4th Annual Wide-Format Inkjet Ink Report

The occasion of the Fourth Annual WFI Ink Report finds the wide- and grand-format ink industry enjoying greater vigor than ever before. Not only are new entities entering the ink manufacturing sphere, but long-standing ink producers are investing heavily in research and development to pioneer new printing and ink technology breakthroughs.

While many trends are impacting inks used in wide- and grand-format printing, the most notable is the movement from the solvent inks of yesteryear to more world- and workplace-friendly UV-curable and latex inks. These inks are increasingly well accepted due to the huge strides they’ve made in performance.

Along with advancements in adherence and media compatibility have come more viable specialty products, such as metallic inks.


A Healthy Market

Major companies serving the wide- and grand-format ink market are unanimous in pronouncing the health of the market is good to great.

“The health of the wide- and grand-format ink market is alive and well,” says Chad Klostermann, inks and warranties business development manager with 3M Commercial Graphics.

“We continue to see rising demand for 3M inks, 3M co-branded inks, [and] 3M media, as well as large numbers of customers inquiring about the 3M MCS Warranty and our Certificate of 3M MCS Warranty program. These positive signs point to a market that is growing and becoming more educated on the value robust inks, media, and printers bring to the table.”

Gerard Winn, worldwide product manager for HP Latex Printing Technology, says on the latex side, HP has seen an overall increase in use of the technology and inks. “This is a technology introduced at drupa in 2008,” he says. “The European economy is having tough times, and because of that we see less growth there. But overall, we see more and more print service providers adopting the latex technology.”

At Epson America Inc., group manager, product strategy, Mark Radogna reports that within the wide-format printing space, he and his colleagues have witnessed consistent growth. “It hasn’t been explosive, but we’re seeing the technology advance to a point where print providers are able to offer more to customers at competitive prices,” he says.

“The core customers of wide-format printing have typically been print shops. But one area that has been very interesting to watch has been the increase in wide-format printing from design agencies. This segment is very aware of the visual impact wide-format printing brings to their campaigns. We expect the trend to continue as the economy improves.”

Calling the ink market “extremely healthy,” Michael Andreottola, president and CEO of American Ink Jet Corporation, asserts the market has actually never been more robust. “You can tell that by going to many of the trade shows,” he says. “There are more new products introduced each year.”

Another indicator of health is that last year, EFI sold one million liters of UV-curable inks. “That was a new record for them,” Andreottola says.

Van Son Holland Ink Corp. reports that its market share has accelerated beyond the PRIMIR projected growth path of 34 percent in annual consumption increases through 2015. “We view the wide-format ink industry as an enormous opportunity to further our company’s presence in the ink business for many years to come,” says John Sammis, vice president of sales and marketing. “In fact, a large portion of our R&D budget is focused on solving for the complexities surrounding this new and ever-changing technology.”


Swift Pace of Change

When it comes to recent evolution of the wide- and grand-format ink market, 3M’s Klostermann reports there’s been an emphasis and “horsepower” shift from solvent ink to UV ink, as well as to UV-curable inks. “This shift has created a demand for UV ink formulations that can be printed and cured in an efficient and effective manner,” Klostermann says. “Addressing issues such as curing at a much lower wavelength of light at increased speeds, as well as with little or no heat, are just a few variables that come to mind.

“It is imperative to cure the ink completely—not just the ink’s surface—so a strong bond between the ink and its substrate can be established, leading to the best solutions for our customers—and their customers.”

The evolution from solvent to UV comes with a few hurdles, Klostermann adds. That’s because customers desire performance from UV cured inks, both traditional and LED, similar to what they historically have enjoyed with solvent inks. Those performance benefits include durability, color retention and stretch.

“3M and its OEM partners continue to strive for robust UV ink development and solutions to meet or exceed the standard set by solvent inks,” he reports. “We expect to lead the way into the future.”

From his standpoint, Epson America’s Radogna believes it is crucial for today’s wide-format providers to differentiate themselves from competitors, meaning they are always seeking better wide-format ink and printing technology.

