Ink Jet: Ahead of the Field

By Tom Williams, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.02.05

The fastest growing imaging technology for office and industry is making big gains with ink manufacturers and OEMs.


With technological advancements occurring at the rate of roughly 100 patents per month, the ink jet market is perhaps the most viable growth option for many major ink and ink-related product manufacturers. According to the Ink Jet Academy, ink jet printing is the fastest growing imaging technology for both office and industry. This fact is obvious when one examines the amount of resources, be it time, money or manpower, that major industry players such as DuPont, Epson, Flint Ink, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Chemical put into R&D of the next generation of ink jet products.

Invented during the late 1970s, ink jet is a direct-to-substrate technology that was originally developed as a low-cost, low-quality method for printing labels and cartons, which only required high speed and legibility. Despite its almost 30-year history, ink jet products first became widely available in the 1980s, and it was not until the 1990s that ink jet products truly emerged as a force in the printing industry. Regarding the maturation of the industry into a more than $10 billion a year business by 1999, Dr. Ray A. Work III, new business development manager for DuPontiTechnologies, states, “Five years ago ink jet was growing in the office market and used only for industrial marking and coding. Now there have been more than 150 million office and home ink jet devices sold. The market is in commodity mode.”

Bill Hoagland, president and CEO of Minnesota-based Squid Ink, agrees with Dr. Work, stating, “The awareness is there now. It’s still in its infancy. Five years ago, in the commercial side it really didn’t even exist. All that was out there was the proofing systems. Today people are using wide format printers for billboard advertising, they are using ink jet for carpet, poster printing, for logos, for everything that you can imagine. It’s just incredible.”

Market Strategies
One major reason for this transition is the proliferation of low-cost, high-quality ink jet printers. In the past, these devices tended to be more expensive and offered lower quality output than conventional printers. This trend has shifted, however, as the quality of the hardware has increased and the costs associated with purchase has decreased. One aspect of this change has been the marketing strategy of major hardware manufacturers, who, according to Richard G. Crystal of Graphic Utilities, Inc., “are hoping to duplicate the razor business by profiting on the supplies annuity and losing on the hardware.”

This market strategy is evident in the recent release of the Epson Stylus Color 670, a four-color ink jet printer that delivers high-end technology for under $90. While such a strategy has been a veritable gold mine for the manufacturers of ink jet hardware, as well as ink manufacturers, it has also encouraged fierce competition and created numerous product options.

Ink Jet Printing Systems
Among the different ink jet technologies available to consumers at this point are printers utilizing different ink dispersion systems. A typical ink jet printer provides a resolution of 600 dpi, although some newer models offer higher resolutions. The most common printer option uses drop-on-demand ink jet heads with an array of miniature jets that each release a single drop of ink at an extremely high rate. As Leonard Walle, director of new business development at Flint Ink, points out, one advantage of ink jet printing is that the print heads do not contact the substrate during the printing process. “The beauty of digital printing is that it can lay down material in a very precise manner, and the printing unit does not come into contact with the printed surface,” said Mr. Walle. “This means you can print on an uneven surface, which opens up all kinds of opportunities.”

Drop-on-demand printers use either thermal or piezo dispersion technologies. Under the thermal system, heat disperses ink onto the paper or printing surface. The ink is heated until pressure initiates the formation of a bubble, which then bursts onto the substrate. Following this transfer, the bubble collapses as the element cools, drawing ink from the reservoir in place of the ink expelled.

Despite their prevalence, thermal printers place certain limitations on users, primarily due to the firing process, which requires ink to be heat resistant. In addition, thermal printers also require a cooling period, which adds a small amount of time to some printing processes.

In contrast to thermal technology, piezo printers utilize piezo crystals as the active element. A piezo crystal expands and contracts at a rapid pace in response to an electrical pulse. The expansion of the crystal pushes a tiny droplet of ink onto the substrate.

While thermal and piezo printers perform basically the same process, piezo heads do not require the ink to be heated to a boil. The absence of heating and cooling processes between each cycle saves time. In addition, piezo inks are designed more for their absorption properties than their ability to withstand high temperatures, allowing more freedom to develop new chemical properties in the inks.

