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An Ink For All Season

HP has put so many millions of dollars into developing their latex ink printers that it raises the question of whether this will become their de facto system for large format printing. This in turn raises the question of whether latex printers will gradually erode the market share of all the companies who have stuck faithfully to UV-cured, to water-based (Canon in particular), to solvent (Seiko II, Roland, Mutoh, and Mimaki), and the scores of Chinese solvent printers plus at least two Korean solvent brands.

HP stopped making solvent printers several years ago and ceased developing new grand format roll-to-roll UV-cured printers discretely about two years ago (they have been exhibiting only entry level basic UV combo transport belt updated from ColorSpan and their impressive HP Scitex FB7600, which competes with Inca Digital systems).

Thus the question was asked of me “what will it take to allow latex ink to become the de facto system for LFP?” I enjoy the challenge of answering this question.

First, let’s imagine that there was actually a theoretical chance that latex ink in general and HP latex ink in particular really become a de facto system. What would it take?

An initial factor, important to the entire industry, and a factor that determines whether an ink and printer technology will survive and prosper long-range, is ironically to encourage after-market ink.  We raise this as the first factor because many print shop owners and managers clearly express the blunt fact: if there is no after-market ink they will not buy certain brands of printer.

Sam Ink in Singapore was the first to offer after-market latex ink. The owner has ample experience with HP inks in general and has focused on these inks. Now STS Inks of Florida, USA is also offering latex ink. Having two brands of latex ink is plenty of options to start with (you don’t need hundred brands).

We fully understand that no OEM manufacturer wants after-market inks. We also understand that the primary profit of a large-format printer is selling consumables: inks and media especially. HP also gets much of its profit from the thermal printheads which need replacement more often than piezo heads.

But… if there is no after-market ink, many print shops will not buy the printer to begin with. Indeed many print shop owners and managers asked FLAAR already several years ago when after-market latex inks would be available. The print shop owner said he would buy a latex printer as soon as third-party inks were available.

Indeed in China and other world areas even Mimaki has to turn off their after-market ink protection system for their eco-solvent printers: otherwise they could not sell Mimaki printers in China and other countries.

I will also add that for inks other than latex, most of the ink is made by an ink company not by the printer manufacturer. And, many of the same companies who provide OEM ink to manufacturers also sell after-market ink.

So you can’t always claim that after-market ink is bad simply because it does not come with the OEM brand name! Other ink from the identical ink factory is also being sold as after-market: Sericol sells OEM ink for Fujifilm printers but also offers after-market ink for Mutoh printers, as an example.  So does this mean that Sericol ink for Océ is great, fantastic, wonderful, but that Sericol ink for Mutoh is inadequate because it is not the official OEM ink?

You can’t burn the candle from both ends!  Yes, cheap ink is junk. Solvent ink for $8 a liter in China fades after 8 weeks! $1 per week. You get what you pay for. Solvent ink for $36 a liter should last for at least a year or more we hope. But there are even Chinese companies whose inks offer acceptable quality: Hongsam is one company whose two ink factories we have visited.

After-market latex ink is not automatically bad (not automatically good either).

In conclusion, one factor to improve sales of actual printers is to have after-market ink available. This condition is now fulfilled.

Faux latex ink is a disservice to the entire industry

What causes distrust is when a miscellaneous ink is simply labeled as LATEX INK. Merely calling an ink LATEX INK does not mean it is related to, or acceptable as, anything approaching the quality of HP latex ink.

This does not mean that HP latex ink is perfect. Indeed the ink is now in its third generation which suggests it is hopefully better than the original generations (which notoriously faded and had incomplete color gamut).

At Drupa 2012 there was a booth claiming you could add their “latex ink” to a Roland (almost without even needing to flush with line cleaner). At subsequent trade shows the non-flushing aspect was dropped, but the ink was still claimed to be “latex ink.”

The editor of a leading international trade magazine in Europe commented that this Drupa ink was totally unacceptable to be called latex ink.

Most people would not consider any ink as even remotely acceptable as “latex ink” unless it has special curing units. If a normal Roland printer system can handle the ink without retrofitting, it seems like just a different version of an eco-solvent ink. Adding resin or “latex” to the recipe (or the word latex on the label) is not really providing an ink with the benefits of HP latex ink. Even though the HP original ink is by no means perfect, and by no means actually “water-based,” it still has remarkable features.  No ink for any Roland (or Mutoh) offers anything similar.

