“In a fragmented market it is difficult to give exact figures, but the annual growth rate in Europe in digital seems at the moment to be around 10 percent in value terms,” said John Birkenshaw, manager for the printing sector at the consultancy Pira International, Leatherhead, England.
In volume terms, the expansion of digital is slower because most digital products command a higher value than those from conventional printing. “We’re probably getting an annual digital volume rise of about 4 percent at the moment,” said one UK-based printing industry analyst.
Many commercial printers appear in particular still to be reluctant to invest in digital equipment and also to have the burden of reorganizing their printing shops in order to accommodate different processes.
“Digital has taken off in wide-format and certain parts of the packaging market but in the commercial printing market, the pattern is one of stop-and-start in Europe,” said Peter Walshe, business development manager at SunJet, Sun Chemical’s business for inkjet inks.
Instead of installing digital equipment at the core of their operations, printers are tending to use it as an add-on at the end of the line. As a result, hybrid printing systems are gaining more popularity.
Digital is nonetheless gaining in appeal among more European printers because of the persistent trend towards shorter runs.
“The lower the volumes for an average printing job, the more it becomes appropriate to use digital presses,” explained an executive at Van Son, the Dutch-based ink producer which has been expanding its digital inks activity. “We’ve now got a short-run market which did not really exist before. The difficulty for digital equipment makers is providing machines which the printers find are user-friendly.”
By introducing improvements to their own products to make them more cost competitive, manufacturers of conventional presses are fighting hard to stop printers moving over to digital processes for the shorter jobs.
Heidelberg, the market leader in offset presses, introduced earlier this year an inking unit for its Speedmaster four-color offset press, which it claims enables printers to have better margins with even the shortest runs. Startup time is reduced by 90 percent and makeready times by 40 percent, while press capacity is increased by 25 percent.
The strategy of Heidelberg, which pulled out of digital printing two years ago when it sold its interests in the sector to Eastman Kodak, is to concentrate on makereadies and color management to satisfy the needs of offset printers.
“Improving makereadies is one of the key drivers for the industry—speed is irrelevant,” said Juergen Rautert, Heidelberg’s board director for engineering and manufacturing.
Ink Manufacturers Make Gains
Most ink makers in Europe are continuing to expand their digital ink portfolios. There are few large or medium-sized producers which do not now supply some sort of digital inks.
Some newcomers among ink makers have entered the European sector. The biggest of these is Jetrion, the inkjet ink and printing systems business of Flint Group. There is also a growing trend for digital equipment manufacturers to make their own inks.
In the refill cartridge sector for OEM machines, supplies of generic inks from China and India are beginning to impact the market, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Certain digital inks sectors in Europe are starting to become crowded. Consequently, competition has intensified so that margins are suffering. OEM manufacturers, for example, are no longer enjoying the same generous sales margins on their own ink cartridges due to the mounting competition from generic ink producers.
“The leading OEM manufacturers are still retaining around 80 to 85 percent of cartridge sales for their machines, but the 15 to 20 percent coming from other suppliers is enough to exert downward pressure on prices,” said one ink company executive.
A combination of greater competition and spreading fragmentation among suppliers has inevitably triggered consolidation initiatives, especially acquisitions.
Fujifilm has, for example, been intent on becoming a powerful force in the European digital printing market. Soon after it took over Sericol, the UK-based screen printing and digital inks producer, the Japanese company acquired the inkjet inks business of Avecia, another UK operator. Avecia was the world’s leading producer of dye-based inkjet inks.
In the meantime, many makers of digital inks are targeting resources on the fastest expanding digital inks segments. These include the sector for coding and other variable data in packaging, personalized information in direct marketing literature and wide-format promotional displays.
However, the equipment manufacturers are also stepping up their efforts to provide their own quality inks in these sectors. In the packaging segment for coding and marking, Domino, another digital equipment company headquartered at Cambridge, England, has been strengthening its R&D in the development of inks for its machines which it said have greater environmental compatibility, faster drying times and greater light fastness.
The company has just introduced with a binary printer for high speed, variable data printing a black acetone ink with a low emissions level so that it is consistent with environmental regulations on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while also being fast drying.
But ink producers are trying to exploit what they believe are weaknesses in the ink-making activities of the equipment manufacturers. The increasing need for UV-curing inks in digital printing is providing opportunities for specialist ink suppliers to take advantage of their broad chemical expertise.
Jetrion is using the variable-data sector as a platform for its expansion into the European digital printing market by capitalizing on its expertise in UV curing technology. It is also combining its inks with the supply of printing hardware, such as printing systems for installation with traditional flexo presses for in-line digital printing.
At IPEX, Jetrion launched a stand-alone narrow web label rewinder with a UV inkjet printing system for the off-line printing of barcodes, text, numbers and graphics on a range of different substrates.
“In the area of UV inks, we have a big advantage over the printing equipment manufacturers which supply their own inks,” said Jason Oliver, Jetrion’s managing director for Europe. “There are not many people who understand UV inkjet inks and the complexity of the crosslinking process. You need people with specialist knowledge of inks like ourselves. We are able to provide customized UV inks which are suitable for specific substrates.
“We also believe that by providing our own hardware we can benefit from the trend towards hybrid systems in sectors like label printing,” Mr. Oliver continued. “Printers do not want to move over completely to digital for all their label printing because it is too expensive. There are huge opportunities in hybrid printing.”
The trend to hybrid systems is being supported by a rise in the number of product development partnerships through the printing supply chain, which is helping to accelerate integration between conventional and digital equipment.
Ink makers are utilizing these collaborations to give more momentum to the spread of digital printing in sectors where the printers may be reluctant to adopt different processes. Sun Chemical, for example, now has a number of alliances which is helping to expand its digital business in areas like corrugated packaging and optical discs. “We are being pro-active in driving the market, “ explained Mr. Walshe.
One of Sun’s key partnerships is with Xaar, the UK-based manufacturer of inkjet printheads. Earlier this year it launched a new range of UV curing inks with full greyscale capability for use in Xaar printheads in presses for display graphics, packaging, label and other applications. “Ink formulations for greyscale printheads have different requirements in terms of compatibility, viscosity and surface tension,” said Mr. Walshe.
Fujifilm Sericol, the UK–based digital ink manufacturing arm of Fuji Photo Film Co. of Japan, has been working closely with several digital equipment manufacturers and users to provide tailor-made inks for their machines.
“Digital presses and their printheads have their own configurations so they need specific, specially dedicated inks,” said Kevin Rhodes, a regional commercial manager at Sericol. “We’ve also been improving the quality of our ink dispersions by reducing the particle size of the pigments to as low as 700 nanometers while we’ve adopted a policy of zero tolerance of impurities in our inks.”
Equipment makers with their own ink-production facilities have, however, been aiming to become completely self-sufficient in inks. In this way they have full control over the inks in their machines but can gain much higher margins from inks sales.
Agfa is now manufacturing all the inks for the digital printing units it supplies to printers. It provides the inkjet inks, for example, for a new hybrid digital and screen printing press which it has jointly developed with Thieme of Germany, the first of which was recently installed at the London printers SMP Group.
“We have a lot of expertise in chemistry and dispersion technology through our production of emulsions for pre-press films,” said an Agfa official. “We are putting this know-how together for the development and making of inks so that we can offer printers a total solution in inkjet technology—just as we already do in the prepress market.”