The Next Wave

Aqueous printers were wide-format's first inkjet technology. While other technologies have come and gone, water-based printers continue to evolve and set new standards in quality. With an eye on environmental issues, print providers are looking for new ways to use aqueous printers. WFI takes a look at some of the latest technological advancements and finds out how print providers are benefiting from these breakthroughs.

Consistent Quality

Aqueous printers are still the best solution for a wide variety of wide-format applications in the technical and creative markets, according to Patrick Hester, director, Large Format Printing, Imaging and Printing Group, HP, who adds that advances and developments in high-end digital printers with increased speed and higher quality output are now the norm. He notes that output in all fields is becoming more graphics intensive, file sizes are getting larger and color is becoming increasingly important. "Deadlines and workstreams are becoming more critical," he says, "so personal and work team productivity are both key needs."

HP is responding these needs with new devices and technologies that offer features to help both individuals and workgroups maximize their efficiency and deliver critical output quickly without compromising quality.

"Our new printers have received strong acceptance and many customers with older HP and non-HP printers are moving quickly to adopt the new HP Designjet T series and Z series printers as their large-format standards," says Hester. "We have definitely seen customers replacing printers that were several years old with our new offerings."

Customers are benefiting from HP wide-format devices that provide them accurate and predictable color from the first to the 100th print. "Our customer's can hold Pantone swatch book up to the printed output and verify that it is the color they expect," claims Hester.

To allow customers to easily and accurately produce accuracy prints, time and time again, the company introduced the HP Designjet Z Series with an embedded spectrophotometer. There is also an ongoing focus on automating the workflow to drive costs out of the workflow. "The customer is offered a true end-to-end workflow with a higher quality, faster press," states Hester.

Hester says that HP's customers are finding the new printers especially helpful in these tough economic times. "Many photographers and other creative professionals are looking to sell larger and higher-quality prints and are opting for the Designjet Z3200 printer," he says. "Because of the high quality and consistency of the output, the Z Series printers eliminate waste and reduce costs, as there is no need for test prints and the output is ready to sell on the first page out."

In addition, Hester notes that print service providers are purchasing the HP Designjet Z6100 to do larger runs, meet tighter deadlines, and take on work formerly reserved for analog or higher-cost photo production. CAD and mapping customers are using the HP Designjet T series printers for project bids and superior analysis in addition to traditional schematics and drawings.

Hester says that, in general, customers will continue to expect more from their printing equipment and their vendors. They want to know that as their needs evolve, their investment in equipment will be flexible enough to meet these needs.

"As digital high-end presses are becoming more automated and are offering a more complete end-to-end solution (including also finishing/post-print solutions), the total cost of ownership is changing making these presses the trend of the next year," he says. "You can expect to see HP continue to make significant invests in technology to provide printing solutions customers value and to meet their printing needs as their requirements expand and evolve."

Fabulous Fabrics

Michael Labella, product manager at US Sublimation, a division of PrintVillage Inc., says that from a dye-sublimation standpoint, there has been a major advance in aqueous printers in the past year. "We just recently confirmed the ability to print water-based dye-sublimation inks on a grand-format printer," he states.

Specifically, dye sublimation inks have been used on a Mimaki JV5-320 printer in conjunction with US Sublimation's JetTran HR500 paper. "This is a big thing, because until now, the general thought was that above 104 inches the paper would simply not be stable enough and cockling issues would be rampant," explains Labella. "For this reason, anything above 104 inches has been done using either solvent or oil-based inks...with very poor results and the known environmental issues."

Labella says that with this advancement, dye sublimation can be used at its best to print 10-foot-seamless fabrics (which he says are perfect for trade show graphics), while using a green technology.

"Environmental and health concerns drive our business on a daily basis," says Labella. "More and more people are concerned about the health and environmental effects of solvent-based products. Water-based inks are good for the environment and good for business."

Labella points to the recent explosion of printed fabrics as a testament to the success of water-based dye-sublimation printing. "Dye sublimation is a cost-effective way to print a premium product and compete with a green and superior product against the oversaturated vinyl market," he says.

With fabrics, according to Labella, print providers have found that the profit margins are higher as they can demand a higher price for their work. There is also another aspect, Labella says, which is that water-based printing on fabric has opened markets that did not exist before.

"With water-based textile pigments, for example, short-run textile production on cotton and natural fibers is now a reality," he claims. "And, because it's a clean process, there are already people using it to make products that can be in direct contact with the skin...this is perfect for the interior d├ęcor, upholstery and garment industries."

