Growing Popularity of Metallics Leads to Greater Opportunities, Competition

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 10.02.09

Metallic and special effect pigments have never been more popular in Europe.

Metallic and special effect pigments have never been more popular in Europe. They appear in a broad range of products in everyone’s daily lives – textiles, shoes, automobiles, packaging and even on roads and pavements.

They are now more common in inks because new technologies have lowered their costs and made them much more accessible to small printers, particularly those with offset and flexo presses.

In fact, the metallic look with its shine and sparkle is becoming so widespread that it is in danger of losing its image of being special.

“The traditional appeal of the metallic appearance, especially gold and silver, is that it signifies quality and superiority and, currently, it still has that attraction,” said an executive at one European ink producer.

Growth Opportunities

Pigment and ink makers who are concentrating on the use of metallic, mica and other materials for developing eye-catching graphics believe that new technologies will provide an endless array of visual opportunities for years to come.

The development of pigments with flat metallic flakes is providing new levels of brilliance and innovative types of optical effects.

Pearlescent pigments, which unlike their metallic counterparts are semi-transparent rather than opaque, are opening up ways of shifting colors depending on the angle which they are seen by the viewer.

“This offers tremendous scope for the creativity of designers,” said Klaus Boehm, global manager for printing applications of pearlescent pigments at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. “They allow a high level of flexibility, particularly in packaging design, because they enable brand manufacturers to convey to the consumer the right image for their products.”

Creativity in metallic and effect pigments is stimulated by trends in one sector which then influence developments in others. For example, in cosmetics, the popularity of glittery facial makeups, often derived from metallic powders, has led to use of pearlescent inks in cosmetic packaging.

As a result, manufacturers of metallic and effect pigments tend to have customers across a variety of sectors, including printing inks.

Wolstenholme International, the U.K. producer of metallic inks and pigments, is working with a number of leading automobile makers and their paint suppliers on the development of new pigments for the car market.

Wolstenholme is currently introducing to the printing market new versions of its Metasheen metallic ink, mainly for application in the UV offset and litho sectors.

Metasheen comprises a vacuum metallized pigment (VMP) technology which Wolstenholme acquired from the cosmetics company Revlon. VMP pigments are “non-leafing” so that they have a flat, smooth and reflective surface, with a metallic effect which is much brighter than conventional metallic inks.

“Our new Metasheen inks achieve an even higher degree of brilliance than before,” said Michael Yates, market development manager for liquid inks at Wolstenholme. “Brilliance is the key to the success of today’s metallic inks, particularly in packaging, because it’s the flash of brightness and the shift in color which catches the eye of the consumer.”

Metasheen has been helping Wolstenholme to lift the technological and cost barriers which had prevented metallic inks expanding much beyond gravure printing. Wolstenholme’s VMP products have been making bigger inroads into the offset and flexo sectors by reducing the total printing costs associated with metallic inks.

“By providing an ink which can be applied to specific areas without the need for hot foiling or metallized substrates, we can make metallic inks much more cost effective for offset and litho printers,” said Mr. Yates.

Metallic substrates can add approximately 100 percent to the cost of printed cartons, according to Wolstenholme. With hot foil blocking, the extra cost with cartons can be as high as 50 percent. With VMP inks like Metasheen, the cost of low metallic effects is only 10 to 20 percent more.

“We are finding we are opening up new markets among printers, particularly those with combined offset and litho presses and who cannot afford the cost of metallic substrates,” said Mr. Yates.

“We are trying to find ways of broadening the use of metallic inks even further in areas like publishing,” he added. “In the offset market, metallic inks are now becoming more and more like conventional inks. They are gaining all the characteristics of standard color inks which can be run at high speeds and have good setting characteristics.”

Eckart, Wolstenholme’s main competitor in metallic inks and pigments, has also been widening the appeal of its VMP products to offset and flexo printers by cutting the cost of their use.

Unlike Wolstenholme, Eckart, based at Fuerth, southern Germany, does not have a proprietary VMP technology. Instead, its vacuum metallized pigments are made by the films and coatings division of U.S.-based Avery Dennison, which has granted Eckart exclusive global marketing rights.

Recently, Eckart introduced a computerized process printing system which enables printers to create a six-color separation with its VMP inks at no more cost than any other six-color print product. With its Metallic Integrated Process Printing (MIPP) using Adobe Photoshop software, half-tone images can be created with metallic inks on offset and flexo presses. MIPP integrates dots of gold and silver inks with the four primary process colors so that the image retains its shadow and highlight detail.

“MIPP is helping us to push up sales in areas like advertising and catalog printing, as well as in packaging,” said Fred Schulz, Eckart’s marketing manager for graphics.

“It continues the trend of making the application of metallic inks much easier for offset printers, so that they can now combine them with standard colors,” he explained.

“At the same time we are introducing new inks which have greater transferability, machinability and brilliance,” he added. “We have recently launched a new range of Metalure inks with an oil-based formulation. It provides a more cost-effective alternative to aluminum foil because it eliminates waste when the printer wants a metallized effect only in one area.”

Makers of metallic inks and pigments believe that the greater availability of their products, stemming from reduced costs and new technologies, is raising the long-term prospects of their business.

“With the ability to use gold and silver on a full color machine, the whole scenario is working in favor of metallic,” said Mr. Schulz. “Metallic use is linked to fashion to some extent. But it is more than that. The metallic look enhances value because it is catches the attention of the consumer and makes things look more expensive.”

Producers of pearlescent pigments believe that they, too, can offer as much opportunity for visual impact as their metallic specialist rivals. They feel that they can provide printers with a lot of flexibility because of the semi-transparency of their pigments. For example, this enables new optical effects to be achieved by placing pearlescent layers on top of color backgrounds.

“We are expecting considerable growth in the packaging field,” said Mr. Boehm. “Metallic pigments have been around since the Egyptians. Now, with innovative pearlescent pigments, we are able to offer a new dimension of color through the use of optical interference of background colors.”

Also, as with metallic inks, lower costs and new technologies are helping to make pearlescent inks more readily available to the smaller offset and flexo printers.

“Interference color pigments have been around for a few years in other sectors, but in the printing ink market they are still relatively new, so there is good potential for long-term growth,” said Mr. Boehm.

Merck is currently following a “push-and-pull” marketing strategy by promoting its pearlescent pigments directly to packaging designers, particularly those working for cosmetic manufacturers. “They tend to set the trend initially,” Mr. Boehm explained. “By going to the designers directly, we help speed up demand for our products.”

Many of the new effect pigments are introduced first in sectors like automobiles, textiles and plastic products before they are extended into graphics. Metallic-based optical variable pigments, which have been introduced only over the last few years, were initially aimed at the car market but have already spread into other segments.

These special effect pigments consist of aluminum flakes coated with iron oxide in which the color is determined by the thickness of the coating. In the midst of a complex interchange of reflection, absorption and interference of light, the color switches with the angle of the vision.

When other materials like silicon dioxide are combined with iron oxide coatings, the color range is increased and there is an even sharper shift from one color to another as the viewing angle changes.

These optical variable pigments are likely soon to make big inroads into parts of the printing sector, possibly initially in areas like large format and vehicle graphics.

Reflec plc of the U.K., which specializes in reflective inks for textiles made from glass beads coated with aluminum, may expand into packaging and vehicle graphics.

The metallic inks and pigments segment in European printing is dominated by Wolstenholme, Eckart and Schlenk Metallpulver, another German metallic pigments producer. Now other producers of metallic and effect pigments like BASF and Engelhard as well as specialty ink companies like Reflec are poised to become more active in the graphics area. It may start to become quite a crowded market in Europe.