Figure 1 Wide Format Graphics Unit Shipments 1992-2016, Worldwide
Photo credit: Source: IT Strategies
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 a 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.
To gain a better understanding what the opportunity might be for latex printers it may be helpful to take a look back at the life cycle of various wide format graphic ink jet printer technologies. Aqueous ink wide format printers were introduced more than 20 years ago, reaching their peak in terms of unit sales after about 14 years. Aggressive solvent printers followed a similar trajectory, but are no almost non-existent in the developed world. Eco-solvent reached a peak in popularity in less than four years, but in fairness their timing coincided with the great economic recession. UV-curable printer, largely in part due to their $100,000+ acquisition cost are on a steady but gradual ramp up in unit sales volume.
The technology that may well follow the closest growth curve to aqueous printers is now latex ink printer technology. While it doesn’t have the same ramp up curve (due to lack of other latex printer competitors and increasing average selling prices now hovering above $20,000 per unit), IT Strategies is projecting latex ink’s future is looking bright.
A core reason appears to be the ability of latex printers to provide the benefit of being able to print both indoor and outdoor print on a single printer, effectively providing users with a two-for-one acquisition price benefit. This is not how those latex printers were initially positioned.
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 twenty “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: 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 their 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.
The real growth driver however behind all of this may be the aging base of aqueous printers. Products like the HP DesignJet 5500, one of the most popular aqueous wide format printers ever sold, are now reaching their effective end-of-life in the installed base. When faced with a replacement decision, a $20,000 indoor/outdoor printer—one expensive enough as to not be casually bought by in-plants or self-print users—becomes a relatively attractive proposition.
Epson offers perhaps the closest alternative with its SureColor eco-solvent printers: different ink technology but similar application benefits. Epson’s brand reputation around photographic-quality output carries over to its SureColor eco-solvent printers. Many printshops whose aging Mimaki, Roland, and Mutoh eco-solvent printers now need replacement would no doubt consider an Epson alternative during their research process.
The bottom line for printshops is that in terms of a replacement for their aging aqueous printers, they can’t go wrong with either an HP latex or an Epson eco-solvent printer.
To drive the growth rates of these printers even higher what may be needed is ironically more competition. Conspicuously absent is Canon, although it has shown prototype concepts during the past few years. Stay tune, and let the expansion of applications that can be printed by print-for-pay shops on these printers continue to provide great value to the buyers of printer while keeping profit margins attractive for all.