Every year, Digital Output reviews the state of ink in the graphic arts. Trends include specialty inks such as white, neon, and metallic; eco-friendly inks like latex, UV-curable, and aqueous; and flexible inks that allow print service providers (PSPs) to work with a variety of substrates on hybrid devices.
The evolution of ink has taken us from solvent to eco-solvent to latex and everything in between from aqueous to UV. To get a feel for what’s going on in the trenches, we spoke with PSPs that represent a sampling of these ink types. Knowledgeable, sophisticated shop owners, they explain their ink choices and share how they work with digital inkjet ink every day.
A Narrative on Quality
The development process of a new ink allows manufacturers and PSPs to collaborate in the creation of a quality product. Imagic, located in Burbank, CA, was one of several companies asked by Hewlett-Packard (HP) to participate in a consumer advisory group about five years ago. The task required the print shop to work on the development of the yet unannounced HP Latex Ink.
Paul Elmi, partner, Imagic, jumped at the chance to participate in the panel. With a background in high-end photographic lab work for advertising and movie posters, he constantly looks for printers producing a high-quality product. In the late 1980s, Elmi and a friend pooled their resources to open Imagic. The business primarily offered digital retouching, but then it expanded into wide format printing—which was a natural progression from his photo lab, according to Elmi.
The company first worked with electrostatic printers, a handful of smaller HP Designjets, and eventually solvent printers. This selection served them well, allowing them to offer point of purchase (POP), window graphics, floor graphics, vehicle wraps, backlit signage, building wraps, stadium graphics, and fleet/transit wraps.
Imagic is known for its work in transit, train stations, and airports. Considered its bread and butter, a project in either location consists of wrapped vehicles, backlit, floor graphics, and more. This work is seen across the U.S., including HI.
HP Latex Ink is what allows Imagic to offer such an array of services. After working on the advisory panel, Elmi, familiar with the new product, bided his time until the perfect opportunity presented itself. That moment occurred about two years ago.
“Someone from HP and a distributor came into the shop. They showed us a backlit sample printed with HP Latex Ink on material available up to 88 inches wide, which is a critical size for our airport work. We appreciated the quality of the graphic,” explains Elmi. In response, the company made a deal and ended up with an HP Scitex LX600 for a 30 day trial period. Imagic’s goal was to decide whether the latex ink would perform consistently—especially in regards to backlit work. It did; creating a domino effect that resulted in the removal of almost all of its solvent-based printers.
Today, it is home to the HP Scitex LX600 and four HP Scitex LX850 126-inch printers in 30,000 square feet of space. The printers are upgraded to work with HP’s latest generation of inks, the HP LX610 Latex Scitex Inks. This product offers a richer black and glossier results on both banner and vinyl materials—something Elmi and his team find ideal for the type of work they constantly output.
Many projects involve self-adhesive vinyl or film, which is primarily from 3M Commercial Graphics. With the media and the new ink, the company offers the 3M MCS Warranty to their customers. The latex ink also enables textile printing, eliminating the need for dye-sublimation (dye-sub).
Elmi understands why some gravitate toward UV after solvent, but he believes latex inks are ideal for his business. “The machines are price competitive, the photographic quality is there—the value is worth it,” he explains.
The eco-friendly nature of the latex ink is also a consideration. Elmi admits that the “green” push fell to the wayside when the economy tumbled, but predicts it will be forced back into the spotlight soon. One major customer recently asked how Imagic supports sustainability and he was able to share information about the latex printers and their contributions to a healthier—and cooler—work environment.
“Shutting down the ventilation fans after we got rid of the solvent printers was a big deal. Located in CA, it gets pretty hot here in the Summer, and when the fans were running—they sucked out a lot of the cool air coming from the air conditioning units,” jokes Elmi.
His biggest complaint is that HP has yet to introduce a five-meter latex device. The addition would allow the company to remove their last solvent printer and become a solvent-free shop. In the meantime, Elmi says any other additions would be based on new job contracts. If something big enough comes in, it can justify purchasing another HP Scitex LX850.
Adventures in Eco-Solvent
ADgraphix, based in Saint Louis, MO, began in 2002 with a focus on fleet vehicle graphics and point of sale (POS) signage. However, the company’s co-owners, Jeff Burns and Chris Schreck, were not unfamiliar with digital print at the time of the business’ inception.
In the early 1980s the two worked at a fleet graphics shop, using a Gerber Scientific Products, Inc. (GSP) Edge thermal resin printer. Back then, it was one of the best devices for long-term vehicle graphics but took up a lot of the employees’ time and was expensive. “It got the job done, but it was limited to 11.8-inch maximum print panels, which had to be tiled. Printing was painfully slow for a four-color process job. The resolution was poor and the foil created a very high ink cost,” admits Burns.
