By Digital Output Staff
Wide format capabilities are a core part of many commercial print environments. Even if it is not a primary focus, several wide format devices feature low acquisition costs, are easy to implement, and present potential for added revenue.
For this article, we specifically look at the advancements and limitations of aqueous- and latex-based wide format offerings.
One segment of wide format is made up of aqueous-based inkjet devices. These printers are ideal for indoor applications and are particularly suited to output like photography, graphic arts, fine art, proofing, and décor art.
According to the 2021 Inkjet Wide Format Graphics market forecast by Mark Hanley of I.T. Strategies, as published in Digital Output magazine’s August 2021 issue, the aqueous wide format sector is a lucrative but small sector of wide format graphics, though it retains its separate identity through the preference users show for it in high-quality applications like portraiture, rendering, small in-house educational or retail graphics generation, or proofing. The hardware is relatively low cost, the volumes of print are low by unit and in aggregate, and ink prices are high.
The report predicts a slow decline of vendor indicators in this market as a function of greater productivity within a stable end use environment. Relatively modest 2019 to 2020 decline seems partly to indicate a strong home user market in the aqueous less than 36-inch width sector, but is also influenced by including corporate aqueous into the aqueous less than 36-inch width sector.
“The biggest draw to aqueous-based wide format printers is the incredible color gamut users can expect from aqueous ink sets, allowing them to print professional photography, graphic art, and fine art. Users can also expect long-lasting print permanence with aqueous pigment ink, as in Epson UltraChrome PRO ink used in the SureColor P-Series line,” offers Marc Aguilera, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc.
Aqueous ink sets have either dye or pigment colorants. “Dye ink is generally less image permanent and will fade over time, while pigment colorants are more image permanent. It’s important to consider the number of inks, as it will effect the color gamut. Additionally, print providers should examine the speed and width of the printer for end user use cases,” shares Aguilera.
One limitation is the prints are better suited for indoor applications unless they are laminated. “Aqueous-based prints have a shorter lifespan outdoors compared to latex, solvent, and resin-based prints. If an aqueous-based print will be displayed outdoors, consider lamination to extend the life of the print,” recommends Aguilera.
Aqueous-based printers tend to run smoothly in clean and dust-free environments where temperature and relative humidity are controlled.
Among its wide format portfolio, Epson produces a range of aqueous inkjet printers. “Our aqueous pigment inks used in the SureColor P-Series line of printers have an extremely wide color gamut and image permanence ratings for 200 years color and 400 years B&W. Combined with our printhead technology, the printers produce crisp, clear, and accurate color—print after print. Our aqueous pigment inkjet technology is also consistent and repeatable, which benefits the commercial proofing environment where there are minimal tolerances and high expectations for consistent color and quality,” adds Aguilera.
Another popular segment is latex-based wide format printers. Typical applications for this emerging market include indoor retail signage, exhibition and event graphics, wallcoverings and décor, vehicle wraps, canvas prints, stickers, backlits, frontlits, inflatables, and some apparel and accessories.
According to I.T. Strategies’ 2021 Inkjet Wide Format Graphics article in Digital Output, latex is included in the low-end solvent market, with HP Inc. not the sole supplier even as it remains the dominant supplier. The heading of latex also includes high-end HP systems, which I.T. Strategies just began including in its analysis. “These were calculated as a separate sector at their appropriate higher consumption rates, though the low- and high-end numbers are combined into a single summary in order to not reveal HP’s share at the high end. There is some questioning about whether high-end systems belong competitively with UV. I.T.
Strategies does not separate them out first, for the prior reason given, but second, the firm sees high-end latex systems as having substantially a unique and separate competitive profile often not directly competitive to UV.”
I.T. Strategies finds that the composite of latex and eco-solvent is the largest single wide format graphics segment by any measure and represents the heart of the wide format graphics market through its low acquisition costs suitable to the available super large and fragmented low-end, roll-to-roll channels worldwide. “These technologies are easy to acquire, suit the localized small-scale structure of the aggregate large market, and are capable of universal permanence in use on films and fiber substrates. The latter is the key to the success of wide format graphics’ biggest sector since most of the growth in the last 12-plus years derives from demand for external graphics. The eco-solvent market as well has easily the largest selection of products with over 70 from a handful of established vendors. This is a well-established market that has reached early maturity, but whose future as a replacement market is assured.”
Hanley says this large and low-scale roll-to-roll market has in some ways a good shot at defending itself against the COVID-19 crisis simply through the flexibility its scale affords and its ability to jump from application to application at low runs. “This is where a lot of the quick-footed shifting to informational COVID-19 signage took place and very considerably mitigated the loss of retail, sport, trade show, and travel-related business.”