The most significant limitation of both types of ink jet printers is their inability to generate enough drops of ink to produce a heavily saturated image on a variety of substrates where ink saturation is vital to the quality of the image. To overcome this and to optimize print quality, a number of leading ink jet manufacturers produce substrates and ink systems designed for specific applications. In addition, OEMs have been working very closely with ink manufacturers to close the quality gap.

According to Jean Schaefle, executive vice president of Sun Chemical, “The major reason why we believe the traditional ink sector can move towards digital (i.e. ink jet), is that in the equipment area, over the last five years the head manufacturers have created better performing heads.” Mr. Schaefle continued, “Today, you can have heads with 500 nozzles that can be banked into wide arrays. As a result, you can reach a level of quality and speed of print not capable five years ago. It also gives us the capability to increase print speed even more in the future.”

Ink Jet Inks: Dyes vs. Pigments
Another choice for consumers and manufacturers of ink jet products is whether to use dye- or pigment-based inks. According to most industry experts, this choice should depend on the desired application. Dye-based ink jet inks use a liquid colorant that is usually water-based to turn the media a specific color. Because of their makeup, dye-based inks are not waterproof and tend to be affected by UV light. This results in the color changing over time, a process otherwise known as fading. For optimum performance, this type of ink also requires that the proper media be selected according to the application. If the media is too dense, the ink can’t penetrate and beads on the surface. If the media is too absorbent, the dot gain is too high.

Pigmented inks use a solid colorant to achieve color. The line quality and accuracy of plots produced by pigment-based inks are usually superior to that of dye-based inks. With this process, the solid particles adhere to the surface of the substrate. Once the water in the solution has evaporated, the particles will not go back into solution, and are therefore waterproof. In addition, pigmented inks are much more UV resistant than dye-based inks, meaning that it takes much longer for noticeable fading to occur. Another advantage of this ink is that the choice of media is much less important.

Given these facts, it would seem that the future of the ink jet industry lies solely with pigmented inks. This, however, is not the case, as ink jet manufacturers foresee continuing production of both pigmented and dye-based inks. One reason for this outlook is that presently dyes are much more suited to everyday applications. According to Mr. Hoagland, because dyes run cleaner, provide better yield, offer better particle size and are easier to filter, they are more likely to be used for common applications run by an office printer. Mr. Hoagland believes that for such applications, “Everything about dyes is better.”

Dr. Work also believes that dye-based inks will maintain a solid place in the market, and that the choice between dye-based and pigmented inks depends strongly on the application. One application in which he sees pigmented inks making inroads is large format printing – “For paper and large format printing, the move will be from dyes to pigments since they will provide a better set of end-use properties.” Dr. Work also believes that in the near future pigmented ink will improve in the areas of image permanence, image quality, reliability and will offer “a large color gamut comparable with light-fast dyes.”

John Stoffel, ink jet ink technology manager for Hewlett-Packard, also cites application requirements as the No. 1 reason for picking pigmented inks over dye-based inks. He believes that for certain specialty applications– instances in which a printed product is going to be displayed outdoors– the use of pigmented inks is necessary due to their light-fastness. However, Mr. Stoffel also said that, “In order to achieve vivid colors when printing on plain paper, dye-based solutions are best.”

American Ink Jet is one company pushing the envelope to expand the number of applications associated with dye-based inks. One way the company is approaching this goal is by focusing on improving fade resistance. In addition, Steve Emery, vice president of sales and marketing for American Ink Jet, maintains that dye-based inks are still “the optimum solution for the graphic arts markets,” because they produce “more chromatic, highly saturated colors.” Mr. Emery also believes that dye-based inks remain attractive because they are less costly than pigmented inks.

Another reason dyes remain such a viable option is that pigment technology is still developing. In the past, users of pigmented inks have found difficulty with settling, drop-out and stability. The reason for this has been difficulty with the suspension of pigments in the carrying fluids causing the inks to settle up. According to Mr. Hoagland, however, once solutions to these problems are found, the use of pigmented inks will become even more widespread. He states, “Pigmented inks are definitely on the horizon. There’s no doubt about that.”

According to Mr. Schaefle, Sun Chemical also sees the future in pigmented and high technology inks. “The major growth in the future will come from traditional ink processes adapted for ink jet technology, because traditional printers are using pigmented inks as dictated by their own end user’s requirements.”

