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The State of Ink

Insiders’ Perspectives on Large Format Inks

By Alexis Golini

Inks are one of the core drivers of the large format market. The evolution from aqueous- to solvent-, UV-, and bio-based continues to fuel our industry. Manufacturers and practitioners all have strong opinions on the latest technology and best fit solutions for your digital output. To keep the dialogue front and center, we provide you with direct commentary from industry ink leaders, both original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and third party. Here, they update us on current trends, new products, and how they are differentiating themselves in the marketplace. They also address the OEM and third party decision that all of our readers must make.

In addition, each year we poll our readers to get a glimpse of buying habits in the marketplace. In January 2007, Digital Output surveyed over 12,000 subscribers to gauge their wide format ink preferences and usage. Our audience consists of sign shops of all sizes and corporate enterprise mangers and owners that drive the market.

The survey results are fairly consistent with our 2006 survey. Solvent, eco-solvent, and UV are all gaining speed due to the rising popularity of outdoor signage such as banners and wraps. However, a large percentage of our readers continue to use aqueous inks. In regards to whether readers prefer OEM or third party inks, OEM-only usage is ranked 62 percent, while third party stands at only 6 percent. However, approximately 23 percent of respondents report using both OEM and third party ink products.

Anthony T. Fulco, marketing development supervisor, 3M Graphics Market Center
A number of new trends are developing in the ink market. A big change is the shift toward UV inks. Another significant change is in the solvents being used, with the movement toward eco-solvents. Light colors have been added to improve image quality. White inks have recently been introduced. More pigments are available for use in inkjet inks, leading to some discussion of spot color systems.

The 3M Graphics Market Center recently introduced two new products—3M Piezo Ink Jet Ink Series 2700UV, optimized for use with the Durst Rho 160R roll-to-roll printer, and 3M Piezo Ink Jet Ink Series 2200UV, optimized for use with the VUTEk PV200 printer. These UV inks are durable, highly flexible, and conformable, allowing for applications on complex, contoured, riveted, and corrugated surfaces.

UV-curable ink technology eliminates the need for solvent drying, produces lower VOC levels, and allows for immediate use of printed graphics. Applications include fleet and vehicle graphics, indoor and outdoor signs, banners, and flexible signs. Backed by the 3M MCS Warranty, finished graphics using the 3M Piezo Ink Jet Ink Series 2700 UV inks may be warranted for up to five years of outdoor use.

The many benefits of UV technology will result in continued growth as new applications are adopted by graphics manufacturers. The number of UV digital platforms continues to grow and 3M will support this growth through innovative solutions including UV-curable inks which are durable, flexible, and conformable.

Ink development will continue to parallel the evolution of large format printing technology and end-user application requirements. For signage and similar applications, there has not been a great demand for matte inks. If needed, the image gloss level can be controlled through finishing with an overlaminate or clearcoat. Given today’s printer technology, switches between ink sets—such as gloss finish to matte—can have a negative impact upon operational costs, including waste materials and interrupted productivity. The better option seems to be controlling the look through the finishing process.

The 3M Graphics Market Center is responding to changes in wide format digital printing with new products and industry alliances that leverage its market knowledge and 3M’s expertise in digital ink technology. This effort is opening up new growth opportunities for graphics manufacturers and sign producers.

3M Graphics Market Center recognizes the importance of not resting on its laurels. Advancements in digital imaging take place every day. 3M understands this and is developing new products and strategic alliances that capitalize on its extensive market knowledge and ink expertise.

Scott Schinlever, VP & GM, Ink division, EFI, Inc.
General consumer awareness about environmental concerns has risen of late—consumers are buying alternative fuel and hybrid cars, bio-fuel commercials are rampant, and bio-based has become one of the hottest buzzwords in the market. Meanwhile, environmental regulations in many countries continue to tighten and corporations are undertaking green initiatives. In the printing industry at large, companies are moving to chemistry-free printing plates, using soy-based inks, offering recycled papers, recycling waste, and taking other steps to reduce their environmental footprint.

In the grand format segment of the industry, however, especially in the production of materials for outdoor use, the need to use solvent-based inks to produce vibrant, durable pieces has been a barrier to producing truly environmentally friendly printed materials.

