By Melissa Donovan
Ink is the lifeblood of the graphic arts. Over the years chemical formulations have advanced to generate the newest introductions, whether they are technology based or applications trending high on the popularity meter. Change is good; expanded gamut, improved adhesion, and wider substrate choices continue to evolve to support inkjet’s growing market.
Annually, Digital Output takes a look at the state of ink in the graphic arts. Some years there is a heavy focus on “green” ink, others look at purchasing patterns. The conversation constantly changes. This year, we focus on usage—what ink type is being used where, the biggest trends driving ink production—flexibility and specialty colors, and the newest applications creating buzz.
There are multiple ink types and each is used for many reasons, sometimes price is a consideration or the type of media running through a press. Where a print service provider (PSP) is located also plays a prominent role. Geographically speaking, certain ink chemistries are more prevalent than others.
Take for instance North America and Western Europe, which migrated to mostly a mix of eco-solvent, UV, and water-based options, advises Craig Reid, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Co. “Asia Pacific (AP) tends to vary by country with Japan still using water-based inks for much of the non-outdoor applications and China moving more rapidly from true solvent to eco-solvents for outdoor applications. UV inks have taken over much of Australia and a total mix of inks in Indonesia and other parts of the AP region. Latin America is showing some of the highest growth for textile inks of any region in the past 18 months,” he adds.
“In the graphics segment, especially for outdoor advertising, there is no question that solvent inkjet remains dominant in China, India, Latin America, and many developing economies,” agrees Stewart Partridge, sales and marketing director, Afford Inks & Coatings.
Agfa Graphics cites solvent/latex as holding the greatest share of the global install base, but with a slow growth rate of one to two percent. Aqueous is declining eight to ten percent. UV has the greatest growth rate and continues to grow at about five percent per year.
“We see the marketing shifting to UV ink for numerous reasons. UV affords the widest variety of substrates. It is the most versatile, fast drying, and has a wide color gamut. As UV ink becomes more flexible, it will continue to expand into new applications, which open up new markets for PSPs,” predicts Jan De Vooght, GM, industrial inkjet inks, Agfa.
According to Stephen Emery, VP, inkjet and Jetrion business, EFI, there has been a strong trend toward UV-curable ink over the last five to six years. In previous years, there has been significant migration to LED inks as well.
On a global scale, the sustainability trend is top of mind. “Eco-friendly inks are trending worldwide. Eco-solvent, latex inks, and dye-sublimation (dye-sub) are good examples because they provide great flexibility, adhesion, outdoor durability, and color gamut,” explains Tina Forbes, graphic design and color management, Coveris Advanced Coatings. According to the company, Coveris’ best-selling inks last year were aqueous and eco-solvent, part of its Magic Inks portfolio of products.
Based on Digital Graphic Systems Inc.’s (DGS’) internal statistics, the company finds usage to be 50 percent UV, 40 percent eco-solvent, and ten percent solvent in the graphics space.
75 percent of Budget Inks’ customers are point of purchase (POP) and sign shops, 25 percent of its clients are photo reproduction related. That said, a majority of the company’s customers in signage and POP have moved from solvent and mild-solvent to eco-solvent and UV. Regarding aqueous ink, many shops have switched to eco-solvent to save in not having to use coated media for aqueous-based products.
“Most companies have moved away from solvent and mild-solvent printing inks. From our experience, in the U.S., both East and West coasts have and are making this move faster due to law-restricting volatile organic compound emissions. As to the middle of the country, they are much slower to switch if their equipment is still functioning properly,” shares James Schall, president/founder, Budget Inks.
Based on vendors’ responses, two overarching trends are currently playing out in the ink space—flexibility in composition and specialty colors.
Flexibility in the chemical composition of an ink set is a big consideration. Ideally, the ink must be able to stretch to work on a variety of surfaces, while simultaneously adhering well and not breaking or cracking. Manufacturers address these concerns by creating ink sets that offer flexibility, better adhesion, and as a result the ability to work with a number of different substrates.
“Often the unspoken but implied requirement for ink was that it should be as durable and versatile as the substrate it was printed onto—but now this requirement is being specified. In effect, the flexibility of formulation demanded before by the screen industry, is now becoming demanded by inkjet,” explains Pedro Martinez, CEO, Afford Inks.
“The biggest trend we see right now is the need for inks that adhere to a range of substrates on much faster presses. Ink performance is always the key,” agrees Peter Saunders, business director – digital, Sun Chemical Corporation.
Chad Klostermann, inks and warranties marketing manager, 3M Commercial Solutions, says inks need to be more robust and improved dependent upon the type of surface being printed upon. For example, as unique projects such as wrapping different objects with film increases, ink attributes must be robust to retain flexibility, color retention, and prevent cracks.
“Users need to be able to print on as many substrates as possible,” adheres EFI’s Emery. “As digital inkjet continues to grow, there is an increase in demand for printing on new materials for new applications replacing analog methods. Many of these new applications demand either more flexible inks or improved adhesion to difficult substrates.”