“As manufacturers, we are being held to a higher standard, which means today’s products are performing at remarkable levels,” he says.

“We’ve also seen many customers looking to upgrade or bring on additional printers to expand service offerings.”

As for HP, the company has just announced its new family of latex inks, used in its new HP Latex 3000 Printer, which allows a broader range of sign and display customers to shift from traditional solvent and UV-curable technologies to HP latex printing technologies, the company said in a statement.

“We’re taking the best characteristics of existing latex inks and combining them with new technology to improve the performance of the new inks,” Winn says. “Our intention is to invest and develop future generations of latex inks.”

The third generation HP 881 Latex Inks provide a scratch resistance comparable to hard-solvent inks on certain substrates, making them ideal for applications such as retail displays, outdoor advertising, vehicle graphics, and interior décor. HP Latex Inks deliver odorless prints perfect for sensitive indoor display settings, and help create a safe and comfortable printing environment for print shop staff. They are UL EcoLogo and GreenGuard Gold Certified.

Also weighing in for HP is Eyal Duzy, marketing segment manager for HP Scitex Industrial Solutions. “Our industrial print service provider customers are looking for ways to innovate and pursue new business opportunities with higher gross margins,” Duzy says. “As digital UV-curable ink technology has evolved, new media types are now possible, meaning higher value print jobs can be offered to print buyers. At HP, we see growing demand for inks that print to a broader range of plastics, such as PVC, polypropylene, fluted polypropylene, styrene, poly carbonate, and acrylics on high-volume presses.”

New UV-curable inks, such as the HP HDR240 Scitex inks, allow customers to print to most challenging plastic media at high throughput rates without compromising quality or adhesion, and the inks do not require pre-treatment, Duzy says. In addition, the analog-to-digital conversion continues to drive advancements in the ink market, as overall year-over-year ink consumption for high-end industrial digital presses grows at a double-digit pace.

Like others, Duzy sees growing demand for greener media, such as biodegradable or recycled options, as well as for more environmentally friendly inks like HP Latex and HP HDR240, FB225 and TJ210 Scitex UV-curable inks, which are Green-Guard Gold certified for indoor use, he reports.

The HP HDR240 Scitex Inks, which were introduced at FESPA with the HP Scitex FB10000 Industrial Press, enable high-quality printing on plastics and corrugated cardboards with a color gamut complying with the ISO 12647-7 standard for printing and proofing, Duzy says. “Patent pending ink technology enables print providers to achieve excellent cross-hatch level adhesion on plastics, polyolefin materials and acrylics, without pretreatment or compromising throughput,” he explains. “With the new inks, the press’ media span includes the most challenging media types, printed at the full throughput range.”

Duzy adds these new UV-curable inks change the paradigm in the market today, where media spans are narrower at more productive throughput levels. The high flexibility of the inks, with elongation up to 300 percent, is ideal for printing on corrugated cardboard without cracking on folds or chipping on cuts.

Van Son’s Sammis says the demand is for ink that will match any color and go beyond the standard OEM color gamut, dry quickly on any substrate, achieve a high run resistance, and especially reduce the solvent smells and volatile organic compounds generally associated with solvent-based inks. “Eco Solvent and Eco Plus Solvent are some of our most popular,” he says. “Van Son also is seeing an increased demand for dye sublimation inks for printing on a variety of substrates: natural and synthetic fabrics and non-porous substrates.”

As well, Van Son is leading a relatively new textile industry application that uses film-positive dye-based inks for heat transfer applications, he says.

Joining the chorus regarding the newer and more environmentally-friendly inks is Larry Salomon, vice president, wide-format North America with Agfa Graphics. The company manufactures two series of UV-curable printers and manufactures the inks used in those printers. It also distributes HP latex inks and Epson eco-solvent inks.

