Go With the Flow

Many times with technology, something new and exciting quickly becomes outdated as newer technologies emerge. For us older folks, innovations such as Pong, 8-track tapes, VHS tapes and Walkmans seemed like products that would last forever. Have you tried to buy an 8-track lately? New, better products came along and those products went the way of the dinosaur, relegated to museums. So, why is it that aqueous printers, which were wide-format’s first inkjet technology, still around and, seemingly, doing better than ever? We put this question (and some others) to some of the top manufacturers in the industry. Not only did they solve the mystery, they shared some exciting news about the future of the market.


1) Aqueous printers were wide-format’s first inkjet technology. Why are they still so popular today?

Rich Reamer, Director, Product Marketing ISG Large Format Product Division, Canon USA, Lake Success, NY: The technology has developed so well that the quality is tremendous and they have become as easy to use as home printers. In addition to the quality and ease of use, the cost of the technology has become very affordable in upfront cost as well as cost per print. This combination of high quality, ease of use and cost has helped in the growth of aqueous-based large-format printers.


Larry Kaufman, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc.: Aqueous printers have come a long way if we look at the IRIS products as the first in the professional line. Since then, costs of entry and TCO have come down dramatically, while both ease of use and quality have improved to where the “technology” is imperceptible. When aqueous made the shift from dye-based to pigment-based, the industry gained an ink set that is both short-term stable for color-critical proofing markets (those who live by measured dE values) and long-term stable for photography and fine-art applications. In addition, aqueous printers are available in a wide range of widths and have extensive support from third-party workflow vendors. The bottom line, aqueous printing solutions deliver the speed, quality, reliability, and versatility for today’s indoor printing applications, including signage, backlit displays, photography, and fine-art reproduction


Eric DuPaul, HP Designjet Business Development Manager: Aqueous printers are still very popular due in part to their tremendous ease of use. HP Designjet thermal inkjet technologies, in particular, have proven to be very user friendly. Users can replace ink cartridges and print heads themselves, as needed, versus other printing technology options that require a technician to replace the print heads. The total cost of ownership for an HP Designjet device is also lower than any comparable LED printers because they do not require expensive service and maintenance contracts to keep them running. HP thermal inkjet printers utilize a wide variety of ink technologies, ranging from dye to pigment to Latex inks, ensuring that our customers, be they professional photographers, graphic designers, architects, engineers or print-service providers, achieve the productivity, quality and versatility they need from an easy to use inkjet device. HP thermal inkjet technology also offers a wide color gamut and precise line quality.


Brian Phipps, General Manager, Mutoh America Inc., Phoenix, AZ: Even though they are primarily limited to indoor applications, aqueous printers have actually evolved quite a bit over the years getting faster, less expensive and higher in quality. Aqueous printers do quite well in the photo, CAD and fine-art markets today.


2) What are some of the newer technologies that have been introduced?

Reamer: The newer aqueous technologies have allowed for improvements in speed, quality and reductions in cost per print, but where Canon has had additional breakthroughs is with the software that allows for easy printing out of Microsoft applications with the Print Plug-in for Microsoft Office. Users are comfortable printing letter- and tabloid-size documents out of PowerPoint, Excel and Word and can now easily enlarge those documents to large format and banner sizes. Canon has also introduced the optional PosterArtist poster creation software, which provides users with 200 templates and over 1,000 clip-art images, so creating a poster for retail, celebrations, information graphics and much more is simple for even those who are not graphic artists.


Kaufman: For Epson, there are several newer technologies that have had a significant impact on the printing industry. Epson’s UltraChrome HDR White aqueous ink, featured on the Epson Stylus Pro WT7900, offers a new range of choices for packaging designers to create comps and mockups for proofing in the flexo and gravure print markets. In addition, faster engines with improved print head and color-screening technologies, offered in Epson’s latest Epson Stylus Pro series printers, expand the output and productivity capabilities of print providers.


DuPaul: HP has made a number of significant advances to the HP Designjet portfolio this year, including the recent launch of the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP, the industry’s first web-ready large-format printer with scan, print and copy functionality, the HP Designjet T7100 Printer, a true workhorse that is less expensive to acquire and operate than competing technologies, and the HP Designjet Z6200 Photo Printer with HP Vivid Photo Inks, which delivers high-quality output and the highest speeds of large-format printers in its price class. To support a collaborative workflow between these HP Designjet printers, HP also introduced HP ePrint & Share, a free online platform available to all Designjet users that allows them to quickly print and access plans from the road, share files with remote project teams and seamlessly collaborate with partners.

HP Latex Printing Technologies, such as the HP Designjet L25500 Printer series, also represent an entirely new option for water-based, large-format printing with durability and versatility that meet or exceed eco-solvent and solvent technologies. Since the HP Designjet L25500 Printer was launched at the end of 2009, we have seen outstanding market acceptance for the devices from customers using HP Latex inks to produce everything from vehicle graphics and signage applications to interior décor and custom-printed shoes. In addition to application versatility, HP Latex Inks are compatible with numerous HP media options, including several recyclable substrates, and have been tested and profiled for use with more than 50 vendors and 300 media solutions through the HP Latex Solutions Media Program.