He points out that in recent years this market also attracted some attention from low-end UV in an appropriately roll-to-roll format from companies. “It is hard to say if this is direct competition to low-end solvent, but such UV products broke into the dead zone between the high end of eco-solvent/latex at about $50K and the low end of UV where prices use to start at less than $100K. At least such UV products are a ladder upwards to higher volume customers for smaller print service providers as they grow.”
Mark Manning, senior technology portfolio manager, Ricoh USA, Inc., believes that latex-based printing for wide format systems has gained a lot of traction in the industry. “The biggest draw is its environmentally friendliness. This aspect also makes it ideal for indoor installations, which is key for industries such as hospitality and healthcare.”
Tom Wittenberg, large format Industry relations and events, North America, HP, agrees, adding that HP Latex printers use water-based inks that contain no hazardous air pollutants (HAPS), have no odor and aid in odorless prints, don’t require ventilation installed, have locally recyclable ink carton cardboard, and are excellent with eco-conscious media. “HP Latex Inks are one of the best, if not the best, inks in the industry for lack of odor, low volatile organic compounds, no HAPS, and no requirement for ventilation.
Outside of health and safety aspects, it’s key to consider your shop environment and ensure that it meets the recommended environmental requirements to operate the device. “Most manufacturers, including Ricoh, will provide a brochure that lists optimal and acceptable environmental requirements and it’s important for customers to consider where they fall within that measure,” shares Manning.
“When HP latex inks are combined with eco-conscious media, there is a winning combination for companies interested in sustainability,” states Wittenberg.
“With the major brands focusing more on sustainability and the market demanding the same, HP Latex products are in a unique position to support sustainability with low/no-odor prints, faster turn times than competitive technologies, and versatility of media, which allows commercial printers to do more for brands with the one technology,” says Wittenberg.
Another advantage to latex-based ink within wide format printing is the way the inks cure. Latex prints come off the printer completely dried, which enables post-production to start immediately without degassing.
“They have small amounts of resin latex particles, once applied to the paper and heated, the water carrier evaporates, leaving the pigment encapsulated in the latex plaster layer. As a result, the prints are dried and cured immediately from exiting the printer, eliminating the need to wait for outgassing required for eco-solvent technology,” explains Manning.
Similar to the eco-solvent printers on the market, latex doesn’t limit applications, and users are able to create a range of sign and graphic applications from banners to posters, point of purchase displays, wallcoverings, and vehicle wraps for both indoor and outdoor use.
Wittenberg says latex can be used for textiles and pillows especially if these need to be printed on natural fibers, which dye-sublimation (dye-sub) cannot print.
“All of those applications can be accommodated with latex-based printing, so the biggest draw is moving away from having to use systems with hazardous supplies toward a more environmentally friendly option, making it safer for operators, install environments, and customers,” explains Manning.
Media versatility in general is a draw, Wittenberg points out that latex supports more than 500 different options, many of which are the same or similar to media already utilized by commercial printers.
It is important to note that due to the heat involved and the curing required, latex does require more energy than some other systems, however, this can be balanced by the manufacturers’ utilization of something like an industrial-grade printhead. “Our RICOH Pro L5160 utilizes industrial-grade printheads featuring variable drop technology, which occurs when the system chooses the correct drop site based on the image sent over, maximizing the image quality and ink to help save costs. Our devices are also Energy Star certified, and although high heat is required, we’ve designed the devices to operate under industry preferred certification,” says Manning.
He advises print providers to be aware of media selection due to the heat involved in the printing process. “There are numerous media manufacturers creating hundreds of different types of media for customers to print on with these inks so it’s purely something for printers to be aware of,” he offers.
While latex ink is suitable for many outdoor media environments, Manning says it’s best to check with the media manufacturer about expectations for outside durability where direct sunlight can have an effect.
Wittenberg adds that outdoor prints produced with HP Latex Inks achieve display permanence up to three years unlaminated and up to five years laminated and are scratch, smudge, and water resistant on a range of media. “HP Latex Inks deliver long-lasting, durable prints that withstand the elements while also providing sharp, vivid image quality that stands up to close inspection. HP is supported by the full 3M MCS and Avery ICS finished graphics warranties.”
Specific features greatly depend on the installation environment. “Customers should be looking at what ink integrations are offered in the system they are evaluating and how that system fits into their workflow. Customers should also look at what color gamut they are getting and determine the productivity based on their particular application and installation environment. Lastly, it is crucial to work with a reputable vendor that can support them, not only with the recommendations for correct equipment, but also supporting that equipment post sale,” says Manning.
In terms of cost, total cost of ownership and return on investment are largely dependent on the customer environment and the production they go into. “Printers want to take into account how much they’re going to be producing each month, cost per square foot, understand supply costs, and evaluate additional information whether it’s service contracts, cost of labor, etc,” he adds.
Wide format devices are appealing to nearly all print environments. There are many segments, including aqueous, eco-solvent/solvent, UV, and dye-sub. Aqueous- and latex-based offerings are available in many versatile entry-level options.
Mar2022, Digital Output