“Aqueous is shrinking because the high-volume jobs are moving to latex, eco solvent, or UV-curable,” he says. “Solvents are shrinking due to health concerns, smells, and so on, and they’re being replaced with latex and UV-curable. UV-curable is the most efficient if your finished product is on a rigid material; you’re just using ink and the rigid materials, and don’t need adhesives to mount the product. You also don’t need the time and labor of laminating.

“We sell HP latex, and it’s good for certain applications like backlit and fabrics, because of the quality. UV-curable for these uses, but some shops may not have the budget for UV-curable or for a rigid flatbed.”

Andreottola reports it is noteworthy there are both new companies coming into the ink market, and existing companies introducing new printers and inks. “There is R&D effort underpinning the development of inks,” he says.

He has been impressed with the newer latex inks’ ability to print on substrates on which aqueous inks have traditionally not been able to print. Examples include non-porous media like aluminum products and different types of vinyl, he says. “In the past you would need to use solvent inks to print on these, but the latex inks print perfectly,” he adds.

While the latex introduction has been among the most important news of recent years, another development meriting attention is the use of eco-solvents. “Eco-solvents were well accepted because they have been demanded by users,” Andreottola says. “A lot of the solvent inks were very volatile, and people were breathing in fumes, or having skin contact with the inks and developing irritations. So they’ve gone to making inks with solvents that are less volatile.”

Cost has been an issue for some time in both office use and in wide-format, he adds. That has led to inroads by Chinese inks and cartridges in the wide-format and other markets. But quality woes have accompanied the low prices. “We have lost customers who went to Chinese products,” he says. “But we subsequently got them back because of quality issues.”


Future Advancements

In the coming years, a number of advancements in ink technology are anticipated.

Radogna is among those industry experts who foresees the arrival in the market of advancements that haven’t been realized before.

He specifically cites Epson’s metallic ink technology in the new SureColor S-Series of 64-inch solvent printers. This technology, he says, “is opening the door for very distinctive designs and projects on a variety of media. At trade shows, we’ve showcased the metallic silver on one of our canvas samples, and it looks like glitter. On a different substrate, it almost has reflective properties.”

Radogna also envisions continuation of the trend focusing on innovation in ink technologies that are better for the environment and workplace, while also offering superior print quality and media compatibility.

Andreottola’s forecasts are along the same lines of increased environmental consciousness. He foresees improvements in UV-curable inks as they take more of the solvent market in wide-format. “I also think we’ll see a big decline in general in both solvent and eco-solvent inks,” he says.

“I see UV and latex inks taking over a portion of that market. And there may be a movement on the part of some states to ban solvent inks.”

As American Ink Jet Corporation loses OEM business, it’s focusing more on manufacturing. His company will serve others that want to enter the inkjet market, have marketing and R&D skills, but lack manufacturing capacity. “We, in turn, are manufacturing inks for some of our competitors,“ Andreottola reports.

Salomon believes that the future may shine brightest on UV inks.

“UV-curable has the greatest potential to be a universal ink, if they can solve the problems of the ink flexibility, but not lose the benefit of adhering to rigid substrates,” he says. “It has so many benefits because it’s essentially a liquid plastic that hardens quickly in a chemical reaction on the substrate under UV-curable lights. And it’s the most environmentally friendly product.”

Klostermann observes that 3M continues to have strong partnerships with many printer OEMs that are developing more efficient high-speed and sustainable machines offering exceptional print quality. “Offering ink and leading ink development efforts that enable printer owners and graphic manufacturers to increase output, offer robust solutions for several types of application and uses, while being cost effective will continue to fuel growth in this market,” he says.

At Van Son, where they have been making ink for more than 140 years, there’s a quote from founder Philip van Son that could serve as an inspiration to the entire industry as it continues perfecting ink for wide- and grand-format.

“I believe in the power of creating technology, not borrowing it,” he is quoted as saying. “I believe in what the future of the printing industry holds, and I will endeavor tirelessly to create a product that will not only improve my customer’s business, but the entire trade as well.”