HP introduced its first latex ink wide-format printer in 2008, targeting replacement of aggressive solvent printers. Since that time, HP has introduced multiple versions and the market has taken off at growth rates reflecting the beginnings of the aqueous WF industry back in 1992. Mimaki and Ricoh have also introduced latex printers, but their introduction has yet to be reflected commercially in the market.
Initially, latex printers were positioned as being more environmentally friendly than aggressive solvent printers. This perception was fueled by the lack of odor coming from the inks, an attribute that stood in sharp contrast with solvent printers. As time went, the attributes that really started driving the growth of latex printers was their ability to print outdoor and indoor output on a single device. Many of the print-for-pay shops that had been using aging aqueous wide-format graphics printers started considering latex as the replacement/upgrade answer.
The key for many adopters was flexibility. In IT Strategies Q3, 2012 survey of a limited group of 20 “best-in-class” latex printer users, about 50 percent identified application flexibility as the key motivator for purchasing a latex printer. The more applications that can be printed on a single printer, the higher the utilization of the printer, the faster the return on investment and time to profit.
Interestingly, the “green message” may resonate more with the print-for-pay shops than with the print-for-pay shops’ clients. As one respondent quoted: “When we asked our clients if this was interesting to them, the overwhelming response was: if it’s more expensive, we don’t care about being green. I don’t even market the green aspect to my clients.”
At this stage it is often the print-for-pay shop that takes the lead in positioning itself as being environmentally responsive, not its end customers.
The value of flexibility was confirmed with the response that output was split almost evenly, with about 40 percent of output going towards indoor and 60 percent towards outdoor applications. This response was also reflected in their choice of substrates. About half of the substrates used were of vinyl origin (mostly outdoor usage). Interestingly, about eight percent of output volume was fabric, most likely a reference to the fast growing demand for soft signage.
A common application for vinyl printed on latex printers is vehicle graphics. Many of the respondents cited latex as being superior for vehicle wraps than solvent inks (no solvent creep through vinyl, faster dry time) as latex output can be repositioned easily. While it is difficult for us to verify if this is true, we do know that vehicle graphics are one of the most desirable applications a print-for-pay shop can have. The reason is simple: for $500 worth of printed output, often an additional $2,000 can be added for the installation of the wrap. The value-add of wrapping is likely to be sustainable, as the skill required to mount it without creases and tears is not easily replicated.
In general, user satisfaction was high with latex printers. Some (but not all) liked the frequent replacement of inkjet print heads, as they believed that “Having the same print quality (as it was when it was new) five years into the ownership of the printer is a big deal.” This may be correlated to better than expected print head life among the respondents. The common expectation was one could jet three liters of ink per print head before replacement, but respondents cited print head life ranging from five to eight liters of ink per print head.
Another stated: “It is nice to not have to worry about waiting before laminating or prints sticking together face to face.” This helps to increase productivity of the print shop, and less floor space is required. The fast dry-time is due to a combination of ink chemistry attributes and pre- and post-heaters used by latex printers. One of the trade-offs in North America is that these heaters require 220-volt electricity, or what some call “heavy electrical”. Not all shops have this capability. However, as one user commented: “What is ‘heavy electrical’, don’t you use laminators with 220-volts?” A more pertinent trade-off in using high-voltage curing (translate high temperature; 200° F range) may actually be electricity consumption. But as it is difficult to pinpoint where increased electrical costs are coming from without having a meter tied to each major electrical device (is it the hotter than normal outside temperatures, is it the spike in laminating volume, etc.), this is not likely to be considered a concern in daily usage of latex printers.
The heat required to cure the inks does have some implications on substrates, particularly thinner ones. Until one comes up the learning curve of finding the right heat settings, some print-for-pay shops have found it challenging to print on static film, for example.
The bottom line is that latex printers are rejuvenating the demand in the now 20-year-old wide-format inkjet graphics printer business. Their manageable acquisition cost (between $20,000 to $100,000, typically) and ability to print on a broad range of outdoor and indoor applications on a single device are providing an attractive return on investment for most users.