And latex ink for Mimaki requires special heating (curing units). The latex ink for the HP Latex 3000 is even more sophisticated. This HP Latex 3000 is the standard against which other latex inks need to be considered.

Latex ink from China

Meijet introduced a prototype latex printer at D-PES expo, February 2012. By the end of that year they showed their flatbed latex printer. In summer 2013 Meijet exhibited a second generation latex system at APPPEXPO China.

Until we can speak with an end-user who has experience in the Chinese latex printer for a minimum of six months, and until it is possible to visit the Chinese ink factory and the printer factory, it is not realistic to comment on the pros and cons of the Chinese brand of latex ink printer.

For latex ink to become a de facto world standard, it will have to be available from several acceptable Chinese brands and at least one acceptable Korean brand. We are neutral on Meijet since we have not heard back from any end-users. The Meijet team is capable and hospitable, but they did not appear at SGIA 2013 in USA nor at SGI 2014 in Dubai. We wish Meijet success because competition is good for nudging other companies to improve.

If a Korean factory brand produces their own latex ink printer, this will really get things moving. Most Korean brands are well engineered and Korean ink companies are quite adept too.

Mimaki latex ink printers

Mimaki came out with SUV and latex ink at the same expo: FESPA 2012, just before Drupa 2012. The SUV offered frankly spectacular quality. But the latex printer was beset with one modest issue after another and never got fully launched. In the meantime the SUV was delayed because if Mimaki offered only SUV fewer people would want their latex.

The Mimaki SUV was delayed so long that competitors began to offer an alternative, visible at FESPA London 2013 (the add-on system for Roland, Mutoh, etc. by Colorific and other brands). Then Graphics One offered SUV printers ink in the USA.

Mimaki had to switch ink sources for their latex ink. I lost track of whether they offer six colors, four colors, white; too many changes to keep track. What was offered at one expo was changed by the next expo.

The Mimaki latex ink color gamut was better than that of HP, but Mimaki was too conservative with advertising so we have not even written any report on their latex printer. Unless we can visit a factory and end-users it is not realistic to even consider.

Mimaki has now begun to sell their latex printer, but HP still holds the significant lead around the world. There is not even hint that Mimaki latex will eat away at any HP latex ink market share, unless there is a total change in policy on how to evaluate and promote their latex ink.

Things to Improve

Here are few features that should be improved if latex is to become the de facto ink system for lFP

Colors which do not fade. A single fading color (yellow) weakens the image. So all colors have to be equal to eco-solvent and UV. If they are better in the future, then latex ink will sell even better.

All four colours must behave acceptably and equally in all aspects,

Latex ink needs a noticeably fuller color gamut. UV-cured color gamut also has issues; UV is iffy in reds and too many UV colors are over saturated. UV yellow tends to be too green and UV green tends to be too yellow. So if latex can beat color issues of UV-cured ink, and if latex ink can improve its own colors, then latex can win. In the meantime, the bright happy colors of an ink such as in ColorPainter machines of Seiko II make a car wrap or wall covering look so much more attractive. It also helps if your colors can match the logo colors of your clients! Here again, Seiko, Roland, Mimaki, and Mutoh tend to do pretty well with their mature third to fourth generation eco-solvent and mild-solvent ink options.

Distortion of some media, caused by high curing temperatures.

HP does a good job in testing whether media works on the high heating and then curing temperatures. HP is fully realistic that print shops will use media other than HP brands. But some media, even if they are included in the list of usable materials, can still have issues in certain heat settings.

Things to Add

There are also some features that should be added to Latex inks system in order to make it an industry standard system

Latex needs a 5-meter printer. HP will drop more hints on their progress by FESPA 2014 and surely there will be a 5-meter HP latex before Drupa 2016.

3.2 m latex printers (and ink and electricity and printhead replacement expenses) must cost less than solvent printers, and cost less than 3.2 UV-cured printers.  If latex printers cost too much, few clients will pay the extra cost of “eco-friendly ink” (which is not entirely true and needs to be politely resolved).

