By Melissa Donovan
Annually, Digital Output focuses on the ink segment of the graphic arts. Topics of note include which ink type is commonly requested by print service providers (PSPs), trends effecting these demands, new chemical formulations, and what drives research and development (R&D).
A Number of Options
Based largely on what they offer, speaking to a cross section of vendors reveals that each ink type is still represented in some capacity. PSPs’ interest in the newest technology, remaining conscious of the environment, demand for fast drying ink sets—to help increase productivity, and desire for affordable, durable consumables means product categories like solvent remain popular and newer formulations such as latex expand their presence.
“Solvent continues to dominate the printing space largely due to its durability, ease of use, and availability. Its compatibility with a variety of uncoated media also drives this demand,” explains Michael Maxwell, senior manager, sign graphics business development and marketing, Mimaki USA, Inc.
According to Craig Reid, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Co., solvent still holds strong in much of Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South America—and Asia varies country by country. “Even though grand format solvent was thought to be nearly extinct in the U.S., several high-speed three- and five-meter wide systems were launched by original equipment manufacturers last year and experienced very good sales.”
Aqueous inks remain popular thanks to increasingly stringent air quality and environmental, health, and workplace safety regulations in developed countries, says Dr. Ross R. Allen, senior technology specialist, HP Inkjet Technology Platforms. He adds that the increased use of aqueous pigment inkjet inks in food packaging—a segment benefiting from digital thanks to serialization, watermarking, and customization—also leads to this ink type’s permanence.
Analyst firm I.T. Strategies reports on a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.26 percent from 2014 to 2020 for liters of aqueous ink used per month on average.
Latex’s popularity grows thanks to environmentally concerned PSPs. “This is because of greatly reduced volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which means they don’t require special ventilation equipment, and have less of an environmental impact. Also, experience has shown to the market that the outdoor durability of latex is equal to solvent. Latex prints completely dry within minutes, so you don’t have to wait hours or a day to do post processing. In today’s world of instant gratification, fast drying times are key,” admits Ray Bauer, production marketing manager, Ricoh USA, Inc.
To further prove the point, Michael L. Pender, president, Supply55, Inc., says he has seen a slight decline in eco-solvent usage as customers move to latex platforms.
“Latex was the huge growth segment in 2016, accounting for over 30 percent of market growth over both aqueous and solvent,” agrees John D. Peterman, EVP, sales and marketing, Big Systems.
Dye-sublimation (dye-sub) inks increase in usage thanks to the demand for digitally printed textiles. “In 2015, SGIA reported a growing number of large format print providers that invested and/or plan to invest in digital dye-sub. They also mention an increase in businesses that classify themselves as ‘entirely digital’ and have witnessed this growth for several years. With both the process and the cost of sublimation inks coming down in price many companies are expanding this into their current printing operations,” says Matt Gusse, VP sales and marketing, Advanced Color Solutions Inc.
UV ink’s appeal is in its eco-friendliness as well as its influence on digital print expanding into new markets. “There is significant regional demand for UV LED and many bigger players in the market are looking at UV LED because of its environmental and application benefits,” shares Peter Saunders, business director – digital, Sun Chemical Corporation.
“New advances in UV-curable technologies increased their demand recently, and new applications where UV has become more popular are driving interest,” agrees Maxwell. Thermoforming and corrugated board printing are two examples, as UV ink’s flexibility characteristics and cooler curing techniques allow for untraditional substrates to be printed on.
I.T. Strategies reports on a CAGR of 8.93 percent from 2014 to 2020 for liters of UV ink used per month on average.
Trends in Ink
Ink sets are effected by trends and demand from users. Buyers look for efficiency without compromising on quality. The newest formulations of ink in the digital space meet both of these requirements and more.
Quick turnarounds are common place in print shops around the world and ink manufacturers must take this into consideration. “The tight deadlines that customers expect from print providers have moved the needle toward higher usage of latex and UV inks,” says Adam Larson, global portfolio manager – premium films, 3M Commercial Solutions.
