Alternative inks for inkjet printers have been available for many years and the trend of using these inks, especially in wide-format printers, is growing. Spurred on by the poor economy, printers have been looking for ways to cut costs. Alternative inks are one just way.
There has always been the question of whether these alternative inks really work or not; the answer is that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. “It all comes down to the experience that the chemists have in developing inkjet inks, their testing methods, the quality of the components used to make the inks, the quality of their filtration system and their final quality control methods,” said Michael Andreottola, president, American Ink Jet Corporation, Billerica, MA. Andreottola said that in the past few years, he has seen “a remarkable increase in the acceptance of alternative inks.”
Through the years, the main third-party ink companies went through the learning experience of what the customer needed from third-party inks, according to Pedro J. Martinez, CEO, Afford Inks, Madrid, Spain, which was basically to match OEM inks. “While some excellent inks were produced, they were not successful because the printer needed to change the way he did its job (like using different icc profiles),” said Martinez. “Now, however, matches are closer to OEM inks and customers are happier to work with alternative inks.”
Nitin Goswamy, president, A.T Inks, Charlotte, NC, said they have definitely seen that more and more customers are beginning to accept non-OEM inks for their printing purposes. The primary driver may have been the poor economy, which forced printers to look at every avenue for cost savings, but Goswamy said that once printers did their research, they saw that there are some very good alternatives out there—which they may have preferred anyway and not just for the cost alone. “The key here is that all alternative inks are not the same,” stressed Goswamy. “Those companies who have worked with the right supplier, and have used good alternative inks, have accepted them and therefore the market for our inks is growing.”
There are two main reasons for the increased acceptance of alternative ink, according to Steve Igoe, sales manager, Bordeaux Inc., Santa Clara, CA. “First, our inks have been shown to be equal or better than OEM ink,” he said. “Second, there has been an increase in demand fueled by end users need to save money during a tough economy.”
Nazdar is another supplier who has seen a huge spike in its alternative-to-OEM inks in the past 18 months. The jump in demand can be explained in the need for end users to find more economical supplies and the wholesale change in attitude toward alternative inks. “End users are becoming more comfortable using high-quality, domestically manufactured alternative inks due to overall reliability and compatibility,” reported Chuck Payne, Channel Development Manager – Digital, Nazdar, Shawnee, KS.
So, we have established that the main advantage of alternative inks is cost savings. That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg when you talk to alternative ink makers, who claim they also offer a better color gamut, better service, shorter drying times and improved adhesion.
“We produce inks with a large color gamut that are especially appealing to customers,” reported Karla Witte, vice president, product development for INX Digital International, Sacramento, CA. “And, when you combine very fast drying times and improved adhesion on the hardest substrates, that’s why alternative inks are getting more attention in the marketplace.”
Martinez said that alternative inks can offer a better mechanical or chemical property when compared to original inks, such as scratch resistance and alcohol resistance. “There are also niche markets that are mostly covered by alternative ink manufacturers, such as leather decoration and special developments for industrial applications,” he said.
One such application is the ability to produce custom products such as ink and media combinations for specific objectives. American Ink Jet provided this service to the US Army. “The Army needed waterproof prints for maps being generated on DesignJet 500 printers in Kuwait,” recalled Andreottola. “We had a very strong relationship with HP at that time and they referred the Army to us. As a result of this work, we created the first waterproof ink and paper system for a wide-format printer.”
Goswamy confirmed that typically price is the primary factor why people first consider using alternative inks, but says there are many advantages that printers come to realize only over time.
“The color gamut of our inks is much better than OEM,” said Goswamy. “Most customers have been conditioned by OEMs to think that their inks have the highest quality, but the truth is that the standard an OEM establishes is an arbitrary standard. It is possible to get better colors. Just because OEM inks don’t do it does not mean that it can’t be done.”
While better colors are a bonus, Igoe believes the key is actually matching the OEMs colors. “We have a slogan: “Mix & Match & Save,” which means that our inks are fully compatible and the ink colors match the OEM,” he said. “Inks can be introduced individually or all at once into the printer. Profiling is not necessary when replacing the original ink.”
That is key, according to Payne, who says that in the wide-format solvent market, significant cost-savings should be the only real benefit a user sees when switching to an alternative ink. “Nazdar strongly believes that a successful third-party ink will perform the same—in regards to color gamut, dry time and preventative maintenance—as an OEM ink,” he stated. “This allows the user to make an easy transition to an alternative ink. A user can simply switch to an alternative ink and not have to re-profile or adjust print settings.”
Payne said that in the grand-format and UV-curable market, the benefits can be cost-savings, increased color gamut, shorter dry times, faster print speeds and overall generally better performance compared to OEM ink. “Since these machines are typically a higher investment, when compared to a wide-format machine, for the owner the conversion process is more advanced,” he said. The conversion to alternative grand-format ink usually involves an onsite visit by an authorized technician. When a Nazdar technician is onsite, it is standard to create new print settings that allow the user to take advantage of the benefits provided by Nazdar ink.