The finishing methods of some of these newer applications call for a flexible, stretchable ink. “Print providers are getting into new applications that imply direct printing on rigid substrates that then will be manipulated during the finishing process—cut, bent, or creased—so the inks require greater adhesion and flexibility to stay in place,” recommends Roberto Rodriguez, president, DGS.
“Finishing, whether it be cutting, slitting, or routing and the success of finishing is most greatly affected by the flexibility of ink, so this trend is somewhat predictable,” agrees Becky McConnell, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
The other trend that deserves recognition is the occurrence of specialty inks and colors. “Ink technology is highly matured in the signage market. The next adventure will be related to special color inks like metallic,” foresees Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation. New applications finding success with digital technologies are most often required to look as good if not better than their analog counterparts and specialty ink sets assist in this.
“Printer manufacturers are stepping up to the plate with a wide variety of ink configurations for their printers to address specific market needs, going beyond the standard CMYK configuration to include additional ink colors like green or orange,” shares Jennifer Corn, printer manager, LexJet Corporation.
Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables, Roland DGA Corporation, points to the availability of specialty inks—such as light black—which provide users with improved grayscale and more natural skin tones. “Manufacturers are also responding to user demand for a wider color gamut with inks like orange and violet,” she continues.
“Special colors, such as metallic, are becoming more popular. Using silver ink as a base, designers can specify hundreds of colors to enhance their graphics, package designs, and decals,” adds Ken VanHorn, director, marketing and business development, Mimaki USA, Inc.
These trends depend on the industry, suggests Kobi Mann, director applications and consumables products, Kornit Digital. “In the textile industry, we are still expanding the color gamut and reducing cost per print, with special effects coming after. Direct-to-garment will begin asking for neon, for example, and then metallic,” he foresees.
In regards to short-run packaging and prototypes, paper and board ink is developed to match specific corrugated demands, according to Sandy Gramley, product manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Sign and Display Inks. “Demand has grown for more flexibility in the color configurations, especially with higher end devices, to allow for broader gamut and to make it easier to hit specific colors,” she continues.
For example, more packaging applications now require varnish, adds Guy Cipresso, VP sales and business development, Novus Imaging, Inc.
Welcoming New Applications
Trends like flexibility and specialty ink directly impact where and how ink is used. As advancements in digital enable these new ink chemistries, the demand becomes the result. Meaning, flexibility and specialty ink is required because of new applications, but as these features become more prevalent, they influence a whole new set of applications. It is cyclical process.
“For example, textile printing is becoming popular worldwide. With recent advancements in technology, textile printers are incrementally faster and more precise. I see sublimation printing at the forefront of the industry for years to come,” suggests Simon Sohn, president, Zeus Ink Americas, Inc.
With recent advancements in ink composition the textile space is seeing a surge in interest with inks that offer great dry, wet crock, and high washfastness. “Until now, most, if not all, wide format digital pigment inks were dull and not very good replacements for conventional pigment printing,” says Aaron Blank, manager new business development, Alpha Ink Jet.
“The wide format digital printing industry has done a good job of capturing the digital dye-sub market, but has not made in-roads into natural fabric. Printers are becoming fast enough to start capturing some of that market, and with new innovations in pigment inks, I believe that market will start to convert over to the digital space,” he continues.
“Textile printing requires different ink and post processing for different substrates. Advancements like ink offering no need for pretreatment and fixation while printing on all kinds of textiles is the ideal solution to provide true digitalization of textile printing,” adds Valloy’s Kim.
Another growth area involves direct decoration and/or customization of products. Examples include product packaging and cases, beverage cans, bottles, apparel, leather, and molded plastics. “Once thought of primarily for only promotional products, we are partnering with more consumer product goods companies to inkjet directly to all types of three-dimensional products. The new inkjet ink technologies and inline jetting options enable smaller production runs to be affordable while giving the final product the differentiation needed to compete in the marketplace against static competitors,” comments INX’s Reid.
Ink, Set, Go
Savvy manufacturers recognize the path ink trends must take. Adoption of specialty inks and flexible chemistries mean more options are available to the print provider. Adapting products into an existing printer or upgrading to a new device that works with these inks presents a range of opportunities.
“Printing on rigid substrates has long been a key to more profitable printing—our customers report earning more money per square foot on flatbed jobs. While that has been the trend for several years, there are new applications requiring inks that can stretch further,” reports Emery.
More substrates are printed to with a guarantee of no splitting or cracking. Colors like metallic and light black enhance graphics and provide a more high-quality feel, opening up the realm of project possibilities.
Not remaining stagnant, vendors have an eye on the horizon, foreseeing influencing the textile and customization markets with digital ink processes as well. The newest ink formulations will directly impact these verticals.
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Apr2015, Digital Output