Liquid gold

Liquid gold
Consumables play a major role in the success of your wide-format project. This is particularly so with inks.

In wide-format printing, the type and quality of ink you choose can make or break the business model for a particular type of printing, so, whether you are just contemplating a move into wide-format, or seeking to cut costs and raise ROI in this segment, it is critical to examine ink selection and usage.

The number of wide format print solutions is large and growing. For print business owners the choice of which printer and which technology can be bewildering. How do you choose from a growing array of wide-format ink options?

Today there is a plethora of solvent inks, the so-called eco-solvent inks, which are said to be kinder to the environment, aqueous inks, latex inks, and UV inks. What are the pros and cons of each, and why should a print business owner choose one over the other?

Vendors’ views

One of the trends we have seen with the transformation of large parts of the printing business to digital technology is the embrace of consumables by the hardware manufacturers and vendors, with branded inks developed specifically for their hardware matches – and some of it bundled under a click-charge model.

Gordon Kerr, marketing manager, business division, Epson Australia, emphasises that his company does not offer a click-charge model in wide-format. “Epson makes our inks available in a range of cartridge sizes. With some technologies, we also offer bulk ink systems. The larger the cartridge size, the lower the typical running cost (cart cost/mls). It is important to note that quality inks all have a best before date; after this date the chemical composition can change, leading to colour shifts and clogging problems. The date is computed at the factory, based on a set of averaged conditions for storage, handling and usage. If inks are stored unopened in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight, they will often last longer than the nominated date; if not, it can be significantly shorter.

“Once opened, cartridges should be consumed within three months. Epson recommends customers purchase the largest sizes available that match their typical production volumes, carry a small amount of additional stocks for the inevitable emergency, and order replacements through qualified suppliers who know and understand the issues. We also recommend customers take particular care with colours that may not be used so frequently, such as orange, green, white, metal, light grey, and consider ordering smaller cartridges and carrying less spares,” he explains.

While eco-solvent inks are defying the pundits and sales have stabilised, Kerr sees an ascendancy of aqueous inks, as photo imaging and poster production remain in strong demand. “With the demise of toner and pen based printing, as well as a growth in art, photography and custom décor, some segments of the aqueous market appear to be stable and perhaps expanding. After growing strongly a couple of years ago, interest in resin ink appears to have stalled recently.

“Despite many industry players having predicted eco-solvent to disappear, it is experiencing something of a resurgence, with producers using the lower running costs and superior pop to compete in a market that is starting to be infiltrated with electronic signage. UV and dye-sublimation ink use is currently relatively low, however, with growing demand for short-run fabric production, custom clothing, merchandise, cabinetry and hard signage, the trend is very much upwards,” says Kerr.

As a solutions provider in business mailing, print finishing and large-format printing, Neopost Australia has its eye on the gamut of wide-format inks available on the Australian market. Morgan Quinn, product manager of Neopost Australia’s wide-format division, sees a strong uptake in HP’s latex inks for a variety of printing segments. “The ability to produce onto a wider range of substrates without the need to outgas before finishing -- particularly laminating -- has meant that turnaround times can be drastically reduced. The ability to print onto uncoated and treated media, such as papers, textiles and films, has also opened up new potential revenue streams for printers.”

He believes the properties of latex inks – which in fact are pigmented, water-based inks with a latex polymer -- means indoor and outdoor applications can be produced from the same machine without having to worry about outgassing or the outdoor durability of the inks. Latex inks are also adept at handling vinyl and banner prints, such as car wraps, signage, POS/POP, papers, films, treated and untreated textiles, paper stocks, wall graphics, and interior decoration, such as synthetic leathers, as well as canvas prints.

In general, Quinn sees both pigment and dye-based aqueous inks as having their distinct applications. “Dye-based inks have excellent colour vibrancy but are not water or UV resistant, making them suitable for shorter-term indoor uses, such as promotional posters and prints onto films. Pigment-based inks are water resistant and also are UV light-fast, making them suitable for longer-term indoor applications, such as longer-life prints in retail window displays, as well as applications such as canvas and lightbox/backlit film prints.”

