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Embracing the Ink Evolution

Annual State of the Ink Report

By Gretchen A. Peck

The technological evolution moves quickly in the world of print, and judging from compelling news about advancements in digital inks, it’s not likely to grow stagnant anytime soon. UV-curable and other equally environmentally friendly inks are quickly finding a leadership position in wide format print. However, it is not necessarily their sustainability that entices print service providers (PSPs) to implement the technology.

“Ink choice is important in the display permanence and durability of a print, although there are other factors to consider, including media characteristics, pre-treatment, post-treatment, how the particular print is used, and whether it is displayed indoors or outdoors,” notes Ross Allen, Ph.D., senior technology specialist, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Graphics Solutions Business.

The eventual usage of ink or the completed application, certainly plays a factor in PSPs’ ink decisions. In January 2010, Digital Output (DO) conducted a reader survey on digital ink. 47 percent of the respondents polled believed improved weather and outdoor hazard resistance is the most important ink characteristic.

Ink manufacturers work to improve upon pre-existing technologies and embrace change. “The inherent versatility of inkjet technology—and now the availability of a wider range of inkjet inks—push the envelope and the industry even further,” reports Michael White, wide format sales manager, Agfa Graphics.

Flexibility in Ink
The advent of UV-curable inks—and the digital inkjet printers that use them—profoundly impact large format print. A large portion—18 percent—of those polled in the DO survey believe improved UV stability is an important ink characteristic.

UV inkjet’s reach is extending beyond traditional signage and large format graphics applications. “The advent of UV-curable technology allows companies and industries to produce high-quality prints on various substrates including plastics, metals, and glass,” reports Ken D. Kisner, president, INX Digital International Co.

He cites other industries such as the tag and label market investing in UV-curable technology for narrow web printing. Other companies are able to create prototypes on demand now as well, thanks to UV-curable ink.

Stephen Sung, Ph.D., UV technical and commercial director, Collins Ink Corporation, agrees with Kisner’s observation regarding the range of substrates UV adheres to, adding industrial-type items such as ceramics to the list.

Ink designed for hybrid printers calls for both a scratch-resistant and flexible product for flatbed and roll-to-roll, respectively. Interestingly, the ability to stretch printed materials without ink cracking, also referred to as increased flexibility, is another characteristic of importance to DO readers. Tied with improved UV stability at 18 percent, many PSPs acknowledge UV as a solution that caters to this need.

Several ink manufacturers are working on increasing the flexibility of ink. “It usually requires two types of inks to ensure flexibility and scratch resistance; however, Bordeaux Digital PrintInk Ltd. created inks to solve this issue, with our product designation Plasma PLFx. This UV-curable ink is designed to work well on both flatbed and roll-to-roll printers,” says Steve Igoe, North American sales manager, Bordeaux.

New this year, Agfa UV flexible inks that are 40 percent more flexible than the company’s current selection of UV inks, with no compromises to adhesion or color quality. They are compatible with all Agfa :Anapurna M series printers. “These inks allow users to expand into new applications and print on a wide range of substrates, which in the end help users grow business,” shares White.

“There are improvements in UV ink components, such as a high degree of flexibility. However, one of the biggest pitfalls is the skin-irritation factor during handling. A good printer system should have enough safeguards built in to avoid this,” explains Sung.

Igoe acknowledges that UV inks do have drawbacks. “Although there is no harmful solvent, the inks carry a characteristic monomer odor, which may bother some individuals. Operators must avoid exposure to the curing lamps when in use.”

LED Light
Perhaps the most intriguing advancement related to UV ink is the advent of Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps.

Steve Emery, director, ink sales and marketing, EFI, notes that UV LED offers considerable savings on energy usage, and significantly lengthens the span of time between lamp replacement.

Bordeaux’s Igoe shares, “Printing equipment using this technology requires less energy, while the life of the curing source is increased.” He warns, however, that this new breed of UV-curable inks is more costly than its UV predecessors.

INX Digital’s Kisner says LED-curing technology offers a compelling alternative to print service suppliers. However, he explains, “this technology also provides less power for curing the ink and making it an interesting challenge for inkjet chemists.”