Complementing efficiency is quality. This desire not only comes from PSPs, but newcomers entering the market with high standards. “Many graphic artists come from either photography, offset, or elsewhere outside of the wide format printing segment. This group has an increased demand for gamut and clarity. This has led to a further focus from many manufacturers to increase offerings in available colors, and has also driven improvements in technology,” shares Maxwell.
The biggest trend Saunders has seen is inks that adhere to a range of substrates for both rigid and flexible materials on much faster presses. “The equipment is running faster and inks need to cure on the wide range of substrates used at production speeds. Price is always a factor for our customers, but it is balanced by the application of the ink on many substrates,” explains Saunders.
“Cost and value continue to be strong trends across the graphics space,” agrees Mark Goodearl, senior ink product manager, EFI. “And it’s not necessarily about having the absolute lowest cost per liter of ink, but additional factors such as yield and coverage to get the best possible results with lower ink volumes, lower ink waste, and faster speeds for the lower costs per print—anything that contributes to a lower total cost of ownership.”
“There is also a long-term trend towards more sustainable, eco-friendly products that has seen printers and printer/ink manufacturers move from solvent to eco-solvent and more recently latex ink,” adds Sal Sheikh, senior director, Océ LFS marketing and support, Canon U.S.A., Inc. and VP, marketing, large format solutions, Canon Solutions America, Inc.
In terms of applications, digital textile printing greatly effects the use of ink. “Whether it is dye-sub transfer or direct to textile, the application and opportunities are growing fast. Print providers tend to have multiple printers running many hours at a time to meet demand. New inks are created all the time along with special media that is receptive to the ink,” shares Brian Phipps, president, Mutoh America, Inc.
Users attracted to textile printing—specifically dye-sub—are vast, spanning a number of industry segments including home décor, furnishings, soft signage, and exhibit and display, according to Pender.
Driving the trend is ease of transportation, ease of use, and ease of installation, lists Bauer. He provides the example that it would typically take four to five palettes to ship traditional trade show signage, but the same amount of signage printed on fabric only takes one palette.
Other factors influencing demand include, “textiles can be cleaned and reused again, they are very durable, vibrant, and fade resistant. Another big factor is the aesthetics. Fabric is familiar, sophisticated, bright, and can be exhibited rigid in a frame using silicone edge graphics or in its free flowing form with dowels, as flags or banners,” explains Tara Lamb, president, Global Imaging, Inc.
Specialty inks like gloss, primer, and white are also trending. They are influential in creating unique dimensional effects. “Previous to the introduction of these inks, the trend was producing mock ups or short-run graphics with spot varnish or gloss. However, the more the graphic arts industry saw how easy and effective it is to incorporate gloss/matte and embossing techniques with wide format printers, the more demand for these inks increased for point of purchase, signage, and high-end marketing applications,” shares Jay Roberts, product manager, UV products, Roland DGA Corporation.
“Specialty inks like white, primer, and varnish—included or as options—are opening the doors to new markets by providing PSPs with ways of embellishing the print to produce a ‘wow’ factor like dimensional and 3D prints that increase the overall value,” agrees Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, Agfa Graphics.
The chemical composition of solvent, latex, aqueous, dye-sub, and UV ink continually develops. This is in response to the aforementioned trends and demands, namely the need for durability, quality, and efficiency across a range of applications.
“To meet demand, inks are designed to perform at high speeds, high resolution, and to provide an enhanced color gamut,” explains Jack Papaiacovou, VP/GM, Hilord Chemical Corporation.
Allen says that in general, to improve ink durability, new components like polymers are added. Pigments are introduced to provide improved colorfulness and fade resistance, this limits exposure to certain metals and other hazardous materials that can cause health issues.
Larson adds that the chemistries of many inks are undergoing reformulation, such as the removal of nickel, as a way to create more sustainable products and meet the growing demand for eco-friendly inks.
“Many manufacturers have adjusted the chemistry of inks to reduce odor and improve dry times, and in some cases they have figured out how to control the shape of the drops for more accurate placement. These chemical and technological advancements improve the image quality and overall perceptions of the final product of inkjet versus more traditional printing methods,” shares Maxwell.
Color gamut is of interest beyond traditional CMYK. “Ink sets have evolved based on color needs in the industry and the changing of printhead technology. Manufacturers starting with basic CMYK now may have up to eight color options including fluorescents. 2016 has seen a big spike with fluorescents and 2017 will be even greater,” foresees Gusse.