Additionally, Payne reported that the UV-curable market is showing increased demand for application-specific inks, i.e. glass, membrane switch, vacuum forming, etc. “Nazdar has developed alternative inks tailored for these unique applications,” said Payne. “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is no longer a valid strategy in this demanding market.”
3M digital inks are an alternative ink, but not like other third-party inks because they only develop inks in cooperation with the OEM printer manufacturers. “We do this so they support and promote the use of 3M inks in their printers, which enables graphics manufacturers to produce graphics backed by the 3M MCS warranty,” explained Jennifer K. Greenquist, Inks/Warranties Business Manager, 3M Commercial Graphics Division, St. Paul, MN.
Though they work closely with the OEMs, 3M inks do have their advantages as well. “3M digital inks have superior flexibility and durability, which is particularly important for adhering to certain substrates and for critical applications like vehicle and wall graphics, outdoor signs, etc.,” said Greenquist.
So, if alternative inks are less expensive and can offer some things that OEM inks can’t, why isn’t everyone using them? Well, nothing is perfect. There are some disadvantages as well, however, the consensus is that if a printer does his research and chooses wisely, the disadvantages are few and far between.
“If the end user chooses a well-reputed company, there should not be disadvantages,” said Martinez. However, some printers just look for a cheap price and therefore don’t consider if the third-party ink manufacturer is offering a warranty, post-sale service, etc. “These printers may find themselves with problems later on, whereas it would not be the case with well-reputed companies, such as our company or other well-known producers,” he said.
The primary disadvantage, according to Goswamy, is that all alternative inks are not the same and there are some inferior inks out there. “If a printer does not work with the right ink company and has a bad experience it can unfairly taint their view of all alternative inks,” Goswamy explained. “This is really a detriment to the printer since they are not able to take advantage of good alternative inks that can allow them to have lower costs and better quality. If a printer works with the right ink company, there should not be any disadvantages.”
Consistency is a constant challenge and can be a problem for many alternative ink providers. “Many third-party inkjet manufacturers purchase low volumes of raw materials, which creates a challenge to the end user,” said Witte. “There are times when the color will drift or the drying times will change from batch to batch. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary to do your homework and insist on reliability. Otherwise, it will cost you somewhere down the line.”
Payne says the biggest challenge a user may face is just deciding to switch to an alternative-to-OEM ink. “Alternative inks have gotten a bad rap over the years because of inferior products being produced by some manufacturers,” he said. Today, there are many good alternative inks available with excellent quality and consistency.”
Making the switch to an alternative ink is a big decision. The user depends on that printer as a source of income. If the user is not comfortable with the performance or post-sale support, then getting that user to switch is a challenge.
Additional challenges with some alternative inks, according to Payne, are technical support, consistency from batch-to-batch, dependable supply chain and ease of conversion. “This is why it is extremely important to consider the manufacturer of the alternative ink.”
One fear that printers may have should not be a fear at all, according to Igoe. “Some OEMs may use coercive tactics that make end users afraid to make the change by stating incorrectly that their warranty will not be supported,” he said. “This is illegal! Unfortunately, though, this fear has prevented many end users from converting.”
Payne believes that printer manufacturers will increase their efforts to thwart alternative ink usage. “As the acceptance of alternative ink grows, so grows the need for printer manufacturers to increase efforts to retain the OEM ink business,” he said. In recent years, printer manufacturers have enticed users to keep using OEM ink by offering longer original equipment warranty periods. “One year used to be the standard equipment warranty period. Now, as long as the user buys OEM ink, that warranty period is extended to two-years (three years in some cases).”
Payne also believes that equipment manufacturers have started putting more pressure on distributors to push OEM ink sales. “Distributors who offer alternative inks are being threatened with smaller discounts (lower margins) or not having distribution agreements renewed,” he claimed. “Printer manufacturers will exhaust all means available before lowering ink prices. As the use of alternative inks continues to increase, printer manufacturers will surely have to re-examine pricing strategies. The market isn’t there yet, but it very well could be in the near future.”
Overall, the existence of alternative ink companies does affect the OEM, as it negatively affects their bottom line. But, as Andreottola pointed out, OEMs have nothing to fear. “Alternative inks are not for everyone, so there are only a small percentage of companies using such inks.”
One issue that should not be overlooked, according to Andreottola, is the affect on the environment. “If it were not for the alternative ink manufacturers, who supply companies that remanufacture the OEM cartridges, there would be millions of empty cartridges in our landfills,” he noted. “One of the OEMs is very aware of this problem and has initiated several programs to collect and recycle spent cartridges. There are many additional uses and applications for ink jet printers. The OEM can’t address many of these and the existence of alternative ink manufacturers allows some of these projects to come to fruition while creating new jobs, helping the economy and protecting the environment.”