By definition, a solvent is a liquid substance—any liquid, even water—capable of dissolving another substance. In the digital inkjet world, however, the term solvent is used to describe any ink that is not water-based.

Other industry-related terms used to describe solvent inks include soft, mild, or eco as well as hard, strong, or true. The most confusing of these terms may be eco-solvent ink. To most, eco is short for ecological. Most of the eco-solvent inks available on the market today, however, are neither derived from a renewable resource nor created through an ecologically sound process. They either emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), exhibit poor health and environmental profiles, or they are extremely limited in application since they tend to be less durable, less weather-resistant, and generally need to be applied to a coated stock.

In an entirely new approach to solvent-based inks, EFI, through its ink business, has developed the first solvent-based ink made from a renewable resource—namely, corn—for use with the VUTEk product line as well as grand format printers manufactured by others. It is the only solvent-based ink recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and creates an entirely new class of inks. Bio solvent inks contain no harmful VOCs and have significantly improved health and environmental profiles. And they deliver all of the benefits of traditional solvent inks without the compromises inherent in eco-solvent and aqueous inks.

Each year, commercial formulators use millions of pounds of chemical ingredients that one way or another find their way into the environment. Until now, there hasn’t been an environmentally friendly ink available that delivers all of the performance benefits of a traditional solvent ink. The advent of BioVu ink has done just that by creating a whole new category of inks aimed at addressing concerns for human health and the environment, while satisfying practical business needs. Today, customers have the choice of selecting a true, environmentally friendly solvent ink that not only best matches their overall business need, but also satisfies their environmental conscience.

Mark Radogna, group product manager, Epson America, Inc.
In the creative space, your reputation rests on the quality of your output. As such, professional photographers and graphic designers are constantly looking for the best combination of ink and printer technology to ensure the highest quality, longevity, and durability. Ultimately, their livelihood depends on it. At Epson, our goal is to enable any print to be sold.

Since the inception of digital photographic quality, Epson has been collaborating with the industry’s leading creative professionals and printmakers to develop imaging technology that exceeds the expectations of pros. A recent example of innovation is Epson’s UltraChrome K3 technology, which has produced some of the world’s most renowned images from some of the most recognized and celebrated photographers in the world. Incorporating high density pigment technology and three unique levels of black, UltraChrome K3 produces prints with an extremely wide color gamut allowing the reproduction of all colors that were originally envisioned by the professional and dramatically improving both color and B&W prints. No other ink technology can reproduce this type of three-dimensional life-like quality.

However, there are still several misconceptions concerning the best way to achieve the most advanced digital image quality for the creative market. One recent example is the idea that increasing the number of ink cartridges and/or colors used by a printer will achieve a wider color gamut. In fact, several wide format printing solutions feature 11- or 12-ink cartridges/colors in an effort to match the color gamut that Epson UltraChrome K3 can achieve with eight colors. Color gamut can also be determined by the chemistry of the ink and the density of the pigment created by the manufacturer. Due to significant printer costs, adding additional colors to increase color gamut should be a manufacturer’s last resort.

Epson is committed to exceeding the needs of today’s most discerning professionals and is constantly working to provide new technologies and products that push the limits of digital imaging. In the future, ink technologies will continue to advance, further expanding print longevity, color reproduction, and stability. At Epson, we believe the future of ink technology has just begun.

Terry L. Amerine, market manager, wide format graphics, Fujifilm Sericol
The most important trend is that the growth of digital printing overall continues at a very strong rate. We are seeing a continued proliferation of digital equipment that cross all spectrums of pricing and performance. As the digital market matures, end customers are more often seeking equipment that meets a specific set of needs within their business.

We expect to see continued growth in UV-curable digital equipment and ink. This is being driven by a number of factors—the wide variety of materials used in the market, overall cost of output, and increasingly, environmental concerns around solvent emissions.

A trend that has been in place for some time but is accelerating is the convergence of the market. Traditional offset printers are adding digital and screen capacity, and vice versa. The retailers want to work with graphic providers that provide a full solution to their needs and their demands on cost-per-print, lead-time, and consistency of output results in the printer needing to have all of this capability in-house.

Our major focus at Fujifilm Sericol remains on the development of UV-curable digital inks. As the UV market expands and more equipment options become available, it creates the need for more inks that address specific applications.

