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Ink Report 2012

Demand drives new products and refinements, as ink producers court expanded opportunities.

As the market for wide-format digital graphics expands, print service providers look to ink producers for products that are more versatile and environmentally friendly without compromising color or durability. OEM suppliers, their partners and aftermarket ink makers are responding in kind, evident in refinements in eco-solvent inks and newer technologies like latex inks and LED-cured UV inks.

“It’s all about expanding applications for print service providers,” says Marco Boer, vice president of digital printing industry consultants I.T. Strategies (it-strategies.com). “Which ink will win? It really comes down to user preferences, and what you’re selling.”

Earlier this year, I.T. Strategies released its projections for the global inkjet market through 2016, reflecting trends in print production over the next five years. The research estimates consumption of aqueous ink in wide-format printing will rise just one percent through 2016. The real growth will be in the newer ink technologies: consumption of latex and eco-solvent inks for wide-format printing, for example, is expected to climb 16 percent in that same time frame, while growth of UV-cured inks for wide-format graphics is expected to increase six percent, I.T. Strategies predicts.

Total revenue from eco-solvent and latex inks is projected to climb sharply, from $1.15 billion to $1.90 billion, while revenue from UV-curable inks will grow more moderately, from an estimated $324 million today to $362 million, reports I.T. Strategies. And while those numbers might not mean much to the average print service provider, these should: Barring any disruptive economic development on world markets, I.T. Strategies projects the price of aqueous, eco solvent, and latex inks should fall one percent over the next five years, while the price of UV-curable inks will drop two percent.

That’s the broad picture. For company perspectives, we touched base with several industry suppliers of inks used in the wide-format arena, asking them to address topics including pricing, quality challenges, new trends and developments, and more.

Pricing and demand
“The sign-and-display market is growing at a double-digit rate, driven by new applications, such as decorations and textiles, the analog-to-digital conversion, and advancements in printing technologies,” says Tomas Martin, HP’s worldwide product marketing manager, large-format solutions. And although ink poses an ongoing expense for providers of wide-format graphics, he says, pricing is not a major concern. “Overall efficiency, setup times, versioning/personalization, and environmental impact are much more at the forefront of discussion with our partners and customers.”

John Kaiser, product marketing manager for inkjet inks at Fujifilm North America Corporation’s Graphic Systems Division, sees stable pricing with increased demand in some ink categories. “There continues to be digital ink growth at the expense of screen and offset, with UV digital again leading the way,” he says. “Digital ink demand at current customers is up over last year for both OEM and aftermarket printers.”

EFI also agrees that it’s a good year for UV: “We’re realizing significant growth with UV and LED inks”, reports Stephen J. Emery, senior director for the ink business at EFI. “Year over year, we’re experiencing over 30-percent volume growth with these inks. The majority of our customers are using more ink despite what seems to be a slow economy.”

He sees diminished demand for of solvent inks as print providers transition to UV and LED. “Overall, the digital printing print providers are always looking to reduce their cost per square foot/meter, [and] increase throughput and yield,” Emery notes. “In assessing these items, one has to look at the whole system to understand the total throughput and benefits and not just look at one component in isolation.” For instance, he notes LED-cured inks now enable EFI customers to work with traditionally difficult materials, such as thin films.

And, adds Emery, the white ink that’s available for EFI’s superwide printers, the Vutek family and the Jetrion 4900, mean more print options in more versatile print systems, he says. He describes white ink as “a feature that former screenprinters expect and that offset-litho printers moving to digital now appreciate because they can work with non-white materials including clear and metallic foils.”
Not that other types of inks aren’t viable in today’s market.

“We continue to see strong demand for solvent inks in price-sensitive regions,” says Inx Digital International president Ken Kisner. “North America and Europe have become more open-minded to using branded alternative supplies.” OEM brands, in response, he says “are introducing secondary lines or re-establishing their channels to become more competitive.” Consequently, Inx Digital is working closely with its OEM partners on product launches to bring new value to the market, with what he says will be “new and exciting special effects or with a new value proposition.”

As a full line supplier, Kisner has insight into multiple categories. In aqueous inks for the graphic arts and textile markets, he sees solid growth and competitive prices. His company is also experiencing increased demand for its solvent inks worldwide, while launch of its eco-solvent EDX inks in 2011 “has led to explosive growth in the wide-format market.”

“Inkjet is growing in all markets – even in the more well-established sectors, such as wide-format graphics,” reports Peter Saunders, global sales and marketing manager for Sun Chemical. “SunJet, the inkjet division of Sun Chemical, grew strongly in the past year and widened its product and technology portfolio to meet the demands of existing and emerging markets,” he adds. “We’ve seen continued growth in wide and superwide formats in the graphics market.

“Most print shops are using a variety of inkjet technologies, and are looking for [an] ink supplier who can offer versatile solutions without compromising quality,” points out Dror Mualem, vice president of marketing for Bordeaux Digital Printink. “More customers and even OEM printer dealers are realizing that in order to increase their business they need to offer an option other than OEM inks. It will help them gain more business and open new opportunities on printers they haven't serviced before,” he continues.

