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Pretty in Ink

Annual State of the Ink Report

By Thomas Franklin

Back in 2007, wide format printers devoured 30.7 million liters of ink, according to the most recent survey from research firm I.T. Strategies. This is forecast to increase to 51.6 million liters by 2012, for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11 percent. That is roughly 20 and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Solvent-based inks are, and will remain, overwhelming preferred among wide format print service providers (PSPs). Printers consumed 23 million liters of solvent ink in 2007—a full 77 percent of total ink liters, and are expected to use 41 million liters, or 80 percent of the total, in 2012.

UV inks will also grow through 2012 from four percent to eight percent, I.T. Strategies predicts. Aqueous usage, by contrast, is expected to lose share, declining from 19 percent to 12 percent.

On the textile side, total liters of ink consumed is expected to surge from 1.2 million in 2007 to 4.2 million in 2012, a CAGR of 16 percent. Here, water-based inks continue to dominate, I.T. Strategies predicts, with roll-to-roll inks—including acid dye, disperse dye, reactive dye, and pigments—accounting for 92 percent of the market in 2007 and 83 percent in 2012. Flatbed and direct to garment printer inks are expected to climb from eight percent to 17 percent over the forecast period.

UV in the Spotlight
The sharpest growth among wide format PSPs will occur in the UV segment. There are roughly 9,000 UV printers in the marketplace, representing two-and-a-half percent of the market, analyst firm InfoTrends reveals. UV is slated to grow by 20 percent per year on the basis of cost advantages in labor savings, increasingly efficient printhead technology, and environmental benefits.

“UV is the biggest part of our business right now in terms of growth,” says Scott Schinlever, VP/GM, EFI Ink Business.

Growth in UV ink usage is driven from traditional print houses—flexo, gravure, and offset—that are looking to enter the market for prototyping and short turn production, explains Brad Kisner, president, Triangle Digital INX Co. “UV-curable systems, with increased print speeds, are making heads turn. Specialty industrial markets are looking for custom digital printing systems,” he concludes.

Customers choose UV for its functionality, suggests Richard Nickols, digital product manager, Nazdar. “PSPs want to offer the value-add of durability and direct to substrate.”

Despite its growing presence in the market, UV ink technology is still developing, suppliers observe. “Customers expect performance at any price,” says Steve Urmano, director of marketing, Mimaki U.S.A., Inc. UV’s print speeds need to improve to compete with solvent-based applications, he adds.

The push to UV gives ink greater flexibility to tackle applications that were once inaccessible, such as vehicle wraps. This type of application is challenging due to curvatures, where ink is likely to crack because of multiple indents.

Achieving a balance between an ink that adheres to rigid substrates, but is malleable enough for vehicle applications is a key driver in custom ink formulations demanded by OEM customers, Kisner observes. “We see UV moving into more flexible applications, and that’s our goal,” says Jennifer Greenquist, inks/warranty business manager, 3M Graphics Market Center.

“UV inks are growing up, they can handle about 90 percent of the applications out there,” admits Michael White, wide format sales manager, Agfa Graphics. New dispersing technologies allow UV inks to pack more pigments, which in turn allows printers to generate the same color quality with fewer droplets for greater flexibility and less gloss banding, he adds.

Currently, UV is at a point where it can compete with many solvent ink applications, but is more expensive on a per-liter basis. “A liter of UV ink is 100 percent solid, solvent is 30 percent solid, so UV will always be more expensive, but the gap is steadily closing,” Schinlever adds.

Steady Solvent
Pungency aside, solvent and eco- or light-solvent inks remain an industry mainstay despite competition from newer formulations. This is due to the massive install base and a hesitation on the part of PSPs to take on new capital equipment during a downturn. A top concern among users—particularly those in the grand format market—is cost.

“I think solvent will be here for years to come, especially for more cost sensitive applications, such as building wraps and fleet graphics,” shares Dr. Ross Allen, senior technology specialist, imaging and printing group, Hewlett-Packard (HP). “It still has the lowest cost per square meter,” he comments, and provides quality sufficient for graphics viewed from a distance.

