looking for the best-of-the-best when it comes to creating prints.

In terms of future advancements, it’s safe to say that things will continue to improve in the area of digital printing, which should include faster, better, and more efficient performance, all for lower costs. Epson is committed to expanding upon its leadership position in the industry by further researching and enhancing its technologies in the areas of printing hardware, pigment-based inks, and archival media.

John Gowan, director
Hewlett-Packard (HP) Supplies
Large Format
The wide format market is rapidly expanding and printer manufacturers are broadening their offerings to support the diverse and unique printing demands of their customers, while maintaining their commitment to quality, reliability, and efficiency. The needs of customers in the wide format market are highly segmented. Professional artists, for example, primarily require fine art and photographic output that has high gloss, brilliant color, and high fade resistance. However, for outdoor signage printers, quality, durability, and value are most important.

Each unique print requires a unique solution, and dedication to research has yielded significant innovations in the entire print system—from printers and media to, arguably, the most important part—ink.

HP’s current portfolio is larger than it was just six months ago, with recent additions including the availability of low-solvent ink technologies, as well as the adoption of water-based, solvent, and UV-curable inks used on the HP Scitex line of super-wide format printers.

At HP, a successful platform for the future may involve further internal development of inkjet technologies, or the development and support of technologies originally created by partner companies. The key to success is a broad base of research and development acumen that enables several technologies to aim toward the same goals of quality, consistency, and product safety. HP’s Scitex ink team continues to work to enhance a selection of inks best suited for unique purposes on HP Scitex printers. This includes solvent-based inks for billboard printing, water-based inks for corrugated materials, and UV-curable inks for rigid substrate flatbed printers.

HP has always welcomed free and fair competition and realizes customers have choices when it comes to their printing systems. We feel that by providing the best overall value, we will continue leading the industry as we innovate both the technology and the experience for even greater customer satisfaction.

Tony Martin, president
Lyson Inc.
The thing that has struck me most over the last year or so is that wide and grand format inkjet printing has started to gain a foothold in the volume traditional print industry. This is partly due to the introduction of UV-curing, flatbed inkjet printers that can image directly onto a wider range of media, including rigid materials. However, the price of digital inks and the speed of the latest grand format models are such that inkjet printing can now compete on a cost-per-square-foot basis with these traditional printing techniques.

We are also seeing the introduction of new inkjet inks such as heat set, curing water-based formulations, and opaque white inks that will further erode the dominance of the traditional print methods. Industry consultants now predict that we will see a slow decline over the coming years in the volume of impact inks purchased, particularly in the screen printing industry, and that this decline will be more than made up by the increase in the amount of digital inks sold.

An interesting dilemma that faces the inkjet industry is that the term third party ink supplier hardly exists among users of the traditional impact printing technologies. A screen printer, for instance, expects to purchase inks freely from many different manufacturers and not just from the equipment supplier. Yes, some press manufacturers do supply inks, but these are offered on a cost and performance basis, and are not generally linked to machine warranties and service contracts.

Manufacturers of inkjet equipment and inks, will have to meet this freedom of choice expectation if they are to gain a share of the enormous consumables market that main line printing represents. The ink manufacturers that will succeed are the ones that not only offer a good product at a good price, but back this up with excellent support, training, and fast distribution.

Steve Urmano, marketing manager
Mimaki USA, Inc.
The wide format sign market has now become defined by solvent vinyl printing, which is to say that outdoor placement of signs without lamination is a key market driver. Whether it’s vinyl or banner, eco-solvent or standard solvent, printing on un-laminated materials is in high-demand due to both cost and time savings.

With a contour cutter and solvent ink printing, the sign maker can move into vehicle wraps and graphics as well. We are now starting to see photographic, fine art, and textile print media made for solvent inks, which provide great results and flexibility.

Ink prices have remained fairly stable where machine prices are beginning to fall 20 percent from previous levels. The market for hardware has become competitive, but so far sales remain strong. Mimaki JV3 users have remained fairly loyal due to the exceptional performance of SS-2 inks, but there are bulk ink users out there. Mimaki feels that there is a risk in working with bulk ink, which is seen as trading media savings for added downtime and possible additional hardware costs.

Andy Hatkoff, VP of electronic color systems
Pantone Inc.
Pantone has just released a new ColorVANTAGE ink set for the EPSON K3 family of printers. The PANTONE ColorVANTAGE black is a pure black and reduces the possibility of metamerism.

