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Think Ink

New print systems and applications are driving ink suppliers to innovate.

Ink: To a print provider, it’s the equivalent of potable water. Without a good supply of quality ink, your printers go thirsty, your resultant jobs look haggard, and your profits will dry up and wither away.

On a broader scale, ink also plays a critical role in the wide-format industry as a whole. Ink suppliers are being challenged to develop inks that can adhere to more substrates as inkjet is used for an unending variety of applications, but also dry even more quickly while providing a broader color gamut.

Ink suppliers – OEMs as well as producers of aftermarket inks – have been moving to answer these challenges. They’re continually refining and expanding their ink offerings to capitalize on all the capabilities of the latest wide-format print equipment, plus the expansive selection of print media now available. Of course, it’s on the shop floor where the ink producers’ answers to those industry challenges converge with the print service provider’s needs and jobs.

In reading through the comments of the six companies that appear here, you’ll find their take on the broader ink trends affecting the entire wide-format industry. In addition, you’ll get a glimpse of each company’s particular marketing focus and even a look into a product or two.

Meeting market demands
According to Peter Saunders, global sales and marketing manager for Sun Chemical, the most noteworthy trend in wide format is “the need for inks that adhere to a wide range of substrates on much faster presses.” He reports that the company is working with its OEM partners to make digital wide format a more viable alternative to offset, and ink will be one key to realizing that goal. “The inks need to cure on the wide range of substrates used at production speeds, which are now achieving up to 100 square meters per hour.”

Terry Mitchell, vice president of marketing for Fujifilm North America’s Graphic Systems Division, sees the prospects for inks and new print systems intertwined: “We’re seeing growth in demand for digital equipment and ink from all segments of the market,” he reports.

At INX Digital, vice president of product development Karla Witte credits the increased use of rigid materials as a contributing factor in market growth. She points to larger, faster print systems as creating a need for high-performance UV inks. “Those demands require more gamut, faster cure rates, and a delicate balance between flexibility and a cross-linked surface,” she elaborates.

The need for speed is also figuring into the latest R&D on new inks – especially as print providers embrace UV LED print systems. “Ink-chemistry breakthroughs will have faster curing properties using unique photo initiators that cure faster with current LED lamp assemblies. Today, printheads can fire ink faster than the LED lamps can cure the inks,” says Paul McGovern, marketing and promotions manager for Mimaki USA.

And, no surprise here, as competition among print providers intensifies, they’re looking for ways to reduce costs wherever possible. That’s generating a call for more competitively priced inks, says Rich Dunklee, global marketing segment manager for UV and inkjet inks at Nazdar Ink Technologies. “We see a portion of the market looking for a high-quality alternative to OEM-furnished inks,” he observes. But, they want savings without sacrificing quality. “While a competitive price is important, consumers are finding that having an ink that matches or exceeds the performance of the OEM ink is of equal importance.”

At Bordeaux Digital PrintInk, marketing manager Kineret Muller says there’s increased demand for specialty ink formulations optimized to the capabilities of print providers’ hardware. “Customers are interested in specific solutions, so we are observing a need for dedicated solutions per machine,” she explains. “Changing ink from OEM is an important decision.”

Ink categories on the rise
As far as sales within individual ink categories go, the perspective on trends often depends on the vendor, the breadth of its particular product offerings, and its focus. Where there seems to be the most agreement is in growing interest in those formulations of ink technologies for the future: UV, UV LED, and latex.

“We continue to see significant growth in UV and UV LED, driven by improvements in the equipment in terms of quality, speed, and robustness,” notes Mitchell at Fujifilm

Like her competitors, Witte at INX Digital considers UV LED as a technology to watch: “UV LED is in greater demand this year with more printers on the horizon. The smaller units targeting promotional and light industrial work are all designed with LED,” generating the awareness and interest that will create a strong market for these inks. Her company is seeing growth in UV and water-based inks, she says, as well as a consistent demand for solvent inks.

