Resins are a critical component for manufacturing inks, and the composition of a resin greatly affects the overall characteristics of the ink. Resin makers are constantly working with ink manufacturers to develop new products to help create a better ink.
Like the vast majority of key printing ink components, resin companies have faced pressure from their own raw material suppliers. These price increases, combined with the slowing economic climate, is leading to serious concerns about the state of the industry in the near future.
The Role of Resins
Resins are essential to the ink making process, as they provide key properties to the final ink.
“A resin (or polymer) is one of three key components of an ink: resin, pigment and solvent,” said Barna Szabo, technical manager for Flint Ink Corporation. “The resin serves several important functions. It disperses the pigment and prevents its re-agglomeration. It acts as a pigment binder to provide adhesion to a substrate. It provides viscosity (or flow) which is a requirement for transfer of ink from press to substrate, and it contributes to the gloss, drying speed and resistance properties of an ink.”
Just as there are key differences between the inks that are used in different printing processes, there are essential variations among the ingredients in the inks. The type of resin that is used varies according to the type of ink that is being manufactured.
“The resin chemistry and/or functionality is carefully selected to match the printing process, solvent requirements of the printing process, and printed product performance requirements (i.e. brightness of color, packaging specifications, cost targets),” Mr. Szabo said. “Oil-based resins such as rosin-based resin, petroleum hydrocarbon and soybean oil are used in lithographic inks. Polyamides and polyurethanes are used in solvent-based flexo and gravure ink. Nitrocellulose is the ‘workhorse’ resin for dispersing pigments in solvent flexo inks. Styrene acrylic emulsion polymers are used in aqueous ink systems. Rosin-based metal resinates are used in publication gravure ink which is predominately toluene-based.
“High molecular weight rosin phenolic or hydrocarbon resins are used to provide the viscosity/flow/transfer properties needed on high speed lithographic publication presses,” Mr. Szabo added. “Low molecular weight rosin or hydrocarbon resins are used in lithographic news ink printing. Soluble polyamides and polyurethanes are used in ethyl acetate/ethyl alcohol-based solvent flexo inks for printing films for packaging. The very high softening point property of metal resinates provides the non-blocking requirements of high-speed printing, drying and bindery of gravure printed catalogues and magazines.”
What, then, makes for a successful resin?
According to Mr. Szabo, the properties of successful resins common to all printing inks are: (1)compatibility/dispersibility with/of organic pigments, (2) solubility and solution stability in the specific solvent for each printing process, (3) optimized physical characteristics such as molecular weight, hardness, and rheology, and (4) consistency in properties between batches.
“A resin manufacturer should have sufficient manufacturing capacity to supply the same resin with consistent properties to all Flint Ink locations,” Mr. Szabo added. “He should have the technical expertise to provide state-of-the-art technology at the lowest possible cost.”
The year 2000 was not a particularly strong one for resin manufacturers, as increasing raw material prices and the softening economy caused challenges.
“Lawter’s resin division experienced moderate growth in 2000 since the industry was fairly strong until the end of the year,” said Phil Runge, business manager, resins at Lawter International.
“While the first half of 2000 yielded significant growth for our resin business, the second half of 2000 was much slower,” said Francois Gallouedec, ink resins and additives marketing manager at Cognis Corporation. “The fourth quarter of the year is usually a strong quarter for graphic arts sales, and December 2000 was unusually slow, as everybody was trying to minimize inventories prior to the new year. Overall, Cognis did enjoy volume growth in its thermoplastic polyamide ink resin business, primarily due to increase sales of market-driven new products that have been introduced in the last 18 months.”
As is the case in other key sectors, the cost of raw materials for resins have gone up appreciably. This has led to some price increases being passed along to ink companies, although resin manufacturers noted that they have also worked hard to keep these increases down.
“2000 was a very difficult year on the raw material front,” said Mr. Gallouedec. “Both the di-amines and the dimer acids, which are the building blocks of thermoplastic polyamide ink resins, and the raw materials that are used to produce these chemicals experienced a series of price increases throughout the first half of 2000, in addition to price increases already implemented by the chemical industry for these products during the fourth quarter of 1999. This has put a lot of pressure of resin suppliers, as the full magnitude of these price increases could not be passed totally on the graphic arts industry.”
