Solvent Solves the Profit Problem

Unlike some of its competitors, Epson and Mutoh are two OEMs still heavily invested in solvent print technology. Canon no longer offers solvent printing systems and HP declined to participate in this round up, stating that it is “not putting any PR muscle behind this segment currently.” Engineers at Epson, however, have yet to embrace an ultraviolet (UV)-cured inkjet alternative. “Solvent is an important business for Epson and Seiko Epson, our parent company,” asserted Reed Hecht, product manager for the manufacturer’s SureColor S-Series. “It is the workhorse of the industry, producing the majority of flexible signage every day.”

But what about solvent’s anti-green reputation? With the blinding pace of technology, print firm owners and managers should not live in the long past of seven, eight, or nine years ago, Hecht urged. “In 2005 and 2006, solvent smelled horrible,” he recalled. “But we are not in that game. We are ISO-certified with core Japanese roots.” Today, Epson’s inks are more environmentally friendly than ever, he contended, meeting the stringent chemical requirements for the Nordic swan eco-label in Europe. “The inks are almost odorless. The majority of smell comes from the media sitting on the heater,” he explained, adding that Epson scientists have removed all nickel compounds, which are known carcinogens.

Besides being less harmful to operators and the environment, why else do so many wide-format shops like solvent-based printers as Q2 2014 looms? The hardware is more affordable, especially for smaller print firms, Hecht pointed out. “A solvent device can be purchased for between $13,000 and $23,000,” he reported, adding that “an entry-level UV printer with the same width is priced between $70,000 and $80,000. They really are two different classes.” Higher-end machines, such as EFI’s VUTEk line, have even larger price stickers approaching a quarter of a million dollars.

A quick price check confirmed Hecht’s numbers: An SID 63-inch Triton 160 printer, employing Epson print heads and distributed by Paradigm Imaging Group, sells for $16,900, while its 83-inch cousin is $7,000 more. The 98-inch Triton 250S lists for under $30,000. Superwide Titan models (126 inches) start at $26,500 with the 320GS going for $43,900. (Paradigm’s finance arm offers zero-percent financing for 36 months.)

Ink and Heads

Comparing consumables, Hecht admitted that UV inks are less expensive, whereas printouts employing aqueous (latex) inks can cost approximately two times more than those using solvent-based inks. Paradigm prices solvent inks at between $54 and $65 per liter. Both solvent and latex inkjet tend to be superior choices for roll-to-roll printing on flexible media -- for such products as banners and car wraps -- because the ink is more pliable and better able to maneuver over rivets and seams. In Japan, Epson’s 60+ chemical engineers have worked diligently to improve solvent-based inks, yielding more vibrant images and a wider color gamut – attributes more on par with its water-based, aqueous counterparts.

Last year, Epson launched its UltraChrome GS2 and GSX Series of inks, which use a faster drying chemistry to improve speed as well as outdoor print durability with an improved yellow. UltraChrome sets a new benchmark for photographic signage, too, by using lighter shades of cyan, magenta, and black. Featured on the SureColor S50670, UltraChrome GS2 ink delivers up to five colors with a high-density white ink to accommodate a broad range of indoor and outdoor signage applications.

In addition, AccuPhoto GS2 four-color screening technology can produce outstanding prints previously only possible from six-color printers. Proprietary MicroPiezo TFP (Thin Film Piezo) print heads have a lot to do with high-quality output as well. The MicroPiezo TFP delivers extremely small droplet sizes and four times the nozzles of Epson’s previous solvent printer for extremely fast print speeds. Under development for more than 20 years, mid-2012 marked the first time this revolutionary dual-array head was used with a solvent ink technology. Designed exclusively for use with UltraChrome solvent inks, these heads feature “accurate dot placement and reduction of grain,” noted Hecht.

In January, Paradigm, which is the North American distributor for SID (Signs International Distributor), introduced new eco-solvent inks developed specifically for the SID Mercury GS and Titan GS printers that feature Seiko GS-508 print-head technology. By using these IJ-3000 inks, SID customers with the Mercury and Titan GS printers are able to achieve resolutions up to 1440 dots per inch (dpi). In addition, IJ-3000 inks are compatible with print heads from other manufacturers with 12 picoliter or similar high-resolution heads.