Labella believes that this is just the beginning for fabric printing with aqueous printers. "Improvements in ink manufacturing technology and creative thinking are already producing amazing results and I know for a fact that some very interesting products are coming down the pipeline that will drastically improve the stability, longevity and overall quality of fabric printing using water-based inks," he states. "Furthermore, as the country and the world start to pay more attention to the environmental advantages of water-based printing, more customers will start to demand it and more printers will discover the benefits, both from an economic and work environment standpoint."

Going Grand

Gandinnovations is another company putting aqueous printing on a grand stage.

"We have seen a demand within the marketplace for a grand-format digital printer using aqueous-based inks using the latest in print-head technology for quality and speed," says Tom Reilly, vice president of marketing and advertising, Gandinnovations. "Our customers also want this printer to produce a finished product for any soft-signage applications." And, of course, customers are looking for eco-friendly alternatives.

With those demands in mind, Gandinnovations introduced the Jeti 3324 Aquajet, the first 3-meter, direct-to-fabric, one-process printer to use water-based dye inks, according to Reilly. "It is the ideal solution for all types of soft-signage applications," he says. "The output produces an unrivaled color gamut, resolution, quality, plus it operates using water-based ink, so it delivers a greater consistency of bright and vibrant colors, improves cost efficiency and is 100 percent eco-friendly."

Reilly also points out that printing direct to fabric means no separate transformation unit, which is a bonus in these rough economic times.

The Jeti 3324 Aquajet prints direct on a full range of polyester fabrics knitted or woven. It comes with three high-temperature slitting units attached on rewind rollers that allow the operator to slit and seal the fabric to the finished required sizes. The water-based dye used by the Aquajet is specially formulated to disperse inks that will yield a wider range of vibrant colors.

"The print technology is designed to fuse ink directly into the fabric for brighter colors, better draping and softer handling," says Reilly.

The Aquajet features 24 Spectra print heads with six colors, and prints a true 400 dpi. "Even at production speeds of 650 sqft/hr (60 sqm/hr), output is dramatic with vibrant colors that are brilliant, fade-and-wash resistant, and literally burst to life from the fabric on both indoor and outdoor applications," Reilly reports.

The Jeti 3324 Aquajet is also an eco-friendly print solution. It uses non-toxic, VOC-free, water-based inks and includes a venting system and air-filtration unit to eliminate emissions. The Aquajet can print direct to recyclable fabric, manufactured from recycled polyester, and polyester banner and flag fabrics are much lighter then vinyl, so less material is used to manufacture it. The lightweight fabric saves on shipping cost and fuel consumption.

"Our customer can now offer any soft-signage solution fast and affordable with the added value of being a 100 percent eco friendly," states Reilly.

The Aquajet has already proven to be a huge success for Gandinnovations. "We have won awards in both Europe with the EDP best textile product 2008 and SGIA for Best New Product 2008," says Reilly. "We will continue to develop new products that will set the standard for others to follow. We are innovations first and foremost."

Software Solutions

Canon USA's Rich Reamer points out that there have also been software advancements to make the aqueous wide-format printing experience easier. "When you go back a few years, large-format printing could be intimidating, but now with improvements in user interface, it is similar to using a home printer," says Reamer, senior manager, Product Marketing, Large Format Printer Division, Canon USA.

Canon has recently upgraded their aqueous printers to include such enhancements as an improved driver with one-touch buttons for features such as borderless printing, a new preview function to help ensure proper layouts on media and nesting functionality. "The PosterArtist Poster Creation software offers more than 200 templates and 1,000 clipart images," says Reamer. "This allows the user to create professionally looking posters in minutes, without being a graphic artist."

The recently introduced Microsoft Office Plug-in from Canon allows users to print from applications such as Word and Excel through a plug-in, according to Reamer.

"This makes it easier when printing posters and banners from those applications that are used to sizes from letter to 12x18 inches," he says.

Reamer adds that aqueous printers have also become much more user friendly to operate, noting that media loading has been simplified, maintenance has been automated and Canon has added a roll media detection system. "This tracks how much media is left on a roll and will print this information on the roll when changing media types," he explains.

In addition, wide-format aqueous printing offers an opportunity to expand services that are offered by print providers. "With a difficult economy, large-format is one of the few services that can easily and inexpensively be added, due to many of these software advancements, which have a quick and profitable impact," says Reamer.

He also notes that digital photography continues to grow and aqueous inkjet printers are playing a big role. "Aqueous offers a way to quickly and affordably print out art with very high quality and with archival characteristics," Reamer explains. "This technology offers flexibility for shops who can now offer in-house signage, tradeshow graphics, photographic output, fine art, maps, posters, technical drawings and more."

While aqueous was the first technology, Reamer sees no sign of it slowing down. "The aqueous printing market will continue to grow as the technology advances offering higher quality and faster speeds," he says.