Solvent printing technology has been a stable inkjet technology over the course of the last decade. From the true "aggressive" solvent printers to the newer low, mild, and eco-solvent printers, technology continues to develop and offer high-resolution and high-productivity units—primarily aimed at the outdoor durable market. But more recently, we've seen shifts within the industry to "greener" technology. Hard or aggressive solvent printers seem to be falling out of favor with some print providers and end customers. They don't like the smell. They don't like the media. They think other "greener" technologies might offer a better solution.
Will solvent printing technology still have a place within the wide- and grand-format market when everything shakes out? Experts believe so. For outdoor durable graphics from billboards to vehicle wraps, solvent—primarily the low-VOC solvent printers—seem to have found their niche. At least for the time being.
We asked a variety of industry experts to talk about how solvent printing technology has changed over the course of the last 12-18 months and what's in store for the future.
1. How has solvent technology changed over the last 12-18 months?
Terry Amerine, segment manager, wide format digital, FUJIFILM North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division – Sericol Unit: The equipment technology has not changed all that much. However, it appears that as a result of the economic conditions that many suppliers focused on lowering their costs but many times this resulted in compromising performance. I believe customers have noted this over the past year as business levels have improved. As a result of this, we have gained significant market share based upon batch consistency, better color strength and our focus on quality. Cheap is not always inexpensive
Jeff Burton, digital printing analyst, SGIA: There are still the two basic solvent ink systems: the eco-sol or low VOC content ink and the more “aggressive” solvent ink systems. The image permanence that solvent-pigmented ink provides is important in many markets outside of point of purchase advertising, such as the transit applications, packaging/labeling industries, and fine art.
Although there have been no new lines of solvent chemistry introduced into the market, white inks are creating opportunities for many digital print jobs on clear or colored substrates. More inkjet manufacturers have entered into the solvent white ink category including Epson being the latest to introduce a white ink capable printer. Roland has also introduced its Metallic Silver ECO-SOL MAX ink. The silver can be combined with other inks to produce a range of colored metallic effects. The ink is circulated periodically as is the white ink to prevent settling in the feed lines.
Reed Hecht, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc.: The introduction of UltraChrome GS ink about 18 months ago had a dramatic impact on the solvent market landscape. Epson UltraChrome GS Ink technology with eight individual colors, including new Orange and Green, eliminates the need for external dryers and air purification systems. In addition, with UltraChrome GS, Epson completely removed the element Nickel (Ni) from the ink composition. The result is a high-performance, solvent-based ink technology with stunning color gamut and accuracy, and less impact on the environment.
The introduction of this ink has altered the way printers and sign-makers think about solvent ink technology, venting and how the technology can be integrated into their print shops.
Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, Agfa Graphics North America: Eco-solvent and aggressive solvent printing technology has lost ground in certain applications. It was sort of a triple threat. First the recession caused users/consumers to reduce waste and increase productivity. As a result many users moved away from conventional mounting processes as it is more time consuming and labor intensive. Secondly, tougher state and federal environmental regulations swayed many business owners into investing in eco-friendlier technologies. And third, UV technology continues to improve in terms of print quality, price point, and ability to handle a large variety of media.
Andrew Oransky, director of product management, Roland DGA Corp.: Suppliers have broadened their portfolios by offering more colors which create opportunities for end users to produce effects that have never been possible before. One great example of this is Roland’s Metallic Silver ECO-SOL MAX ink which can be used to create silver, bronze, gold, and a huge range of other metallic colors. It is the first time that inkjet printers have been able to produce the kinds of metallic colors that offset and flexo printers have had available to them for years.
Randy Paar, display graphics product manager, Oce North America: Continued sensitivity by end users about sustainability have helped drive demand for printing that has a lesser impact on the environment. As a result, eco-solvent printing continues to be the solvent-of-choice but newer technologies are also gaining market share like UV curable and latex.
Patrick Ryan, general manager, Seiko Instruments USA Inc.: The biggest trend in solvent ink and low-solvent technology continues to be the evolution towards a “greener” type of ink. However, the industry has been inundated with inflated manufacturer claims and misinformation during this period to a point where many shop owners don’t really know what they have or what they are buying.
The term “green” in our market really has two meanings: better for the environment and better for employee health. You really cannot have a “greener” ink unless you are making improvements on both sides of this equation. Each evolution of outdoor printing technology, whether it is UV-curable inks or Latex inks or Eco-solvent inks, makes some stride towards one or both of these goals. Unfortunately, while companies promote the improvements or upsides of their latest technology, they often neglect to inform the market about the downsides of the technology.