Phipps: We are very excited about the new aqueous inks for the textile markets. These are emerging markets in North America and other parts of the world. The water-based dye sublimation and pigment inks used to create soft signage, home décor, sportswear and other industrial applications are very impressive. These inks, combined with the latest print heads we are using in our new Mutoh ValueJet TD 64" and 100" printers, are allowing us to get quality output the industry has never seen before from a digital printer.


3) How are print providers benefiting from these technological breakthroughs?

Reamer: Print providers can offer their customers more large-format output quicker than they could years ago. They do not need a graphic specialist on board with the new software tools discussed earlier. Print providers can simply display a book of templates on the counter and let customers realize all the applications in which they can benefit from posters.


Kaufman: Consolidation! One print engine can now do the work of multiple older generation models. The ability to produce more with increased ease of use and greater flexibility in output types (e.g. white ink on clear and metallic substrates) adds another level of new opportunities.


DuPaul: With these latest developments, print service providers are able to expand into services that they may not have offered in the past, allowing them to grow their business with existing customers and capture new opportunities. For example, a print provider that has only offered line drawings can now offer large-format photo printing, graphics, vehicle wraps, signage and fine-art printing with a singular aqueous device.


Phipps: The big benefit is that print providers can offer more unique applications to their clients. Applications printed on fabric typically sell for more and costs less to produce, but not everyone is doing it…yet. Plus, they can go after new customers in other markets to expand their business.


4) How have sustainability issues affected the market?

Reamer: Sustainability has helped continue the success of aqueous because they are safer for the environment then solvent inks and still provide very good quality.


Kaufman: Sustainability is important, however it tends to not be as big a priority for those struggling with economic concerns, as being green to date has typically added costs, but not contributed to bottom-line profits. However, when a product has comparable features and pricing as well as a sustainable or environmental message attached, customers are interested.

Aqueous printers offer a range of positive aspects in regard to sustainability – they don’t have heaters and are low in overall energy use compared to competing technologies. Epson’s aqueous printing solutions also offer inks that have low VOCs, no known carcinogens and are highly reliable, so the replacement cycle is long. Overall aqueous inkjet printing solutions pose very little in the way of environmental impact.

Another area of consideration would be the recycling of used inkjet cartridges. Epson offers its customers the option of sending in their used cartridges for recycling by our approved recycling vendor. Epson utilizes a waste-to-energy (thermal) process to dispose of the cartridges through one of the most technologically advanced and environmentally responsible facilities in the world, where the energy captured during the process is turned into electrical energy and sold to households in the greater Los Angeles, CA area.


DuPaul: Increased focus on sustainability is helping the aqueous printing market grow because water-based inks often have an attractive environmental profile relative to the alternatives. Latex inks are rapidly being adopted as an alternative to eco-solvent, low-solvent and even full-solvent inks. Prints produced with HP Latex Inks are high quality, and are just as durable for indoor and outdoor applications as these solvent options. Additionally, these inks can print on a wide range of alternatives to PVC media, including uncoated textiles, and produce odorless prints, suited for restaurants, food stores and other locations where print odor may be of concern. HP PVC-free Wallpaper printed with HP Latex Inks meets the Greenguard Children & Schools standard for indoor emissions. Furthermore, the inks help create a better working environment for operators since they require no special ventilation, no hazard labels and are non-flammable. They also contain no Hazardous Air Pollutants, reducing their impact on the broader environment.


Phipps: No doubt that green is in. The greener the better, but only if it is at a comparable cost and can meet the demands of the customer. For example, you can’t take aqueous inks outside in the sun or on a vehicle and have them last as long as our eco-solvent inks do today.


5) What do you see coming next for wide-format aqueous printers?

Reamer: We cannot discuss our future roadmap, but it is safe to say that future printers are being developed with the end user in mind and how large-format printing can become easier, more efficient and cost effective for those users.


Kaufman: Due to the high reliability and quality achievements of aqueous printers over the years, most users are not looking to replace printers that continue to produce sellable output day after day. However, while print quality already meets or exceeds most expectations, it is expected that future generations will improve – such as producing more while maintaining quality. Like Epson’s UltraChrome HDR White ink, new and highly innovative aqueous ink technologies will continue to drive hardware into new vertical markets and provide areas for growth and profitability.


DuPaul: HP is dedicated to providing large-format printing technologies that meet the needs of our customers. Our latest technologies address a variety of concerns that we have heard directly from our customers, including a resolution to cumbersome design and print workflows in the AEC market, demand for an alternative to harsh solvent technologies and the need to use one device for a wide variety of value-add printing services. We will continue to keep our ears open to this market to develop the technologies our customers need to grow their businesses.


Phipps: I think the inks will continue to evolve to give us a greater color gamut at higher speeds on more substrates at a lower cost. That seems to be the trend. The good news is that profits should continue to be strong as long as you are bringing your customers new and exciting applications. Mutoh is continuing to develop and offer new printers to go after these exciting new markets and opportunities.