Six shops exploring the expanding universe of white-ink applications.

When white ink emerged as an option on a new generation of wide-format digital presses, early adopters embraced the technology as a way of differentiating themselves from competitors. As they’ve explored its applications, new opportunities have emerged, creatively and commercially, putting bright and colorful graphics and effects where doing so just wasn’t feasible or cost-effective before.

Today, the novelty of printing with white ink has worn off. In fact, it could be argued that having white-ink capabilities is now a necessity for print providers aspiring to be a full-service partner in addressing clients’ graphics needs.

The six profiled shops that follow have found success with white ink. As one shop indicates, “We’re shocked by how much white we’re doing.”

A way with wood
When Dali Decals (www.dalidecals.com) launched in 2008 in Jacksonville, Florida, its focus was primarily on custom printing of large-format vinyl decals for cars and interiors. As satisfied customers inquired about additional print services, the company expanded its capabilities and it brought in-house Epson and Roland large-format printers, and, in mid-2012, the shop added an EFI Rastek H652 (now branded the EFI H652) hybrid UV printer.

“Adding the UV printer really broadened our product base and our capabilities,” reports David Okun, Dali’s executive director. He credits the printer’s white-ink option as a key gain for his operation.

“I don’t think we would have brought in a UV printer if it couldn’t print with white ink,” Okun elaborates. “Without white, you’re really limited in choices (of material). We’re always printing with white now – onto acrylic, wood, and metal. Without it, I don’t see us printing on those materials with the same results.”

One primary use at Dali has been putting color photographs on clear acrylic, reverse printing the images, then backing the images with 100-percent white. Customers don’t necessarily understand the method, but they do like the resultant look.

This type of work has figured into many Dali projects. For instance: the US Navy’s Navy Entomology Center of Excellence at the nearby US naval air station. There, the Dali team filled a 25-foot hall with photos and graphics to tell its story.

Other projects have combined prints on acrylic, with standard sign boards transformed via white ink to resemble pricier wood panels with some distinctive grain.

“The printer lays down the white first at whatever percentage we choose, and then the color of the wood prints right over it,” explains Okun. “This is done in a single process; it doesn’t need to be fed through the printer twice.”

Another installation, this one at the CrossFit Total Control Gym in Jacksonville, also combined prints on acrylic with wood. This time, text on wood panels was output in color on a 50-percent white base “to get the black nice and dark without losing all of the wood texture,” says Okun.

And, for the lobby of the PGA Tour Experiences headquarters in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach, the look of real wood panels was desired, but impractical: “Due to weight concerns, we opted to print these pieces on black 1/2-inch PVC with color onto 100-percent white,” says Okun. “We mounted laser-cut acrylic to the PVC, installed the mural, and hung the pieces using one-inch standoffs.”

Dali’s deft use of white has garnered professional accolades as well. Last year, its 30 x 40-inch submission to EFI’s “Refine Our Space” contest was a winning entry. The multimedia piece combined photos on acrylic with cherry-grain wood panels. A layer of 50-percent white was printed on plywood, then the grain printed on top of that.

“When you start to get creative with white ink, things can really get fun,” sums up Okun. “There’s just so much it allows you to do.”

The indispensable option
For Artisan Colour (www.artisancolour.com) in Scottsdale, Arizona, the white-ink capabilities of its Canon Océ Arizona 350GT flatbed and HP Scitex FB700 printer have added an ingredient that’s now essential to its success.

“If we didn’t have the ability to print with white ink, we’d lose half our business,” says Pete Cook, Artisan’s display-graphics manager. “It’s something we’re using on a daily basis.”

While the company’s main focus is commercial graphics solutions, it’s also tapped white ink for lucrative specialty services to consumers, available through Artisan HD (www.artisanhd.com). There, consumers can have color photos reverse printed on clear acrylic panels up to 54-inches wide, backed with 100-percent white.

As with much of the company’s professional services, both of its printers are used based on their availability. “We have both machines profiled very close together,” for consistent results, whatever the material, he says.

In one recent project, the Arizona printer was used to transform the look of four clear panels. The client specializes in sales environments promoting area real estate development; the sales center required an interactive display to explain key features and allow buyers to customize their homes.

The design called for four Arkema p95 frosted acrylic panels, 96-inches high and in various widths, from 33 to 42 inches. Each had to be printed in a different color to convey its focus on a particular aspect of the development. The colors were printed on the reverse side, then backed with 100-percent white.

An adhesive promoter was applied around the edges on the back of each panel. “Ink adhesion with white can be a problem, especially when printing on a surface like glass,” Cook notes. “We get around that issue by applying the adhesion promoter – just around the edges; otherwise sometimes there are streaks.”