When it comes to changes in specific ink sets, newer formulations focus on traditional issues. “Solvent ink technology continues to improve upon the issues that aren’t ideal—we saw the immergence of eco-solvent inks with low odor and faster dry times due to the improvement of the ink itself. Changes in the ink composition also make printheads more difficult to fire ink droplets consistently. Striking the right balance between ink property and printhead stability is the key technology of printer manufacturers,” advises Jun Kurokawa, technical marketing engineer, Oki Data Americas, Inc., Wide Format Division.
Latex advancements include “meeting the print speed demand to get ink down quicker; drying with lower temperatures, at the right density and quality; and moving on to the next step in post processing as quickly as possible—because time is money,” according to Bauer.
UV improvements offer users the capability of producing a wider range of applications as well as addressing environmental friendliness. “We’ve seen reductions or elimination of dangerous UV ink components and improvements in related curing systems,” explains Sheikh.
Hutcheson says, “UV ink continually evolves through reducing the pigments, while increasing the intensity. This enables a smaller drop size, increasing image quality. UV ink has expanded formulas to provide increased flexibility and adhesion, while maintaining color gamut. The curing advance, through both ink chemistry and the light sources evolving, increase speed and reduce operational costs.”
It is important to note that changes in formulations are also application based. Take for example ink sets designed with industrial printing in mind, specifically thermoforming applications. “These are typically more technical and specific for a given application, substrate, and delivery method. What happens to the inks after they are jetted, such as being formed, stretched, or shaped, often requires new formulations. And, if they are jetted on a high-speed production line in a single pass, they have to be formulated with higher pigment loads, faster curing/drying speeds, all while being even more stable for jetting,” explains Reid.
Ink R&D is driven by many factors. For some manufacturers it is application based, both applications that are entirely new or just new to the industry. For others, it is based on the hardware that works so closely with the inks. Often it is a combination of the two.
“New applications definitely drive ink R&D. As demands increase for markets that have transitioned to digital, inkjet manufacturers are trying to make sure that the process used prior to inkjet can be reproduced closely—and reliably—to the original method. This requires chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering teams to look at the whole solution rather than the individual pieces,” explains Maxwell.
For Mutoh specifically, applications are a primary factor in R&D. “We have over 20 printers and many different inks now specifically designed for the media and application it will be used for. As new applications increase over time so does the opportunity to grow business. With growth comes a bit of R&D investment and time. A tremendous amount of time and resources goes into developing any new printer, ink, or media and accessories to create a specific application or solution. The good news is there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight as each year there are more new ideas,” says Phipps.
“New applications definitely drive ink R&D efforts. Our goal is to create new inks that serve as many different requirements and applications as possible. When we develop these inks, we look at the substrates, the environment the output will be displayed in, and the durability of the inks. We also consider any new laws and regulations in place relating to ink formulation,” shares Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables, Roland.
An example of applications driving R&D is the development of ink for the EFI Nozomi C18000 press. “We could see on the ink side that LED was a great fit as an imaging platform. But it also required R&D to meet some of the specific demands of corrugated production at very high speeds,” says Goodearl. In response, the LED imaging system on this press is not a standard LED platform. Instead it is a technology that uses the benefit of LED, like cool curing, which is important in eliminating warping, but also addresses some of the dot gain and ink absorption challenges that occur with corrugated board top sheet liners.
Machine improvements also drive ink R&D. “Health and safety, labeling, and raw material legislation can have an impact on new formulations. This is an ever-changing environment. Another key driver is the need to be competitive. Every component of the finished print is reviewed for best performance at the most competitive price—ink is no exception,” adds Larry Hettinger, product manager – graphic and industrial screen inks, wide format digital inks, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
State of Ink
Ink types from solvent to latex are still used fairly regularly, it depends on the geographical location of a shop as well as the type of applications they are processing. Trends such as efficiency continue to drive ink development, as do emerging segments such as digital textile printing and industrial print. In response, ink chemists adapt consumables to serve a broader range of materials from textiles to more untraditional substrates.
Apr2017, Digital Output