We also anticipate that more industrial applications, such as narrow-web labels and graphic overlays, will begin to see digital solutions in the near future. This will demand specifically formulated digital inks to meet the end requirements.

We certainly have seen and expect to continue to see solid growth in all areas of digital printing. There are many reasons for this growth—technology development and trends in the market for more customized graphics and shorter lead times and run lengths are key factors.

There is a wide range of opportunities within the digital market. The challenge many times is that there are too many opportunities to pursue. The key is to pick the right opportunities.

We do not see OEM and third party inks as a controversy. Fujifilm Sericol supplies UV ink as an OEM, and solvent inks through both channels. In the end, the market will favor the supplier that provides the best overall value proposition. Our focus is to provide an optimized solution to our customers. This includes the ink, equipment, and all of the requisite application support. It is the same approach we have used with solid success in our traditional ink business within the screen and narrow web industry. We spend a great deal of time to research and understand the complexity of the equipment, the print head, and the end use applications.

Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA
Mimaki is in the process of launching its first main stream UV large format flatbed printer, the JF-1631. The JF series product is designed to use only Mimaki UV-curable inks which are available in 7 colors—C, M, Y, K, lc, lm, and white. We see it capable of addressing the market needs of sign graphics, POP, silk screen, commercial print, and wood decorating applications.

The 2006-07 year has seen a shift in the types of solvent and UV inks offered by Mimaki USA. With the introduction of the Mimaki JV5-160 high speed 64-inch wide format solvent printer, our HS-1 hard solvent ink was introduced due to the fast drying times required at 540x1080 dpi at 430 square-feet-per-hour. Although our eco-solvent ES-3 ink can be used in the JV5, this slows the print speed by one half, or about 275 square-feet-per-hour at that same resolution. The JV5 has not been able to use third party inks.

Mimaki USA continues to offer the JV3 model and it remains an industry best-seller. It has been very popular among sign franchises and independent sign shops based upon cost and adequate print speed of 80 square-feet-per-hour. The JV3 has defined the solvent industry in many ways while the SS-2 Standard Solvent ink has provided low odor, faster dry time, and higher color gamut performance than the earlier eco-solvents. While the newer eco-solvents have drastically improved dry times and gamut, they are still not quite there for the performance oriented user. Because the JV3 has been out in the market since 2003 there are many third party inks available for it. However Mimaki doesn’t recommend their use or market our machine with them.

We are seeing a maturing of the market as many operations have acquired their first machines, which is slowing sales about five percent. While many shops continue to build their volume, Mimaki continues to diversify its product offerings through the JV4 and now the new DS-1600 and 1800 direct dye-sub printer line. The DS-1600 and 1800 offer many of the ink and material handling capabilities of dedicated textile wide format printers which are required for the flag, soft sign, and tradeshow graphics markets. In this product area, we’ve seen a large penetration of third party inks due primarily to ink capacity requirements and low price.

As third party inks continue to penetrate the market, the same situation exists as before where the user bears the risk of performance and reliability issues. How that is handled by the third party suppliers will greatly predict their continued growth and penetration.

Andy Hatkoff, VP of electronic color systems, Pantone, Inc.
As printer manufacturers move toward newer and better printer technology, a problem is created for the owners of what soon becomes out-of-date technology. Product development cycles are vastly accelerated from ten years ago, resulting in more products and newer versions of those products quicker than ever before. Technology products are more rapidly becoming obsolete. We see this with televisions, computers, stereos, and color printers.

The manufacturers continually strive to innovate and make investments in the development of new printers and inks to introduce to the market. Therefore, no further development of products is done to serve the older printers that still have many years of functional life left in them. This is where the third party ink developers come in. It is ironic, but unlike the printer OEMs, the third parties can provide more innovation and product variety when it comes to inks for these older printers. From the OEM’s perspective, all new investments on ink improvements should be made for the newer model printers only. There is no concern for backward compatibility.

The third party can basically fill the void left by the OEMs with a variety of products that can provide high quality solutions for these abandoned printers. In fact, there is a lot of innovation and development of high quality inks by third parties that surpass the OEMs. Products like PANTONE ColorVANTAGE can essentially breathe new life into many older printers without consumers having to purchase a new printer. Many of the alternative ink vendors offer a real value add—they are essentially an upgrade for your printer.