The IJ3000 inks are formulated for maximum outdoor durability and UV light resistance. In laboratory testing, the inks received a grade of 8 (6 or higher being suitable for outdoor use). Because they are a mild or eco-solvent, they require minimal venting and create less environmental impact than traditional solvent inks.

Media Performance

Eco-solvent inks are one component, but here we are in 2014 and most customers still are not willing to pay more for eco-friendly substrates, according to Hecht. It has been a real challenge for media suppliers, he said, to develop “green” substrates that perform well in terms of color reproduction and stretching properties. “Small sign shops need to make a profit, and they’re focused on the cost of materials,” he observed. “There are banner alternatives to vinyl out there such as BIOflex from Ultraflex Systems, which breaks down faster in landfills, but it tends to be cost-prohibitive for most applications.” By contrast, a roll of 15-ounce Duratex scrim banner vinyl (76 inches by 164 feet long) is available on sale from Agfa/Pitman for $166 (plus shipping), which amounts to 16 cents per square foot. The smooth, opaque, high tensile strength banner is flexible, water-resistant, and has a block-out layer to prevent distracting backlight and shadows. It consists of a polyester fabric that is embedded between two PVC (poly vinyl chloride) layers, making it less susceptible to tearing.

It’s all about total cost of ownership for Epson. Aqueous-based inks do have numerous environmental benefits, Hecht acknowledged, “but what many people don’t realize is that the amount of power required to run these devices is higher.” How do you define operating “green?”

More Productive Technology

Mutoh offers a full line of solvent, aqueous, hybrid, and sublimation large-format printers (see sidebar). Its ValueJet eco-solvent devices, which output from 48 inches to 104 inches wide, are targeted at the sign and display market. Ideally suited for the production of long-term outdoor applications, typical jobs include full-color posters, banners, backlit signage, point-of-sale (POS) displays, external notices for buildings, production plants, and construction sites as well as adhesive signs and stickers. The ValueJet 1624 model also can be used for durable, photo-realistic prints for indoor usage, according to Mutoh.

The 1624, a WFI Top Product in 2012, prints at speeds up to 600 square feet per hour using state-of-the-art print head technology. The 1624 model is able to be equipped with the SpectroVue VM-10 spectrophotometer, which was specifically developed for on-printer color calibration, achieving a higher level of color consistency for multi-run print jobs as well as those printed on different substrates.

The 1624 printer also comes with a movable ink cartridge holder that accommodates both 220-ml and 440-ml cartridges. The ValueJet line offers additional performance enhancements standard such as improved paper feed accuracy and take-up system, ink changes on the fly, and three individually controlled heaters for faster drying. Mutoh’s patented I² Intelligent Interweaving print technology is a standard feature. Revolutionary in the piezo printing application world, this technique allows for increased print speeds and virtually eliminates banding. Its improved accuracy and consistency of dot size and dot release during printing enriches the image.

In one of Mutoh’s most recent installations, a ValueJet 1624 was added in January at Dalesflex Signs & Graphics Ltd., North Yorkshire, UK, where a bulk ink system already is contributing to cost savings. Wide-format shop Dalesflex, in business for less than two years, specializes in vehicle wraps. To better serve its customers, the firm replaced its aging Mutoh Rockhopper printer it had initially acquired with a newer, more efficient model.

“We were pretty confident that we wanted to stay with Mutoh printers, so we started searching the Internet for suppliers of these machines,” explained director Andy Walls. “We spoke to a number of companies and in mid-2013 settled on making the purchase of a ... ValueJet 1624 through [dealer] Stanford Marsh Group Graphics. As a new business, we were keen to work with a company that could simplify the whole purchasing and installation process,” he said of SMGG. “The company offered us an end-to-end service from recommending a solution through to sorting out a way of leasing the chosen system – thereby helping us to retain more of our cash reserves.” SMGG also advised that buying the bulk ink system (BIS) would prove more cost-effective than purchasing individual cartridges. “The Mutoh BIS enables us to keep the running costs of the machine down, whilst sticking to OEM inks,” Walls added.

ONYX’s RIP was installed on the machine, and SMGG provided training for the Dalesflex team on the software. The machine was put to good use with a short-turnaround piece shortly before Christmas. “On our previous printer, the project would have taken weeks,” Walls noted. “However, with the new Mutoh successfully installed, we managed to print 250 linear metres of media in just three days. It was unreal – the machine just ate the media! If anything, our only issue following installation relates to the fact that we need to retrain our practices to keep up with the printer.”