Better Printing Through Chemistry
Advances in Wide format Media
by Thomas Franklin
Part 1 of 4
In the 1930s DuPont boasted of the life-enhancing benefits of chemistry with its "better living through chemistry" slogan. The company later dropped the overtly chemical pitch, referring instead to science, but the truth still holds in life as in digital printing. Chemistry continues to evolve, and with it, the capabilities of wide format print media.
There are dozens of varieties of print media for an expanding list of digital printing applications. Media manufacturers say the race is on to find ever more exotic materials to push digital printing into new markets and novel applications, particularly for solvent printers. Indeed, some of the more significant changes in the market have occurred in relation to media for solvent printers.
"Solvent has been the driving force for us," says Eric Tischer, director of sales, Neschen Americas. As more companies embrace solvent printers, media vendors have raced to expand their selection of compatible media.
"Hardware drives our business," observes Dan Halkyard, director of marketing, Oce North America.
"I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed as much change in product assortment as in 2006, and that goes for any photo or imaging business I’ve been a part of in the past 30 years," states Philip Hursh, president, Sihl USA.
Part of what’s driving the change, vendors say, is an attempt to provide solvent printers with the range of media, and thus range of applications, currently available for aqueous machines.
Much of the vinyl banner market has become commoditized, notes Ed McCarron, director of marketing, InteliCoat. "People are struggling to get margins there, so they’re looking for new applications for their solvent printers." McCarron adds that duplicating aqueous’ success with fine art on canvas and POP on backlit films in solvent media is a focus for the company. "It will let the printer produce lower volumes, but higher margins."
"I have the chance to visit a lot of print service providers—the profitable ones are those that have expanded their business beyond, for lack of a better word, commodity applications," Hursh says. "They add to their bottom line by producing higher-value applications as an add-on to the job that crossed their order desk as a request for a few simple posters or banners."
Of course, improving existing applications continues to be a focus as well.
"We’re looking to improve our adhesives. We’re adding super aggressive adhesives" to let graphics adhere to concrete walls, states Gabriel Maxwell, director of marketing, Arlon Graphic Films. "We’re also improving the heat resistance of our films" so they can be applied to motorcycles or other surfaces that get hot and/or dirty.
Maxwell adds that within the growing market for vehicle wraps, Arlon is developing media for shorter-term installations. "It can be applied easily and removed quickly," he says.
"Digital technology initiated a shift to short run, short term graphics," observes Tom Black, marketing operations manager, 3M. "Now, we’re in the midst of another shift to make digital a medium for longer term applications." As the shift is underway, marketing claims can frequently outpace real-world performance, Black cautions.
"We think a lot of the claims being made today [regarding longevity] are not accurate," Black notes. "Brand owners cannot tolerate their identity looking any different than it’s supposed to. If prints fade, it’s the print providers who will ultimately get burned."
Longevity is also an issue on the aqueous side, as inkjet media such as canvas designed for fine art applications have been emphasizing longer light fastness and better resistance to ozone, moisture, and other indoor irritants. Suppliers have poured R&D dollars into new coatings and chemistry for long-term indoor applications.
BF Inkjet is finalizing a fire-resistant canvas aimed at the commercial market and museum applications where code and regulations require fire retardancy and flammability ratings, states Max Bowers, owner, BF Inkjet. The company has also developed a line of canvas for solvent printers for outdoor applications, he adds.
There have also been advances in fabric printing, says Regan Dickinson, marketing communications specialist, LexJet. The company has been expanding its line of uncoated polyester fabrics, flag, spandex and suede material to support the recently introduced TexPress DSS-1800, which aims to reproduce the quality of a dye sublimation process in a single step.
One new media development is thriving not by creating new applications, but bringing a new sensibility to the existing sign and banner business. Biodegradable PVC media entices those who want an environmentally friendly and sustainable approach to printing, says Lorna D'Alessio, president, Ultraflex Systems, Inc. The greening of the printing industry has been accelerated by environmental regulations in the European Union (EU), specifically regulations concerning the use of PVC, but will spread into other regions, D’Alessio predicts.
This year, prints displayed at the Academy Awards will be output using Ultraflex’s BioFlex biodegradable material and Nike has embraced it as well, according to D’Alessio. Other brands such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds have also expressed interest, she says.
For now, biodegradable media is more expensive because the EU mandates certain compounds be used in its manufacture but Ultraflex will begin to produce biodegradable media in other facilities where it can swap-in generic additives to achieve the same effect at lower costs, D’Alessio says. "Our goal is to make this less expensive—we’ve been really blown away by the interest in this," she adds.