The Integration of Technology
This type of integration is at the core of American Ink Jet’s C3-calibrated color chemistry system. According to Mr. Emery, by developing integrated ink and media solutions, the company is improving fade and water resistance. One important factor in the C3 system, as well as the integration of technology industry-wide, is the close working relationship between ink manufacturers and OEMs.

“Working with the printer manufacturers is critical in order to make sure that we develop ink for not only the print head and media, but for their customer’s application,” said Mr. Emery. “And we are working more with the print head developers to ensure we understand what new chemistries are necessary for future print head technologies.”

For this reason, Flint also works very closely with OEMs to produce optimized ink/printer solutions. “One of the challenges for the manufacturers of ink jet inks or toners is that the inks are very specific to the print engine,” said Mr. Walle. “For this reason, you really have to be communicating and working hand in hand with the people that are developing the OEM equipment.”

Despite the importance of cooperative technology development, and the optimum performance that ideally matched ink/media solutions provide, some experts expect SOHO users to shy away from these options in favor of more cost-efficient choices. As Dr. Work emphasized, “Where sub-optimum solutions are adequate and cost is more important, integration is less important.” Mr. Crystal extends this contention, stating, “End-users don’t want it. They would rather pick the media they want without paying excessively for or being limited to OEM bundled ink and media.”

Hewlett-Packard is attempting to avoid this problem by offering ink jet products that function equally well for specialty and everyday applications. “HP takes pride in its versatile printer offerings,” said Mr. Stoffel. “Within the last three to four years we’ve put more and more focus on integrating our printer, media and specialty ink to offer high-quality everyday printing as well as photographic quality output on any kind of paper. Printer manufacturers have to realize that the majority of printing is going to be on plain paper.”

Regardless of where the the future lies, what will truly determine the extent of technology integration is end-user demand. Mr. Walle believes that end-users will continue to desire optimized solutions because “demand for increased quality will continue. We are in a competitive marketplace and everybody is going to want to differentiate their product from their competition, and the way to do that is to enhance quality.”

Product Advancements
According to Dr. Work, among product advancements to be realized in the near future are higher speed, better quality, and lower cost hardware and consumables, all of which will be applied to broader applications.

Mr. Walle agrees with Dr. Work, and expects a number of new ink and printer products to be unveiled at this year’s trade shows. “I think you are going to see the integration of digital printing, whether it be toner- or ink jet-based, with conventional printing. The gap in quality is closing very quickly,” continued Mr. Walle. “The issue though is speed. If you are going to integrate digital printing with conventional printing, you’ve got to have reasonably comparable speeds. If you are going to integrate a digital print head on a conventional press, it is going to have to keep up with the speed of that press.”

Application Expansion
Another way the ink jet industry will continue to move forward is through the expansion of specialty applications. One of the most promising new applications for ink jet inks is the processing of digital photography. “Photo finishing will be converting from silver halide to ink jet both on desktop and in production,” explained Dr. Work. “Digital microlabs will enable large numbers of people in the third world to expand their use of photography.” The major benefits to be offered by these microlabs are reductions in both the cost and time elements of the processing procedure, without a significant reduction in the quality of the prints. In fact, Epson recently introduced photo inks and lightfast papers that offer photographers ink jet prints that will last as long as traditional photographs.

Mr. Stoffel added, “Digital ink jet-based retail photofinishing is a key upcoming technology advancement. The benefits to consumers who use digital ink jet-based photofinishing include the ability to print on a wider range of media and the ability to remotely send digital files for processing at remote locations. Retailers now will be able to employ compact, lower-cost digital photofinishing equipment.”

Aside from photo finishing, the list of future applications is expansive. Mr. Crystal envisions ink jet products being applied in prepress and low-volume printing, postal franking, office copying, digital graphics proofing and printing, original digital artwork, and custom interiors.

Dr. Work added to this list, “Ink jet offers a low-cost flexible method of providing digital patterning in nearly any application where patterning is desired. Its power is that it does not contact the substrate being patterned. This is very powerful and will lead to a wide variety of new applications from decorating toys to patterning wall coverings and upholstery.”

