Non-OEM Inks: Let the Debate Flow

Even though third-party inks have been around for years, familiarity hasn’t made them any less controversial. These inks may be flowing, but so too is the debate over their use. And like the inks themselves, the debate is hardly black and white. Some believe non-OEM inks represent a safe, viable, and sometimes superior alternative to inks recommended by printer makers. Others assert upstart inks are a hazard to printers, printer warranties and, by extension, the livelihoods of any print providers who use them.

Paul Lindquist, in business development with Cincinnati’s Collins Ink, said the debate over third-party inks isn’t as clear cut as some might assert. When third-party inks were introduced, many print service providers were intrigued by the potential cost savings, but shied away. They were flatly afraid to move away from OEM inks and risk losing their warranties, he noted.

That began to change about five years ago, when many smaller printers started acquiring a second important piece of print equipment. The second machine gave them a fallback position or insurance policy, ensuring they wouldn’t be out of business if one printer failed. It also gave them leeway to try third-party inks. Suddenly, those non-OEM inks began picking up market share, and OEM inks were forced to lower their prices to maintain share and give print providers less reason to switch. The natural result? Third-party ink providers cut costs, too.

OEM inks are tuned to the machines on which they are meant to be used, and have a history on those machines, Lindquist asserted. “And even if you can get it for a lower price, you’re putting your whole printer delivery system at risk,” he added. Third-party ink providers knowledgeable about print heads of OEM machines can confidently create inks for those machines’ heads. But unless they have undertaken complete compatibility tests of the printers’ ink delivery systems, they don’t understand issues of ink compatibility with O-rings, secondary tanks, and connectors, he said.

However, there’s a whole other side of the story. The OEM ink is a general-purpose ink, and tends to work very well in the graphic arts marketplace, Lindquist said. But if a provider is predominantly printing on a single substrate, it’s unlikely that the OEM ink is maximized for that substrate. “By going to a third-party provider of inks, you may be able to get that ink specialized for that substrate, or for different substrates on which the OEM ink doesn’t have good adhesion or drop formation,” he observed.

At this point in the revolution, both OEM and non-OEM inks have their places in the market. “There are some who still don’t want the risk of third-party inks,” Lindquist said. “And then again, there are some printers, especially in this tough economy, who in order to save much-needed capital will embrace the non-OEM inks.”

A Third-party Ink Provider’s View

AFFORD Inks of Madrid, Spain is a provider of third-party inks, but CEO Pedro J. Martinez doesn’t view his company as merely an ink producer. “We see ourselves as a company that provides services around the ink,” he said. “We manufacture this product, the ink, but we sell a complete package of services that support the ink, such as hotlines for printing or machine problems, spare parts supply, technical service support, ICC profiling, color calibration, and more.”

AFFORD Inks assumes the same warranty manufacturers provide when their machines are purchased and assumes full responsibility if its ink causes damage to the machine, Martinez added. “However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the best manufacturer is not one that offers the warranty, but the one who does not have to receive claims.”

He added he has seen many instances over the past 10 years in which inks were blamed for machine problems, but the failures had nothing to do with inks or machine. “Price is the main driving force for a customer to change from the original inks, but it may not be the only one,” he added. “In some cases, we provide even better colors than the original inks, or better adhesion on different materials, better flexibility or more chemical resistance...We don’t tend to be the cheapest on price, but when you compare all the associated services we offer, we are a bargain.”

He strongly believes print providers should know what’s behind non-OEM brands they are considering. AFFORD matches and in some situations exceeds manufacturer quality, Martinez said.

“Quality control is a must for non-OEM ink manufacturers,” he noted. “It takes a lot of effort to convince customers of our advantages, and we can’t afford a mistake. It will spread by word-of-mouth.”

