Market Intelligence: The Best Tool for the Job

One of the questions I get the most is about how we see the wide-format hardware markets developing – which technologies do we think are going to “win out” over time? This question tends to center around the future of inkjet, water-based, solvent, color toner, UV-curable, and Latex.

In short, we think there is a place for all of these technologies in the market going forward; here’s why. When we think of which technologies print service providers invest in, typically we think people make that decision based on a number of parameters; what types of applications do they want to produce with their printer? How much do they want to print? What level of investment do they plan to make? The answers to these questions are different for everyone of course, but it is important here to remember the structure of the printing industry in general and the wide-format market in particular, because the size of the company is a key indicator as to the possible level of a given company’s investment, and hence the technology they are likely to invest in.

Just looking at the range of available products from the leading vendors and a picture develops wherein the different wide-format production technologies can be plotted on a speed vs. cost matrix. The entry-level in the wide-format graphics business is aqueous inkjet technology, which can be acquired at the lowest initial price but typically is slow compared to these other production technologies. For small shops, the decision is probably between wide-format eco-solvent inkjet and Latex. Between these two technologies the initial price point is more comparable, the application range is more comparable, and the running costs are more comparable. I believe that both Latex and eco-solvent will continue to evolve just as other inkjet technologies have evolved in the past. The most common wide-format eco-solvent inkjets sold, at 64-inches wide, are very comparable with popular Latex engines in terms of rated print speeds and initial investment costs. One of the big developments in eco-solvent have been the low-VOC inks that make it possible to use these printers without ventilation, which is an element of the initial investment cost that print service providers have previously had to consider. There is a huge installed base of eco-solvent inkjet printers, it is a well-proven technology for cost-effective production of wide-format graphics for both the indoor and outdoor-durable graphics markets, so I think eco-solvent will continue to be a very viable option especially for small companies that do a lot of outdoor durable graphics.

Latex inkjet printers also have no ventilation system requirement, but due to high power consumption there can be a cost for some print shops to provide the required dedicated power supply for the printer. Latex is also proving to be a very versatile technology, capable of producing a wide range of applications. While HP has certainly led the charge into Latex and has had enormous success, there are now a number of companies developing Latex inkjet ink and other water-based inks that have the same properties as Latex. The point is that we think that with more vendors working on it two key things will happen with Latex; the inks will become more useful and the costs will come down over time.

The UV-curable bubble on the matrix is deliberately the biggest because of the enormous range of equipment capabilities and costs. Wide-format UV-curable printers sell for as low as $50,000 at the low-end for $2 million or more at the high-end. The big difference is speed, while small low-end printers can print typically less than 50 sqft per hour, the high-end of the UV-curable inkjet market includes super-productive models from Agfa, Durst, EFI, Fujifilm/Inca Digital, HP-Scitex, and Polytype which can frequently print thousands of square feet per hour. Small print shops (less than $250K per year in sales) are simply unable to make the level of investment that most wide-format UV-curable inkjet printers require. Although we believe that the initial investment price is coming down on UV-curable inkjets, many shops just can’t afford the printer and the cutter that is often required, which can bring the price up to more than $200K.

Over the past couple of years there have been a couple of advances that may shake things up a bit when comparing these different graphics technologies. For example last year the new KIP C7800, a color toner-based printer, came out with a lower price and increased the speed over the previous KIP Color 80, making it a much more viable product for short-term color graphics production. Also in 2012 we saw the introduction of some of the high-speed water-based inkjet printers that use Memjet print head technology to create a single-pass wide-format inkjet printer. While there are a lot of unknowns in terms of prices and running costs, the demo units seen from companies like Oce (now Canon Solutions America) and Xante had very impressive speeds which could really change the perception of water-based inkjet as a low-end graphics technology.

As the saying goes “use the best tool for the job” so InfoTrends is projecting each of these technologies to find their place in today’s highly competitive and diverse wide-format digital graphics market.