High Quality vs. Green Technology

As companies strive to leave a greener footprint, solvent ink technology—despite its high quality and low cost—is a high subject of debate. Will solvent technologies have a future in the industry? Some companies say solvent ink technology will become phased out in the future; others say it's a stable technology.

(To view a PDF list of the solvent printers currently on the market, please click here.)

Experts Offer Mixed Perspectives

As with any technology, there have been various innovations in order for solvent technology to become greener, causing both advantages and disadvantages for solvent technology. Patrick Ryan, general manager, Seiko Instruments USA Inc., stated three ways solvent printing is becoming greener: ink technology, ink cartridges, and improvement in air cleaning systems. "We continue to explore and improve the types of solvents used in our inks so that they are safer for the human health and the environment," said Ryan. "While there is some tradeoff with performance such as glossiness, lightfastness, and color gamut – improvements are being made by each generation of inks. Plastic cartridges are now becoming obsolete, as more companies like Seiko move to ink bag systems. This prevents a tremendous amount of plastic cartridges flowing into landfills, or into incinerators."

Terry Mitchell, director of marketing for Fujifilm North America, also noted innovations toward becoming more greener. "The use of higher percent renewable raw materials and lower VOC's have been the focus of solvent ink development resulting in a lower environmental impact from these new solvent ink formulations," said Mitchell.

Although Ryan and Mitchell observe innovations with solvent ink technology, some experts feel other ink technologies are a better way to go green. Larry Salomon, vice president of Agfa Graphics, stated: "I believe UV curable and Latex ink is the green solution for solvent ink."

Joan Perez Pericot, worldwide marketing director for HP, also felt other ink technologies are a better solution for going green. "We have seen a much higher level of innovation and advancement, particularly when it comes to environmental factors, with UV-curable and Latex ink technologies than solvent ink technologies over the past 12 months," said Pericot.

"As the market continues to recover from the recession, we are seeing renewed interest from customers in reducing their impact on the environment and improving working conditions in their print shop. Also, enterprises and ad agencies are becoming more sensitive to the environmental footprint of their printed advertising activities and are adjusting their purchasing habits accordingly," Pericot continued. "UV-curable and Latex ink technologies offer the best solutions to address these demands while meeting the durability and quality needs of the industry and addressing a broad range of applications."

"Development efforts for traditional signage have been focused around UV technology, which is a greener solution," said RJ Sullivan, product manager for EFI.

Reed Hecht, product manager for Epson, spoke about UltraChrome GS ink technology and its greener advantages: "This technology eliminates the need for external dryers and air purification systems and reduces the amount of harmful VOCs commonly used in other solvents." Hecht continued, "Epson has also managed to remove the element Nickel [Ni] from these inks."

Randy Anderson, product marketing manager for Mutoh, also had the notion that a different ink technology was a better choice for a greener product: "Mutoh recently announced MP-21 ink, a bio solvent, for our Mutoh VJ1608HS Hybrid. This ink has wider color gamut and has better adhesion on a wider range of substrates."

Similarly to bio solvent inks, a mild solvent ink such as eco-solvent ink is a better option for going green. "It [eco-solvent ink] is virtually odorless, contains no VOCs, and, more importantly, doesn't require large amounts of power to dry or cure the ink," stated Fernando Catania, product manager for Roland. "While it was initially introduced as a low-VOC alternative, eco-solvent ink has largely replaced the use of solvents because of its lower environmental impact without sacrificing your selection of media," he continued. "Eco-solvent ink still can be used with wide range of media such as paper, printable fabrics, PET and other non-PVC materials, so you are not limited by material choice.

Overall, the majority of the experts observed the best innovations for becoming greener would be through the means of other ink technologies.


"Green" Solvents? Maybe

With the various advantages and disadvantages of each type of ink technology, the majority of experts feel solvent ink technology would not be a good candidate to compete with other greener inks, but would recommend eco-solvent technology as a better option to compete.