Text and logos were printed on the front of each panel, in white or, alternately, with a white base applied first, and color printed on top of it. Photos used were printed with the company’s LightJet, then mounted onto 3A Composites Sintra panels. Like the touch-screens, they were mounted to the panels with spacers for a 3D effect.

“If we didn’t have the white ink, the panels would be transparent and look like stained glass,” Cook says.
Artisan Colour continues to find other applications for white-ink capabilities as well, including some large projects on a small scale. “We do custom printings of as many as 500 poker chips for area casinos,” Cook reports. “We precut disks from blue, black, green Sintra, spray a keyline file on the table, and manually place and flip them. It’s not the most efficient process, he admits, “but it’s better registration for things with a thin white border.”

Helping brands express their technology
Originally a design firm that specialized in brand building, 54blue (www.54blue.com) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, initially expanded into print work to take control of its workflow.

“We had to eliminate the back-and-forth and proofing stages to meet the timelines of our clients,” says 54blue owner and founder Jamie Calon. “We’re a little company that does marquee work. We don’t print a lot but what we do print gets seen.”

Figuring prominently in that visibility: work incorporating the white-ink capabilities of the shop’s Roland VersaCamm VS-640 printer/cutter. In fact, he says white ink is a necessity for some prints destined for display in the cold Canadian climate. “We can’t put external vinyl on windows here,” he explains. “White ink allows us to install window clings with the proper opacity on the inside of glass, with all the color we’re looking for.”

And there’s another benefit, Calon reports: “The ability to change the opacity of white with spot channels to have the white fade in and out at full opacity for some semi-transparent effects. The effects are flawless.”
In fact, Calon now considers white ink a necessity for delivering what clients want in some graphics. It figures in about half of 54blue’s projects – to make colors pop when printed on clear or colored vinyl, to balance off-color media, and for printing photos on clear film.

Recent examples can be seen at The Impact Lab, a learning center at the Winsport Heritage Center – a sports facility situated in Calgary’s Olympic Park, site of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. 54blue’s team was involved in all aspects of the Lab: design, fabrication, printing, and installation of the graphics on a range of materials.

Sponsored in part by 54blue clients Oakley and Giro, the Impact Lab is a 2300-square-foot retail space/education zone promoting safety equipment for skiing, snowboarding, and bobsledding. “It’s a space dedicated to safety on the snow,” says Calon. “People can learn how helmets work, how goggles protect the eyes, and what they need for padding on the hills.”

The winter theme alone warrants a healthy dose of white. It’s also integral to the effects seen in displays there. A 10 x 30-foot window graphic announces the lab and invites visitors, printed with white and additional colors onto 54-inch strips of Catalina Cling. Inside, they navigate from station to station to learn about safety gear available for purchase. Display and wall graphics were produced with the shop’s Roland printer. Many were output on clear vinyl, using spot white to highlight or back up other colors, then applied to glassy or acrylic panels.

“White is a primary color in the branding of these companies, it’s part of their DNA,” Calon says. “We were able to use it here to help these brands express their technology.” In fact, the project has been so well received, 54blue is already working on The Impact Lab II, which is slated for installation later this year.

Exploiting white
Woody Molinaro, owner of Invisible Light Manufacturing (www.ilmfg.com) in Elk Grove, Illinois, considers Mutoh’s ValueJet 1617H an investment helping broaden his horizons, both commercially and creatively. He’s not using its white ink option every day – not yet anyway – but he is continually exploring and finding new ways to exploit it.

“White ink is something I first ran across when there was a print project I couldn’t do,” because he lacked that capability, he says. Already an owner of Mutoh’s ValueJet 1617, Molinaro upgraded to the newer hybrid flatbed/rollfed printer and its white-ink capabilities last year. “It gives me more flexibility in what I do for my customers and the products I can offer,” he says.

Photographers were among the early adopters of Invisible Light’s new capabilities, tapping this option for reverse printing of color photos on clear acrylic. Backed with 100-percent white, these panels are then cut to size for use as photo album covers. “Each measures about 12 x 12 inches and we typically produce anywhere from 12 to 16 to as many as 30 at a time,” he says. This low-volume work can command a premium price, he notes.

For another client, white proved critical for a more limited run of prototype packaging for distribution to its clients. “They wanted to give their customer samples which look exactly like the final packaging,” he explains. The client provided the rolled film which he spot printed with white, then over printed in specified colors.

Molinaro has also used white in floor graphics for trade shows, reverse printing colors on textured 5 x 10-foot panels of 75-mil clear floor vinyl. The color graphics were backed with 100-percent white, then a foam board backing applied before panels were installed.

