Ink Update: 2017 Trends

Why focusing on emerging market sectors and new applications matters when purchasing ink in 2017.

Printer, media, and ink: the three main components your shop needs to print graphics for a client. Without them, those printed graphics, whether they’re large or small, on fabric or wood, wouldn’t exist. But it’s the application you’re offering to your client that determines what type of printer is needed, which media it should be printed on, and what ink to use. New trends and developments within the ink market are now being aimed at enabling new applications and creating new markets. And, International Data Corporation (IDC), a global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets, expects ink revenue to grow from $1.33 billion in 2015 to $1.93 billion in 2020. So, will you choose latex or eco-solvent when offering a banner print? What ink will you buy for your dye sublimation and packaging projects? What UV and aqueous inks work best for your wide-format machines? Where does your shop stand as the ink market continues to change and grow?

Latex Versus Eco-Solvent

Within the large-format ink market there are several areas of transformation, providing some excitement and upheaval. One of the areas that seems to draw the most interest is the battle between eco-solvent inkjet ink and latex inkjet ink. These two technologies are going head-to-head around the world as print service providers select the best technology for their present set of applications and for the future of their business. While latex has a lot of momentum since HP launched the technology in 2008, there is still a large installed base of eco-solvent printers that serves the signage and graphics markets with proven production capabilities. Based on the utility of the technology and the improving speed and image quality capabilities of every generation of eco-solvent equipment, IDC does not see the huge installed base of eco-solvent inkjet printers declining as some might suggest. In fact, IDC believes that the applications that drive a lot of eco-solvent production – banners, vehicles wraps, decals, etc. – will continue to drive eco-solvent production based on the value of out-of-home advertising. Revenue from large-format eco-solvent inkjet ink in North America was valued at almost $200 million in 2016 and is expected to decline by less than 1 percent over our present forecast period (2016-2021). Latex, on the other hand, is in some cases replacing eco-solvent and other production technologies, but is also finding new markets based on its achievable quality, substrate variability, and eco-friendliness. Latex inkjet ink is valued at $150 million in North America, and IDC is projecting an 18 percent CAGR from 2016 through 2021. From a revenue standpoint, latex inkjet ink, at least in North America, is relatively unaffected by third-party ink suppliers, whereas there are large companies involved in third-party inks in the eco-solvent segment. By 2019, latex inkjet ink revenue is expected to surpass eco-solvent inkjet ink revenue.

Dye Sublimation and Textile

Another interesting market segment from an ink perspective is the dye sublimation and textile printing industry. This is related to the eco-solvent and latex market, too, because there are a lot of companies using their latex printer for soft signage, and there are many companies that modify their eco-solvent inkjet printers for dye sublimation. But most of these are low-end systems that typically require separate finishing systems such as an unwinder/rewinder, heat press, and calendering devices. The dye sublimation market is impacted by one of the major market trends toward fast fashion. Large retail organizations built around the fast fashion trend, such as H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo, are driving a transformation in the textile and garment supply chain that is resulting in higher volumes of digital textile printing. What’s pretty exciting now is the range of machines that have come to market that are designed for one-step dye sublimation printing. IDC expects these production systems to drive much higher volumes of dye sublimation inkjet printing over the next few years, and that the large-format dye sublimation inkjet ink market will basically double over the forecast period, from more than $190 million to more than $320 million by 2021. Within that growth, those high-speed digital textile printing systems in North America are expected to grow at a rate nearly twice as fast as the rest of the dye sub market. Similar to the eco-solvent segment, there’s quite an active set of third-party ink manufacturers in the dye sublimation business.


The digital graphics market is obviously changing, and the ability to turn jobs around quickly is one of the biggest reasons IDC expects UV-curable inkjet to play a big role going forward. Within the large-format UV market there is a trend towards LED curing, which provides several key advantages. LED curing produces less heat, which means a wider variety of substrates can be printed on, including thinner materials, which have been challenging for traditional mercury curing systems. IDC expects LED curing inks to grow about four times faster than conventional mercury curing inks from 2016 to 2021. The use of thinner materials saves PSPs money, as does the lower cost of powering LED curing systems. The UV inkjet ink market is very interesting because there is a growing set of products that are developed to accommodate the flexible media market. Just as an example, according to Ken VanHorn, director of marketing and business development for Mimaki, the company’s LUS-350 UV inks that the company launched at last year’s SGIA show can be elongated 350 percent. Similarly, EFI has invested in the large-format UV-curable inkjet ink market in North America, which is expected to grow from $330 million in 2015 to more than $710 million in 2020. One area that we’ll be watching closely in 2017 is Canon’s announcement of its UVgel ink. The early presentations of this new technology indicated that it would be a competitor to HP’s Latex series.


Whereas we’re expecting continued growth of UV-curable inkjet ink in the graphics market, there’s an adjacent market that’s just getting started for high-speed inkjet printing in packaging. There are two types of inks used in these types of printers: One is water-based, and the other is a hybrid ink that’s water-based but also has a photo-initiator component similar to UV-curable inkjet inks. As of drupa, Durst, EFI, HP, and others have launched high-speed inkjet printers aimed at the corrugated packaging segment, joining previously announced systems from companies like Bobst and Sun. These high-speed systems are in some early stages, but they’re expected to produce tens of thousands of square feet of print on a daily basis, creating another segment for inkjet inks printed across a wide array. Several companies are working on low-migration UV-curable inkjet inks, but generally it’s fair to say that the market would prefer a water-based ink for packaging, especially for production of packaging applications where food is involved. IDC is projecting the ink in this category of equipment to grow from almost nothing in 2016 to more than $15 million by 2020.


In the large-format digital printing market, the single biggest ink segment from a revenue standpoint is the aqueous ink market. Aqueous ink, utilized in HP DesignJet, Epson Stylus Pro, and Canon imageProGraf printers, was valued at more than $675 million in 2015 and is expected to grow modestly: less than 1 percent per year over the forecast period. That growth, which is driven by the emergence of single-pass aqueous inkjet printers like the PageWide XL series from HP, is largely offset by the decline of low-end aqueous inkjet graphics printing systems and single-function CAD printers that are being retired in favor of multifunction devices. These PageWide single-pass printers, which are primarily found in CAD/technical markets, offer speed and running cost advantages over traditional toner-based printing. IDC expects the ink revenue from single-pass aqueous inkjet printers will grow at close to a 60-percent CAGR from 2016 to 2021.

IDC notes that manufacturers have taken important steps to protect the sale of inks for their printers by constantly developing new inks that perform better and are more efficient (covering more area with the same or less ink). Developing inks that perform better across a wider range of substrates, extending the warranty, and offering larger ink cartridges helps PSPs because they’re able to operate the printer for a longer period of time without interruption. There’s so much happening in each segment of the large-format inkjet ink market that users and dealers seeking operational and sales advantages have to closely monitor these developments.

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