"We are experiencing an increase in sales of eco solvent products," stated Anderson, "and we've released our new textile printers using aqueous inks to provide 'greener' applications, giving our customers options to choose the right application for the needs of their customers."

"We continue to see a huge transition of end-users with solvent inks switching to Roland's eco-solvent ink," said Catania.

Ryan and Salomon, however, have very opposing points of view on the subject. "Solvent technology remains the number one technology for outdoor graphics, and the object of a tremendous amount of R&D," said Ryan. "Almost every company is introducing new, greener solvent inks. While UV and latex inks have certain advantages for certain applications, solvents still offer the best image quality, the best outdoor durability, and the lowest running cost of any technology. And we see none of the current UV or Latex technologies challenging solvent in the near future."

"I think all print technologies will improve their quality as a function of advances in print head and ink technology," Salomon stated. "I believe solvent ink will use its low cost per square foot as its only weapon against declining demand. Beyond cost, there are no reasons for future generations of wide-/grand-format devices to use solvent ink."

"UV curable inks have an environmental edge over solvent due to the absence of VOC's," said Mitchell. "Although solvent inks continue to improve with more renewable raw materials and lower VOCs, UV inks will retain both a productivity and environmental advantage."

"Demand for newer technologies that are less harmful to the environment and worker health, and that replace older, inferior products will continue to rise, not just for printers but in many other industries," said Hecht. "Epson takes pride in designing products with an eye towards the environment and the elimination of harmful substances."

Both HP's Pericot and EFI's Sullivan agree that solvent ink technology would have trouble competing and that UV-curable and latex inks are a better solution for going green. Pericot said: "We feel confident that the UV-curable and Latex ink solutions that we offer for both low- and high-volume customers are a better alternative than solvent and meet our customers' needs from all angles, including versatility of applications—from POP displays to vehicle graphics to building wraps, indoor and outdoor durability, high quality and productivity and reduced environmental impact."

"Not to compete with UV or Latex but there are efforts to improve quality and a greener footprint in certain markets," said Sullivan.

Although solvent ink technology can't currently compete with other greener ink technologies, considering its superior quality and low cost, it is still the most used technology for outdoor graphics.


The Future of Solvent Inks: A Diverse Outlook

While some experts believe solvent ink technology will become phased out, others believe it is a stable technology and still holds a place with clients.

Ryan and Anderson mutually feel solvent ink technology is a stable technology. "Customers still [have] independence and freedom to use almost any material," stated Ryan, "so aggressive adhesion is something they are not willing to give up."

"Solvent technology is a stable, reliable, proven application with a wide range of available media for almost every application," said Anderson.

"Solvent inks still serve as the basis for a multi-billion dollar industry that relies on it to produce many of today's signs," stated Reed. "It's also a proven technology that many businesses will continue to depend on for many years to come."

Sullivan approached the issue with a more mixed outlook. "Solvent is still the ideal solution for vehicle wraps with substrate flexibility," said Sullivan. Although Sullivan believes it still holds a place with clients, he also stated: "Going green will continue to displace aggressive solvent printers with milder solvent solutions."

Salomon pointed out other countries, such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, will continue to rely on solvent ink technology due to its low price and high quality, but will continue to decline in the US. "Solvent ink volume will be hurt by the green movement because solvent is bad for humans and the environment," he said.

Mitchell also believes solvent ink technology will decline in the US. "Aggressive solvent inks and printers will likely give way to UV printers offering higher print speeds, higher productivity, and less environmental impact," Mitchell stated.

Although Pericot believes solvent inks currently have a place in the market, he also agrees the industry would move towards more eco-friendly inks stating: "The industry will keep moving towards UV and Latex ink technologies."

"As companies move away from using aggressive solvents and printers built on this technology, we are seeing an industry-wide adoption of eco-solvent inks," Catania agreed.

Overall it may be still hard to figure out what direction solvent ink technology will head in. Some experts believe it's here to stay due to its low cost and high quality, while others feel it's a thing of the past and companies should start leaning more toward greener options. Without any general verdict of the future of solvent ink technology, it will continue to be a topic of debate for many years to come.