By Drupa 2016 printing on thick material functionality has to be include into latex ink system. Meijet in China has a flatbed option so surely HP engineers and chemists can create an option for thick and flat material.

Unrealistic claims should be tamed down a tad. At FESPA 2013 there were unrealistic claims getting uncomfortably close to saying “it can print anything and everything.”

Primary stumbling blocks of latex

Here are few challenges that next generations of latex inks should overcome:

It would help if the heat requirements for drying and curing can be a bit lower.

It would help if the co-solvent issue can be resolved. Once heat is lowered and eco-solvent issue is resolved, then current skeptics can more easily consider this as really an eco-friendly ink.

Heat requires lots of curing time; so print speed varies from slow to moderate

Warming-up time means printing speed is zero

Drying and curing are two processes within the HP latex printer system. There are several chemical interactions happening (water is being driven off; solvents are being driven off). Perhaps if the PR releases would more accurately reflect the several kinds of ingredients, it would be easier for skeptics to accept claims: for example, SUV is openly stated to be a two-chemistry ink: solvent and UV. Both the solvent component and the UV component get resolved within the curing unit. So a dual-process ink is now gradually becoming standard jargon. Perhaps a bit of the dual-process concept should be gently explained relative to HP latex ink. There is a drying unit; there is a curing unit. This is close to dual-process; so here is an opening, and opportunity, to be a tad more clear about the reality of the ink

Latex should be able to print on uncoated PE such as ARIA from YJ (A Taiwanese group of companies).  PE is a significant potential to replace PVC vinyl, but PE has a surface which is a challenge to hold the ink without expensive coating. If HP could work with the major PE manufacturers then even more people would find latex ink eco-friendly.

Latex ink on PVC is not eco-friendly.

Learning curve is definitely a challenge.

If latex ink printers, of any brand, can satisfy these crucial factors, they will move further into becoming a potential de facto standard.

Is there a magic ink out there?

The water-based binary epoxy ink of Mike Mills (Redwood Technologies) made lots of claims circa 2011 to replace all UV-cured. If this ink functioned outside of R&D labs it would have had potential to replace both UV-cured and latex. But every ink chemist I have asked said that this kind of epoxy ink chemistry was unlikely to function out in the real world. Remember, it cost HP millions of dollars plus an army of chemists to develop latex in its ink labs in Barcelona, San Diego, and elsewhere.

However it would be great if the team of Mike Mills can make their AquEpoxy work out in the real world. The tradition in the world of ink is to cooperate rather than to create an innovative ink from ground up. This is one of many reasons why no printer or ink company cooperated with Sepiax ink. I asked one printhead manufacturer and he said his own team had already reproduced most of a comparable ink in their own labs. In the meantime, Sepiax failed to achieve market share because no printer manufacturer accepted it (since the ink would not do well on PVC vinyl). But Sepiax ink can do very well on some limited industrial materials, so a consortium bought Sepiax last year. We identify who are the companies behind this purchase for those who subscribe to FLAAR Reports at TRENDs level Subscription.

Sepiax ink was developed in Austria starting perhaps five years ago, as an alternative to several “print on anything inks” which came out between 2004 and 2008. Sepiax printed on diverse materials, but it required high curing temperatures (about 50 to 60 degrees C; half or a third of what HP latex ink required). But no Roland, Mimaki, or Mutoh could use Sepiax ink without being retrofitted; and none of the retrofitted models were precise enough.

Since no major printer manufacturer was willing to develop a special printer (in part because Sepiax was not easy to use with PVC vinyl, Sepiax was not successful, and during 2013 was sold to a consortium focused on using Sepiax ink in very limited industrial applications.

So far no major manufacturer has been able to introduce the so called magic ink.  On the other hand Sepiax inks that had the potential to be a real game changer got the cold shoulder from major printer manufacturers and now is only limited to one or two printers and a few applications. Epoxy ink is not a real option at the moment either.

For its part Canon also tried to come up with its own version of magic ink. The company showed a prototype “outdoor” printer in 2011 at two private Canon-only in-house Open House events (one in Paris; another in USA). However during last year this event has been erased from the entire Internet. Only still reminds the world of this showcase of a subsequently non-existent printer. It has now been THREE years since this world-wide presentation, with tons of PR releases in that year. Nothing since then.