Ken VanHorn, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corp.
Advances in ink technology will continue to shape the wide format printing industry. The most significant advancements have been in the area of mild solvent inks.

Milder solvent inks such as Roland’s ECO-SOL MAX have been hugely popular in the marketplace. Graphic producers are now offering a wide range of print output for indoor and outdoor applications such as POP and tradeshow displays, banners, labels, signage, and vehicle graphics. Roland Eco-Xtreme inks provide even more durability for a wide range of outdoor graphics.

There are also many recent improvements to water-based inks, especially in the area of sublimation. Sublimation inks such as Roland HeatWave offer excellent printability and color gamut with minimal head clogging.

We are finding that customers today have a much better understanding of how their systems work as an integrated unit—with particular emphasis on the integration between inks and software RIPs. Much like oil and gas influence a car’s performance, ink and software optimize a printer’s performance and reliability—all of which reduces the cost of ownership.

Other advantages to a tightly integrated system, especially on the grand format side, are that the manufacturer can dial in the baseline performance of the printer and create a much more reliable system. This eliminates the requirement for constant cleaning and calibration.

High-speed, high-performance printers require the tight integration of all components in order to achieve the quality prints today’s market demands. Our customers truly appreciate that we offer a tool like VersaWorks RIP software with a wide variety of profiles for our certified media. This, in combination with our advanced OEM ink sets, makes it easy to produce consistent, high-quality prints for a variety of applications.

Another factor driving the need for integrated solutions is the growing trend for businesses to integrate durable graphics into their marketing programs. Logos that are featured on mesh banners, backlit POP displays, view-through window graphics, and vehicle wraps must all be identical—regardless of the range of inks and media used.

To help customers achieve this level of color consistency, Roland has introduced Roland Color, a revolutionary new spot color fidelity system featuring color libraries, spot-color matching tools, and VDP capabilities. In addition to the tools provided, professionals can build on Roland Color by adding their own libraries of vinyl colors and other popular spot colors.

In the future, we expect demand for high image quality and precision color matching to increase. Success going forward will require professionals to invest in both superior ink sets and integrated digital printing solutions that optimize the ink.

Brad Kisner, President, Triangle Digital Inx Co.
Digital growth in both wide and grand format continues to be driven by niche market products and customized promotions. Digital is ideal for shorter runs and fast turnaround.

While we continue to see new inks and printing technologies, significant developments are taking place under the umbrella of recycling, such as with hardware. The NUR Blueboard used to be the workhorse of the billboard industry, but faster technologies took over much of the business. But now a company has developed a conversion kit that turns a Blueboard into a Bluestreak—printing 1,500 square-feet-per-hour, opposed to 500 to 600 before. And it’s UV-curable ink!

Also, new inks have been developed for recyclable polyethylene—a matched component system, which also prints well on regular vinyl. The new ink adheres well with the Blueboard printing at 500 to 600 square-feet-per-hour. It also works with the ISI Bluestreak UV-curable upgrade, plus some other UV-curable printers.

With all the middle market growth, we are seeing new print head technology, as well as new inks and equipment. There’s some new head technology coming down the pipeline, including Micro Electro Mechanical technology (MEMS) that are much cheaper than using a piezo crystal. It will be a key to mass array high-speed printing for, say, commercial catalog printing.

And finally, as the lines blur with OEM and third party inks, systems approach gains. Among the major ink companies, there isn’t a difference anymore between OEM and after market products. Each has an OEM group and an after market group. They do both.

However, some newer inks overseas may not be the same quality, and some users may be tempted because of the lower price. But customers really want a systems approach, with someone they can call who will respond to issues. The key is consistent product quality, with service and support.

Our Future of Ink
After hearing from these industry experts, it is clear that digital print applications continue to grow through ink developments. Whether producing indoor POP or outdoor vinyl signage, the key to great output is proper ink and hardware matching.

The survey strongly conveys that solvent inks remain popular. However, enviro-friendly green inks are also gaining speed. We will revisit our State of Ink report next year to see what new developments have taken place.

Apr2007, Digital Output

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