For owners of Roland printers, “Specialty inks have proven to be real game changers,” says David Hawkes, Roland DGA group product manager. He reports that most Roland printers now ship with at least one of its specialty ink options.

Qualities and challenges
“There is a lot of interest in UV LED, latex, and aqueous inks,” says Bordeaux’s Dror Mualem. “However, we often feel the user doesn't always understand the pros and cons of all these technologies.” With these new ink technologies, he says, print providers are no longer solely concerned about ink price and durability. They’re also looking for inks that address environmental concerns, yet deliver “the ability to print digitally on new media and new applications that are expanding with the technology.”

John Kaiser with Fujifilm believes print providers look to his company for inks that meet their needs for consistency, versatility, and durability for outdoor and specialty applications. “Inks that change in viscosity and color or lack batch-to-batch consistency wreak havoc with profiles and slow down print production. Ink adhesion to a broad range of substrates and flexible inks are desired, especially when post-print finishing on routers and cutters. Digital inks need to perform in a wide variety of applications, and digital ink formulations continue to strive for the widest adhesion and optimum performance for the intended application.”

Another challenge to digital, says Kaiser, is demand for a broad color gamut using a CMYK inkset. “Pigment selection is critical with regard to tone and clarity to achieve the unique ‘corporate’ colors demanded by end users,” he explains.

With so many options in wide format, says HP’s Eyal Dusy, “It’s important to evaluate ink’s end-to-end performance to determine which ink will work best for you and your particular applications,” when evaluating print systems.

Tomas Martin, also with HP, agrees that print applications should determine which inks – and corresponding printers – are the best investment. “For indoor applications where distance viewing is typically below one meter, image quality and an odorless print are the most important requirements,” he says. “For outdoor applications, the ability to withstand weather and pollution is critical to the value of the application.” It’s the ink, as a key component of any print system, which sets those parameters, he points out: “In general, the printer’s ability to handle a broad range of materials allows customers to maximize the number of potential applications they can offer in terms of cost, types of material, finishing, and installation options,” he says.

Mark Radogna, group product manager with Epson’s professional imaging division, says the company’s new SureColor printer inks, available in UltraChrome GS2 and UltraChrome GSX inksets, deliver some breakthrough advances for greener, almost odorless inks without compromising image quality or durability. “Our engineers found a way to dramatically reduce the VOCs for an ink that is much more environmentally friendly,” says Radogna. “We also made a new yellow ink, while completely removing nickel from our chemistry, for a yellow with dramatic outdoor durability for up to three years, even without laminating.”

New trends, advances, and products
As you might guess, each company we talked to for this article – as well as most other ink companies in the industry – is busy pursuing new technologies and bringing out new products to help print providers reach their goals.

Epson, with its new series of SureColor wide-format printers, is promoting a next generation of solvent-ink technology in its UltraChrome inks. Mark Radogna says the new inks address demands for products that are more environmentally friendly without sacrificing any of the vibrancy or durability of true solvent inks. “Ink technology dictates our printer technology,” he begins. The new printers and companion inks represent Epson’s response to print-provider demands for versatile systems that give them the most options in wide-format applications. “Solvent inks are a tried and proven chemistry, compatible with the broadest selection of media available today,” he explains. “Epson is a big believer in solvent-based technology with the improvements we’ve made.”

Epson UltraChrome GS2 ink, available for the SureColor S50670 printer, offers up to 5 colors, including a high-density white. Epson UltraChrome GSX ink, used on its SureColor S70670 printer, delivers up to 10 ink colors, including optional white, silver metallic, and light black. “We’ve developed a unique white solvent ink, and found a way to make the white two times faster” when drying, according to Radogna.

He believes the metallic silver will present new print opportunities – once the graphic-design community embraces its versatility. “A lot of graphic artists still don’t realize what metallic ink means and how they can use it in their designs,” he asserts. “Many people are confused, they think a silver ink means they can only print in silver,” he explains. “What they don’t seem to realize is that silver ink can be mixed with other colors, like a primary color, to create all kinds of shades and special effects.”

Sun Chemical was among the first to recognize the potential benefits UV LED-cured inks, Peter Saunders maintains. “As lamp and ink technology have advanced, we have developed a series of graphic inks that fully cure with LED UV exposure,” he says.

SunJet’s UV LED inks, marketed in its Crystal and EtiJet lines, demonstrate its ongoing attempts to anticipate and meet the evolving needs of digital print services providers. “The bar keeps being raised and we have to adapt to meet the demands of printheads that deliver higher print quality and speed to the customer,” says Saunders. “These increase the demands on ink technology as droplet sizes get smaller and printheads operate at higher frequencies.”

But as much as the market changes, Saunders says the challenges to ink suppliers remains essentially the same: “The ink has to deliver the right amount of pigment or color at low viscosity while maintaining the final film properties and performance as the equipment speed and capability increase,” he explains. “Indications are that print shops are willing to invest in products that diversify their output and offer operational flexibility and cost savings in processes that come with digital equipment.”