If this ink selected and printer had actually functioned, it would have revolutionized the world of large-format printing. We discuss more about this in upcoming FLAAR TRENDs during 2014.

SUV has the potential to challenge HP latex ink, but Mimaki understandably prefers to keep the source of their SUV ink private. The other companies who are using SUV ink in competing printers also want to keep the ink manufacturer a secret. So no company is willing to invest money in having anyone write reports about SUV ink. In the meantime, everyone has found out privately who makes the SUV ink and FLAAR has already worked together with Graphics One on a full evaluation and testing of the same ink which is in the Mimaki but it is available in USA for Epson printheads through Graphics One as well. The Mimaki ink is made for Ricoh heads; the ink used by Global Imaging works with Spectra heads and the ink used by Graphic One is customized for Epson heads.

Even if this SUV ink will be available for Konica Minolta and Kyocera printheads still it cannot compete with HP latex ink for the same reason mentioned earlier. The ink company is not (yet) willing to have reports on the ink. Each individual company using the ink does not want massive publicity because then everyone will realize that it is the same ink customized for different printheads.

The result is that SUV will not break out of a niche market. But, if another ink company produces SUV, or WUV (WBUV or W-BUV which means water-based UV), and, if this company is willing to be identified and have reports written so the whole world will desire this ink, then such a new ink could challenge latex. This is a multi-million dollar opportunity.

The same company which made SUV already has a water-based UV, as does an ink company in Europe. But since no budget was provided to issue reports on the ink, the ink was forgotten by the world before it even became known.

FLAAR once received a research budget to study water-based inks (2001-2005). About a quarter of a million of these printers were sold, of which a noticeable percentage came as a direct result of the FLAAR Reports. The budget allowed us to have a staff of 19 people to handle the research, comparisons with other printers, and then we issued reports every single year.

Then a competing company asked if we could evaluate their printer; this printer was not well known at this date, yet the printer was good, and their market share rose. We also evaluated a Mimaki textile printer and people around the world learned about its benefits. It really helps to have students do the evaluation since they have no vested interest in skewing the report to favor any brand; students are great evaluators. Today over 80% of our staff are still students precisely for these reasons: they want to show the actual facts about an ink, media, printer, cutter, laminator, or coater.

If a second company develops an SUV ink which can compete with Mimaki, then SUV ink can gain market share worldwide. No ink which has a single-source supply has a realistic chance to become a market leader. Industry politics means too many corporate situations keep the other companies from using the ink from Sericol. But if a comparable ink is available from more than one company, then you get what UV ink started in 2000 onward.

In addition to any second source of SUV ink, if there is a third source of W-B-UV ink (water-based UV-cured ink) and if this source is willing to invest adequately, then water-based can potentially replace latex or seriously challenges its position in the market. The same company which makes the SUV ink for Mimaki, for Global Imaging, Graphics One, and for Colorific also has a water-based UV ink. A European company has another WUV ink. But neither of these inks has gone mainstream.

So if a well-known brand develops first a substitute SUV ink and then the company itself or another company develops WUV, then there is realistic competition for HP latex ink.

We are under informal handshake NDA on who is doing what, so do no mention of any specific names here. But the manufacturer of the SUV and already WUV are already known to the industry.

If EFI VUTEk, Dilli and/or D.G.I come out with a SUV and WUV printer, then we have a new era. If the leading Chinese manufacturers come later with their versions, then that documents the new era is realistic. But in the meantime, UV-cured, mild and lite solvent from Seiko II, and eco-solvent from well-known brands will continue to be the primary machine technology for large-format signage.

Why should you read this article?

This discussion is based on 15 years in the wide-format printing industry, including being a visiting research professor at two universities and in charge of their large-format inkjet ink, RIP, printer, and media testing facilities.

It also helps to attend an average of ten international printer expos per year, including for ceramic printing, for glass printing, for textile printing, and for 3D printing, in addition to signage and graphics and digital photography expos both in the Americas, Europe, and China.

The latex ink and SUV ink situations are evolving. After D-PES and Sign China we will be able to update this.

Graphics of the Americas will offer a bit of knowledge; ISA significantly more; and FESPA Munich even more.

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