When the wind blew from the west, drifting over the roof of RR Donnelley’s old Chicago Division as massive presses churned out Sears catalogs, I still can recall the foul, chemical odor of toluene more than two decades later. Similarly, as pungent fumes waft quickly up the nostrils, walking into most wide-format shops that deploy solvent printers may bring to mind a different kind of vinyl and a 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd southern rock tune: “That Smell!” But customers and workers at the Big Print Shop, Benton City, WA, cannot relate to such a toxic, odiferous experience.
That’s because the small, dozen-employee firm, celebrating its 20th year in business in 2013, never has had solvent printers on its production floor. The company, owned by Jack and Kelly Edwards, was started in 1993 to provide marketing support for Hewlett-Packard, which is still one of its major clients. “We’ve stayed away from solvent,” explained general manager Ron Morris. “It’s just not safe for the environment, and that smell … is repelling.
“Customers walking into our shop can watch the printer print without wearing a mask,” Morris noted. “It smells clean and fresh in here,” just like the Pacific Northwest should. When the HP customer took delivery two years ago of a Designjet L25500, the 60-inch latex device began to open new doors to outdoor signage and banner business, he said.
And nothing stinks because HP Latex Inks produce virtually odorless prints. The water-based inks are nonflammable and noncombustible and, unlike many “eco-solvent” inks (see sidebar), they do not require hazard warning labels and contain no hazardous air pollutants. Additionally, no special ventilation equipment or external dryer is required for safe and productive operation, helping to keep energy costs down.
“Previously, it was all aqueous-based [output] that we had to [then] laminate,” Morris added, noting that the newer UV inks now available are better, especially from a fading perspective. Still, Morris and Big Print have no regrets about choosing the latex route. From nearly zero percent in late 2010, banners and outdoor signage now account for some 60 percent of Big Print Shop’s work – an impressive growth rate that is still climbing, the GM reported. Some 95 percent of these jobs, he added, are extremely small quantities, even one-offs of birthday and anniversary banners, for example.
Most importantly, Morris stressed, customers are elated with the vibrancy of the prints as well as with turnaround time and service. With its latex printers, Big Print doesn’t have the same drying demands as its solvent competitors do. “We just did a same-day turn on a 5x30-foot, full-color banner with glued edges and grommets,” he said proudly.
Profiting from Aqueous-Dispersed Polymers
What is so-called latex ink? In HP’s case, its viscous latex inks are pigmented, water-based inks using aqueous-dispersed polymer (“latex”) technology. In addition to being odorless, they have very low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Latex inks are ideally suited for wide and super-wide applications, including event banners, transit signage, and other outdoor applications as well as for high-quality indoor signage, according to HP.
For Big Print Shop, the additional profits from these types of product additions have been so good, in fact, that this past July, the firm expanded its 10,000-square-foot operation, opening a second location (2,800 square feet) in Richland, 13 miles east. “Window clings are huge for us,” Morris said, “especially in the hospital and hospitality space, and one-view perforateds are popular among restaurants. We can do backlits now, too.”