Muller at Bordeaux sees an increased demand for UV inks, and a growing interest in latex inks, but not yet at the expense of eco-solvent inks. “Eco is still strong and we don’t see it diminishing for the next few years,” she explains. “New and improved printers are being introduced, and the inks and solutions are smarter, and demand for them continues to rise.”

Mimaki’s McGovern sees an increased demand for latex inks for use in wraps “where no ‘de-gassing’ is required before lamination.” He says the latex inks eliminate a major drawback of solvent inks: the delay, after printing, before final finishing. “The waiting time for lamination has always been an issue with solvent-ink formulations, where the user has to wait 18-20 hours before the protective laminate can be applied. Water-based latex inks enable improved workflow because the laminated vinyl can be applied to the vehicle immediately after printing. The same advantages are in place with UV-cure flexible inks, where immediate lamination or liquid overcoats pose no difficulties after printing rigid or soft substrates.”

Saunders at Sun Chemical sees increased demand for UV LED as well: “There is significant regional demand for UV LED and many bigger players in the market are looking at UV LED because of its environmental benefits. The latex-inks market is also growing – recent developments in this field have opened the industry’s eyes to water-containing inks,” he observes.

Nazdar’s Dunklee reports a “significant decline” in demand for grand-format solvent inks. Offsetting that trend, however, he says, are sales gains in cartridge solvent inks, dye-sublimation inks, and UV inks.”

Features looked for
Are there specific features, qualities, or factors that print providers look for when shopping for an ink?
Marco Boer at consultancy IT Strategies (it-strategies.com) thinks so: “First and foremost, print providers want a predictable, readily available source of inks,” he says. “Secondly, they want to be educated on where those inks work well and not well, how they react to different substrates, and how they perform in different applications. It’s become clear that there is no universal ink that works equally well in every circumstance. Knowledge is a valuable shortcut to preventing costly experimentation or, worse, customer complaints about final output. Too, a fair price for ink is always a given.”

Bordeaux customers want a comparable combination of benefits, says Muller. “Best price is always important, but quality and ease of work always seem to take precedent. Special ink features like better adhesion and special colors like vivid magenta are in demand. When you provide the customer with a simple, quality solution that is cost effective, the customer will usually go for it.”

From his viewpoint, Dunklee at Nazdar sees end-users looking for specific ink attributes based on the print equipment they have in place. “Providers using solvent inks are simply looking for the best price – the portion of the market that still uses solvent inks has seen significant price erosion of the products they typically manufacture. With print providers using UV technology, we’re seeing a need for more specialized inks.”

Fujifilm’s Mitchell asserts: “Print providers are seeking the solution that best meets their needs. We’re seeing printers targeting specific applications with dedicated equipment. Ink is only one part of the decision.”

At Mimaki, McGovern also cites trends in print systems sales, which are impacting prospects in categories like UV inks. “We feel the marketplace for more compact UV-cure flatbeds is a growing area for smaller sign shops that have not previously adopted UV flatbeds due to the pricing of larger and more expensive flatbeds. Printers with a lower entry price point, sub $99K, are becoming attractive to this group.”

Today’s ink consumers are looking for both price and performance from their suppliers, says Sun Chemical’s Saunders. “Price is always a factor, but it’s balanced by the application of the ink on many substrates,” he says. ”Performance is the key attribute. Our customers do expect inks that are specially formulated and offer flexibility, but performance is always the key.”

Product offerings
Every manufacturer we talked to for this article had an ink product that jibes with the aforementioned trends – either currently in the mix or in the offing. Just a few specifics (and see the sidebar, “Sourcing Ink,” which begins on page 22, for a comprehensive ink sourcelist of companies across the marketplace):

• INX Digital has launched several new UV LED inks as well as superwide high-gamut, fast-cure inks in its Triangle brand, says Witte. “We are addressing many areas of concern with UV-cure and water-based latex ink types to meet the new requests from the market with our OEM partners,” she says. The company’s latest offerings include two new inks for superwide printers. “MGA is a UV ink designed to run with the Durst 500 printer series and it offers a consistent gloss, fast cure that is available at all speeds, and an expanded gamut that designers love,” she says. “Our H76 ink is designed to work on the HP7500/7600 printer – it is chemical and color compatible and makes the ink safe for conversions on the HP Memjet printheads.”

