Raison D’être for Wide-Format Inkjet Printers

In context of the history of poster printing, digital printing technology is but a young adult. Upon the 20th anniversary of wide-format inkjet printing, we thought it might be worthwhile to take a look back at the development and its continued reasons for growth in a world of electronic media.

The first question that arises is why has digital wide-format inkjet printing grown so rapidly? The simple answer is convenience. Digital printing allowed businesses to order small quantities of print, when they needed, with near-instant response. Initially, those businesses were willing to compromise on print quality/substrates, and were willing to pay up to 10X premium per poster printed compared to high-unit screen and offset output, because overall the overall print expenditures were very low per user since so few posters were/are printed. Today, inkjet output quality is indistinguishable from offset print quality, and in some cases even superior. The retail value of output (what users are willing to pay per poster) has come down and is closer to 2-5X compared to screen or offset print, dependent on quantity, delivery time, etc.

As evidence of its success, wide-format printing equipment and supplies generate in excess of $5 billion from selling printing equipment and supplies worldwide. IT Strategies estimates the entire offset/screen equipment and suppliers manufacturer revenue derived from wide-format output is about 20 to 30 percent of the revenue spent on digital wide-format printing equipment and supplies. People pay a lot more for things per when sold in small packages.

As stated previously, the wide-format inkjet graphics market reached its 20th anniversary recently. It is not a single technology market, however. It is best looked upon by ink chemistry type. The three core types of ink chemistry used with wide-format inkjet printers are: aqueous, eco-solvent/latex, and UV-curable inks. Demand for aqueous wide-format inkjet printers is mature—it has become mostly a replacement market dominated by three manufacturers competing mainly upon distribution and marketing budgets rather than innovation—as befits a mature and large market segment. Eco-solvent and latex printers now form the heart of the wide-format graphics inkjet market as their acquisition prices of typically less than $35,000 put them well within reach of most print service providers. Continuing innovation in wide-format printing applications is occurring with UV-curable ink jet printers, which accounts for a small portion of the wide-format printing market today. UV-ink’s ability to print on flexible and rigid substrate with print quality starting to rival offset output quality has made it technology of choice for most high-volume screen printers looking to make their next capital investment.

Despite all this success, IT Strategies would argue inkjet ink technology is still very much in its infancy. With most inkjet inks, very little colorant is transferred; typically less than five percent. The rest is aqueous or solvent carrier that is either evaporated or absorbed. UV-ink chemistry is one way around this—with other tradeoffs relating to curing, handling safety before curing, etc. We expect to see continuing development in all these chemistries, ultimately resulting in hybrid forms of those existing inks.

One company—Landa—is trying to take yet a different approach—removing the carrier before the final image is transferred to the substrate. Landa’s self-titled nanography uses standard piezo inkjet print head technology jetting water-based inkjet ink onto a heated transfer blanket onto which the colorant spreads and the water carrier evaporates. The blanket is heated by plates underneath it to 120ºC, which as far as we can tell melts the ink into a tacky film, which is then transferred to the substrate. This process is not dissimilar to Indigo’s transfer process, except here water-based inks are used. By using the heat from the transfer blanket to remove the water a very thin film of colorant is left, a figure that is claimed to be less than 500 nanometers in thickness. This solves both the cost issue (since none of the colorant is drawn down into the fibers of a paper substrate, so less ink is needed to create the image vibrancy required) and the substrate issue, since the tackiness of the ink film will bond to anything, including plastics, PVC, even PET film. Given the complexity of obtaining a full and clean transfer of the ink colorant film, this technology’s application use for wide-format printing is likely a decade or more away.

Thinking of future technology, electronic display screens will not replace wide-format print for decades to come due to infrastructure and business model reasons. The cost of the flat panel displays is irrelevant; it is already ultra low. It is the infrastructure cost around the electronic screens that makes paper a far easier and less costly alternative for now.

Watch for wide-format printers to trespass upon what we might call “industrial” print applications—really any inkjet technology application that is non-document printing. This includes textile printing, packaging printing, laminate printing—notice the common decorative theme—and many smaller, fragmented applications. 3D printing is one of those applications, although it should be noted that the press mistakenly refers to all rapid prototype modelling.

The bottom line is that the future for inkjet technology and wide-format graphics printing remains bright. Arguably, it is the last significant print technology that is still growing now that analog print technologies have crested and are on the downward side of their technology life cycle.

Long live inkjet!