“The combination of the white, backed with the foam board really punched the colors nicely,” he notes.
In a similar way, he’s printed white along the back edges of black PVC panels for a unique effect, or laid down a layer of white on the front before printing in color for point-of-purchase. “White allows you to do some unique things,” he observes. “It’s given me a lot of options I haven’t even explored yet.”

Confident as he is in its future, there are challenges: “Speed is still the number one problem – it’s definitely a lot slower than printing CMYK.”

Still, that’s not too much of an issue, considering all it allows him to achieve. “It really comes down to what the application is, and what the customer wants in that final image,” he says. “A lot of what we’ve been doing is printing photo-quality where it may not have been possible without white ink.”

Finding additional creative outlets
Part of the appeal of any flatbed is the range of media it can handle. Add white into the color mix, and new vistas in applications emerge.

At least that’s been the experience of Chris Jackson, owner of San Antonio, Texas-based Cold Fire Signs (www.coldfiresigns.com). Last year, he purchased the CET XPress Q500 flatbed. “The fact it could print with white ink was an extra feature we were interested in,” he says.

In retrospect, it’s something he would have welcomed years ago. “The ability to print with white would have made some jobs much easier,” Jackson reports. “When you have to print on clear vinyl, and then apply that to another material, it can prove labor intensive and frustrating,” especially if a spec of dirt or dust somehow gets between the vinyl and underlying substrate. “When that happens, you have no choice but reprint, and you can’t charge the client for that. It’s been a labor saver that gives us another creative outlet,” he says.

Now, he routinely prints photos on back of clear, 1/4-inch acrylic, flooding the background with 100-percent white to make the colors and image stand out. For one project, he produced 84 of these 14 x 18-inch prints, cut from 8 x 10-foot panels.

That kind of work he expected. What’s surprised him, however, are some novel applications, like creating a 3D effect on plywood to convey the look and feel of an old wooden sign. For this project, designer Mario Columbini starts with a wood-grain image in Photoshop. “From that, I create a black-and-white alpha channel to create the depth,” he says. When the files print, he taps the printer’s ability to lay down white in four separate passes. “We print, then overprint white to create the raised layers of the wood before we print 4-color. It’s something we couldn’t really do with just a 4-color press.”

Jackson also reports success using white to bring sheets of rolled cork to life. A corporate client uses the panels as bulletin boards for employees to post announcements and fliers at its facilities. Jackson cuts the rolls into 3 x 6-, 4 x 6-, and 3 x 8-foot panels for the flatbed.

“The ability to print white adds a whole new dimension,” he notes. “They can have a white background instead of a dull brown. Because we’re printing on a brown base, the white gives us a better pop wherever we use color. “And, now we’re able to use white in art where it just wasn’t possible before.”

Where amazing becomes routine

“We’re shocked by how much white we’re doing,” admits Greg Hasbrouck, large-format production manager for Archway Atlanta (www.archway.com). “We knew it’s something we needed, but it really has been amazing. We’re using it on long-run projects every week.”

In less than a year, the shop’s HP Scitex FB7600 has become an indispensable asset. “We had a small press with white-ink capability before, but it was very slow, so we were outsourcing most projects which required white,” he says.

Extended press runs requiring white are now routine. “We do inside mount clings, print on black Styrene, and put photographs on different (colored) materials,” Hasbrouck shares. “You have to have white to get that effect.”

A couple of recent projects are typical examples. For one retail client, Archway produced a total of 1000 window clings, in three sizes, for installation inside store windows. Images were printed on the back of clear static cling media, then backed with 100-percent white.

The largest images, measuring 60 x 85-inches, were printed one at a time. Still, Hasbrouck says the quality, and speed makes the digital press a cost-effective alternative to screen printing for such projects.

“Sometimes we’re using white to put two different images on the same cling,” he continues. For a restaurant chain, Archway printed 1500 for installation inside its locations. The job required the same image be viewable, inside and outside of the eateries.

He describes the solution as something akin to an ink sandwich on clear cling. “First we laid down a reverse image in color, then a layer of white on top of that, and then a black blocker, he explains.” On the other side, he printed a layer of white, then a mirror of the color image.

White is also now figuring in smaller, specialty projects that just were not possible before. “One customer came to us with panels of lenticular stock for their project,” he shares. “We printed white on the panel so when someone moves around it, only the parts of the image they want them to see are visible.”

For an auto client, Archway spot printed white on chrome silver paper, so the color of the car printed on top of it really shines, but the underlying color shows through only where wanted.

“We’re showing our customers what we can do with white, and they’re starting to come up with ideas on their own,” he says.


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