The Latex Print Experience

The wide-format union of Mimaki print engine technology and Ricoh piezo-electric print heads may prove to be a high-quality marriage, as the Ricoh L4160 latex printer becomes commercially available this month. R.S. Knapp, Lyndhurst, NJ, is a supplier to the architectural, design, and engineering (AEC) markets. Its Napco Copy Graphics Center division produces marketing graphics, too, which is why it is one of three customer sites beta-testing the L4160 since last October, after the device was demonstrated at the PRINT 13 tradeshow in Chicago.

In those three months, “we have printed outdoor display banners, wallpaper, POP [point of purchase], and anything having to do with vinyl or presentations,” Scott Burnes, printer of color graphics at Napco, said of the jointly developed device, which refines Ricoh’s offering in the specialized, latex print arena. Its Pro L4000 Series was prototyped at drupa 2012. Since then, the viscosity of the water-based ink set has been reformulated to prevent clogging, reported Ricoh product manager Bryan Batelli.

Napco’s Burnes added, “My main motivation for considering an aqueous wide-format printer is that it allows me to laminate sooner because prints come out dry. Using other types of printers require waiting and often results in smeared ink. Ricoh gave me the opportunity to test their platform, which was a huge benefit,” continued Burnes, who said this is his firm’s first experience with a Mimaki front end.

Substrate versatility is another selling point. “I can use the Ricoh 4160 for more varied media because it handles heat differences better than comparable printers,” Burnes noted. “Since heating is broken into zones, the Ricoh solution doesn’t deform media -- such as wrinkling and head stripes -- in the ways that I’ve seen other printers do.” So far, Napco has successfully run the following six types of substrates: calendared wall vinyl, regular calendared vinyl, clear vinyl, ultra-flex banner media, color coat presentation bond, and PVC (for wall coverings).

Burnes reported that he also has tested Ricoh’s white-ink option, “which worked out well,” he said, on clear, pressure-sensitive vinyl. “The specific application was a window frosting,” he elaborated. “I adjusted the white levels to a percentage where it wasn’t completely opaque or transparent, and then placed graphics on top of that. Being able to adjust the transparency of the white ink is a substantial benefit of the Ricoh 4160.”

Product manager Batelli sees white ink on clear substrates as a big differentiator over competitor HP. Ricoh is selling the new latex printer direct from its distribution channel as well as through the dealer network, he said. “We are targeting production houses and print-for-pay providers who want to do outdoor signage that can withstand the elements, such as up to two years of UV sun rays,” Batelli explained. He envisions other applications, such as vehicle wraps, to come in the not-too-distant future, along with additional software enhancements, including compatibility with the standard ONYX RIP. “Those drivers are being developed now,” he told WFI in late 2013.

In the meantime, Ricoh is confident that the device’s ease of use and latex printing’s minimal environmental impact will lure prospects to at least consider its improved technology. “It runs on 110 volts, and you don’t need ventilation like you do with solvent printers,” Batelli pointed out. “The disposal of waste ink is similar to latex paint: Just throw some sand in it, and then you can dump it.”

High volumes at high quality

When Robbie McDaniel went shopping for a wide-format latex printer, he was looking for a robust model with adequate output speeds. McDaniel is president of Promo Screen Print (PSP) in Decatur, GA, a 12-yeaar-old large-format shop. Because of its screen printing roots, PSP is accustomed to point-of-purchase graphic run lengths in the hundreds and thousands. Since migrating to digital print technology some eight years ago, these quantities have not changed.

The facility features a host of HP machines, including an HP Scitex TURBOjet, an FB700, FB6100, and two FB7600 UV inkjet printers, the latest installed in 2012, according to McDaniel. “We’ve converted from analog to almost all digital [equipment] now,” he said, “but we still don’t do one-offs.” For that matter, PSP does not print low job quantities of five or 20 copies, either. “We are primarily a production-oriented company.”

This past September, PSP became one of the first firms worldwide to install the HP Latex 3000 printer. McDaniel reported that he was drawn to the 126-inch, roll-to-roll device primarily due to its rated speeds of 830 square feet per hour for high-quality, indoor applications and 1,290 square feet per hour for outdoor. In the first few months of live production, the 3000 has exceeded expectations. “It’s producing a little faster than we expected,” McDaniel reported.

He also likes the Latex Optimizer for improved ink adhesion and scratch resistance. “This technology helped HP to achieve the speed and print quality,” he added, because the new ink solution offers broader media versatility, especially on heat-sensitive substrates. It ensures consistent image quality at high speeds as well as efficient curing at lower temperatures and with less energy than previous HP Latex solutions.

Introduced last June, the HP Latex 3000 features a host of technological innovations and enhancements, including more than 100 patents pending, a new set of inks (HP 881), new printheads, and a new drying/curing system, said Chuck Stein, national sales director in the manufacturer’s Large-Format Print Group. “The quality has improved along with the speed,” Stein asserted. “We’ve even lowered its operating temperature significantly, earning the UL EcoLogo, which ties into environmental benefits, such as GreenGuard certifications.”

The ability to print on a wide breadth of materials also is an HP feature: from latex vinyl banners, pressure-sensitive vinyl, decals, soft signage, and hanging signs to posters, floor graphics, car wraps, window signage, wall coverings, fine-art canvas, fabrics, paper and card stocks. PSP is using the latex device’s media versatility to print POP graphics for retail, grocery, and convenient stores as well as quick-serve restaurants.

High-end backlit signage is a niche where the 3000 excels, contended HP’s Stein. “Latex is a good option,” McDaniel agreed. When compared to the traditional LightJet process and Lambda photo prints, “latex is cheaper and has identical quality. We did 700 pieces the first week we had the HP Latex 3000,” he said. The device also is opening new avenues of business, such as flags, which PSP had been outsourcing to a dye sublimator. “We’ve done three or four orders [in house] to date,” McDaniel reported.

The Latex 3000 Printer can handle thinner, lower-cost substrates than its predecessors, although HP was unable to specify precisely how thin. Stein did confirm, however, outdoor durability on a range of media up to three years unlaminated and five years laminated; indoor durability is up to five years unlaminated and 10 years laminated.

Now with “durability equal to or significantly better than hard-solvent output,” according to Stein, is it any wonder that HP has some 17,500 various latex printers in the field worldwide (including former Designjet products) since introducing the technology in 2008 as a water-based alternative to solvent ink. In that five-year period, more than 328 million square feet have been printed with HP Latex Inks. HP expects these numbers to triple by 2016, with the number of latex-printed pages growing rapidly (while the number of solvent-printed pages simultaneously declines by as much as 33 percent.)