• Muller says Bordeaux’s R&D team “continues to work diligently to introduce first-to-market dedicated alternative inks for the newest printers.” The company will soon introduce a dedicated ink for the Roland SolJet Pro4 printer, and recently added a 700-ml cartridge she describes as “identical to OEM” for Epson’s SureColor S-series printers. For the Epson printers, the company partnered with Ink on Demand to develop a “smart cartridge system.” Muller claims it is “the industry's only Epson ink-delivery system with a fully automated chip emulator system. It provides an intuitive user interface and accurate ink-level monitoring for longer unattended printing to maximize print productivity.”

• Nazdar continues to develop new ink-formulations in response to the evolving needs of its customers. “While our flagship UV ink products cover a very wide range of applications and substrates, we are finding more and more applications that are outside the scope of a general-purpose ink,” notes Dunklee. “We have responded with new ink lines or primers, depending on the market opportunity.” In late 2013, Nazdar launched two new Grand Format Solvent Digital Inks; Nazdar 517 and 518 Series inkjet inks. The 517 Series is designed for Xaar 128/126/Proton 36pl, Spectra Galaxy/Nova 128, Seiko 510 35pl, and Konica Minolta 42pl printheads; the 518 Series is designed for Spectra Skywalker, Spectra Polaris (solvent compatible), and Konica Minolta 14pl printheads.

• Fujifilm’s focus is “to develop more robust ink technology in all aspects of performance,” says Mitchell. “We are also developing inks that meet very specific application requirements.” Earlier this year, the company launched its Uvijet KA ink, a new alternative 4-color CMYK ink (plus white) for the company’s Acuity Series of printers. The Uvijet KA inks are designed to provide excellent adhesion, scratch resistance, and enhanced tolerance to marks caused by operator fingerprints or traces left by protective films. The new inks have exhibited excellent adhesion to acrylic, aluminum composite materials, fluted polypropylene (Correx), foam core, PETG, and styrene, Fujifilm reports.

• “Most of our customers really prefer the bulk systems Mimaki offers today,” says McGovern. He points out that benefits to end users include lower ink pricing based on higher volume packaging and a reduction in waste associated with disposing used plastic materials. The company’s emphasis on ink as a creative solution is also resonating with end users, he says – Mimaki has expanded its ink color offerings to include light magenta and cyan inks for some printer models, along with new orange and green colors for its latex water-based inks. White ink, McGovern notes, is now an option on most of its solvent, latex, and UV printers.

• Sun Chemical’s development team continues to focus on meeting and anticipating demands across wide format’s varied technology and market categories. “It’s a multi-faceted undertaking to formulate inks that are highly functional while delivering utmost quality, meet legislative requirements, and properly labeled so they be used in all countries,” notes Saunders. He says watch for introduction of SunJet aqueous inks in the next 18-24 months from SunJet. “We are always looking at advancements that we can make in the wide-format industry. We look at what our customers need and want, so we can plan projects and technology accordingly.”

The bright future of inkjet
“The wide-format inkjet market is in a notable transformation,” says Boer with I.T. Strategies. “It is 20-years old – technology has come a long way during that time. The effect of technology advancements has done two things: It has caused newer generations of printers to be more productive; and it has caused the recent generation of printers to become more reliable and durable.

“The net effect is that demand for new machines is now flat to in actual decline in most segments. However, the demand for output has not decreased and, in fact, it continues to rise. Correspondingly inkjet ink sales in most segments are increasing, and are expected to continue to increase as well. Bottom line: The future for inkjet beyond consumer markets remains as bright as ever.”

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