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The Wonderful World of Inkjet

2013 State of Ink

By Melissa Donovan

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.


Another Side of the Story

Vendors are strategically positioned to offer a look into the future of ink. While many agree it continues to expand, the reasons vary greatly. Of note is the variety of specialty applications quickly entering the market. As PSPs experiment printing onto everything from glass to plastic, vendors quickly comply by creating ink sets specifically designed for these projects.


“Many companies including ours are looking to grow from introducing inks for other than traditional substrates used in the graphic arts,” recognizes Nitin Goswamy, president, A.T. Inks.


Pedro Martinez, CEO, Afford Industrial S.A., agrees that single-pass engines and the entry of digital printing in industrial processes will bring huge opportunities for ink manufacturers.


“Key to the growth is industrial applications, which are now becoming viable due to more robust digital equipment and ink technology,” adds John Kaiser, product marketing manager, inkjet inks, Fujifilm North America Corporation.


Specialty eco-solvent inks, including white, metallic, and light black, drive demand. “Customers continue to appreciate the durability and wide color gamut of eco-solvent inks and their compatibility with a range of coated and uncoated substrates,” continues Julie Gederos, product manager, Roland.


Another specialty or niche market aiding in ink’s growth is textiles. “Many major brands are choosing to replace traditional rigid display materials with more tactile textile materials to stand out. Dispersed dye ink technology is most commonly used for printing polyester soft signage materials and printing directly onto the fabric is very popular for this application as a result,” adds Tony Cox, business manager for digital aftermarket, Sun Chemical Corporation.


These additions play into another important factor, sustainability. Many ink sets distance themselves from traditional solvent in a conscious effort to protect the environment and print shop employees in the long run.


“Shifts continue away from traditional water-based dye inks and strong solvent-based inks to pigmented latex, UV-curable, mild solvent, and improved aqueous pigmented ink technologies for our industry,” foresees Jeff Leto, product manager, LexJet Corporation.


“Overall, the ink industry is headed in a more environmentally friendly direction. Dye-sub is moving away from solvent-based carriers using friendly water-based systems and in terms of UV inks, they expand the range of applications available to the print provider,” agrees Greg Lamb, CEO, PrinterEvolution, LLC.


Jennifer Greenquist, inks and warranties business manager, 3M, explains that UV inks develop a range as they become more flexible in composition. With the excellent print quality and durability offered by these advanced ink sets, demand for environmentally friendly ink continues to grow.


“This year we continue to see improvements in durability and performance in mild- and eco-solvent inks. Latex continues to gain momentum as an alternative, and new players are entering that market as well,” shares John D. Peterman, EVP, sales and marketing, Big Systems, LLC.


Beyond color quality and performance, there is an increasing need for an expanded color range. Orange and violet inks, as well as green, emerge to complement traditional CMYK, allowing PSPs to offer greater color consistency.


Eyal Duzy, marketing segment manager, Scitex Industrial Solutions, HP, believes this demand derives from the need to satisfy brand owners looking to protect their brand identity.


“PSPs have a higher demand for the accurate reproduction of certain brand colors on digital presses. That leads to greater gamut requirements and we expect a growing demand for adding gamut expansion inks such as orange and violet to digital writing systems.”


“You will see expanded applications with new colors. The release of orange is example of the extended color gamut and specialty color matching we are attempting to achieve with new ink colors that can be added to a CMYK system,” points out Larry D’Amico, VP digital imaging, Agfa Graphics.


While some see great change, other vendors continue to rely on tried-and-true technologies. “We don’t believe much is going to change within the next year. Solvent ink remains the main ink used with PSPs. There are new ink technologies still emerging such as latex, UV, and metallic, but solvent ink has proved to be the most affordable, easiest to work with, and cost effective,” explains Michelle Johnson, marketing coordinator, Mutoh.


Ultimately, it is education that drives growth in any market. As ink advances, PSPs must learn about new products and what that means for their business. Over the last few years, many have started to truly understand their options thanks to help from vendors and peers.


“People are beginning to recognize the best choices for their specific applications. However, it’s important for the user to do their homework when selecting an alternative ink and to choose inks that are backed, warranted, and thoroughly color tested by the supplier,” advises Jennifer Chagnon, senior marketing manager, InteliCoat Technologies.


Great Expectations

As the ink market changes, so too do print providers. As seen in these customer stories, each evolved with ink advancements as years passed by. In doing so, they recognize the importance of keeping pace with technology for their shop’s financial benefit, as well as customers’ quality expectations.


New ink sets provide efficiency and a wider color gamut. Ink sets of the future will continue to do this while also providing an expansive array of applications that create versatile PSPs.


Click here to view the The IT Factor: Ink Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!


Apr2013, Digital Output

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