Quinn also sees UV-based inks experiencing growth in recent years. “Lower costs of entry, coupled with increased machine productivity and versatility, has enabled a greater number of print providers to take up direct-to-substrate printing. UV is particularly popular for POS/POP, as UV curable printing and inks have become a suitable alternative to short- and medium-run on-demand work. These types of jobs were previously being done on technologies such as screen printing. However, UV curable has the ability to produce variable-data jobs with much lower setup costs.

“UV curable inks are great for numerous rigid and flexible applications,” he says. “These include foam boards, corflute, ACM (aluminium composite panel), woods, glass and metals.  They are also good for numerous flexible printing applications such as vinyls, banners and fabrics.” However, he cautions that many UV inks have limited flexibility, so are not typically used for applications requiring a great deal of flexibility and stretch (such as car wrapping).

And he sees a strong market for dye-sublimation inks, which have diverse applications, including textiles, such as flags, clothing, sportswear and apparel, and POS/POP textile displays. They can also be used to sublimate onto rigid surfaces, such as polyester-coated metals -- for example, ChromaLuxe – and onto mugs, key chains and phone covers.

Greg Stone, product manager at Roland DG Australia, says full or hard solvent inks provide no real benefit over eco-solvent equivalents. Due to regulations around safe work environments, these will most likely be phased out over time. “Eco-solvent inks are the most versatile ink technology in terms of applications, media compatibility and ease-of-use. Eco-solvent is the optimal choice for customers looking to offer a wide range of products and applications.” 

He finds that aqueous inks typically offer a wider colour gamut and are most suitable for fine-art reproduction and archival work. UV inks are the most diverse, as they can print to a wide range of materials, particularly objects and substrates outside of traditional print applications. “The efficiency and economy of this technology will continue to replace traditional technologies such as screen and pad printing in the ever-expanding personalisation market.”

Stone identifies dye-sublimation as the most widely accepted technology in terms of sportswear manufacture in Australia. Dye-sub also has good potential for soft signage applications due to its easy installation and transportation.

He has seen reasonable growth in both UV and dye-sub in Australia over the past 18 months. “This is likely to continue into the future. UV will continue to replace traditional technologies. Dye-sub has massive potential in soft-signage and other textile applications which have already seen great success in other parts of the world.”

Stone believes Australia still values quality work and as such favours OEM ink, due to the quality control and overall performance. Ink pricing is in line with other mature markets such as the US and Europe. “It is vital that customers consider ink consumption and TCO, as opposed to the cartridge price, as this is what will ultimately drive the success of their business.”

Meanwhile, UV inks have gone in leaps and bounds, with instant curing now a plus. LED UV ink technology on Mimaki’s new UJV55-320 features instant curing, creating graphics that exit the printer dry, says Brad Creighton, national sales and marketing manager of Mimaki Australia, after the new printer premiered at Fespa earlier this year.

Haydn Wills, manager, wide format marketing, at Canon Australia, says the four- and six-channel Océ Arizona 1200 UV flatbeds can be upgraded to as high as eight ink channels, enabling a range of ink combinations. These can include CMYK-plus-extra CM or Lc, Lm plus single- or double-white and varnish. The Arizona series also features six-colour Océ VarioDot technology.  

Ink by ink

Epson Australia’s Gordon Kerr profiles the major wide-format inks and their pros and cons.

Solvent

Epson does not produce ‘hard’ solvent ink. After considerable time and investment, we found that we could produce eco-solvent ink that enabled prints with better colour and equal or better durability.

Eco-solvent

Eco-solvent Ink is easier to work with than the old ‘hard’ solvent ink; there are less handling and environmental concerns, and printers can be used in a wider variety of environments including air-conditioned offices and retail environments. Eco-solvent ink is designed for durable print applications including indoor POS, outdoor signage, decals, labels, décor, wallpaper, vehicle wraps, and more. It can be used on an extremely wide variety of media, including vinyl, canvas, backlit/window film, coated and uncoated paper. The ink is less expensive than most other technologies and requires considerably less power during the printing process. Epson has been developing and producing eco-solvent ink for quite a number of years and we are now up to our fourth-generation. Epson’s latest GS3 ink produces output that is brighter and glossier than any of the other durable ink technologies, with a gamut that is approaching that of aqueous. Ink dries quickly and for many applications prints are ready to hang almost as soon as they exit the printer. For situations where prints need to endure multiple years in situ, exposure to high levels of UV, CO2 and/or physical weathering, then lamination is recommended (in which case they need to be left 10-12 hours to ‘outgas’ before application).