UV-curable inks are often viewed as “greener” due to their lower VOC levels, and often promoted as “greener” than low-solvent type inks. While there are some improved environmental aspects to UV-curable inks (and of course, they have a distinct advantage going directly on rigid substrates), the increased air-borne irritants for employees is often ignored. Same thing goes for Latex-type inks; they are often promoted as “greener” because the inks have less VOC’s and are therefore better for the environment. But the reduced color gamut, lack of media compatibility and the exact airborne output for vinyl in a high temperature dryer is often not revealed. Nor is the massive amount of energy (and CO2 byproducts) required to power these types of devices.
Even within the low-solvent community, many manufacturers continue to promote their products as not requiring air filtration just because the odor of the solvents is now so low. Others duck the issue completely by saying they do not make recommendations on air filtration for their devices—indirectly implying that none is needed.
As many people know, very few low-solvent printers today need air-filtration to meet OSHA or other local clean air standards—so the issue is really an employee issue for now. Although today’s solvent inks are safer and more green than ever, much of the industry’s confusion about the real benefits of new technologies vs. solvent can be blamed on murky marketing campaigns for the newer technologies.
So the biggest change in the solvent market will be the evolution towards “greener” ink types, but it will likely be paired with unclear benefits and costs. So buyers need to be careful as they appraise new technology claims.
Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki USA, Inc.: No changes that I can see except that prices have come down a bit due to economic forces.
Mike Wozny, product manager, EFI-VUTEk: Solvent has been available in the SWF industry for more than 10 years. A significant amount of advancement was realized in the first five to seven years of its availability. Quality, productivity and application range improvements were the primary advancements. Recently the product has reached a mature stage of development and most development is focused on stabilizing the platform and reducing cost of ownership to the PFP. In addition some solvent providers are developing eco solvent solutions and positioning them as more green alternatives.
2. What are the primary applications solvent technology is used for? Has it changed compared to one year ago? If so, how?
Amerine: The biggest change in solvent has been the movement of UV roll printers into the billboard (due to the use of the poly materials that do not do well with solvent ink) and POP markets (due to better print quality). This has resulted in solvent roll equipment being used more for fleet work.
Jeff Burton: Since solvent inks adhere by etching into the surface of the media, the common applications are printing onto PVC based vinyl, in its many forms.
SGIA’s 2009 Product Specialties survey ranks the top ten products that producers manufactured.
2. Point of Sale
3. Window Displays
5. Indoor wall graphics
6. Vehicle graphics
7. Presentation graphics
8. Back-lit sign
9. Trade show displays
10. Construction signs
Hecht: Primarily indoor/outdoor signage, vehicle/other wraps, banners, etc. One application that is new to the solvent market, and became possible when the Epson GS6000 was introduced, is fine art. Prior to the GS6000, fine art was produced on water-based machines and solvent machines were just starting to be tested for the application. Due to the quality, speed, expanded color gamut, and Epson’s GS Canvas Gloss paper, many customers have adopted the GS6000 for fine art décor or fine art reproduction applications.
Hutcheson: Solvent inks/technology has generally been more popular for long-term/outdoor applications particularly fleet graphics, vehicle and architectural wrap, billboards etc. Traditionally, solvent technology was the perfect fit for these applications due to its excellent image durability and low running costs. It is important to note, there were some positive strides within outdoor advertisement even during the recession. And users of solvent technology used to own this application, but this is changing rapidly. Today, UV technology now competes with solvent and is enjoying market growth due to its improved image quality, environmental benefits and low running costs. Overall, customers have more options to choose from…and this doesn’t help the solvent market.
Oransky: From its inception, solvent printing was developed for outdoor graphics like signs, banners and vehicle graphics. This has not really changed, but over the past year or two we have seen a definite increase in the volume of printing that our customers are doing for indoor displays including posters, backlit signs and POP displays. The quality of solvent printing is now high enough even for indoor graphics that are viewed close up, and the high speed, low cost and great durability of the images have driven a lot of printers to use an eco-solvent printer as their only inkjet device. In the past these same printers might have owned a solvent printer for outdoor work and an aqueous printer for indoor. Some art printers are even starting to see the advantages of eco-solvent ink. Apparel decoration has really taken off as well. With the availability of products like Roland’s HeatSoft transfer solution, users can produce t-shirts, bags and other items with high quality, durable graphics that stand up to repeated washings. This same level of durability has always been difficult to achieve with aqueous ink.
Paar: Solvent printing is becoming more of a niche such as for vehicle wraps. A portion of the overall print volume has and continues to move to UV systems.
