Thomas Gray, president and CEO of INKnet Systems Inc./Link-Techinc, Waukesha, Wisc., has been studying ink’s performance and conveyance for more than 18 years. Gray describes himself as an “ink mechanic” and, since founding his company in 1990, he has worked with some of the largest printing companies in the United States to develop instruments, products and systems to help them get ink on paper efficiently, with minimal waste, consistent color, and true measurement. His approach has been to closely examine the mechanics of his customers’ ink delivery systems from the tote to the fountain to find better ways of getting the job done. And after almost two decades serving the printing industry, Gray concluded, “Most printers are probably using excessive amounts of ink and they don’t know it.”
Worse, given their often inadequate ink distribution measurement technology, printers can easily miscalculate the amount of ink a job requires or actually consumes, especially work run on high-speed heatset web offset presses. They end by losing money on jobs that should be profitable, or losing customers when the final tally of ink comes in higher than the estimated costs. “Then they ask, where did the extra ink go?” Gray said. He has several answers to this question.
Measure and Record
First, Gray suggests that printers carefully and accurately meter ink usage. Citing the typical case of one customer who was feeding ink to three presses from a single pumping system, he noted that this set-up, though economical, makes it impossible to track where the ink is going. “Meters won’t end ink consumption,” he said, “but they do allow for plotting performance and gaining knowledge.”
Second, Gray noted that with the introduction of high-speed web presses, printers are pumping ink at greater distances and higher pressures, which raises the temperature of the ink. “With heat, ink viscosity gets closer to oil than to peanut butter,” he said. “Heat also makes the paper fibers open up, making it more absorptive. The press operator will notice that the ink is losing density, and he’ll correct that by adding more ink.” Replenishing the ink supply with a new barrel or tote of cold ink only disguises the problem.
“Printers doing mega-runs assume that ink consumption is stable over a million-piece job, but when it’s done, they’ll notice an increase in ink consumption. Most of the time, they can’t figure it out, and they can’t really identify the source of the problem,” he said.
Based on data collected from the LPD meter design, Gray believes printers doing high volume work miscalculate their ink costs by about 30 percent. They don’t and can’t charge customers for this part of the job and simply absorb the expense. He’s working on establishing Print Test Platforms, similar to benchmarks, based on accurately metered ink usage for different color inks and brands of presses. These tests, he said, will help clear up the “production fog” that printers experience now in determining ink usage.
Ink manufacturers have changed their ink formulations over recent years to meet changing regulations and market demand, and they’ve also sought out new sources for raw materials. These raw materials can vary in quality and purity, affecting ink chemistry. Commonly used yellow pigment from China is sold to manufacturers only in slurry form, not as a dry powder. Gray suspects that the chemical composition of the ink can crystallize in a runaway, overheated ink pump, damaging the ink pump and the ink itself. “Ink is abrasive,” he said. “Its abrasive nature and potential contaminates can be minimized by effective press-side filtration.”
He also noted that many ink pumps used in the print industry were designed for other products such as grease, paints and oils. Leaking pumps in print shops are common and often tolerated, but, Gray said, “A leaky pump means it’s damaged and not working properly. It also indicates that the internal broken parts are getting mixed in with the ink. A leaky pump can drip about 20 lbs. of ink per year, and there are typically four pumps on a press.”