“Raw material price increases were definitely an issue with the price of oil and oil derived feed stocks being the primary issue,” Mr. Runge said. “We had difficulty in passing increased costs on to our customers and increases are overdue.”
“Like many other suppliers, raw material prices increased for Johnson Polymer in 2000,” said David Brotton, market manager for Johnson Polymer. “Due to the increased raw material prices, Johnson Polymer did announce a price increase. In addition, Johnson Polymer has continued to work closely with our customers to deliver more cost-efficient products.”
Companies also found that it was necessary to absorb some of the price increases they faced.
“Cognis took some of the raw material price increase burden on itself and tried to pass a portion of the increases to the graphic arts market place,” Mr. Gallouedec said. “Process efficiency improvements and internal cost cutting measures have been Cognis’ focus throughout 2000 and are continuing in 2001, in order to offset some of these cost increases and shield the graphic arts industry from further increases in ink resin prices.”
“We faced significant raw material cost increases across the whole portfolio of our products,” said Holly Hartschuh, worldwide marketing manager for Rohm & Haas. “While we had some minor price increases, we tried to hold prices as best as possible, recognizing that the increases would not completely cover our raw material run-ups.”
Considering the differences among resins in particular ink systems, it should come as no surprise that trends in the resin industry are wide-ranging.
“Solvent-based inks have been around for a long time, but printers’ needs are evolving constantly, with faster line speed and finer aniloxes, and ink resins need to be tailored to these new performance demands,” Mr. Gallouedec said. “The old ‘work horse’ solventborne ink resins are still around and are healthy, but a whole new generation of polyamide ink resins is coming right behind it and Cognis wants to remain at the forefront of new resin technology development.”
“Surface printing inks formulators are looking for higher solids and lower viscosity systems that can accommodate very fine aniloxes,” Mr. Gallouedec added. “Lamination printing ink formulators are looking for more universal systems that can print both flexo and gravure, on a wide variety of substrates, and at a reasonable cost. Cognis is spending a lot of time and resources in both areas and this effort will be intensified in 2001.”
“Current and future trends we see in the industry primarily revolve around continued environmental pressures (especially the trend away from phenols and formaldehyde in Europe), continued price pressure from a feedstock standpoint and the need for improved materials to support the innovations in printing technology,” Mr. Runge said. “Cost constraints make the latter a significant challenge for our technical people, who will have to produce breakthrough technology in order to move our industry to the next level of performance while protecting costs.”
“Cost-efficient formulation changes were a major trend in 2000,” Mr. Brotton said. “Products like Joncryl HPD 696 were very successful due to their formulation flexibility.”
Complementary systems to acrylics may be another growth area. “While we continue to investigate performance improvements in acrylics, ink companies are looking at other types of chemistries to complement these systems, especially in specific market segments,” Ms. Hartschuh said.
Consolidation has been a major issue in the ink industry, and Mr. Brotton expects more of the same in both the ink and resin fields. “We see more consolidation for 2001, both with customers as well as with suppliers,” Mr. Brotton said.
2001 and Beyond
The state of the economy and surging oil prices are serious concerns, and resin makers are looking for ways to overcome these hurdles, whether it is through innovative products or developing new efficiencies.
“If there isn’t any significant economic upturn, we see the early part of 2001 remaining flat,” Ms. Hartschuh said. “Flexo is showing moderate growth as are markets in Latin America and Asia, but the printing segments that are closely aligned with the economy may experience little growth.”
“The year 2001 has started off extremely soft for our customers and our industry along with the general economy,” said Mr. Runge. “Early indicators are that the market will recover but slowly. Timing is anyone’s guess. In spite of this, Lawter’s resin division has started off the year strong and we expect that trend to continue. We will be incorporating some of the strategic advantages from Eastman Chemical’s acquisitions and look forward to continued growth in the future.”
“One would hope that 2001 will show more stability than 2000 on the raw material front,” Mr. Gallouedec concluded. “The resin industry has been hit so hard in 1999/2000 that ‘the stone is dry and there is nothing left to squeeze.’ Close cooperation with our customers, with optimization of the costs along the supply chain and creative new resin developments, are going to be key to success and further growth.”