For this reason, Dr. Work also for-sees ink jet making headway into areas that were traditionally the domain of other printing processes, adding, “Any application which uses screen printing, offset printing or flexographic printing to decorate a product or provide text or pictorial information is a candidate for ink jet printing on demand and with variable patterning.”

The textile industry is already employing ink jet to replace traditional solvent-based inks. This transition is highlighted by the release of several new products in recent years.

In June 1999, DuPont’s ink jet inks division an-nounced the commercial launch in Europe of a new range of digital printing inks specifically designed for high-quality silk. These new inks enabled designers, textile printers and apparel manufacturers to produce short-run, rapid response, custom-designed fabrics.
“Other products for printing nylon and wool fabrics will soon follow. We plan to support the textile industry’s needs for high-quality digital inks to advance the capabilities and functionality of ink jet printing,” said John Kane, DuPont’s product marketing manager.

Encad has also positioned itself at the heart of the textile printing market with its digital textile system. In January 1999 the company announced that with Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Inc., it had developed a new line of high-performance, production-quality, thermal ink jet inks and fabric treatments for printing on a wide variety of textiles. This new textile printing technology, developed specifically for the Encad digital textile system, is both Mac and PC-based. The system allows designs to be printed directly on a variety of fabrics immediately upon completion of the initial design concept, enabling rapid turnaround, cost-savings and in-house control of proprietary designs.

In addition to those systems and products already in place, Brenda Gelinas, textile business manager for DuPont ink jet inks, believes that advances in technology will allow this facet of the market to continue to expand in the future. She predicts new offerings based on advances in ink jet technology resulting in some short-run production. Ms. Gelinas also believes that continued work on the R&D side will result in more cost effective textile production printing. “Not only are the technologies associated with ink jet printing converging to enable economic textile production printing, but market trends are creating the demand for shorter and shorter runs of textile prints,” said Ms. Gelinas. “You have the ideal situation of new technology evolving to satisfy very real market needs, which we believe will lead to significant increases in ink jet printing of textiles over the next decade.”

In spite of this, Ms. Gelinas cautions that ink jet textile printing presents unique challenges due to differences in fabric chemistries and geometries. She stated, “Creating high-quality printed textiles with good color saturation and good wear fastness will require ink jet solutions customized for the different fabric types being printed.”

The Future
Ciba and Encad’s partnership is a reflection of a growing trend of cooperative efforts between large, multi-national corporations. Strategic alliances between 3M and CreoScitex, as well as a joint project between HP, Rena Systems and DuPont, are some other examples of joint-ventures.

According to Mr. Hoagland, such partnerships not only benefit those companies directly involved, but also help the expansion of the ink jet industry as a whole. “If you have three companies spending $100 million on advertising, then it’s $300 million on advertising a new market,” said Mr. Hoagland. “Then it is a function of putting out a good product and brand recognition. Going out and trying to create a market is a very difficult thing to do. The more people you have trying to create the market, the more awareness you get.”

Serving as a testament to the fact that the market has been buoyed by such cooperation is the success of a number of smaller companies. This success is not only visible in sales and revenues, but also the willingness to expand on the part of these companies. Among those companies expanding in the past year was Hunt Digital Imaging, the wide format ink jet division of parent company Hunt Imaging. Hunt celebrated its first year of operations by announcing plans to double the square footage of its manufacturing facility in Portsmouth, NH, as well as expanding its sales department to meet increasing customer demands. Commenting on these moves, the company’s president, Jeffrey Cathcart, said, “The success of this past year affirms what we’ve set out to accomplish, and that’s to satisfy the needs of the wide format user, but by the time I finish this sentence, those needs will have changed and we’ll have to get back to work.”

Mr. Cathcart’s statements are a reflection of the fact that increased awareness and improved product quality resulted in rapid-fire market growth, to the tune of more than 20 percent for the industrial market last year. So what does the future have in store for the ink jet market? Sun Chemical’s Mr. Schaefle maintains that “digital printing will be a major portion of the future of traditional printing. We see double-digit growth in the years to come over the next decade.”

Mr. Hoagland adds, “I think the future is going to have serious impact on offset printing, gravure and everything else. We are way ahead of where we were five years ago, but we are just scratching the surface.”

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