Aqueous

Aqueous or water-based ink is one of the cornerstones of Epson print technology and is found in all of our professional graphics, photo and business printers. Aqueous ink can be formulated to produce output with extremely precise, predictable and controllable colour. While particularly suited to premium photo, graphic art and proofing work, aqueous ink is also suited to POS, business graphics and drawing work. Epson aqueous ink can be applied to canvas, coated and uncoated paper, synthetic and even film media. Epson UltraChrome aqueous ink features an all-pigment formulation that dries instantly to be moisture and abrasion resistant; you can leave a poster produced in a SureColor-P series or a drawing produced in a SureColor-T series outside in the rain and the print will not run. Most importantly prints produced with Epson UltraChrome ink have a high resistance to fading and colour shift and are therefore used for lot of saleable art as well as archival work.

Latex

Latex is a brand name of HP. There are a number of resin and solid printers ink technologies in the market. Epson does not currently produce printers which use these ink technologies or sell the related ink. Whilst we acknowledge that there are some benefits of the technology (specifically the ability to laminate directly without first outgassing), we are able to produce prints cheaper and more cost effectively with eco-solvent. Images produced with eco-solvent have better colour and are brighter than solid ink. Unlike solid ink which tends to sit on the surface, eco-solvent ink etches into the media, enabling higher stability and increased durability.

UV

UV ink is extremely durable and can be applied to a lot of surface types. It does however have some limitations in terms of colour density and accuracy. Epson manufactures UV ink and offers it in some of our industrial label printers.

Dye-sublimation (textiles)

Dye-sub inks are an excellent choice for fabric imaging. They can also be used for imaging onto hard surfaces, including pre-treated ceramics, metal, timber and even heat-tolerant plastic.

Latex speed and quality

At Banner Solutions, a Sydney business that has been supplying signage products to the trade almost since its foundation more than 40 years ago, the embrace of HP’s latex printing has seen the company breaking into new markets with safe, environmentally friendly signage, using inks supplied by Neopost Australia.

Banner Solutions in Chipping Norton is a family company run by co-directors - brothers Kevin and Mark Sherrell and Kevin’s son Ryan – and four staff. It has its origins in canvas manufacturing, later branching into banner manufacture on the early sign calico stocks. Over four decades, the business has graduated to today’s versatile and durable vinyl and PVC roll media.

Kevin Sherrell tells ProPrint: “We offer speed and quality on anything from small indoor to large outdoor billboard scale. Printing self-adhesive films, PVC-free wallpaper, small promotional to huge building banners. We print backlit, frontlit, and double-sided on a block-out banner for hanging in shopping centre voids, road banners and vertical pole banners. We specialise in high quality and quick turnarounds. If a customer wants banners the next day and at times the same day, we just ask for the earliest time we can have their artwork.”

A few years ago, much of Banner Solutions’ printing was still being done with ‘hard’ solvent inks, which has since been abandoned by the company. Says Sherrell: “You had to open windows and run extraction systems, and we knew from the fumes that these inks were not doing us any good”. Banner Solutions changed to eco-solvent inks, for printing with a Roland Sol Jet Pro4 XF-640 twin-head 1600mm press Around the same time, it adopted UV-curable printing, investing in a Chinese-manufactured Teckpro 3200 printer, which he says was a ‘good bang for buck’ machine built for China’s export markets.

However, to meet its need for print quality, speedy fulfilment and a water-soluble, wholly non-toxic product that is considered safe for applications such as non-PVC wallpaper in children’s hospital areas and child-care centres, latex inks proved to be the solution the company was seeking. A HP Latex 360 and a grand-format HP Latex 3000 press were soon added to the production floor. The 3000 has since been upgraded to a 3100, with the addition of inline slitting and proofing lights for frontlit and backlit products.

“On the HP 3100, we are printing just short of three times the speed we used to achieve on the UV printer, and with a massive improvement in the quality,” says Sherrell. “We are not interested in supplying the cheapest banners on the market, we produce quality work on time, every time – that has been our philosophy, and we need to keep at the forefront of technology to be able to achieve that.”