Eco-Ink One Step Further
UV LED isn’t the only “green” ink available. HP rolled out HP Latex Ink Technology with the introduction of the HP Designjet L65500 104-inch printer in 2008, and followed with the 42- and 60-inch Designjet L25500 in 2009.

“These inks use aqueous-dispersed polymer technology to deliver display permanence and scratch-, smudge-, and water-resistance—on water-resistant media,” says Allen. The water-based solution allows for odorless prints that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds.

Available in six colors, the pigmented inks offer a wide color gamut. Prints come off the printer dry and ready to handle—streamlining print production workflow. Additionally, HP Latex Inks do not contain materials that require hazard-warning labels and are non-flammable and non-combustible.

“Many 3M customers express interest in HP Latex Ink technology,” notes Jennifer Greenquist, inks and warranties business manager, 3M Graphics Market Center. “3M already has a Performance Guarantee Program for selected films printed on certain HP printers that use HP’s Latex Inks. We continue to explore opportunities with this technology.”

Dye-sublimation (dye-sub) print is garnering attention too, but much of the research and development (R&D) is in new fabrics compatible with dye-sub inks, according to Dana Curtis, product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.

“The majority of R&D investment focuses on the development of UV LED inks, and depending on the success of their initial release, latex or alternative green inks are yet to be defined,” he predicts.

Graphics One, LLC is one company investing in alternative eco-friendly inks. Launching at the International Sign Association’s (ISA) ISA Sign Expo in April 2010, SEPIAX ink uses a water-based resin. The ink prints on both coated and uncoated substrates and is used both indoors and outdoors. Lasting up to three years outdoors without any lamination, it offers a color gamut similar to OEM eco-solvent inks, but dries similarly to UV-curable ink. A heat fixation method is used to adhere the ink to the substrate. Compatible with all Epson piezo printheads, SEPIAX ink is non-toxic, non-flammable, and odorless.

“There is a worldwide green movement occurring and the large format industry is no exception. SEPIAX ink is environmentally friendly and prints on virtually any substrate. This means it replaces most non-green inks being used by the large format industry today,” comments Dan Barefoot, president, Graphics One.

Survival of the Fittest
As new breeds of ink appear in chemists’ labs are more established products becoming extinct? Agfa’s White believes that extinct is too harsh an adjective. “Overall, aqueous printing and solvent inkjet printing are considered mature technologies,” he concedes. “While both have their place, aqueous will eventually disappear. In the short term, solvent printing will be a mainstay for specific applications.”

Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson, sees aqueous inks differently. “Aqueous printers are the backbone of almost every industry that utilizes digital printing—photography, proofing, graphic design, and fine art. All are built on aqueous technology.”

Epson’s UltraChrome HDR and UltraChrome HDR White Ink illustrate how aqueous ink is driving markets, according to Hecht. Epson UltraChrome HDR White Ink introduces a new Organic Hollow Resin Particle Technology, which forces light to randomly scatter and produce the illusion of seeing the color white. The ink is a safer, water-based resin particle—void of any known carcinogens.

INX Digital released new aqueous-based inks for HP Designjet 5000 and 5500 series printers in January 2010. The T81 dye inks and T83 UV pigmented inks are chemically compatible with OEM options and extend printhead life up to twice as long as other non-OEM alternatives. In addition, the inks are 100 percent color compatible and help extend the lifecycle of printheads. Both T81 and T83 inks are available in 680 milliliter direct replacement cartridges, allowing users to add new colors as needed without flushing lines or throwing away unused ink.

“Saving 20 percent or more while running our color compatible alternative inks give HP Designjet 5000 and 5500 users a timely advantage,” shares Kisner. “We anticipate introducing more advanced options, such as ink sets designed for the HP Designjet Z6100 later this year.”

Specific applications, such as billboards and building wraps, thrive on solvent inks. “The potential for residual solvent affecting graphic performance, and the longer time needed to fully dry solvent-printed graphics remains the greatest drawback, although media producers—like 3M—reduced the sensitivity to drying,” notes 3M’s Greenquist.

Though environmental pressures and high-performance ink spark R&D, legacy products like aqueous- and solvent-based inks are still in widespread use throughout large format. Considering the current economic climate, PSPs are fiscally conservative and selective with investments in new technologies and consumables. It’s unlikely that any breed of ink will be rendered extinct in the coming years.

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Apr2010, Digital Output

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