HP’s Tomas Martin sees advances in ink technology, and especially HP’s latex printing technology, opening up new opportunities “now that digital printing can provide odorless graphics to decorate walls in environments from retail to residential.” He attributes the interest in latex inks to how they combine the best attributes of eco-solvent and water-based inks: “You can obtain the outdoor durability, quality, and versatility on low-cost, uncoated papers that you would traditionally associate with eco-solvent inks, together with the odorless prints, low maintenance, and environmental advantages of water-based inks.”

Eyal Dusy, marketing segment manager for HP’s Scitex Industrial Solutions, sees a continued worldwide migration away from solvent inks in favor of more environmentally friendly latex and UV-curable print systems and inks. “Due to extensive environmental regulations for the handling and disposal of solvent inks in some areas, the price of solvent ink has increased, causing many PSPs to turn to UV curable or latex ink technologies.”

Dusy attributes the broadening appeal of UV-ink technology to its versatility and efficiency. “UV-curable ink can produce a wide variety of applications, allowing print service providers to expand their offerings with point-of-purchase and point-of-sale jobs for outdoors and retail environments, unlike solvent inks,” he notes.

He also points to the white-ink options HP has added for its HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 industrial printers as creating new opportunities: “These white inks allow customers to use colored or transparent substrates to produce high-value prints,” for window graphics, backlit graphics, and other applications.

At drupa this year, Bordeaux introduced its own latex ink, EDLX, formulated for piezo drop-on-demand printheads. Mualem says many eco- or mild-solvent printers already in use can easily be converted to use this new ink. As a specialist in digital inks, Bordeaux remains “focused on those areas where we can offer added-value products from our vast experience, and solve common inkjet issues,” says Mualem. “Bordeaux has the ability to develop niche products for specific customers and will continue in its R&D efforts in applications where we feel we will be able to make a contribution.”

Stephen Emery with EFI says the Orion architecture it unveiled at the drupa show will add grayscale print capabilities to Vutek GS platforms with a field upgrade, and in the new QS2 Pro and HS100 Pro platforms. “The variable droplet sizes mean that greater coverage can be achieved using lower ink volumes, with enhanced output quality. Faster throughput means greater productivity and higher profit margins.”
And says Emery, he expects UV inks for EFI’s R3225 roll-to-roll printer will qualify for the 3M MCS Warranty in the next few months. “Demand for a more flexible UV ink for car wraps is an area we expect to see some good growth,” he predicts.

Fujifilm’s latest advances can be seen in its Acuity LED 1600 wide-format hybrid printer and companion inkset. The printer features a proprietary design in its LED light source and optimized fast-curing UV-LED ink. John Kaiser sees several advantages in the system’s use of LEDs: longer lamp life, reduced energy consumption and cooler operating temperatures than traditional UV curing. In addition to standard CMYK, the inkset includes light cyan, light magenta, white, and clear. “Print providers can bridge the gap between quality and speed – the printer/ink combination allows for productivity of 215 square feet per hour,” on rigid and rolled media, he says.

Roland looks to capitalize on the specialty-inks trend with new inks throughout its line. The company recently expanded its Eco-Sol Max line with Eco-Sol Max 2 ink, developed especially for its new SolJet Pro 4 XR-640 printer/cutter. David Hawkes says the new formulation is virtually odorless and takes full advantage of the Pro 4’s dual inline eight-channel printhead. It’s also the first Roland ink available in nine colors, including specialty colors white, metallic, and light black. “Light black creates incredibly sharp photographic images, very natural skin tones, smoother grayscale gradations, and a level of depth and detail that sets a new benchmark for image quality,” says Hawkes.

And demand for the company’s metallic ink “continues to soar,” Hawkes reports. He says the new Metallic Silver Eco-Sol Max 2 is more reflective than previous formulations. Combined with Roland’s extensive metallic library, the metallic ink can be used to create more than 500 different metallic and pearlescent effects. “The unique properties and the effectiveness of this inkset usually command a 30-percent price premium over typical CMYK graphics,” he says.

Even so, Hawkes suggests most print buyers don’t ask for these effects because they simply are not aware of them. “Having samples ready is the key to showing the impact and advantages of the new inksets,” he says.

Inx Digital now offers white inks for UV, solvent, and aqueous systems. “Our internal dispersion technology has proven to be extremely stable and shows unprecedented density,” says Ken Kisner. He attributes some of the growth in UV inkjet to its efficiency, requiring as little as a third of the ink solvent systems to produce a comparable image. “This trend has allowed UV ink to produce a great return on investment.” And, he reports the company continues to make advances in latex ink systems, evident in its recent announcement of a latex ink for corrugated products.”

Kisner notes one trend that has the potential to undermine demand for some large-format prints: “We are seeing more and more inkjet printers being placed closer to the end user,” he advises. “Major retailers are beginning to bring printing in-house, which is allowing them to test market even faster.” For ink suppliers, this could expand their market; for print-service providers, it could also pose a challenge in lost revenue.

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