The 1990s brought with it a hot solvent printer for vehicle wraps. Again, ink usage was difficult and costly, specifically on the maintenance side. Every Monday Burns and Schreck would come into work prepared to unclog the printhead nozzles, as the printer would sit dormant over the weekend. The process included hours of pulling the printheads and soaking them in solvent, then forcing solvent through them with a syringe.
“I’m sure we all still carry some of that solvent in our livers. Even with the ventilation system, the whole shop and office smelled like a chemical factory,” continues Burns.
After the company closed its doors in 2001, ADgraphix soon began. It opened on a shoe string budget with used plotters, a GSP Edge printer, and a Roland DGA Corporation SOLJET SC-500 printer. The Roland SOLJET SC-500 utilized an early version of eco-solvent inks, something that greatly attracted Burns and Schreck. Both the low odor and lack of expensive ventilation were appealing—for the environment and their own health needs.
Today the PSP runs four Roland VersaCAMM VS-640s in 8,000 square feet of space with 18 employees. Thanks to the printers, the company branched out from its main fleet graphic and POS offerings and now provides window, wall, trade show, backlit, and display graphics as well.
Roland Eco-SOL MAX inks provide the color pop and skin tones needed to produce exceptional output for its client base, with a reliable consistency across all applications. “Resolution and color gamut are very important to us. We feel Roland’s printers and inks always give us an end product that is closer to photographic printing. The newer Eco-SOL MAX inks offer an even better color gamut, faster dry time, and better scratch resistance,” explains Burns.
Eco-solvent ink is at the epicenter of ADgraphix’s growth, as it’s played a large role in its business over the past 11 years. The PSP continues to keep pace with technological advancements by trading in older devices for new ones, which is how they came to run four Roland VersaCAMM VS-640s. With the addition, there is greater quality and consistency in output.
A Tale of Color
Transitioning from a living room-based vinyl shop to a sign shop in 2008, James Hallaj, owner, Absolute Signs, realized digital’s potential. Initially working with a Mutoh America, Inc. Rockhopper 38, he experienced a lot of trial and error during the learning process, however with the help of peers through online forums he quickly became confident in the printer and more importantly, its eco-solvent ink.
“I’ve never used anything else. I researched the other available options, but the minimal cost savings never seemed worth it. I sleep well at night knowing that I’m outputting the best possible products for our customers with predictable color output, explains Hallaj.
After adding digital print into his repertoire, Hallaj quickly moved into a warehouse, the same one he is in today. Recently it completed a build out with new offices, a print room, and a design studio to total 3,000 square feet of space. Based in Manassas, VA, Absolute Signs works primarily with customers in the MD, VA, and Washington DC area. Some of these clients include Lerner Enterprises, Simon Property Group, and the Virginia Railway Express.
With the move into a bigger space, the original Rockhopper 38 soon felt out of place. “I was becoming tired of 36-inch wrap panels, sewing banners together, and in some cases outsourcing,” In response, Hallaj collected every penny he owned and purchased a used 64-inch Mutoh Falcon II. With the addition, the shop expanded its product offerings.
As its capabilities grew, so too did the business. In August 2012 the PSP’s ultimate goal of owning a new printer became reality. A new 64-inch Mutoh ValueJet 1624, using eco-solvent ink, was purchased. Two full and two part time employees work to create POP foam core posters, paper posters, vehicle wraps, wall murals, banners, and custom offerings.
The eco-solvent ink allows Absolute Signs to offer its customers photographic-quality prints with great durability. While most of the company’s outdoor work is laminated, there are projects were the protective media is not requested. These prints still look amazing, according to Hallaj, after three to four years out in the elements.
In addition to the new ValueJet 1624, Hallaj purchased a Mutoh SpectroVue VM-10 spectrophotometer, with the intent of unlocking the potential of the printer’s full color gamut via on-printer color calibration. Despite the promise of even greater color matching, he admits that the stock profiles allow him to print without fear.
“We have several large customers with specific color demands, and I have yet to run into even a slight issue. It’s never a question of ‘can I produce the color,’ it’s simply a few prints testing various color combinations and in time we have perfect color,” he continues.
Thanks to the confidence in the stock profiles, Absolute Signs runs a variety of media through its Mutoh ValueJet 1624—including cast vinyl, gloss banner, poster paper, translucent materials, and non-curl banner paper. Trusting the eco-solvent ink allows Hallaj to work with the materials he likes best, and not the materials that work best with the ink. The result is a reputation for bright, bold colors that pop.
“Moving into the eco-solvent digital printing field made my company,” admits Hallaj. No doubt as the wrap business remains steady the Mutoh ValueJet 1624 continues to pay for itself. While he says his next big upgrade will be a flatbed printer, he isn’t ruling out the addition of another ValueJet if the wrap business continues to grow.