Despite its relative age, there is still room for continued innovation and investment in solvent ink technology, explains Reed Hecht, product manager, Epson. “Epson, for example, was able to deliver virtually odorless printing without the need for special ventilation or an air purification system with UltraChrome GS inks.,” says Hecht. The company also reduced harmful volatile organic compounds and removed nickel compounds from the solvent formulation.

“People always look at new technology closely. For the applications it’s designed for, solvent is hard to beat, particularly as businesses become more sensitive to costs,” says Daniel Slep, Ph.D., director of marketing, Hilord Chemical Corporation.

Indeed, third party suppliers are getting a boost from an ailing economy, as PSPs look to trim costs. Many suppliers offer inks at discounted rate. The quality of these products is comparable to OEM.

Over the past few years, businesses started feeling “a lot more comfortable moving to third party inks because of the significant cost savings compared to OEM supplies,” observes Chuck Payne, business development manager, ElevenTen Color. Depending on the product line, printers enjoy a 27 to 32 percent savings versus OEM ink. “ElevenTen Color offers equipment and application warranties, which protect hardware for the life of the printer and ink.”

“We’ve definitely noticed more interest,” seconds Steve Igoe, North American sales manager, Bordeaux Digital PrintInk Ltd. The company’s “mix and match” approach allows PSPs to integrate Bordeaux inks one cartridge at a time, without loading new profiles or flushing.

“In this difficult economy it takes a real business partnership with your vendors and customers to succeed,” Kisner admits. For third party suppliers to survive they need to offer “higher productivity, lower costs, spare parts, and 24 hour service and support,” he adds.

Got “Green?”
Environmental concerns play a large role in customer demand also. The most green sensitive businesses tend to be larger firms taking orders from major brands that are increasingly demanding an environmentally friendly solution across its supply chain, as observed by InfoTrends.

For PSPs, it is not enough to greenwash a business by bringing on a UV printer or disposing of solvent inks.

Inks play an integral role in the environmental footprint of a print shop and suppliers work to improve the overall health and carbon intensity of their products. The environmental push led many PSPs to invest in textile printing and sublimation inks, Hilord’s Slep explains. “People realize that it’s a greener way of printing, and they love the color pop on sublimated output.”

The introduction of LED-curable UV inks—which don’t burn the ozone and require less energy to heat than a traditional lamp—improves upon the environmental footprint of UV products, says 3M’s Greenquist.

“It is still early for us to get a read on green,” admits Mimaki’s Urmano. The company is making its first foray into LED UV-curable inks and will soon see how they are received by the market. The anticipation is high.

Some suppliers caution that UV inks are not a perfectly green solution. When UV prints are properly cured, they’re inert, but during production, ink vapor is a serious issue and UV inks must be kept out of waste water systems, HP’s Allen notes.

HP, which began shipping the HP Designjet L65500 printer with HP Latex Inks this year, has high hopes for this ink technology as a replacement for solvent inks in the future. While PSPs are responsive to the environmental message, the company sought to make the cost of latex inks comparable to solvent because “you can’t be a green printer if you’re not printing,” admits Allen.

Another emerging technology is corn-based bio inks. These have yet to win widespread acceptance, comments Bordeaux’s Igoe. “Currently, corn-based inks deliver the color quality of other inks and require extra drying capability.”

EFI Ink Business, which manufactures a corn-based ink for EFI VUTEk called BioVu and Mutoh America, Inc. named Mubio, notices a higher adoption rate among Mutoh users. “It’s more critical for a small printer in a retail setting. The formulation still needs to improve its abrasion resistance before it can serve as a true substitute for a hard solvent. It’s a technology that we’re still improving,” observes EFI’s Schinlever.

It’s All About Choice
Despite the improved flexibility of UV inks, there’s little hope for a one size fits all solution. “There is a give and take, we have to stay within the laws of physics,” admits Slep. Multiple applications still mean more than one ink type, regardless of recent advancements.

“Not every ink does everything,” adds Nazdar’s Nickols.

Solvent isn’t going away thanks to its speed and price point, shares Urmano. He continues, “It is very accessible to print shops, whereas green solutions are demanding a premium.”

Demand for ink is as varied as the applications they end up on. One theme is consistent, users need a wide variety of choices to meet customer demands and the increasingly vast array of substrates available for imaging.

Apr2009, Digital Output

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