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Ink Technology

Achieving a wider, consistent gamut of colour across a range of applications is the pinnacle of quality production. Summer Brooks discovers the latest innovations on the market

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With so many ink types available on the market, which is the best for your business?

Thinking clearly

With so many innovations in ink production taking place, it can be difficult to know which is best suited to your firm’s applications. Understanding the market and the latest developments can help sign and wide-format print providers make informed decisions about how to improve their output with ink.

Sun Chemical is known the world over for its production of printing inks and pigments and is well-positioned to give a global outlook of the inks market. Tony Cox, business manager at the company, says that the uncertainty around the prospect of sustainable global economic growth has caused confidence to drop, especially in the UK market. He explains: “Brexit, in particular, has put a strain on people’s spending and we see this reflected across a number of our European business units. This uncertainty is impacting the wide-format graphics market as a whole and therefore having a knock-on effect on the eco-solvent market. Having said that, we are still seeing continued investment in new equipment within eco-solvent, as new print platforms are introduced by key manufacturers. So, there is still growth, but the speed of growth has slowed down.”

Tony Cox of Sun Chemical

Roland DG has pioneered innovation of its printing inks, with the recent development of the TR2 eco-solvent inks for use with the TrueVis VG2 printer series, designed in line with the company’s philosophy of developing “complete, holistic solutions”.

Rob Goleniowski, head of sales in the UK and Ireland, says the inks are as important as the printer itself when it comes to delivering high quality printed graphics. “Some consumers might view ink as little more than a consumable product they insert into their printers, but the ink technology is a key part of the solution,” explains Goleniowski. “Even with the most advanced hardware available, the colour consistency and reliability of the output will only ever be as good as the ink they use. The reality is that their customers demand high quality and it’s important for manufacturers to innovate and help print companies find better, more cost-effective products to keep their businesses going forward.”

In the market

Textiles continue to dominate the growth areas according to Sun Chemical, as it says well over 50% of the inkjet textile market is now in Europe. Cox adds: “I have seen several sources recently quoting 16-17% as the estimated growth until 2023. This is likely to vary by segment, with some growing quicker than others. For instance, the flag and soft signage market is growing at a single digit rate, while the direct-to-garment (DTG) printing segment is growing at around 35% per year.

“While there is a big difference between segments, overall there is very good growth in the textile market, particularly within Europe and the UK, due to the increasing trend for fast turn-arounds. Because of the nature of digital printing and the benefits of printing on-demand, it means printers can cut down on their lead time and provide faster turnaround times.”

David Reid is the global sales manager of digital for Sun Chemical and has recently seen more partner companies moving into different areas of wide-format print. He says: “From an OEM perspective, we’re seeing our partner companies diversifying from traditional graphics markets into new areas, such as textile, labels and packaging. From a technology point of view, the market is currently dominated by UV cured inks, with strong growth emerging in aqueous ink systems.”

David Reid of Sun Chemical

A consistent supply of raw materials has been a concern for ink manufacturers for some time, most recently with a shortage of photoinitiators for inks and coatings due to a number of issues arising in China, where most of them are produced.

Reid adds: “During last year’s well-documented photoinitiator raw material supply shortages, Sun Chemical was one of the few ink suppliers able to maintain supply throughout, using its global strengths to ensure the maximum supply of existing materials as well as the effective technical evaluation of alternative materials, when required.”

Cox agrees that whilst Sun Chemical worked to continue its supply, the effect was felt across the whole supply chain.

Issues with raw material production in China have had a knock-on effect globally

He explains: “Last year we saw several key raw materials, which are fundamental to the good economic performance of inks, affected by health and safety legislation in China. These materials were previously manufactured in Chinese plants, but China has since shut down its previous ways of manufacturing due to environmental and safety concerns. This has had a huge effect on supply.