Martinez feels large-volume print providers have the greatest incentive to switch to third-party inks. “[It] really makes sense when you can save important quantities of money,” he observed. “It does not seem so interesting if you are going to save, for example, 20 dollars in a year. However, the correct question is, ‘Why should I pay more when there are solutions that offer me, at least, the same performance.’”

The Perspective of an OEM

Not surprisingly, printer manufacturer Roland DGA Corp. takes a distinctively different view of the use of third-party inks by shops using its printers. “In our experience, third-party inks compromise printer performance and can cause significant damage to a printer over time,” said Andrew Oransky, director of product management with the Irvine, Calif.-based company.

“Probably the best reason to avoid third-party inks is the damage they can do to a printer. The different viscosities of third-party inks can lead to misting or ink buildup on many printer parts, including the print heads. So even if a third-party ink flows adequately through the system, it could be leaving a damaging residue that will impair a printer’s ability to function properly in the future. Excessive overspray cannot only lead to poor image quality and more manual cleaning, but can actually damage sensitive electronics as it works its way into the carriage and other areas.”

The issues some print service providers encounter using third-party inks go beyond these concerns, he said. In one recent instance, malfunctioning tabs on a third-party ink system failed, resulting in a printer continuing to run even when the color was depleted, and costing the shop $1,000 in wasted materials, Oransky reported.

Roland’s service and support teams have been forced to repair at customer expense damaged linear encoders, timing belts, cap tops, and other components as a result of third-party inks, he said. “A print-head replacement costs more than $1,000,” he said. “And these costs don’t factor in the added downtime and maintenance involved in operating a printer with unmatched inks.”

He also questions third-party ink makers’ claims that their inks are of equal or better quality than the OEM inks. Noting Roland VersaWorks RIP software features media profiles exclusive to its own ink sets, he added that third-party inks are not supported by VersaWorks and limit a user’s ability to utilize this bundled software program. “While many third-party suppliers make the claim that their inks have identical color to OEM inks, our testing has shown there is almost always a color shift or loss,” he said. “Some jobs, it may be minor enough not to matter. But for picky customers that need to match corporate colors, it will make all the difference in the world.”

With the Blessings of OEMs

Some ink providers don’t fit into either of the two categories of OEM or non-OEM inks. The folks at 3M Graphics Market Center in St. Paul, Minn., like to separate themselves from other ink providers, said inks and warranty Business Manager Jennifer Greenquist. “We don’t consider ourselves a third-party ink manufacturer,” she explained. “That’s because we only manufacture inks for digital printing equipment if we have the blessing of the ink manufacturer. So every ink we’ve manufactured—for Océ, for HP, for VUTEk, for Durst, Mimaki, Gandinnovations—we’ve done with their blessing. We won’t launch a 3M branded ink without that relationship.”

The 3M inks are not only not less expensive but are in fact more expensive than the OEM counterparts. “We’re a little unique in that we manufacture substrates as well,” Greenquist said. “We want to be able to offer the 3M MCS Warranty on finished graphics. To get the warranty you have to use 3M branded substrates and inks and follow our recommended procedures. We charge more than the OEM inks. And that’s because the warranty is very valuable to our customers. They’re very loyal to our products and our warranty, because of the long term testing we do, and the peace of mind it brings them.”

In terms of quality, 3M’s is higher than the OEMs, because the brand specifically formulates its ink for specific applications. For instance, if you want to digitally print on adhesive-backed vinyl and apply this vinyl to vehicles, the graphic needs to be able to conform to the curves of the vehicle. Not only does the media need to be flexible, but the inks must be as well. And because many customers want fade resistance for five years, the inks must be as durable as they are flexible, Greenquist said. “We don’t focus on the performance of our inks on rigid substrates, for example, because we don’t manufacture rigid substrates,” she said. “Sometimes we find our inks perform well on rigid substrates, and other times another ink may perform better.”

Finally, 3M has a reputation as an innovative and responsive company, she added. “We have technical assistance over the phone, backed by technicians in the labs who have expertise to help customers with these types of applications.”