Ryan: Overall, the primary applications for solvent technology continue to be ones requiring PVC such as outdoor graphics, both adhesive-backed and banners. While there is some pressure to move to more recyclable materials (especially for indoor graphics), PVC continues to be the main product group for the majority of printing in wide-format, outdoor graphics. Within this sector, there definitely has been an explosion in the growth of higher resolution vehicle graphics and wraps—and many of our largest customers are active within this market segment.
Older grand-format printers at 360 dpi and below do not offer the image quality required for these types of applications, and tend to stay confined to large outdoor graphics. Paper, backlit films, canvas, tyvek, and other plastics such as polypropylene are making small inroads into the traditional vinyl market, but PVC is still the dominant substrate technology used today. From a broader perspective, low-solvent digital printing continues to expand into product areas that were once exclusively screenprinting or lithography.
Due to the benefits of digital such as personalization and customization, I would expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future. New technologies will continue to introduced, but we see no credible replacement for the large population of solvent printers in our industry today. Low-solvent printing technology remains the most effective and cost-effective technology for outdoor graphics today. So the outlook for low-solvent printing looks very robust for the next few years.
Urmano: Still banner and sign primarily and quite a bit of vehicle graphics. The vehicle graphics market has spread somewhat to the restyling markets.
Wozny: Solvent technology is well understood technology that is great for banners, billboards and vehicle graphics. The application range today is very similar to the application range 12 months ago although some are leveraging eco solvent as a ‘green’ solution.
3. In what direction to you see this segment of the market moving in the next 12-18 months?
Amerine: We anticipate a continued movement to UV technology. The quality and speeds are compelling as is the greener footprint that it provides.
Burton: With the incremental changes in the economy in general, the sales of low solvent ink have improved, as have inkjet machine sales in general, when compared to a year ago. Most believe this is in response to an increase in advertising dollars, as consumers increase their spending. In the third party ink arena, suppliers have undercut the aggressive solvent ink sales for OEMs. This is mainly due to aggressive solvent inks that are in plentiful supply from numerous vendors, both in the states and overseas.
According to SGIA’s 2010 Financial Outlook and Business Growth Plans, 2009 saw a slight uptick in solvent inkjet machine purchasing. With 13.5 percent of graphic imager respondents planning to buy a solvent printer of any width and an actual purchase by those same respondents of 21.8 percent. In the same survey, there was also an increase in the UV inkjet machines acquired. With 23.4 percent of graphic imager respondents planning to buy a UV curable ink printer of any type and an actual purchase by those same respondents of 27.5 percent. For UV printers the greatest 2009 growth was for the UV flatbed printers where 23.4 percent of respondents planning to purchase and 27.5 percent actually acquiring a UV flatbed.
Hecht: Despite advances and new technologies such as latex, UV, etc., solvent is the ultimate workhorse of the signage industry. Beyond its efficiency, the media applications have been proven (everything from airplanes to basketball court graphics), the ink longevity exceeds the needs of the market, and printer mechanisms continue to advance each year. Solvent is a staple of the industry and, I believe we’ll continue to see more and more new applications that are leveraging it to produce output.
Hutcheson: Ultimately, the market place will continue to rebound. Digital printing is fast becoming the go-to method for short runs and variable data applications. Plus, everyday we are learning about new digital printing technologies, so positive growth is expected. However, industry reports and commentary from users suggests that solvent technology will continue to slowly decline over the next 12-18 months.
Oransky: The range of applications that solvent inks address will continue to broaden, and I predict that many of the applications that print buyers have traditionally thought could only be done with aqueous will begin to transition to eco-solvent technology.
Paar: Solvent printing will be declining as the price of UV systems continue to fall, their speeds increase and competitive technologies emerge.
Ryan: I see the industry continuing to develop and improve printing technologies (specifically inks and media) towards the “green” ideal; however, customers are extremely clear on one issue. They don’t want to go backward on color, image quality, lightfastness, adhesion, speed, or outdoor durability to get to “green”. And they don’t want to pay more for green technology, especially after the brutal year that most companies just went through. Consequently, new technologies that offer improvements in one area, while declining performance in another area will continue to struggle to gain a foothold in the market. In my opinion, there is no “magic bullet” that will appear in our market to get us to “green” in a short period of time, but there will be continued small improvements made by everyone in this general direction. And the result of this continued evolution by most manufactures will be better, greener solvent-printing solutions each year. The low-solvent printers sold in 2010 are almost universally better and greener than the ones sold just two to three years ago.
Urmano: Some firming up of prices and the market. Many sign shops went under and the glut of products on ebay has all but disappeared. This is a good sign for new equipment vendors like Mimaki.
Wozny: This segment will continue to focus on stabilization and cost reduction.