Last year we saw several key raw materials, which are fundamental to the good economic performance of inks, affected by health and safety legislation in China

“Materials such as photoinitiators have increased in price by up to five times, which has had a significant impact on the cost of inks and, as a result, the cost per square metre of print. Consequently, this has had a huge impact on our business, and we have seen a lot of key raw material manufacturers migrate to Europe as a result. This is affecting predominantly the UV market due to the photoinitiator supply issue, although the textile market has also been impacted as dye prices have also increased up to three - four times.”

Disruption and uncertainty have not hindered innovation in the inks market, however, as Cox explains: “From a wide-format graphics viewpoint, we are seeing innovation mainly in the form of a move towards aqueous technology. Last year, we established that there are now numerous aqueous printing platforms available for the wide-format graphics market and I think that this year we can expect to see this trend continue to grow within the wide-format market.

Innovations in wide-format printer inks have come on leaps and bounds in recent years

“In terms of textile, the chemistry and dispersion technology are certainly developing, which is enabling us to offer more reliable inks that feature better start-up and jetting performance, coupled with increases in density, which provide higher quality and a more attractive end print.”

And that is what all wide-format print producers are seeking – a way to increase the value of their print by improving quality, and in turn increase profit. Cox continues: “We have noticed in recent years that technological innovations tend to be happening in pigment technology compared with other areas. This may be because there is a large amount of environmental pressure surrounding conventional textile printing with respect to water waste, as thousands of gallons are typically being used to prepare and produce a fairly small area of textile print. With inkjet, you can substantially reduce the amount of wastewater that is produced and the implications for the environment are significant.”

Selecting the best

With so many options available for sign-makers and print-service-providers, it can be difficult to know which is best. “Be it solvent, dye-sublimation, UV or latex, many of our customers are uncertain about the best solution for their business,” comments Goleniowski. “It’s vital for them to do their research and decide what they want to produce first. From there, they can form an understanding of the benefits of each ink technology and judge them on merit, then determine which solution is best suited to their requirements.”

Goleniowski says the TR2 ink from Roland is suited to all wide-format applications, from signage to vehicle wraps, and includes a new orange ink to help extend the available gamut. “The TR2 ink also offers faster drying and shorter outgassing times giving users more time to expand production and helping take the pressure off their production deadlines,” he adds. “The combination of the TrueVIS VG2 and TR2 ink has also been certified by the 3M MCS warranty system, and the TR2 ink supports Avery’s ICS performance guarantee, ensuring durability for demanding applications.”

Roland DG’s VG2-640 64-inch printer/cutter

Inks from Sun Chemical have been designed for use in a range of applications including wide-format print and in textiles and packaging. “We often see an overlap of technologies, from what was traditionally wide-format graphics, with the technology being adapted for additional markets,” says Reid. “However, we must ensure that the correct ink technology is used for the correct application and end use.” Reid warns of PSPs looking to move into food packaging for example, where there are strict regulations in place.

Where next?

“The print service industry is a very competitive landscape and their end-users are more demanding than they’ve ever been,” says Goleniowski. “As such, flexibility and versatility are vital to remain relevant in the market. Eco-solvent ink, such as our TR2 ink, is perfectly placed to address the biggest challenges in print, offering safe and environmentally friendly output on a wide variety of materials, exceptional UV resistance and outdoor durability. Aside from this, the ease-of-use of eco-solvent ink helps mitigate potential maintenance issues, reducing the likeliness of costly downtime.”

O Factoid: According to Smithers Pira, graphics is the most valuable printing ink segment and is forecast to reach $23bn (£17.7bn) by 2023. O

The diverse range of applications in the sign industry mean that there are lots of different technologies at play. Cox concludes: “One of Sun Chemical’s strengths is that we have chemistries available for most end-users and end-uses – LED, UV, textile, water-based, aqueous, solvent and eco-solvent inks. This offers end-users the confidence to work with Sun Chemical across the board on any technology and continue to do so as the technology continues to evolve and develop. Businesses can therefore remain assured that they have continuous access to a consistent supply of inks for all kinds of technology and applications.”

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