While aqueous inkjet printing is a mature market, we see opportunity in the area of fine arts. According to a 2005 InfoTrends study, the digital fine arts printing equipment and supplies market is expected to double over the next four years. While commercial print providers continue to expand the use of their wide format printers for proofing, the devices are still underutilized.

The printer manufacturers are engaged in a competitive battle for customer awareness and market share. The real moneymaker is the ink. When the cost of replacement ink for printers is about 50 percent of the cost of the printer itself, you can see why it is important for the OEMs not to share this business with third party ink developers.

However, PANTONE ColorVANTAGE inks are a quality product and are priced 10-20 percent lower than OEM inks. Users should not have to sacrifice quality for lower price. Consumers should demand high quality with a lower price and have the freedom to choose.

Laura Wilson, product manager
Roland DGA Corporation
In addition to the increasing range of inks available today, we are seeing an expanded variety of applications for inkjet technology. Today’s ink options run the gamut from hot and mild solvents to water-based and new UV-curable inks as well. Ultimately, all of these choices have dramatically increased the overall performance and versatility of inkjet printers.

We see eco-solvent inks as the fastest growing segment of the market. Their increasing popularity is due to both their trademark ease-of-use and new performance features that make them suitable for a growing variety of applications. However, the fine art and photographic reproduction markets are still dominated by aqueous inks due to their tested and proven longevity on fine art substrates.

Although ink prices have declined, it is important to consider substrate pricing when calculating overall production costs. As less-expensive, uncoated substrates are developed for the solvent and eco-solvent markets, overall pricing standards will become increasingly competitive.

In addition to pricing, ink cartridge capacity is an important consideration for many production environments. In order to save money, some professionals implement third-party ink and/or bulk ink systems. Many times, these uncertified inks create problems that waste time, effort, and money.

As a manufacturer, we strongly recommend that our customers select the inks we have tested, profiled, and certified for use with our inkjet printers and integrated printer/cutters. The addition of uncertified inks into an inkjet printer can compromise the printer’s reliability, performance, and, ultimately, the quality of the printed graphics. In choosing inks certified by the printer manufacturer, professionals can expect optimum printer performance and image quality.

Brad Kisner, president
Triangle Digital LLC
The digital market has grown and matured to the point where printers will increasingly rely on ink technology specialists. It’s no secret that color quality and consistency are paramount in getting jobs out the door. But more and more digital printers are running several different presses. Add a variety of substrates to the equation, plus other factors that affect ink performance, and achieving color consistency gets harder and harder.

Some OEMs have allied themselves with ink makers and there’s nothing wrong with OEM inks, per se. But for OEMs, inks still are an afterthought. Conversely, inks are our forte. Printers working with Triangle Digital find inks designed for all press and print-head makes. They also find people experienced in working with them.

As far as future ink technologies go, cross-platform inks specifically designed for multiple-press performance are coming soon. We’re well along in developing an ink system that will span the color gamut across all print platforms.

We’ll see more advances like this as digital printing grows and becomes more like the traditional offset industry—where OEMs focus on press advances, while dedicated ink specialists develop ink systems that maximize performance. Digital printers will need more tools such as custom color profiles and media models that we provide—computerized ink and substrate matching that automates accurate settings for each job.

With digital growth comes more competition, tighter margins, the need for greater efficiency, and rapid-response service. Qualified service firms like Triangle, that routinely supply parts and accessories with inks, are more accessible in emergencies; and it’s one call—regardless of equipment type.

Inspiring Outlook
One thing that seems certain, after hearing from industry experts, is that growth in digital printing technologies and applications will continue to be strong for the foreseeable future. The truth is that every print job requires a unique ink and print solution. Whether producing large format photographic prints or outdoor vinyl signage, it is crucial to know what is available to you from both OEM and third party suppliers, and which solution will give you the highest quality, application-specific results.

The future of inkjet technology will most likely include faster production speeds and improved compatibility

on an expansive array of substrates—all for lower costs. The key to profitability is matching the right product with the job.

Our 2006 survey results prominently display that pigment is in the lead, with 37 percent of our respondents using the technology. We will revisit our State of Ink report next year, to see if this changes and to hear back from some industry experts.

 Apr2006, Digital Output

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