That said, the Latex 360 has some limitations, he explains. “The heat needed in latex printing can cause cockling on some media, particularly in that first metre of free fall before it connects to the take-up roller but once connected there are far fewer issues.

The speed and quality of latex is a compelling business model, says Sherrell. “With the HP printers, we can laminate straight off the press, rather than waiting for 24 hours as you need to do with eco-solvent jobs while they outgas. And unlike a lot of printers, the HP 3100 has the resolution to print self-adhesive vinyls at speed. Some of our customers can only print small size self-adhesive vinyls on their own presses so they outsource the larger print volumes to us.”

Summing it up, Kevin Sherrell says: “We only deal with the sign trade, so we do not always know what our customers’ expectations are for their own end-customers, so we keep ahead of the market and we produce A-one quality every time.”

The next wave

The business strategy at Sydney digital large format business Next Printing is to stay at the forefront of developments in the sign and display market, rather than waiting around for maturation and the ultimate price wars, says general manager Romeo Sanuri. So while, the 12-year-old display print operation, a spinoff of a photographic lab in the 1980s, is firmly committed to rigid substrates, it has spent the past half-decade becoming arguably Australia’s finest signage and display fabrics printer.

There is nothing cut-price or discounted about soft signage printing in Australia, says Sanuri. It is a premium business model that works well, which is reflected in its top-shelf pricing for finished product. “The market segment is still a long way from becoming commoditised and ravaged by margin slashers. So the high-performance inks – which benefit from the hardware makers’ constant R&D - are priced accordingly, but while the market continues to clamour for quality specialised fabric displays, these press-and-inks bundles provide a good combination that allows us to be competitive in the market. It’s a reasonable price for a reasonable package.”

Next Printing, located at St Peters, with a staff of 30, launched into fabric printing in 2010-11, after Sanuri saw soft signage becoming a hit in Europe. As he puts it, “we saw an opportunity – in aluminium-framed fabric displays -- and we jumped on it”.

For fabric printing, Next’s output devices include a Durst Rhotex 322, a 3.2m direct press for printing coated polyesters, a Durst Rhotex 180TR 1.8m hybrid direct and transfer press (transfer printing for uncoated polyesters). Both presses use Durst-supplied high-energy dispersed dye-sub inkjets, while two Durst Rho 312 and 320 roll-to-roll presses, print vinyl banners and some fabrics, using UV inks. For boards and flatsheets, there are two Durst Rho P10/250 flatbeds, and a smaller HP 360 latex printer.

Next’s sales and marketing manager Julian Lowe, who has been to Durst’s research centre in Lienz, Austria, explains the high precision of its R&D into inks. “To give you an idea, they have high-speed cameras with a microscopic lens, so they can adjust the shape of a droplet so it hits the right spot. So they concentrate on the tail of the droplet being the right length and shape. Going to that level of detail to make sure the ink will not swell in my machine has my trust.”

However, Lowe admits dye-sub is still somewhat of a dark art. For the unwary, what you see – at least at first viewing after the head passes over the media -- is almost certainly not what you get. The ink, once applied to the fabric, must then be fixated through a calendar, and the outcome remains unknown until after that. Achieving accurate colour can be expensive and time consuming. In Next’s case, colour management software and profiling with a Barbieri spectrophotometer makes sure colour is on-target, and even then there are occasional holes in the colour gamut which require tweaking.

“Colour predictability with dye-sub is still a learning curve,” explains Lowe. “Even after five years of fabric printing, we learn something new each week. Different fabrics each have their different characteristics.”

Lowe says that in the past two years or so, UV inks have made major advances in sharpness, with a much finer dot, and they harden well under the lamp, with no cracking, even when rolled up or crushed. And he finds UV inks also have a good opacity for backlit displays.

“Latex is great as a one-stop shop technology, and on certain substrates, and particularly if you want to produce a variety of short-run jobs on the press in a relatively short period of time, but for volume applications, UV is still the better choice, and, unlike latex, does not abrade, ” he states.

While Next is committed to fabrics and boards, Sanuri sees fabric banners as having superior logistics – they can be trucked in to a venue without cumbersome handling issues, such as side-impact damage that can affect rigids. That said, the pair agree there will always be a market for versatile, diecut boards, especially in eco-boards such as Re-board, a patented recyclable made from post-consumer waste.

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